Wednesday, November 15, 2006

Dialoges with Death: Chinese Performance Art

In the recent decades when Chinese contemporary art shed the cultural and political chains binding it and stretched forth to voice itself among the resonance of Western and Asian art, there is a group of artists that distance themselves from the norms and conventions of artistic creativity, aesthetics, and expression. These artists that challenge traditional social and cultural acceptance in their own national boundaries had their passionate pursuit exemplified on a global platform. Performance art, or Xingwei Yishu, is the radical artistic expression developing in China that confronts the social constrictions placed on individuals by rigid government authority and restrictive social and cultural traditions. Dealing with themes of death and sculptural/visual dimensions, these live performances redefine perception and shock reality into the viewer’s accepted awareness. The categorization and condemnation of performance art as a “violent trend” propels its fame in a wide context. The extremity of performance art may be found in the intense responses—ranging from fascination through ambivalence, suspicion and resistance, to condemnation and censorship—the performance and its illustrative and resulting art form has received from a vast audience directly and indirectly exposed to yishu.

Two primary groups define Chinese performance art. One group utilizes the resources and establishment of the exhibition to capture the attention of the audience as intimate third party observers and orchestrate responses to exemplify recognition. Artists of this genre include Qin Ga, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu. These three artists are noticeable examples of Chinese performance artists that use human corpses as the instrument and product of their performance. The other group focuses on actual artist performances to incite and intertwine audiences as part of the medium to accentuate their beliefs. A definitive example of a performance artist is He Yunchang. Through unusual assemblage of ordinary components in one setting for a planned sequence of behaviors, displacing them into a startling new context and by allowing death into his calculation, he frees himself from any inhibition that may prevent him from pursuing his live artworks to their predetermined conclusions. His repeated sites of performances transformed from extreme life experiences include The General’s Command and A Rock in Niagara Falls where he risks physical and mental endurance to battle normally overwhelming obstruction. In such performances He Yunchang tests human fortitude and gauges human perseverance.

Regardless whether it is performance art through installations or live performances, whether these performance arts are held in artificial settings or natural backdrops, these performance art and artists all intend to incorporate the audience in their artworks. Although the audience do not always act as the artist plans but it is their presence at the site and the truthful expression of their emotions—shock, fear, disgust, ambivalence, etc.—that expands the intensity and awareness of the art. Photos and videos are only records. Without the infusion of the art’s appeal and the audience’s response enacting and impacting in the present tense, the performance art would not surpass normal contemporary new media and permeate human pathos. As the quickest method to influence human psyche is to contact Death, it is these performance arts and artists who gamble their lives in search of deeper meaning and clearer understanding of their individual physical and psychological limitations and compositions that tightly grip our hearts and influence our understanding.

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