Experimental Live Art in Chengdu

It’s mid-autumn. The lotus leaves have wilted, leaving a desiccated crop of dead brown stalks in their place. Stalky shadows on the water look dark against the pallid sky. In between ravines of this withered foliage are long hips of grassy, muddy earth. In the swamp waters of Hetang Yuese, a foreign woman wades almost knee-deep in just her trousers. Long, gossamer brown hair swarms around her. For those who’d recognize it, her image recalls a painting by John William Waterhouse, “The Lady of Shallot,” a scene of antiquated beauty that famously contains a woman floating similarly in a pond, sort of otherworldly.

Rather than be the subject of a painting, however, the woman is a target for a nearby throng of spectators, photographers and journalists. As she moves nearly imperceptibly through the viscous dead-lotus waters, another person straddles a ravine, bottomless, clinging to the mud with bare hands and feet — head invisible amid clumps of grass. Nearby, another man, face and hands covered in white makeup, performs butoh-like dance movements in the grass, shirtless. Other strange-looking souls cluster on the muddy land bridge between the waters, having removed items of clothing, as well as any reservations.

They are here explicitly to perform in a public setting; modesty is not allowed. This is experimental live art in Chengdu.

Art Gets Un-Banned

That was on October 14th, the third full day of the UP-ON International Live Art Festival, only the second of such live events to occur in four years. Spearheaded by local organizers devoted to curation and experimentation, UP-ON was founded in 2008, when the central government lifted an egregious ban on live performance art. The ban had been in place since 2001, when state officials reacted in horror to what they saw as a peril to stability and a danger to public life, although it had previously been welcomed. The first UP-ON festival, unique from this one, included Japanese artists Arai Shin-Ichi and Yoshinori Niwa. They put on dramatic works that may, indeed, have seemed provocative in light of performance art’s recently contentious history.

Chengdu-based international artist Zhou Bin, Chengdu sculptor Yan Cheng, and artist Liu Chengying curated this huge undertaking, which also serves as a platform for international dialogue, scholarship, and public exchange. Zhou Bin has a long personal history of doing just this: turning public places, tools and ideas into groundwork for a broader discussion. It’s one of the foundational underpinnings of the artist’s philosophy, distinguishing him from the mainstream Chengdu art market.

Live Art Returns to Chengdu

From the mid-1990′s until 2001, Chengdu had a singular reputation for its “live art” (行为艺术 xinwei yishu). Both productive and socially relevant, artists like Dai Guangyu, Zhou Bin, and Liu Chengying instigated ground-breaking performances that called into question the city’s priorities, including the preservation of fresh water and historic sites. This instructive and socially engaging way of confronting crucial public issues had a profound effect on the people involved, bringing a surge in community-based dialogue that could never have been started by the state.

Artist Gao Yuan, performing one of his “Arts of the Body” works at Chuanda

But the city’s constructive relationship with public art ended in 2001, when the Ministry of Culture enforced a directive formally prohibiting all public performances. Zhou Bin, Dai Guangyu and their work were driven underground. Not everyone in the city has had the opportunity to see real Chengdu “live art.” Unless you’re a student of one of the artists or organizers, you’ve probably heard of it, but you may not remember 行为艺术 from its glory days, before it was went covert.

Now that its back, Chengdu-based artists want to make sure that live art stays free. The artists invited to perform here this year are all highly sensitive to the context, history, and relevance of what they’re doing, yet they’ve done nothing to suggest the “bloody…brutal” spectacles that once deliberately provoked audiences to outrage, thus beginning shut-downs by officials.

Instigating

This year, UP-ON took place at three major consecutive locations in and outside the city. The first, at Sichuan University College of Art, was occupied for more than two days, while a host of indoor, outdoor, and in-between (think, scrambling up a performance space wall) exhibitions, lectures, and happenings unfolded. Boris Neilsony, a notable experimental artist and event organizer from Germany, instigated a joint performance with his long-time collaborator Alastair MacLennan, of Northern Ireland. Other participants from Europe, Israel, Thailand, Taiwan, and mainland China were present.

Drawing spectators at Hetang Yuese

The first full day began slightly before Chinese artist Xing Xin’s installation, which literally consisted of a week-long endeavor to push his broken-down SUV directly from the south side of Chengdu all the way to the north. This installation was concluded at the end of the week: I got word as I was getting on a plane to Beijing on Sunday that the artist, car and crew had all made their way to the finish line in relatively good shape.

Guo Qiang, a performer from Xi’an whose work also involved a long trek, didn’t return to the scene that day. I chased him down the street for more than a mile after he’d stormed out of the spotlight, roaring at audience members. But the artist, glazed from head to toe in pure honey, toting a basket and tarred in black sesame seeds, kept going.

Artist Xiang Xishi, also of Xi’an, startled spectators with his use of tension and violence as he removed one shoe and began sliding a very large butcher knife back and forth along the floor to members of the audience with his bare foot. Others, including the striking Tamar Raban, a fringe theatre artist from Israel, left onlookers transfixed by their unpredictable acts, Raban spelling out the word “P-E-R-F-O-R-M-A-N-C-E” on the museum walls.

Among additional works were those of Changsha artist Wen Peng, Nopawan Sirivejkul from Thailand, Wang Chuyu, Beijing-er Megumi Shimizu, and the hilarious Cheng Shichun (also known by his nickname, Hong Mao/ 红猫).

Day Two featured live performances from Cai Qing, Xi Gao Yuan (the man in whiteface at Hetang Yuese), Neilsony and MacLennan, Wang Chuyu, and others. As a notable charge against the rigidity of art education in China, Cai Qing masterfully destroyed a giant plaster head of The David, a blown-up version of one of the most ubiquitous teaching materials for art professors of drawing. Singaporean artist Jeremy Hiah recapped the day’s events when he attempted to auction off objects and remnants from the other artists’ works- including a piece of the plaster cast. It was a grand social demonstration about the so-called marketing of creative artwork, its message not lost on participants.

Ng Fangchao

As mentioned, Day Three took place at Hetang Yuese, and had a considerably different effect on viewers and participants. Artists were exposed to the elements for hours, at times wading through the lotus pond’s deep, muddy waters in weather that wasn’t the warmest, but had a cool humidity. The mere aspect of physical exposure lent the performance a feeling of true vulnerability, one which only compounded with the very public and uncontrolled environment. It definitely made artists more aware of what they were doing, and of the physical limitations and consequences. Not a single action or movement went unnoticed.

Tourists, moreover, were a common presence, sometimes stepping into the performance space, sometimes even choosing to participate. When an unsuspecting vendor stumbled onto the scene as he was selling chunks of sticky bositang candy from a wicker basket, something he does there almost every day, it was an experience worth remembering: he joined in the live art event, contributing with jocular spontaneity, honesty and curiosity. People applauded.

On the fourth day, performers moved to the new Sichuan Conservatory of Music campus in Xindu. There, in a new university space, artists such as Wen Peng and He Chengyao performed, joined by Nopawan Sirivejkul, Shimizu and others. Dong Jie, a Chinese artist whose work occupies a distinct place between participation and voyeurism, addressed with her body the “survival state” of women in Chinese society. She attracted a crowd, though whether most were drawn in by her message, or the simple stage presence of a woman in unclad defenselessness, it was hard to be sure.

One of the final pieces that day was delivered by Macao artist Wu Fangzhou (Ng Fangchao), who drew viewers around him to the rooftop area of the University cafeteria, making subtle references to food as he threw a blackened fowl carcass in the air and encircled his performance space with saran wrap.

The Message

Dong Jie performing a piece about voyeurism and vulnerability

The UP-ON Festival stands apart from other art events in Chengdu because of its experimental nature, its resistance to market forces, and the uniqueness of public art’s evolving status in China. Organized locally and presented to University students, museum-goers and members of the public, the festival nonetheless receives some support from outside sources like the Goethe Institute, an German arts and culture organization working in Germany.

Zhou Bin, a master of tasteful curatorial criticism, knew to quickly gesture to members of the public or audience to get off the “stage” when necessary. Maintaining a reserved, but firm, oversight of events as they unfolded over the days, he skillfully wove through the crowds. Having stepped into a charged arena, Zhou Bin and the other artists knew they must somehow work with one another to support, and not impede, local freedom of expression–in the face of local suppression of their freedoms. Organizers reinforced an air of quiet and respectful order at UP-ON that reassured festival-goers and drew in many crowds, and did not suggest an atmosphere of “policing.”

The lifting of the 2008 restriction on live art signaled new opportunity for the city’s arts community. Following this event, a host of artists from UP-ON moved to Xi’an, where they continued enacting live performances and planning future events. Regardless of the next UP-ON Festival date, Chengdu has had a special visitation from unique members of the global arts community. They are the kind of people who, like their Chengdu-based colleagues, want art and freedom in China to get on track. A for those who came from outside, Chengdu left a good impression on them. Many, many factors are involved in the organization of such an event. While no longer facing explicit condemnation from their government, performance artists still contend with a myriad of issues and challenges in the execution of their work, dissemination of ideas, and presentation to the public. It will probably be a long time before that changes.

More pictures:

The artists and curators at a relaxed gathering outside Lan Ding Gallery (蓝顶), in Hetang Yuese with others.

Chinese artist Wen Peng reverses the “masterful” role of the artist and prepares to smash a plaster head of The David.

Boris Neilsony

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About Tabitha

Tabitha is a Chinese scholar, educator, and art enthusiast who is interested in trans-national movements in art.

24 Responses to “Experimental Live Art in Chengdu”

  1. Wow, looks cool. Wish I had known about this before it happened. Nice report though!

  2. It does look fascinating, the pictures tweak my imagination, but being there is really what it’s all about

  3. Chengdu is just streets ahead of other cities in terms of art. Go to any gallery (well, almost any gallery) in Shanghai or Beijing and you will see artists either from Chengdu or have trained in Chengdu.

  4. That’s why I chose to focus on Chengdu as an art writer. Which galleries in Beijing and Shanghai do you frequent, and what artists in particular have you noticed?

    • I go anywhere where there is some interesting work.

      There was one Chengdu artists work I saw about a year ago in Shanghai – his work was just fantastic. Paintings, kind of expressionistic and large pieces. One piece was a figure of a man in a chair with leaves falling around him.

      One of the best paintings I’ve seen in China, just fantastic.

    • Hi Tabitha,

      A very interesting article. Would love to discuss more with you on Chengdu art.

      Philip

  5. I love this post, thanks for publishing it Tabitha. I haven’t seen much of this kind of art in Chengdu but I do have one vivid memory from years ago.

    It was at the 8th birthday party of The Little Bar, which was a weekend-long rock festival in 2006, shortly after I first arrived in Chengdu. It was located inside a still-under-construction office building in the middle of Chengdu, on several floors. It was a huge, wide open space and one floor was dedicated to an art gallery with paintings and photographs on the wall. On the upper level, where bands were playing, there were some performance artists like the ones pictured in this post.

    I remember the performances being incredibly surreal in that setting. Rock music playing, a thousand people in the same space, totally captivated by the weirdness that was going on right next to them. There were several different performances, but one I remember was an acrobat in full-body tights which covered her face completely. There were others but it’s difficult to remember details because it was so long ago. What I remember most about the event is how surreal it was. I wish I had more opportunities to see things like that.

  6. That’s great. We see stuff like that happen around Seattle (where I am now); when Seattle’s Lawrimore Project Gallery was still around there were outdoor shows of this kind; and conceptual art at the Crawl Space. You can still find interesting performance-related art at the Hedreen Gallery, with things like butoh at the Chapel Space and Teshiro Kaplan buildings.

    Not stuff readers will have the opportunity to view this winter, of course. The point is, we’re all connected in the arts world. I would like to see more public works everywhere, especially where they really challenge the status quo- in China. In Chengdu, really. I am definitely keeping in touch with the artists I met through this event (although they’re all spread out globally). I hope to have the chance to catch up with any number of them when I travel next spring. Until then…

  7. From November 28 to December 2 we are organising an international performance art festival in Guangzhou with around 30 artists from all over the world. For more information please visit guangzhoulive.org.

    Thanks for the text and the photos of Zhou Bin’s event, looks very good!

  8. great article tabitha! these artists are pushing all of the boundaries.

  9. Haha, yeah & then some!

  10. It’s great that it’s happening in China, but quite frankly I am so sick of performance art. I just find it all really tiresome.

  11. Ha. No, I understand. Really, it’s like going to a garage sale. You might find some good things, but you’ll definitely sift through a lot of crap.

    In the 1990′s Zhou Bin, Dai Guangyu and others began doing stuff that was truly innovative with just water, ink and their bodies. I’d say research the individual artists who were in this show. You will find (cumulatively) ideas that are very transformative. Just one day at a performance art festival won’t do much for you.

    • I saw a Chinese performance artist that was literally an entire copy of Joseph Beuys.

      The only difference being, the Chinese guy was carrying a chicken instead of a hare.

      Sorry for sounding negative, I’m just a bitchy ex-art student….. ;-)

  12. You say that a Chinese artist was carrying a chicken. Beuys referred to the hare as a symbol of thought and pedagogical practice, which stemmed from his studies in Western art theory and literature. Perhaps the chicken is a symbol of such pedagogy for the Chinese artist. A chicken is a hugely important symbol of Chinese life, and is even used to describe the outline of mainland China. Sure, it may be a comment on or response to Beuys’ work but keep in mind, that work was performed a long time ago, and this is a different culture and a different generation. I’d say consider the work in context and think about what the artist is saying:)

    • Ok, but for me it just seemed too close to Beuys original work for me to not notice it.

      I saw some work (quite a while back), some sculptures that looked like farmers/migrant workers, like they had been made out of clay. I know that sounds kind of stupid, but like they had been roughly put together with chunks of clay.

      I liked this work very much.

      There is a painter who I love – Meng is his family name – and he does this huge paintings based on Chinese opera. Quite simply, they are the most beautiful paintings I have seen in Shanghai.

      Sorry if I am being a drag Tabitha.. I don’t mean to be. Just ignore me. ;-)

  13. I don’t think you’re being a drag at all! I prefer not to ignore any comments on my articles. It’s my responsibility to respond and apply what knowledge and background I have to the discussion of art.

  14. Hello! I liked very much this post. I’am a brazilian artist living in Chengdu from almost 2 months. I heard about the Artist Village here in Chengdu but I don’t found the adress in the maps. If somebody knows and can help to find it would be great. Thanks a lot and keep posting about art in china!!

  15. I’m not sure which artist village you mean. Here’s an overview of art districts in Chengdu: link

    Here is a map with exhibition sites from the last Chengdu Biennale. Scroll down (toward the middle) for English. Look for bus routes. Buses going to Sanshengxiang “Flower Village” (三圣乡) in Jinjiang district are at the top. Bus 31 is going to Landing Art Gallery in Hetang Yuese, in Sanshengxiang, which is next to a major artist community, if you want to go there: link

    This is a map with Sanshengxiang in Chengdu: link

    Thanks for the remarks. Hope this is helpful.

    • wow thanks tabitha, this is an excellent resource, I will post it in the forum as well. Miss you girl. We want MORE TABITHA!

    • Thank you Very much Tabitha. Actualy I found the art village. The name is Nongyuan International art village. A really nice place. I made contact with some artists there. But, for sure I will visit the other places that you said on the comments in Chengdu. Please keep posting more interesting articles!

    • Thank you Very much Tabitha. Actualy I found the art village. The name is Nongyuan International art village. A really nice place. I made contact with some artists there. But, for sure I will visit the other places that you said on the comments in Chengdu. Please keep posting more interesting articles.

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