The Artist, Interrogating Performance: Zhou Bin

“Performance art is not acting. That does not mean that it is insufficient or that it abandons acting. Today’s performance art is more and more marginalized and debased, so one should rethink and introspect the role of acting itself; but the important thing is not acting but how to act and what for.”

-Lu Mingjun, “Transformation of the Body” (from Action- Being)

After translating the article that accompanied “Who Is…?,” a performance piece choreographed and executed by Zhou Bin on the shores of Karachi, Pakistan, I finally got to see photos of the event. They are posted on international artist collective VASL’s community webpage, and they mostly depict a soaked and stunned Zhou Bin, who carrying a massive black flag with the question Who Is……? printed across it in white letters. Flapping over the seemingly deserted Pakistani beach, the flag looks like one of the sails that should have graced Odysseus’s ship on his return from the Cyclops’ island. Instead, it’s hoisted up by Zhou, who, mouth open, seems to have emerged from the sea bearing a terrible omen. A short read will tell you that he is merely uttering the half-phrase printed on the flag, “Who Is?”, in endless repetition, till his mouth becomes dry and he’s inarticulate and fatigued. His whole body is convulsing with nausea, the minutes of the performance ticking away into hours.

The pictures were different than I’d expected. With most of Zhou Bin’s “live” artworks (xinwei yishu), they’re hard to size up just from the photographs. All are executed on-site; most are only ever produced once. He works in the time-based medium of avant-garde performance art, so he’s an artist whose primary tools are words, not pictures. Rather than paint images about discourse, Zhou Bin wants us to discover the discourse for ourselves. To him, performing actually means interrogating the medium of performance. It’s about finding a path into an already-existing stream of ideas.

“I didn’t know, if you have your mouth open like this, for 20 minutes, you will vomit,” I said to Zhou when I first looked at the photo documentation of Reaction- Vomit (2005), another piece in which he induced himself to throw up in the process of his piece. (Walking around a museum in Nanjing, he vomited whenever compelled by his reaction to the art.)

“Yes, everybody,” he replied. “You can try.”

I laughed. “I don’t want to try.”

Zhou Bin in Karachi, screaming, courtesy of VACL

Extreme Interrogation

Much of the work involves the artist pushing himself, mentally or physically, to some new extreme, thereby unveiling the limitations of his body and environment. The sentence implied in “Who Is…?” was supposed to be “Who Is The Terrorist?”, and it was the latest in a series of live works that built a dialogue around this topic. Zhou Bin’s body, his actions, and words together formed the language of the piece, which was all about us challenging political dogma. This is the meta-formula for Zhou Bin’s work: he makes his own language.

What does interrogating performance mean? Let me give an example: in his May 2000 piece Smash The Wall, he attacked an ancient stone wall in Xi’an with a set of giant stuffed male genitals, while naked. This concluded with the artist dropping his offensive, completely exhausted. The idea was not esoteric: through repeated action, he tried to vent his frustration at the face of Xi’an using a well-worn symbol of male fervor. Why was he frustrated? Because Xi’an lags behind.

“Not modern. It’s not very efficient. People think very, very old. No good.”

“You like new cities?” I asked him.

“No…I like older history,” he said. “But I think…it needs something new. So I’m doing this performance on breaking [with it].”

Futility and Time

There was already a context for his decision to perform there: it’s his birthplace. But as the city contains so many relics, being one of China’s ancient marvels, it is yet limited by its culture, attitudes, and people. Zhou Bin sees adopting a modernized way of life as a possible inroad to more enlightened thinking. That’s why he presses forward with his action: to protest the city’s stagnation. The choice of giant genitals was no tribute to libido; they were an object of rebellion with which to put up resistance.

Genitals aren’t suitable means for attacking a wall. Such an ultimately frail action is hardly the right response to Xi’an’s plight. In a manner typical of the performer it was futile, self-referential. Zhou was not drawing attention to the city’s problems, but to the circularity of his own misplaced ideals. He thus asks a question that is hard to answer, about the state of performance and its role in art. What do we look to the performer to do? The answer is never given, and the naked man stood, not for a riotous break with tradition, but for the stupendousness of still being constrained by tradition – even when naked.

“In his early works, he always started the pieces with the confrontation with a barrier,” wrote art critic Lu Mingjun in his introduction to Zhou Bin’s book, Action-Being. “After some time the body would not be able to endure that obstacle anymore, the performance was unsustainable, and he had to do away with the obstacle. So in the process the performance would gradually become the barrier…” (11).

“Performance as barrier” is where Zhou finds himself. In talking about his process, he often uses the word “procedure,” as if to explain why the work is supposed to be logical or obvious. I’ve found it anything but obvious. However, he seems to be making a statement that’s very specific to his time and place, right here in Sichuan. For lack of a xinwei glossary, I’ve tried to categorize the work according to a few common themes I can find running throughout. They are: Time/ History, Politics, Organisms, Scale, Words/ Language, Danger, Balance, Body Fluids, and Breakthrough. All are launching points to take the performance out of its traditional seating place.

Time restricts the work. So Zhou likes to manipulate the time variable. Lu Mingjun wrote: “Zhou Bin’s awareness and questioning of the body…are not independent from time, they rather slowly connect with time-delay.” Time-delay means drawing out a process until its implications can be fully understood. “Who Is…?” gave continued voice to the artist’s question of accusal, which exhausted him. 2007′s Chase the Sun drew out the experience of staring at the sun, which he stood and did for 12 full hours. In 2009′s A Bunch of Sunshine, he followed an eerie ray of sunshine that came through a hole in the ceiling of his performance space while repeating the words, “I am a terrorist,” over and over until he had crossed the room.

In all of these, lapsed time lent gravity to the subject matter, while Zhou Bin drove himself past a point of physical discomfort. In the process, history and memory were evoked as undercurrents. Like Smash the Wall, earlier works such as Save the City (2002) and Bubble of Lies (2003) responded to the specter of history and its prolonged impact on present society.

In Save the City, Zhou Bin brought a chunk of an ancient wall from Chengdu to Xi’an, drilled it with holes, and injected it with his own blood before sealing it into another ancient wall in Xi’an. Then, in Bubble of Lies, he comedically strutted in public through Chengdu’s Tianfu Square and read aloud from the writings of Suntzu, a famous historic military tactician. This was meant to be a response to the American Iraq War, but during the Iraq invasion he was prevented from actually performing due to Sichuan’s strict anti-public art laws (lifted in 2008). Both pieces overtly drew from historical conflicts, but subtly pointed out current dilemmas- suggesting the bearings of history upon our times are more than coincidental.

Zhou Bin, naked in Xi'an, smashing a wall

The Naked Rebel

With almost childlike simplicity, Zhou directly (and very often nakedly) confronts politics with physical dissent. This is epitomized in the Terrorist series, which began in Manchester, England in 2007 with “I Am A Terrorist,” a high-energy balancing act. The next installation happened in Israel: “Who Is The Terrorist?” (2008), an astounding piece that made use of prayer scripts from the West Wall of Jerusalem to spell out the question- “Who Is The Terrorist?” in Chinese. Few other international artists are addressing this subject matter in such a way.

“I put my body in an open state that is acute to what is happening, and then I can receive and filter that information,” Zhou Bin said in a 2010 interview with art theorist Zhang Yinchuan.

This is the essence of his international work, and was also the idea behind the 2007 Meat Worm photograph series. The series made use of the artist’s naked body, stretched, splayed, and draped over walls and between gaps in Chengdu’s soon-to-be-demolished historic residences. Tracing his own form amidst crumbling landscapes, the photographs explored themes such as void, abandonment, and decay in both natural and man-made conditions. The notion of Meat Worm was a hybrid organic and artificial concept. Crumbling residences were a perfect starting point for discussing the interplay of the organism with its environment. Meat Worm took Zhou Bin’s choreography to a new level, rethinking implications for body (organism) and space (environment) through excavation and transposition.

From the political to the material and organic, then, many subjects are windows into Zhou Bin’s process. But where is he now? Even to the point of meticulously documenting small insects, he’s always refocusing. Natural processes and subterranean worlds have equal or greater power for him than human ones; thus he incorporates subjects such as insects crawling across his body into his work. Pieces like Body Trace (2010) and Trail of the Insect (2010), from a series of improvised time-based performances entitled 30 Days: The Zhou Bin Project, show, among other things, an attentiveness to the tiny creatures.

To the point of utter exhaustion …

Playing with scale is one way in which Zhou Bin challenges and interrogates power structures. In works such as A Grain of Rice (2010), the entire artwork is based on something usually invisible from view. Through the positioning of forms and alterations in time/scale, the artist invites us to re-tool our understanding of the subject matter. I’ve learned from talking to him that he’s drawn to performance by a feeling of freedom he can’t get from painting. No longer wanting to be confined by the limits of the canvas, this shift in attention liberated him, an it can liberate anyone- artist or viewer- by expanding our spacial perception and environmental awareness.

Words are instruments of power that can also be re-tooled. In certain cases, the words “Artist,” “Terrorist,” and other terms like “RMB,” are ploys- hegemonic terms that must be arraigned. In Yi Shu Jia (“Artist”- 2010), he repeated each syllable of the Chinese word in sequence while holding up character cards, repeating them until visibly drained. The sounds in the process became disconnected from their inherent meaning. In National Emblem (2007) and One RMB Coin (2006), he held a 1-yuan coin in his mouth, until affliction from prolonged contact with the object caused him to vomit. 

Language is a medium that should use our whole body. One mode of language that Zhou Bin especially responds to is poetry. Like He Duoling, he has embraced the role of the artist as poet. But his poetry is physical, pushing beyond the usual limitations of the medium. Poetics of the Body (2011) brought a “physical interpretation of poetry” to a stage and art exhibition in Korea, letting symbols be a reference for the tracing of beauty in his surroundings. Before doing this, works likeTaste 5-12 (2008) and Sensitive Word (2010) were strong examples of the artist’s provocative use of language. In Taste 5-12, part of a series that used sheets of glass spread with hot mustard to spell out words, he licked the day and month of the notorious Sichuan earthquake- 5/12- off the glass, then broke it over his head.

Finally, when not inducing nausea or staring at the sun, Zhou Bin has pushed his body and performances to still other extremes. Language Learning is one example, performed in Japan in 2005. The artist, submerged from head to toe underwater and reading from a Chinese-English dictionary, came up for breath only when necessary. Then in 2010, Zhou performed Safety Distance, a scarily close brush with electrocution that had him holding one finger as close as possible to a charged electrical wire. This seemed to demonstrate how fine the line can be between stasis and imminent threat.

But Zhou Bin frequently blurs lines, between pain and pleasure, dissidence and desire, objects and obstacles. That is why his pieces so often emphasize meditative balance. Works like National Emblem and Balance-Floating Around in Beijing had him propped up tenuously in the air, falling down again in the end. More complex maneuverings were required for pieces like Holding Ink Ice Till Melt (2002) and Spring Man (2005), works where the artist’s physical comfort and safety were sidelined. Holding Ink Ice Till Melt was an incredibly challenging performance. It required the artist’s whole body to remain tied up and suspended in a bag with loads of ice until it disappeared. Spring Man was more comedic, but seemingly sinister- he was helplessly propelled in mid-air through the gallery wearing shoes with springs attached.

At his most extreme, perhaps, the artist makes use of his own blood and other body fluids. A Cup of Sweat, from 30 Days, resulted in the weary artist drinking a large amount of his own sweat after vigorous exercise. More evocative, 174Cm Blood Stain involved a cube of ice made from 200cc of the artist’s blood. Attached by a string to his feet and slowly melting onto a giant paper scroll on which he walked at snail’s pace, it slowly melted into the paper leaving an unforgettable trace as he inched backward. (Youtube Video below, VPN required)

… in order to break through

Amongst all his works, there have been a few tiny moments of breakthrough – points where he experienced an epiphany, or pressed forward to true discovery. One of these was the creation of The Writer, another 30 Days piece. In it, Zhou held aloft two long, heavy sticks of bamboo and began waving them in the air, “writing” with them until too tired to continue. An element of poetry graces this simple yet exquisite mini-masterpiece, a puppeteer’s dream.

The Walker (2010) was his definitive personal triumph from 30 Days. Walking back and forth across a ridge as his silhouette was framed against the sky, he managed to visibly diminish the landscape underneath him after about 70 minutes. The chance discovery of his impact on the land had a profound resonance with him. 30 Days also produced other mysteriously beautiful results, such as the piece called Train Memory, which involved Zhou’s discovery of a stationed boxcar that caused him to recall almost being hit by a train as a child. Merely looking at documentation from 30 Days, I’m overwhelmed by the strange and revelatory effect of some of the works.

At times, Zhou Bin’s art may explore intimately personal or culturally sensitive subject matter, but he always maintains that it is imminently open to interpretation and response. Performing in a vacuum would never satisfy Zhou Bin, who thirsts for discourse. That’s why works like PEACE (2008), from the mustard series, put performing aside and invited participation from an audience (members faced him in licking the mustard off the glass), which lent it an air of public engagement. Art Casual Chat (Beijing, 2010), and 30 Days: The Zhou Bin Project, which were all about response and feedback, called for the public’s analysis. Responses to 30 Days even became their own piece entitled, “Misunderstanding Test,”  which pushed the subject of engagement to the forefront- inviting readings and willingly putting the work at risk of misreading.

but still keeping it real.

Internationally, the artist is currently blossoming. He’s continued to develop independently and with other performative groups. In addition to the Terrorist series, he has completed relatively recent international works like Heart (2009) in Myanmar, Boiling Seawater (2010) in Korea, and the Poetics of the Body pieces, all of which physically interrogated his site-specific surroundings through actions of the body.

Most recently, he has been working collaboratively. He is planning next October’s UpON art festival in Chengdu, only the second of its kind since public art was officially legalized in Sichuan. He is also preparing for the next addition to Celebration- The 1/6 Comments of Freedom, an ongoing experimental improv series featuring artists from Japan, China, and Germany. And he has an upcoming residency in New York (it will be his first time in the United States). With all this going on, Zhou Bin is busy busy. And if his work continues to garner attention worldwide, it looks as if he’ll stay that way.

Until then, prompted to comment on his hopes for the future of performance art, Zhou doesn’t get too lofty. In his interview with Zhang Yinchuan in 2010, for instance, he kept it real:

Zhang: “Do you really tell your friends that you are a ‘traditional performance artist’?”

Zhou: “That only happens when we express the high moral standard of our works, and the importance of it for mankind. You [still] have to be able to laugh at yourself.”

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About Tabitha

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

10 Responses to “The Artist, Interrogating Performance: Zhou Bin”

  1. I’ve always though performance art requires film or word of mouth … but that photo of him slapping the wall with a huge red penis does something to my perspective. Futility and rage? i picture him collapsing into a bamboo chair, exhausted, and calling for tea and a cigarette afterwards.

  2. He really is a rebel. Trying to draw attention to things we don’t see. I picture Zhou Bin as sort of physically positioning himself on a complex moral and social landscape, trying to change it. That was how I saw “The Walker,” the piece where he walked so many times back and forth across a hilltop, he literally did change the landscape.

  3. VERY well written. i enjoyed the sense of organization and style throughout your piece. i also learned from the article things that had never occurred to me concerning xingwei (行为)art, an area that interests me greatly. well done!

  4. Nice story. For some reason, I always thought of performance art as something that makes fun, but Zhou Bin strikes me as quite serious, e.g. in the Save the City piece where he seals his blood into a wall in Xi’an.

  5. (Sophia-) that’s right, it’s xingwei art. In fact, all performance basically stems from the 20th Century avant-garde, surrealist and dada movements, so there is a mix of the very serious and completely riotous/ plainly ridiculous. Zhou Bin falls well in step with that.

    Also, there are other avant-garde artists doing similar things to performance, including really wild stuff with photography, in China, like Li Wei. She’s an example of someone who spans the performance/ humor thing really well.

    Thanks for the feedback!

  6. He really does have an effective way of making people notice and that’s good… it’s a step towards change.

  7. Interesting piece Tabitha. My question is, the audience for performance art is so narrow–even if you make videos or write articles about the performances and the artists, the esoteric nature of the art means not all that many people are going to get into it, or connect with the work. How then can it be a force for social change?

  8. I know what you mean, Lindsay. Who the hell cares if this dude is just weird and inaccessible?

    Well….

    1) Performance art was banned in Sichuan until 2008. In other words, it was AGAINST THE LAW by provincial authorities to exhibit yourself publicly through any form of creative expression. Only since 2008 has it been considered anything other than a detestable crime, to be stamped out by law enforcement. Like terrorism. Hence the question, “Who is the terrorist?”

    2) Would you say it’s better to publicize such artists or not to publicize them?

    3) Given time, Zhou Bin may actually rise in popularity– similar to other artists, collectives and organizations that have emerged from obscurity. He’s not the only person making headway in his field. Zhou Bin in fact subscribes to a number of different international artist groups, so he himself even represents a kind of establishment now.

    4) As a counter-force to visually saturated popular culture, his stuff may look unappealing at first…and yet what if there were no such fringe material? Nothing to challenge the aesthetic stranglehold of mainstream entertainment? In other words, which do we prefer, a world where Zhou Bins are allowed to exist and generate interest, however small, or one where they’re basically pulverized under the foot of conglomerate media? Especially here, where the right to voice yourself was so recently suppressed….

    Anyhoo, hopefully I’m saying something and not just shouting your face off, visually speaking.

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