Body, Self, Society: Chinese Performance Photography of the 1990s @Walther Collection

JTF (just the facts): Three videos and nine photo-based artworks from 1995–2006 documenting performances by 15 Chinese contemporary artists, many of them associated with Beijing’s East Village artist’s community of the 1990s.

The following works are included in the show. While descriptions are given here as background, the checklist provided no information on processes, physical sizes, or editions:

  • Zhang Huan, Skin (20 Self-Portraits), 1997. A grid of 20 individually framed black-and-white photographs.
  • Ma Liuming, Fen-Ma Liuming Walks the Great Wall, 1998. 16 black-and-white photographs arranged in three rows and framed. Also included in the show is a video documenting the performance.
  • Zhuang Hui, One and Thirty Artists, 1995–96. 30 black-and-white photographs mounted in a grid with mounting corners and framed.
  • Zhuang Hui, One and Thirty Peasants, 1995–96. 30 black-and-white photographs mounted in a grid with mounting corners and framed.
  • Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995. A triptych of individually framed black-and-white photographs.
  • Cang Xin, Communications No. 2 (selection), 1996–2006. A grid of nine individually framed color photographs.
  • Cang Xin, To Add One Meter to an Unknown Mountain, 1996. A framed black-and-white photograph of a performance in which 10 artists, including Ma Liuming, Zhang Huan, and Cang Xin, participated. Each participant was given the right to produce an edition from photographs made that day and all eventually did so. Also included in the show is a video documenting the performance.
  • Huang Yan, Chinese Landscape Tattoo, 1999. A triptych of individually framed color photographs.
  • Song Dong, Printing on Water (Performance in the Lhasa River, Tibet), 1996. A grid of 36 individually framed color photographs. Also included in the show is a video documenting the performance.

The gallery provides an informative handout with an essay by curator and writer Christopher Phillips. (Installation shots below.)

Comments/Context: In 1995, on a breezy day in May, ten artists, two surveyors, one writer, and a crew of filmmakers and photographers gathered on the road below Miaofengshan Mountain in Beijing’s Western Hills. As the surveyors measured the height of the mountain, the writer, Kong Bu, carefully weighed each artist. Proceeding to the top of the mountain, the artists then stripped off their clothing and, in order of heaviest to lightest, lay on top of each other to form a pyramid of prone bodies. While cameramen recorded the event, the surveyors below re-measured the mountain, finding it to be exactly one meter higher than before.

Organized by Kong Bu and the artist Zhang Huan, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain remains an iconic work of Chinese performance art. A photograph of the event is the centerpiece of this show, which focuses on Chinese performance-based photography of the 1990s from the Walther Collection.

The history of performance art in China begins in the 1980s, when the end of the Cultural Revolution and the economic reform policies of the 1970s brought renewed engagement with the West and greater official tolerance, at least for a time, for avant-garde art. By the mid-1980s, the artists of the ’85 New Wave Movement—a term coined by Chinese critic Gao Minglu—were adapting Western art forms, from Pop to Dada and from conceptual art to performance, to respond in idealistic ways to the momentous economic and societal changes taking place on the Chinese mainland.

But economic reform is not the same as political change. In 1989, only months before the government crackdown at Tiananmen Square, officials arrested artist Xiao Lu and a collaborator, whose performance was part of the exhibition “China Avant-Garde” at the National Art Museum in Beijing. For the next ten years, as less politically charged painting movements like Cynical Realism burgeoned, performance art went underground.

As Christopher Phillips writes in his admirable essay for the show, performance art in post-Tiananmen China was generally enacted for small, carefully chosen audiences or, with increasing frequency, exclusively for the camera. Much of it—including To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain—was produced by artists living in the “East Village,” a short-lived artist’s colony on the outskirts of Beijing. (Three of the artists who participated in To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, Ma Liuming, Cang Xin, and Zhang Huan, have other works in the show.)

To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain reads as an allegory of personal agency within a monolithic state apparatus. In this sense, it is emblematic of the concerns of the Chinese performance artists of the 1990s who continued, albeit in more discreet and coded form, the ’85 New Wave movement’s humanist project.

The theme of the individual in society recurs throughout the exhibition. In Zhuang Hui’s gridded portrait of Chinese workers from 1995–96, the artist includes himself in each frame—a free agent in a culture where people are defined by their occupation. Even more pointed is Fen-Ma Liuming Walks the Great Wall (1998) by Ma Liuming, who performs under the female name of Fen-Ma Liuming. Over the course of 16 images, the artist, nude, and in full makeup, walks a stretch of The Great Wall—the ultimate symbol of state power—until his feet begin to bleed.

For several of the artists in the show, the body itself became, in Zhang Huan’s words, “proof of identity” within a system antithetical to individualism. A 1997 piece by Zhang Huan shows him performing a series of Naumanesque actions, pulling at his lips, tongue and ears, while poet Huang Yan’s Chinese Landscape Tattoo (1999) features a naked model painted with a traditional Chinese landscape. In 1996, Cang Xin, depressed after the breakup of the East Village group, began touching his tongue to various objects as a way of re-engaging with life. On view here is his Communications No. 2 (1996–2006), which documents the project.

A connection to the artist and activist Ai Weiwei links all of the artists in the exhibition; after his return to China in 1993 Ai Weiwei supported their activities throughout the 1990s. He is represented here by Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995), a three-panel work showing him po-faced, first holding what appears to be a genuine antiquity, then dropping it to smash at his feet. Whether the piece is an exhortation to other artists to dispense with tradition, an indictment of China’s indiscriminate razing of historic urban areas during the 1980s and ’90s, or simply an act of iconoclasm has never been clear.

Equally ambiguous is Song Dong’s work Printing on Water (1996), a sequence of photographs showing the burly artist standing waist-deep in a river and pounding its surface with a large wooden printing block—one engraved with the Chinese character for water. This work could be interpreted as a meditation on the ephemeral nature of human life and endeavor. But it’s worth noting that the river is the Lhasa River in Tibet, raising the possibility that Song Dong was also commenting on the Chinese project of supplanting Tibetan culture with its own.

The multiple layers of meaning in these pieces do not lessen their impact but rather contribute greatly to their appeal. And, while their intent may be at times obscure to Western audiences, they were conceived with deliberation and produced at considerable personal risk to their authors. They remain, even now, some of the most important works of contemporary art yet to come out of China.

Collector’s POV: Since this is effectively a museum show, there are no posted prices.

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Read more about: Ai Weiwei, Cang Xin, Huang Yan, Ma Liuming, Song Dong, Zhang Huan, Zhuang Hui, Walther Collection (NY Project Space)

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