Sunday, June 05, 2005

Performance Art

I remember reading an LA Times article from February 1989 or thereabouts about the developing art scene in Beijing. The article covered in detail a modern art show that featured such pieces as: a woman standing in a tub, washing her feet and calves with a red soap that stained her skin and left the water bloody, and: another woman artist, who for some reason (I forget why) fired a bullet at a statue. This led to the closing of the exhibit and her arrest. She was quickly released, and made a statement to the press: "Now that I've been arrested, I feel the performance has been completed."

I was mightily impressed by all this. For one thing, I had briefly been an art major at UCSD, home of performance art and professors like Alan Kaprow (the founder of "Happenings") and Eleanor Antin. We used to do things like, assume an alternate personae for three days; and, pick up a rock, walk a mile contemplating your rock, then throw it away. Silly as this may sound, we students found these experiences enlightening. I got very attached to my rock! Throwing it away led me to ponder the nature of attachment, the impermance of possession, and why I had a shoebox of rocks at home in my closet.

And in China at that time, it seemed to me that performance art of this sort had the potential to have far more impact, seeing as how by its very nature, such art is about challenging one's inbred perceptions and the status quo.

Last year I made a visit to Beijing timed to coincide with a big city art festival at 798. 798 is an old East German factory complex at Dashanzi which has become a gallery space and home to a number of groovy restaurants. The festival featured some performance pieces, including one in which a well-known artist sealed himself inside a concrete block and then busted out of it. I think he must have been in there for a while, because when he finally broke out, the gallery smelled kind of stinky. Photos along the gallery's walls documented another one of his pieces, which had something to do with him sitting on a little chair at a corner and getting increasingly, belligerantly drunk.

The real performance aspect of all this, to me, anyway, was that in the midst of these reconditioned, groovy post-modern galleries, creperies, espresso bars and so on, were remnants of the factories that once were. You'd walk down the rutted allies, through mud and rusting metal scraps, past some raw brick building with statues of giant, empty Mao jackets, and then next to that would be an industrial laundry, blue-smocked workers loading heaps of white sheets into huge washers. Outside of that, tangles of pipes and steam vents, then another wall covered with grafitti, then a pack of factory workers cruise by on battered bikes, on their way home after their shift.

Today's Chicago Tribune reports that there is a "mini-boom" in Beijing's performance art scene:
Drivers struggling through midday traffic in one of the city's big-money business districts caught an unusual sight recently. Sharing their smog-choked boulevard was an old-fashioned horse and cart.

And, oh, mounted on the back of the cart was a torpedo.

It was a spectacle. It was also something else: performance art.

The woman holding the reins and guiding the horse toward a boxy, ultramodern real estate complex was a genuine peasant who usually sells fruit. But the man seated next to her--who hired the woman and who would have a lot of explaining to do to Beijing's traffic cops, bomb squad and secret police--was Wu Yu Ren, an internationally recognized performance artist who wanted to shake up a society that he thinks has become obsessed with status and prosperity....

...No artist has gotten more attention--or stranger looks--than Han Bing, 31, who comments on the emptiness of consumer society and the gap between China's rich and poor.

Han frequently walks through the city's most crowded shopping districts dragging a cabbage on a leash as if it were his pampered pet. He also has sent a migrant worker into a bookstore to replace--one-by-one--books on the shelves with bricks. The bookstore's managers had invited Han to perform, but still they lost their nerve and stopped the performance.

On the streets with his cabbage, Han gets triple takes from pedestrians and many laughs. A few cops and security guards have chased him away, and some taxi drivers turn surly at their passenger and his produce. But mainly Han has been able to make the point he wants about the shifting relationships between objects and people. In this case he can get passersby to look at China's most mundane product, the lowly cabbage, in an entirely different way, sometimes as if they expect it to bark.

"I want to break the normal social order," Han said. "You walk a dog. I walk a cabbage. You eat cabbage. I walk cabbage. I'm always thinking about daily behavior and whether people are doing what they really want to do. Too much of daily behavior is fake."

China's performance artists still risk arrest and harrassment. Many do not perform their works publicly or with any advance notice. As the article says, "performance art is very public, provocative and can start to look like political protest." But perhaps the most revolutionary aspect of this work is in its expression of iconoclastic individualism. Says artist Ar Chang of his pieces: "nowadays, people's views are controlled and distorted by society. Very few people can do what they want to do. I just do it, whether it's possible or not."

I'll try to put up some photos from 798 tomorrow..

3 comments:

Thijs said...

Hall 798
You wrote about hall 798 in this article.
Guess what? I stumbled on this Hall 798 in a Belgian newspaper on June 9th.
The newspaper article related the visit of our Belgian queen to hall 798. She was charmed by one o the statuettes and took it with her. The statuette valued $ 2500. I couldn't make up from the article whether she payed that amount or whether she got it for present. It is fairly possible she didn't have to pay.
Else, what would she be queen for?

The article also mentioned an interesting detail: the big slogans in red letters on the ceiling dating from Cultural Revolution-period were still there.

Thijs said...

catalyst factory
Another article in this Belgian newspaper regarded environmental protection.

The biggest Belgian industry bosses traveled along with the king and queen to China.

The UMICORE boss opened a big car catalyst factory in Shuzou, near Shanghai.These catalysts should purify Chinese car emissions.
[ and also should earn the UMICORE bosses a lot of money I guess! ]
High Chinese officials were also present at the traditional opening ceremony.


Note: UMICORE kind of exploited the soil of the Belgian Congo at a time this rich grounds were still a Belgian colony.

GMT 11:16 AM

Other Lisa said...

thijs, yes, you can still see the red slogans on the factory walls. It's really quite an impressive complex. I do intend to post some photos of it but they are on film (how old fashioned) so I need to scan them in.

On paper the Chinese emissions standards for cars are much tougher than in the US (except for California) - if they can actually meet these targets it will be a very good thing. And also as you pointed out, it will make these technology companies a lot of money!

And it's good to be the Queen!