Performance is a particularly slippery art form to display in galleries—a gap exists between the performance itself and the resulting documentation. Is the photograph of the event the artwork, or merely supplemental material? Is it possible to fully experience the work after the fact? These questions lie at the heart of the current exhibition at the Walther Collection Project Space, “Body, Self, Society: Chinese Performance Photography of the 1990s,” which features the work of Ai Weiwei, Cang Xin, Huang Yan, Ma Liuming, Song Dong, Zhang Huan, and Zhuang Hui. Unable to stage public performances (many artists were arrested because of the “illegality” of their actions), they would instead enact their work in front of the camera.
In Song Dong’s Printing on Water (1996), the artist stands in the Lhasa River in Tibet, repeatedly stamping the water with a wooden seal carved with the Chinese character for water. This poetic, yet futile gesture of attempting to mark the water’s surface is recorded in thirty-six photographs, a single roll of color film. Recalling a contact sheet, Ma Liuming’s Fen-Ma Liuming Walks the Great Wall (1998) brings together in a single large-format print sixteen images, carefully composed and juxtaposed, of the naked artist walking along China’s most famous monument. The numerous, powerful acts of defiance represented in this exhibition are distilled into equally affecting photographs that allow the viewer access to an otherwise inaccessible moment in time. —Eloise Maxwell
Pictured: Song Dong: Printing on Water, 1996, 36 chromogenic prints, 24â?? by 16½ by 1â?? inches each. Courtesy the Walther Collection Project Space, New York.