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Thumbing Their Noses: Performance Art Around Beijing Looks Past Contemporary Art Market

Performance view of Tianzhuo Chen’s Ishvara, 2016. Long March Space. ZHUANG YAN/COURTESY LONG MARCH SPACE

Performance view of Tianzhuo Chen’s Ishvara, 2016. Long March Space.

ZHUANG YAN/COURTESY LONG MARCH SPACE

This past June, Beijing’s Ullens Center for Contemporary Art (UCCA) presented a major exhibition of the work of Robert Rauschenberg, pairing his 1/4 Mile or 2 Furlong Piece (1981–98) with work he made during the 1980s in and about China. Concurrent with the exhibition’s opening, UCCA invited students of Chinese artist Qiu Zhijie from the School of Experimental Art, Central Academy of Fine Arts, to perform their new piece Somewhere Only We Know, adapted from The Peach Blossom Spring, a utopian fable by Chinese poet Tao Yuanming (365–427). The performance centers around Rauschenberg’s 1982 trip to a paper mill in Jingxian, but it also alludes to Black Mountain College and the work of John Cage, perhaps as a nod to the American golden age of avant-garde performance art.

Performance art also has an important history in China. Chinese artists of the 1985 New Wave movement used it to respond to a rapidly changing sociopolitical environment by means of performance. These days, the form has expanded into the digital realm, with performances presented not only in physical spaces like galleries or museums, but on social media apps like Moments and Instagram. This past spring and summer, China’s newest generation of contemporary artists put on live art performances, theater pieces, and streamed events around Beijing.

After a successful European debut at Palais de Tokyo in 2015, Beijing-based Tianzhuo Chen brought his convulsive mix of fast-paced choreography, eschatological drama, and kitsch aesthetics to his home city. His first solo exhibition at the Long March Space consisted of a new video, Ishvara (2016)—derived from a two-hour-long performance presented at the exhibition’s opening—as well as the video’s surrealistic set. Among the set’s many elements were Guna (2016), a colorful marble mosaic depicting a uterus; the light installation OM (2016), a celebration of the first sound of the universe in Indian mythology; a Hindu swastika, a fountain, and sculptures of eyeballs, dwarfs, and strange gods.

A visual and aural extravaganza, Ishvara featured performance artists Beio (Li Yi) and China Yu (Yu Han), performer Zhou Qi, the Parisian dance troupe House of Drama (Ylva Falk, Amélie Poulain, Igor Dewe, Aymeric Bergada Du Cadet, Dyna Dagger), dancers Kirikoo Des and Ndoho Ange, and musicians Aïsha Devi, Adrian Mihai, and Moumita & Sayak, as well as a cast of amateur performers and friends. Nominally based on the 700-verse Hindu scripture the Bhagavad Gītā, it brought together—among many other things—monologues narrated in Cantonese (written by Beio), drag performance, Japanese Butoh, and pop music. A virgin’s suicide gave way to a rendition of the Britney Spears hit “Everytime.” Devils danced in ecstasy. It was all oddly spiritual, which is not a surprise: Although a Buddhist himself, Chen sees his art making as a pan-religious practice that addresses such things as consumer culture’s impact on individual experience and the crisis of identity in an image-based world.

Ye Funa and Beio, Exhibitionist: Peep Stream (screenshot), 2016–, online performance. COURTESY THE ARTISTS AND RE-EXHIBITIONS

Ye Funa and Beio, Exhibitionist: Peep Stream (screenshot), 2016–, online performance.

COURTESY THE ARTISTS AND RE-EXHIBITIONS

Dai Chenlian, by contrast, takes a dramaturgical approach to performance. A resident of Heiqiao, an art district on the outskirts of Beijing, Dai has spent the past three years working on a storytelling project called “Family Theater,” which takes place at his studio and the studios of friends like painter He Xun. His show, “A Gathering of Chevaliers,” at Space Local, a project space in a residential building, boasted three openings, each one presenting a different performance to a packed audience. The performances took place amid Dai’s sketches for the piece, along with shadow-play screens and an installation consisting of badminton sets, potted plants, and aluminum cookware.

For this project, Dai collected unremarkable sounds and still and moving images of performers like Sun Shixian (founder of Space Local) and Li Weisi and Li Qing (members of electronic band Soviet Pop) and inserted them into the framework of Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, thus elevating unremarkable events to the level of drama.

Yu Ji’s performance Improvised Decision, which she presented at the opening of her solo sculpture show at Beijing Commune, developed out of a proposal for a group exhibition at Palais de Tokyo that was rejected because of the mess it would create. At Beijing Commune, Yu moved her wax sculpture Black No. 1 (2016) around the gallery, threw dry cement, and occasionally splashed water (this last came as a relief; the dust raised by the cement made it hard to breathe). Yu referred to the piece as a self-refining action repeated in her daily sculpture making. Collaborating with dancer Nunu Kong (playing a figure constantly responding to its environment) and critic Li Bowen (a mystical being hidden in darkness), Yu created an immersive experience out of sculptural and bodily presences.

Ye Funa and Beio have been taking performance into the virtual world, producing the program “Exhibitionist: Peep Stream” at various venues around Beijing. Each episode invites a group of guests to conduct impromptu performances. It’s interactive—some viewers even send dirty messages and virtual gifts to the performers. Live streaming is popular with the latest crop of young Chinese artists, many of whom use it to promote their work. Their concept of performance, which owes as much to television contests like The Voice of China and online sexting as it does to art history, raises fundamental questions about contemporary life in this country.

Nadim Abbas, The Last Vehicle, 2016, mixed-media installation with durational performance, dimensions variable. UCCA. COURTESY THE ARTIST AND UCCA

Nadim Abbas, The Last Vehicle, 2016, mixed-media installation with durational performance, dimensions variable. UCCA.

COURTESY THE ARTIST AND UCCA

Since this past summer, UCCA, opened in 2008 by Belgian collector Guy Ullens, has been for sale. Its fate should be a matter of intense concern for Beijing’s contemporary art world, not only because of the exhibitions it has mounted of artists from the West, like Rauschenberg, but for the contributions it has made to the careers of young Chinese artists, particularly with its “New Directions” series.

Recently, that series gave Hong Kong–based Nadim Abbas his first solo show in China. Performance and film came together in his installation The Last Vehicle (2016), in which viewers peeped through a small window at a man sitting in front of a computer monitor, using a joystick to guide a small rover through a sci-fi-like desert terrain set up in a different part of the space. In his black-and-white patterned pajamas and black helmet, he seemed to merge with the drab, office-like space in which he sat. Every so often, a figure dressed as a cartoonish alien would show up on his screen. Like the man, the alien blended chameleon-like into its environment. The piece is a compelling statement on observer and observed in internet culture.

Another recent contribution to “New Directions” was that of Hao Jingban. Hao’s four-channel video installation I Can’t Dance intercuts interviews with people involved in Beijing’s ballroom dance culture with clips from the propagandist films Song of Youth and Intrepid Hero (both 1959). Ballroom dancing enjoyed a vogue in China during the early days of the People’s Republic before being suppressed during the Cultural Revolution; it has recently been revived by a new generation of dancers. Hao, who cites Chris Marker and Harun Farocki as influences, vividly conjures the lives of China’s social elite in an ideologically charged era.

Ma Jianfeng, “MA,” 2016, installation view. Ying Space.YANG CHAO PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO/COURTESY YING SPACE

Ma Jianfeng, “MA,” 2016, installation view. Ying Space.

YANG CHAO PHOTOGRAPHY STUDIO/COURTESY YING SPACE

Boers-Li Gallery—located, like UCCA, Beijing Commune, Long March Space, and Space Local, in Beijing’s 798 Art Zone—showed three films by Cantonese artist Fang Lu. In No World (2014), seven young people wrestle and bomb each other with colored powder. The action, which is based on films of riots, seems gamelike, but has an undercurrent of violence. In Sea of Silence (2015), three women recall past love affairs for the camera against the backdrop of a desert landscape scattered with domestic furnishings. The women’s stories take on an added urgency in this surreal setting.

In Caochangdi, an art district across the 5th Ring Road from 798, the modest experimental venue Ying Space strikes a sharp contrast with nearby blue-chip galleries ShanghART and Galerie Urs Meile. Heiqiao painter Ma Jianfeng’s works at Ying Space incorporated aspects of performance and installation. Rather than market-friendly canvases, Ma showed an array of brightly colored objects—horses, towers, and flags—made with humble materials like painted cardboard and plastic bags. At a time when prices for certain contemporary Chinese paintings are sky-high, it was refreshing to see an artist thumb his nose at the system, opting for playfulness.

A version of this story originally appeared in the Winter 2017 issue of ARTnews on page 131 under the title “Around Beijing.”

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