After 1989, Chinese contemporary art experienced a brief lull. Artists active in the new wave of Chinese art in 1985 ('85 New Wave) had for the most part emigrated overseas in an effort to break into the international art market, and the generation that had grown up in the tumult of the current of '85 found themselves on the outside looking in, with the existing art system unable to accommodate or incorporate their practice. The 'vagrant' artists of the '90s, then, sought each other's company outside of the official system, and it was in circumstances such as these that a new avantgarde began to emerge. In the margins and in the midst of impoverishment and destitution, they were in search of new spaces for expression and the production of art.
Among these, the Beijing East Village and Chengdu's 719 Artist Studio Alliance became two crucial sites for the renaissance of Chinese performance art. Each in their own way, these two collectives, situated on the peripheries of the art system, offered a response to emerging realities through the form of performance art, while reinventing this form altogether, rendering it unrecognizable from the state that it had assumed in 1985. In this new form of performance art, the body and an emphasis upon presence in situ became indispensable elements. Besides this, the artists organized independent and autonomous collective activities, working and holding discussions among themselves while establishing a new channel of communication with the West. All of this was pivotal in creating a premise for a performance art festival in China, preparing the conditions for its appearance and its future development. The form that this festival has subsequently taken and the vicissitudes that it has undergone have gone on to determine what constitutes the 'mainstream' of Chinese performance art from the year 2000 onwards, leaving an indelible imprint upon the legacy of Chinese performance art.
The research at hand is an endeavour to compare and to document the activity of these two art collectives. It will feature interviews with the main members, artists and organizers in these collectives, situating their work in the context of early Chinese performance art in an effort to locate and discuss the epochal shift in Chinese performance art from the reproduction of images to an emphasis upon embodied presence and a form of performance/praxis outside of the official archive. The breadth of this research stretches from the decade between 1993 and 2003, taking the very first work to emerge from the Beijing East village collective, Ma Liuming's 'Dialogue With Gilbert and George' as the point of embarkation and closing with the inaugural DaDao Live Art Festival and the gradual spread of the performance art festival across China in 2003.
Orientation for the Research: Placing the First-Person Perspective of the Festival Curator & Those Who Experienced the Events At The Fore
The researcher's first encounter with and initial creative foray into the field of creative art took place in March of 2013, having participated in a performance art workshop in Hong Kong led by Chen Shisen (Sanmu). Following this, the researcher took part as a performing artist in the 9th Guyu Action International Performance Art Festival. From 2013 to 2017, the researcher experienced a transformation from being a mere attendee in a workshop to becoming a fully-fledged performance artist as well as an active curator and organizer for a performance art festival, coordinating exchanges and dialogues with artists internationally. The performance art festival originally embodied, in the mind of the researcher, a sort of utopian imaginary with its openness to the unknown (without an established central theme or restrictions upon the forms of media that can be employed by artists), its freedom of expression (evading official surveillance, governmentality and censure), offering an artistic platform that is authentically participatory for all and premised upon equality (without being determined by a director, and with the lines between artists, curators and the audience being suitably ambiguous). Having been a part of at least 20 different performance art festivals in various places, however, the researcher has developed a keener grasp of the limits of such festivals. For one thing, performance art seems to have become more and more of an insular game among an increasingly small cabal- wherever they are held, one tends to encounter artists producing work that is more or less alike (the collectives share similar traits, the content is rarely surprising, even the use of colour and thematics are comparable, the length of the works tend to run less than thirty minutes etc.)
For another, in order to elude the eye of state surveillance, performance art has to take a variety of highly circuitous paths to communicate itself, either removing itself to far-flung locales or submitting to the strictures of this surveillance in exchange for a public space to organize events. Structuring these mandates is a set of three taboos, or the 'three nos' of performance art- no nudity, no politics, no endangerment. Acceptance of these rules gives the lie to the supposed 'openness' of performance art. Thirdly, performance art festivals continue, to this day, to be coordinated chiefly by men, with the majority of curators being male and administrative personnel and translators being mainly women. As such, this research focusses upon the firsthand experience of practitioners who were present at pivotal events in the development of these festivals, with my investigation revolving around a set of three focal questions: how did the Chinese performance art festival come into being? How has it disseminated itself and won acceptance among the public? What sorts of transformations and mutations has it undergone as a medium in its continuing evolution, shaped by the emergence of the performance art festival form?
The Social Context of An Imagined Dialogue with “the West” & Vagrant Artist Collectives Outside the System
Across all of the interviews undertaken for the purposes of this research, discussion would always return to the question of how the interviewee came to discover performance art in the first place. One could then trace the answers to these questions to three generations in Chinese performance art. From the 1980s to the 1990s, Chinese artists would come across this medium through materials transmitted from the West, whether these took the form of photographs, texts or other forms of transmission. From exposure to these materials, they would then begin to produce an equivalent, as the Concept 21 collective and the Southern Artist Salon did in the '85 New Wave did. From the mid 1990s to the year 2000, we would witness a generation of artists who had grown up under the influence of the wave of '85 New Wave (among which we can count the Beijing East Village and the 719 Artist Studio Alliance), coming within earshot and possibly having been in attendance at the presentation of such work. Very few of these would have travelled to a Western country to bear witness to the development of performance art at the time, and would not have employed the West as a reference point for their work. From the 2000s to the present moment, by contrast, are regularly exposed to the work of Western artists, with the continuous proliferation and regularity of festivals and performance art events in China shaping their work. At present, it would appear that the discussion and dissemination of art in China has never transcended the desire to remain in dialogue with Western art, nor has it gone beyond the categories and imaginary that Western art has established.
On September the 14th, 1993, Ma Liuming produced the work Conversation with Gilbert and George while Gilbert and George were visiting Beijing East Village. This unannounced performance has been cited and mentioned repeatedly ever since and has widely been taken to be the first work of performance art to have emerged from Beijing Dashanzhuang Village, the prior incarnation of what would later be dubbed Beijing East Village (approximately one kilometre East from the Great Wall Hotel on the North East Third Ring Road in Chaoyang District). Retrospecting on this work, Ma Liu Ming remarked: 'The occasion for this work was Gilbert and George paying us a visit, at the time we were a bunch of artists working there, nobody from elsewhere had ever paid us any mind. At that time all of the artists of Beijing East Village were in attendance, and this work struck them as especially groundbreaking and meaningful, because it seemed to open up new avenues of possibility where before there were none. It seemed as though we had found a new outlet.'(1)
This marked a beginning for Chinese performance art after 1989. For one thing, after 1989, a large proportion of young artists found themselves cast out from a system that could not accommodate them, leading to the appearance of 'vagrant' and indisposed artists, 'independent Chinese artists' who worked outside the establishment. These artists had been deeply influenced by the '85 New Wave and were full of fancies derived from their contact with Western art, longing deeply for a means by which they could enter into dialogue with their Western peers. For another thing, the very fact that these artists existed on the peripheries of the art system meant that they were compelled to wander in territories outside the established art circuit, where spaces for the presentation of work were scarce. As a result, they were forced to invent and create their own spaces.
'Where did the name East Village come from? The name Beijing East Village borrows its name from the East Village in New York, it is an homage to the unfettered freedom of expression enjoyed by the artists there, but our village is a real East village in the literal sense- a village in the Eastern mountains in Chaoyang Beijing. At the same time it finds itself between the Eastern third ring and Eastern fourth ring of Beijing, distinguishing itself entirely from the very commercial Yuanmingyuan West Village. This is why we called it Beijing East Village. Also, we had read a book by a Taiwanese artist, Yang Chih-hung, Currents In Contemporary American Art, as well as stories that Ai Weiwei brought back with him from America, about Ginsberg and the like. We were all smitten with American art, we idolized it, so we thought that China needed an equivalent.'(2)
The 'very commercialized Western village' that Zhang Huan writes of here refers to the act that visitors from the West had already began purchasing and collecting works of contemporary Chinese art at the time. Beijing East Village, then, refers to a place that explicitly occupies a place on the margins of mainstream art and the early art market, a space founded and inhabited by young artists of the time.
The so-called Beijing East Village existed as a space for the making of performance art between September the 14th, 1993 and June the 12th, 1994. In this time, Ma Liuming, Zhu Ming, Zhang Huan and Cang Xin assembled a group of artists working in the medium of performance art, and the works that they assembled in June of 1994 had already begun to assume the embryonic form of a performance art festival. On June the 11th, 1994, Zhang Huan produced the work the 65 KG in the Beijing East Village. For purposes of convenience for friends venturing to the space to see the performance, Zhang Huang created a sign for the space which he placed at the entrance of Dashanzhuang Village. For the work, Zhang Huan invited an audience drawn from various quarters of the art scene (artists, critics), arranged for photographers to document the event, assistants to help with setting the work up and other logistical matters. The very next day, on June the 12th, 1994, Ma Liuming presented his work Fen-Ma Liuming's Lunch II, but the interference of the police meant that Zhu Ming, who was supposed to have presented his work after Ma Liuming, was forced to cancel his plan. Ma Liuming was detained by the police for two months and was dispatched to his hometown to Hubei for another month. Zhu Ming, on the other hand, was deemed a 'vagrant' and was forcibly sent to the Changping detention centre for four months before being transferred to Hubei for another fortnight and released to his hometown of Hunan. Zhang Huang, meanwhile, fled to Shuangyashan City in the Northeast where he went into hiding for a month. Thus, June the 12th, 1994 can be said to be the date which marks the forcible closure of the Beijing East Village experiment.
This being the case, however, the artists involved in this space had already arrived, more or less, at a style and a form of presentation that was their own, they had taken the initiative to curate and establish a time and space for the presentation of new work, they had invited an audience to attend and arranged for a series of works to be completed within a designated timeframe (all of these are hallmarks of a prototypical art festival program). Besides this, they had placed an emphasis on presenting work before an audience, rather than simply disseminating the work through photographic documentation.
Taking Zhang Huan's two works from 1994- 12 Square Meters and 65 KG - as examples, we can take these two works as being exemplary responses to life in the East Village, though they assumed rather different forms of presentation. The former featured only the artist and photographers in the absence of an audience, and took a form which was largely transmitted through images. The latter, however, manifested itself before an audience and assumed a corporeal form that featured olfactory and tactile dimensions as well as visual ones.
'On the day of production, June the 11th, 1994, I invited several friends from the art scene. In order for them to find the Beijing East Village studio, I made a sign at the entrance of the village, reading Beijing East Village in Chinese and English. That day I was outfitted head to toe in a navy blue zhongshan suit, captoe black leather shoes and had my head shaved, punk style. I looked rather like I was about to be sent to prison. The entire scene was rather solemn, the villagers were all huddled together outside the windows, the room was packed with people, everyone involved in the presentation of the work was manning their stations. I wanted to solicit the sense of smell in this work, and I came up with the idea to compel everyone in the studio to stand upon my work- the entire floor of the space was strewn with white mattresses. I made the audience come to terms with this reality- either you flee the scene or you face what I put before you.' (3) The activities of this underground collective began to arouse the attentions of the authorities, and the Beijing East Village collective was driven out following the events of June the 12th, 1994. With the East Village space no longer in existence, artists in Beijing were made to begin their search for other spaces to present their work. A notable and direct example of this is the Original Sound event of January the 23rd, 1995, held under the Dongbianmen Bridge in Beijing. This event featured 12 participants- Zuo Xiao Zuzhou, Luo Lin, Gao Xiangfu, Rong Rong, Boriana Song, Zhu Fadong, Cang Xin, Song Dong, Zhang Huan, Wang Shihua, Ma Liuming and He Weijun. 'In the unique circumstances and limits established by this event, each of the artists was tasked with giving shape to a language capable of manifesting the concepts that they had in mind.' (4) The artists printed posters for the event and put them up on the same day, proceeding to present their works in the designated order. If it can be said that Original Sound involved a group of artists to pursue individual work, each on their own, while the subsequent 'To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain' involved- by contrast- collaborative and collective work, then 'The real dissolution of the Beijing East Village happened after 'To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain ', though the cracks were already beginning to properly show before that. Because the break was on the verge of coming, we had to come together again one last time, or there would be no occasion for us to do so later on.' (5) Prior to the advent of the Internet, such gatherings were the most direct convivial means for artists to engage in the exchange of creative ideas.
From Ma Liuming's perspective, “Original Sound felt like a performance art festival. At the time we really hadn't considered doing anything like a performance art festival, the first time we heard about the idea was through Seiji Shimoda.” (6) When one begins to discuss the emergence of performance art festivals in Asia, one invariably comes across the name of Seiji Shimoda. In February 1993, Seiji Shimoda coordinated the first international performance art festival in Asia, NIPAF (The 1st Nippon International Performance Art Festival). In his own words, this festival was inspired by the performance art festival in Poland- 'The organisers of this festival were themselves performance artists. Only performance artists understand the foundational conditions that a festival of this type requires, and at the same time these artists have connections and access to networks in the field. As such, I established NIPAF in 1993 after having had a favorable experience participating in the performance art festival in Poland. Those days were glorious for us all- producing excellent works, having absorbing conversations and drinking lots of beer!' (7) At the beginning of the '90s, performance art festivals became important occasions for the production and exhibition of performance art, with performance artists themselves assuming the responsibility of curating, organizing, contacting other artists and raising the funds to organize the festivals while facilitating exchanges between artists internationally. It was in and through international festivals such as these that nominally 'Eastern' artists came into firsthand contact with what they imagined to be 'Western' performance art. To a certain degree, NIPAF served as a bridge between these worlds. Seiji Shimoda, through his active participation in performance art events across the world, made NIPAF into an intermediary and a conduit between performance artists internationally.
In 1997, when the Canadian Quebecois artist Richard Martel (the founder of Le Lieue) invited Seiji Shimoda to curate an Asian performance art showcase, Seiji Shimoda replied that NIPAF had already become a platform through which Western curators could come to understand Asian performance art (‘The NIPAF was probably the only way Western organisers could be exposed to Asian performance art. Likewise, it was a way Asian artists could contact the Western art world.’ (8) In actual fact, there had already been a private gathering held in a Toulouse performance art festival in 1993. In this gathering, 12 performance art curators and artists decided to form a working group that they called LABORATORIUM, a performance art coalition. They quickly came to realize that this coalition could not possibly succeed in carrying out its goals, because already 'a variety of performance art festivals were sprouting up in every corner of the world.' (9) Retrospecting on this wave of festivals in the '90s, we see time and time again that artists were taking the initiative to organize and curate the festivals autonomously, engaging in experiments to coordinate the production of work, platforms for their dissemination, dialogues between artists and networks for their elaboration outside the confines of white box art spaces and institutions.
In the year 1996, Ma Liuming became the first Chinese artist to be invited to present performance art works overseas. It just so happen that this invitation was extended by Seiji Shimoda, who requested that Ma Liuming participate in the NIPAF to be held that year. “I was probably the first person to have been formally approached as a performance artist to participate in a performance art festival overseas. This had never happened before, the painting exhibitions of the past, artists had been invited from the beginning of the '90s, but as for performance artists being invited to produce work overseas, I was the first. Before this, the performance art works that I made were never publicly exhibited, there was no audience, that was how it was inside the mainland. When I went to Japan in 1996 for the first time, I felt as though things were entirely different, they had advertisements and promo for this event, people who had no personal relation whatsoever with the artists could buy a ticket for the festival. The festival had a schedule, and every day there would be artists producing work. More surprisingly, the venue where all this took place was a centre expressly made for the display of international art, like a theatre, that was the first time that I experienced making performance art out in the open, in public.” (10) From 1996 to 2003, Ma Liuming would proceed to participate in art festivals and show work around the world, effectively ceasing to work inside of China, with the notable exception of 1998's Fen–Ma Liuming Walks the Great Wall. which was only documented and disseminated in photographic form.
Across Ma Liuming's performance art work from these years looms the ubiquitous shadow of 'The West'. 'Conversation with Gilbert and George' explicitly establishes a dialogue with Western art, and this stretches through to the Fen–Ma Liuming series, which can be regarded as a continued rapport with Western art and its public, or a means by which to situate the relationship of the artist with Western art. “Our modern art originates from the West, all the aesthetics and art history we have ever learned is that of the West. We have a learning system of our own, but in reality each artwork that we produce is tied to the system of learning that we underwent early in our artistic careers, this is for certain. For example, I have two works that are especially and intimately related to the West, one of them is the work which features Joseph Beuys holding a rabbit, a performance work I did in Montreal, as well as one I did in Lisbon, based on a still life by Cezanne, I placed myself upon the stage like a still life, that work was an attempt to instigate a dialogue with the Western masters.” (11)
It would appear that performance art of the '90s could not evade the shadow of the West or transcend its imaginary, much less present itself to an audience that was not imagined as being 'Western'. Under the influence of Seiji Shimoda, Ma Liuming broached the subject of organizing a performance art festival in China. In 1999, Ma Liuming organized the first formalized 'Sino-Japanese Performance Art Exchange', the earliest of such exchanges in China. 'I wanted more people to understand what this form of the performance art festival involved, so this event had two components. The first was live performance, as demonstrated by Seiji Shimoda and a female artist from Japan, Mamiko Kawabata. As for China, I had chosen Sheng Qi and Wang Mai as representatives, these four artists would take turns to present performance art live. After these live works, Seiji Shimoda would give a talk, speaking about the activities of NIPAF over the last few years, he would play recordings of my work, tapes from when I presented taking photos with Fen-Ma Liuming overseas.' (12) From the minutes taken by Ma Liuming of this convention, several considerations were central and foregrounded throughout this event- 'activity venue', 'order of presentation of works', 'arrangement of audience' and 'live documentation and recording of presented work'. Each of these factors were considered closely and arranged to be discussed. 'I arranged for the entire audience to go to the performance venue, introduced the artists who were to present their work, while alerting them to the fact that we had already arranged for somebody to document the event, so they should not take photographs or recordings of their own. When Sheng Qi was presenting his work, several members of the audience began taking photographs and recordings, but I promptly put a stop to that.' (13)
On the one hand, 'performance art' had been put forth to the audience as an artistic medium that took place in the present before an audience, which manifested itself and created an exchange. In order for 'performance art', then, to assume its proper form, the presence of an audience was indispensable. On the other hand, the necessity of photographic evidence of this work remained if artists were to disseminate their work, so carefully-organized documentation was an essential part of the work which the audience were not permitted to participate in of their own accord.
It so happened that it was through this very event that Shu Yang and Chen Jin, who had each on their own just curated exhibitions in Beijing, encountered the form of the performance art festival for the first time. Afterwards they would approach Zhu Ming, who had participated in the NIPAF of 1999, to curate the first performance art festival in China with them, the OPEN International Performance Art Festival. Shu Yang pointed out that at the time, he had come across photographic documentation of NIPAF through Ma Liuming's 'Sino-Japanese Performance Art Exchange': 'China needs an event like this, it would provide everyone with a real opportunity for dialogue, it would afford those of us involved in Chinese performance art to have a much broader form of contact with the outside. Who knows, maybe over time we can change the fact that performance art still remains underground.' (14) For Chen Jin, on the other hand, he was careful to lay emphasis upon the founding principles of the festival- 'The performance art works that we came across in the past were all photographic or textual, which is to say that we had never seen a live work of any kind. When we first started producing performance art works, we didn't have a chance to do something in the flesh, because the conditions for that simply didn't exist. So we wanted to do this festival at the time, so that we could see live works, this was the animating principle behind the festival- it would give us an occasion to see artists from abroad doing works live before us, demonstrating how it can be done.' (15)
The first performance art festival in China- the inaugural OPEN International Performance Art Festival took place on August the 28th 2000 in a exurban farm on the Huairou Sidu river in Beijing. The festival formally invited two artists from overseas to contribute live works of performance art, both of whom Zhu Ming had met in the NIPAF festival of 1999- the Japanese artist Shin-ichi Arai and the Finnish artist Roi Varra. However, this 'Open' festival, the intent of which was to serve as an opening and a new beginning for the field of performance art in China, could only take place behind closed doors- “Because I had gone through the experience of having my exhibition forcibly closed in 1999, I said that we had to work in secret, at the time a lot of people were telling me that there were informers within the artist ranks. So at the time we planned to seal off the yard, nobody would be allowed out. This way it wouldn't be so easy to catch word of what we were doing or circulate information to the outside, at the time we only had pagers, and not cellphones. There were no telephones in that yard, so you couldn't contact the outside.” (16) As it turned out, the plainclothes police showed up while Liu Jin was presenting his work Coca-Cola Shower, and Liu Jin's work required him to perform in the nude. “The police shut us up in isolation, I could hear from the sounds next door that the police were in search of somebody who could speak foreign languages, it sounded like that person's name was Xiao Bai, I had heard that he was in charge of overseeing the artists in that area during the Yuanmingyuan period. Afterwards, I heard somebody debating with Roi Vaara, and I heard Arai joining in the quarrel too: ‘Why can't we do art here? How is art illegal?’” (17) As such, from then onwards, a visit from the police at performance art festivals became customary practice.
This research does not intend to devote much space to the run-ins that the artists have had with the authorities. These experiences have simply been included here to show that such goings-on are known to everyone involved in Chinese contemporary art, particularly those working in Beijing. When we shift our perspective from Beijing of the '90s to the various artistic experiments that were taking place across China in the early 2000s, especially those undertaken by artists formerly from the Beijing East Village collective, another example that is worthy of our attention would be that of the 719 Artist Studio Alliance (another creative collective situated on the periphery of the art system, given that Chengdu is even more marginal in every conceivable sense than the Beijing East Village, this space serving as a means by which artists who had started working in the '90s and experienced the '85 New Wave could hold together). This collective shares many of the same features and holds networks in common with the Beijing East Village, though exhibiting marked differences in their actual practice (the Beiing East Village collective was tending towards private workshops and gravitating towards spaces in the wilderness, whereas the 719 collective was drawn towards finding interstices and cracks in urban public space). Any comparison of the two would hinge upon the ways in which they situated themselves/positioned their work vis-a-vis an imagination of the West, as well as the ways in which they contributed to the construction of 'live performance art' as a novel expressive medium in China.
The Legalization of So-called Avantgarde Art The Dissemination of Performance Art
The performance art collective of Chengdu in the '90s, with the 719 Artist Studio Alliance being an outstanding representative among these, began to take shape around 1995's Keepers of the Waters, curated by the American artist Betsy Damon. In an interview with one of the core members of the collective Dai Guangyu, he repeatedly mentions the 'legalization of avantgarde art', as well as their use of this 'Sino-American collaboration' and its international prestige to push avantgarde performance art into the public spotlight.
‘In the beginning, we gave a talk in a bedding and clothing factory in the military district, at the time I had introduced many Chengdu artists to Miss Damon that was in the autumn of 1994. In 1995, the situation was already ripe, all the conditions were there, so I quickly proceeded to invite the artists of the time, and everything went ahead very smoothly and organically. This was because the government had issued their tacit approval and the artists themselves had made full use of this approval, employing artistic language to articulate the need to protect our water resources. This afforded us- artists who previously had been frowned upon by the government, barred from expressing ourselves in public space and whom the public would have had no access to- room to promote our art under the outward pretenses of protecting water.’ (18) As such, the performance artists of Chengdu in the '90s worked in an environment that was unprecedentedly open in comparison to that of the Beijing East Village. Their collaboration with artists from the West as well as the local government (a relationship of mutual advantage) gave rise to an officially-sanctioned space for the public exhibition of performance art. It is worth noting that besides the fact that the event in question was named 'Keepers of the Waters ', there was an official name for the event- 'Official Week For The Artistic Propaganda of Funan's River Water Preservation' (official coverage of the event, whether these took the form of posters or media reportage tended to use this name rather than the other), and the event was attributed to the Keepers of the Waters organisation and the Chengdu Centre For The Promotion And Education Of Environmental Preservation.
The entirety of this five day event was held in a public space in Chengdu (with works being shown at different spots around the Funan River), and the public was made aware of various topics concerning environmental preservation through the media of performance and installation art. Through Dai Guangyu's recollections of the event, we can gain a better grasp of the momentous implications of this opportunity:
'At the time the Chengdu government just so happened to be carrying out a plan to reconstruct the Funan river, they were about to evict residents living around the Funan river, to transform the entire area into a 'green' belt, all of this corresponded to the theme of our activity, and we could take this plan as the point of departure for our work. There are precedents for this in Chinese history, the Canadian doctor Bethune travelling a long way to China for example, stories like these are deeply moving to people as well as having great significance for the public. I wanted to write a report to the government, and I came to discover that approaching the government under such pretenses was actually very straightforward, so I go directly in touch with the Sichuan provincial government. As long as the government expresses its tacit approval, the environmental conservation department would set to work, so this is why we had their participation in the affair. At the time the government had issued an official approval of our proposal, and I remember that their approval included the sentence: as long as you do not interfere with affairs of government, there is no restriction to the artistic forms that you choose to employ. The approval arrived from the provincial committee bureau or something, I can't remember, but they didn't issue it directly, but rather it was the Chengdu environmental conservation department that set out to work on this first.’ (19)
So with an opportunity like this, performance and installation art could work openly in the public. At the time all of the media outlets in Chengdu, including the West China Metropolis Daily, the cultural bulletin of Sichuan province, Shubao, the Tianfu Morning Paper, all of the Sichuan television stations etcetera began to cover and promote the event. In actuality many people involved in the media at the time wanted to do something about this issue, and since the government's edict had officially encouraged them to promote it, they all set about working on this with great enthusiasm. Many friends in the media worked with us on an intimate basis, we had a great working relationship. So everything concerning the event was transmitted to the public very swiftly, garnering widespread attention and discussion in the process.' (20)
Under the terms of this partnership, these doubly marginalized artists, sidelined in the peripheries of the public as well as the established art world, stood in dire need of the space to share their practice in the open, but they would have to accept the strictures of the government as a consequence (not interfering with state affairs). Interestingly, in retrospect Dai Guangyu does not regard this as being a form of self-censorship. Rather, he would stress repeatedly that it was a meaningful relationship of mutual advantage and use: “At the time we actually had two meetings, when we sat down with Miss Damon we had a formal meeting talking about how 'Keepers of the Waters' would take place as an artistic activity. When we had a meeting among ourselves, us Chengdu artists, we had different considerations- how could we broach our subject tactfully and tacitly, in a cunning and subtle way, to do what we wanted to do without undermining what we wanted to express, without betraying ourselves but at the same time not openly transgressing boundaries that had been imposed. It just so happened that when you're talking about environmental conservation it's more difficult to be transgressive in this way, we wanted to bring our art forth with the greatest strategic intelligence possible. Why did we have to have a meeting among ourselves? This meeting was different from the one that we held with Miss Damon. Miss Damon is after all American, she didn't have much of a clue about how China operates. Actually, when it comes to what happened with Yuanmingyuan or the Beijing East Village, we also faced similar sort of repression in Chengdu. We had also been reported to the authorities for exhibiting work in public. Or, to phrase it more properly, these weren't actually reports.
For example, I had done an installation in a house that was slated to be demolished soon and was summoned immediately to the local police station. The police there would then indicate that I had been reported by a member of the public, that I was doing I wasn't supposed to be doing, that I should explain my actions, all of this was just a form of surveillance. I knew this very well without need of explanation. So this time we had made the choice to assume the cover of this partnership to promote our art, we wanted to actualize it in the open. My whole agenda and point of view at the time was that we had no need to offend them or contradict them, transgression was not at the core of our artistic practice in the first place. The true question at the heart of my artistic concerns was how we can legalize avantgarde art. After this legalization, we can talk about the details of aesthetic and artistic language, this dialogue would have been made much easier. This was how I felt at the time. This never became a slogan, but one phrase that kept coming up was 'use' and 'making use of'. In the meetings we would continually insist that we were 'making use of' this partnership, we were 'making use' of this event and this opportunity to achieve something else. In the process I mentioned that if we were to put it in such terms to Miss Damon, perhaps it would upset her. But at the time we simply had to make use of this legality, this authorization, this free space outside of ideologically-related surveillance to pursue the production of avantgarde art in the open light of day. We could do this in an organic, wholesome, meaningful way, so why not make the most of it?' (21)
Dai Guangyu affirms that the 1995 Keepers of the Waters remains a pivotal event in rendering performance art visible to the general public at a time in which it was virtually impossible for this same public to have gained any sort of access to avantgarde art. As such, the topic of environmental conservation became a sort of invisibility cloak under which performance art could huddle in the space between the mid '90s and the early 2000s. After 1996, Betsy Damon did two separate Keepers of the Waters events in Chengdu and Lhasa before collaborating on a water park project with the Chengdu government. Meanwhile, artists in Chengdu continued pursuing their practice under the cover of various water conservation projects for several years, organizing another two public activities under the Keepers of the Waters name (without the knowledge of Betsy Damon). The first of these was held in October of 1997, Ultimate Life: the 3rd Round of Keepers of the Waters held along the Dujiangyan line. This was also the first public activity that the 719 Artist Studio Alliance, formed in July the 19th of that year, had participated in, with Wen Pulin's 'Arts and Artists' crew having arrived in Chengdu to shoot footage of avantgarde art serving as another pretext for the event. The second of these events was Understanding Water: The 4th Round of Keepers of the Water, held in the January of the year 2000 along the Dujiangyan and Chengdu waterway.
Dai Guangyu stated that the use of the same name Keepers of the Water was adopted with the suggestion of the media. Their friends in the media had proposed that this name had already won acceptance among the public and the government, and functioned as a code that would enable these activities to take place without any friction. As such, this relationship of mutual advantage between the 719 Artist Studio Alliance and the Sichuan media would continue. The local media would cover the activities of these artists, and performance art became a highly visible form rather than a tightly-kept secret.
It also has to be said that water protection served as an occasion for many avantgarde artists in Chengdu to come together formally as the 719 Artist Studio Alliance. Their work and practice broadly speaking revolved around social issues, such as that of the conservation of an ancient city wall from the Ming dynasty and the series of performance and installation art works that were made in response to its destruction in the May of 1998, or the 'Defense of Memory Art Exhibition' of August 1998, held in response to the contraband handing over of the Sichuan public library to property developers. Through media coverage of these, artists in the coalition had their practice broadcast, discussed and disseminated to the public, and it was in this form that they had entered into the public domain. These remain significant, seminal and exceedingly rare precedents in Chinese art between 1990 and the early 2000s.
The 719 Artist Studio Alliance (henceforth referred to in short as the ‘719 Alliance’) was established in July the 19th, 1997, after the Keepers of the Water event in Lhasa. In the beginning, the founding members included Dai Guangyu (who was responsible for convening the other artists), Liu Chengying, Yu Ji, Zeng Xun, Yin Xiaofeng, Zhu Gang, Zhang Hua, Hu Jian, Luo Zi Dan and the critics Zha Changping, Wang Lin, Dao Zi. In the process of preparing for Ultimate Life: the 3rd Round of Keepers of the Waters, Luo Zidan's proposed work aroused an internal debate which led to Luo Zidan leaving the group following the formation of the alliance, being replaced by Zhou Bin. The 719 alliance placed a marked emphasis upon the joint making of decisions, as well as the collective curation of group activities and exhibitions. In jointly-authored documents the responsibilities and roles of each member are clearly articulated. Membership was not restricted to local artists, for critics and even persons overseas were requested to participate in the capacity of intellectuals, these included Wang Lin, Dao Zi, Zha Changping, Ma Qingzhong, Duan Lian (who was in Canada), Joan Iebold Cohen (from the US), and Bruce Pars (Canada). It was Joan Iebold Cohen who had introduced Dai Guangyu to Betsy Damon in 1994 and encouraged him to participate in the Keepers of the Water project. The 719 Alliance not only penned a joint statement of intent, each artist's artistic point of view was articulated and incorporated in the 719 Artist Studio Alliance, which outlined the working goal to be 'establishing an ecology of art in the art world within three years'. Besides this, 'intervention through exhibitions', 'artistic events', 'access to the media', 'cultural exchange' and 'internal dialogue' formed the guiding principles of their operations: they would, for example, discuss activities once a month on the 19th of every month, a tradition which they managed to uphold for three years, following which they would have meetings that were not held on a regular schedule. Every year they would hold an exhibition that only featured members of the collective, and each of these exhibitions would invite a major newspaper and television station to supply official coverage of the event, with the joint participation of other media outlets if possible.
They would also select various academic institutions in the field of art, overseas critics and several notable mainland art critics to provide periodic commentary on the work of alliance artists, while artists in the alliance undertook all of the responsibilities of keeping the accounts, managing income, managing the archival of their work, documenting this work, liaison with the media etcetera. Dai Guangyu has mentioned that the uppermost aspiration among these artists was to 'legalise avantgarde art', and all of their work was informed by this pursuit, by the fact that they had hitherto been marginalised- 'at the very least we would make sure that curators and peers that we held in high regard in the art world would see our work.' (22) Ultimately, although the content of the 719 Alliance's work revolved largely around issues concerning society and the public, their target audience remained their peers in the art world, as well as the art world of the West.
Operating in this fashion, the 719 Alliance of artists managed to sustain their work for several years from 1997 to 2001. In the year 2001, members of the collective began to drift apart, and in the year 2003 the collective no longer functioned, for two pivotal reasons. The first was the second OPEN International Performance Art Festival (OPEN Festival) that was held from August the 8th to August the 16th 2001 and which was held across Pengshan and Leshan in Sichuan as well as Chengdu (as censorship was considerably intense in Beijing, it could not have been held there). The last work to have been shown in Chengdu on August the 16th was Zhu Yu's 'Happy Easter' which involved the extraction of a heart from a live pig. The heart would then be transplanted back into the pig and sewn up, which would lead to the pig's death from bleeding before a live audience. This would prompt the media to subject performance art to a 'comprehensive interrogation' and trial (all of this originating in a memorandum issued by the cultural bureau announcing the need to stop anyone from engaging in violent or lewd conduct in the name of 'art'...Zhu Yu's performance work in the Open Festival was cited as a textbook example of this, and the same media outlets that had been covering the activities of the 719 Alliance had turned around to brand such performances as 'perverse' and 'homicidal'). The Chengdu performance art scene had been thrust back into the days prior to its quasi-legalisation, and was once against subject to censure and inquisition- Dai Guangyu himself came to find out from a friend that he headed a blacklist drafted by the provincial bureau, and was slated to be subject to intense and severe scrutiny by the government. For another thing, in the year 2002 Dai Guangyu had been invited to the seventh NIPAF festival, and in May of 2003 Shimoda had come to Chengdu to curate a Sino-Japanese International Performance Art Exchange And Exhibition with 719 Alliance member Wang Lin. Many of the 719 Alliance artists, with the exception of Zeng Xun, participated in this event, and in retrospect Zha Changping would come to regard this as being 'marking a close to the 719 epoch of Chengdu Avant-garde'. (23)
After the Sino-Japanese International Performance Art Exchange And Exhibition in 2003, two more installments of this event were held separately in June of 2006 and November 2007, these events serving as the foundation upon which the Up-on International Performance Art Festival of 2008 in Chengdu would be built. This festival was coordinated by 719 Alliance members Liu Chengying and Zhou Bin. At around the same time, the curatorial team for the Open festival from 2003 had undergone a complete reformation: Zhu Ming had left in 2001 and would no longer participate in the organisation and curation of performance art festivals, while Shu Yang, Chen Jing and Xiang Xishi (Xiang Xishi had curated the first performance festival in Xian on the 13th of October, 2001, Big Holiday Performance Art Festival – Flower Blooming) coordinated the third Open festival in Xian on September the 14th of 2002, with Ai Weiwei serving as host of the event. Following this, Shu Yang and Chen Jin would both request to leave the group, and from September the 21st to the 24th Shu Yang's newly established 798 Art Zone would give rise to the inaugural DaDao Live Art Festival co-curated with Wang Chuyu (afterwards Wang Chuyu would take leave of this festival and curate another notable festival, GUYU ACTION International Performance Art Festival alongside Xiang Xishi and Qiao Shengxu). It was from this point onwards that the performance art/live art festival would come to be the primary mode and network through which Chinese performance art would be transmitted and manifested. The form of performance art practice and the form of the performance art festival would henceforth develop a symbiotic relationship with one another.
From Creating Imagery to Bodily Presence...And Following This, The 'White Box In the Wilderness'
As we have seen, the trajectory traced by the Beijing East Village and the 719 Artist Studio Alliance in the '90s are comparable to one another- both featured artists outside the established art system in pursuit of and inventing platforms for their art practice. Both collectives inhabited cracks and crevices in a heavily-policed society, producing spaces where they could hold together and provide support for one another while building the elementary rudiments upon which a desire for dialogue with 'the West' could be sustained and elaborated upon. This would take the form of the 'Performance Art Festival ' and its transmission, as well as the significance that 'the international art festival' would come to assume in these circles (with their invitation of Western artists and the looming influence of the Japanese NIPAF festival). These artists would construct platforms which would function as channels opening towards the West. This desire to 'face towards the West' can be regarded as a byproduct of the heavy repression and censure that Chinese artists faced in the post 1989 landscape, as well as a response to the terrible living conditions that they faced, starved of funding and spaces to exhibit and circulate their work. In part, this imagination of the 'Western art world' was suffused with desire, anticipation and fantasy. The incubation of the performance art festival from the early '90s to its eventual germination in the year 2000 was informed by this collective pursuit of a 'Western audience'. The form that this festival would take and the ends that it was supposed to serve were borrowed from notions derived from contact with Western artists, and uppermost among these goals was 'dialogue and exchange with Western artists'. One might even go so far as to say that this goal remains the only goal of such a festival.
Let us take, for example, the 719 Alliance member Liu Chengying, whose early performane art work assumed a form similar to that of other 719 members- the theme and content of the work took precedence and the work would take form in public space, such as that of Slow Post – Delivering Earth which took a real post office as its venue. In this work, Liu would show up at the EMS global express department of the Chengdu post office and request that five cases of concrete be sent to countries in five continents, each of them arriving at their destinations in 139 years. The matter of the work would then be the conversations and relationships that Liu would form with the postal staff to make this happen. The live component of this work was but one segment of it, with photographic documentation and textual reflection on the work as it took place serving as crucial forms of transmission as well. Conversely, reflecting upon the inaugural Open International Performance Art Festival in 2001 and the 2003 Sino-Japanese International Performance Art Festival Exchange and Exhibition, which saw him host Shimoda, he would remark that 'I think that in the end participation in a performance art festival is rather different from the performance art happenings that we conducted before. I think that coordinating such festivals required us to think about the exchange between these two groups of artists, the Chinese and the Japanese, this exchange was central, rather than the subjective nature of our own work and what we wanted to accomplish and communicate. (The performance art festival) is convivial in nature, it facilitates exchange, but as such it sets a certain limit to what form your work takes.' (24)
Over time, performance art festivals began to exhibit work in a somewhat standardised format- activities would be spread out over a three to five day span, the work of ten or so performance artists would be concentrated in a designated space, work would be presented successively in a live space according to a schedule or program, with this emphasis on 'live' presentation and the effects produced from the live presence of this work being underlined and pronounced. Many performance artists invited to such festivals would treat images and textual documentation of this work as being simply supplementary traces and relics of this work rather than being essential and integral parts of the work itself, assuming that this work could only find its fulfilment and actualization 'in the flesh' and in the present moment. As a consequence, many 'untitled' works would be presented at such festivals because with such a marked emphasis upon 'the living moment', that unspeakable and sublime presence which defies existing (reified) categories, codes and descriptions, language and naming runs aground and comes to naught.
Such a (non)discourse came to have a profound influence upon discussion of performance art as a form of media, circulating broadly and pervasively across art circles and imprinting itself upon the shape that these festivals would take. It came to be that various artists would only work under the auspices of these festivals and that their work would only be presented in such festivals. As a consequence, these festivals would gradually become the exclusive means by which work could be shown and pursued, the sole occasion for the presentation of performance art rather than being one among others. This being the case, it would be invariable that the limitations and bottlenecks that such festivals present to artists and the form itself would continue to multiply.
Dai Guangyu believes that 'this form of improvisational production had become more and more commonplace in the field of performance art, and is one of the reasons why the quality of work in performance art festivals has generally declined. I have even noticed, when I have gone to Japan to participate in performance art festivals, I have discovered that artists at present, when they present extremely improvisatory works, they even go so far as to emulate and to repeat elements of works that other artists have presented elsewhere, the influence of artists upon one another is evident, and this produces effects which they might not even be aware of. It would almost seem as though participation in the same festival creates a sort of bond of kinship between the artists, as though the works are a sort of shared makeup palette that anybody can draw from, even the language that we speak begins to become a common jargon.' (25) The art critic Zha Changping, who was extremely active in the early group discussions of the 719 Collective, asserts that the work of the Chengdu artists in this early period concerned itself with the entirety of art history and the relations that form between historical developments and the implications thereof, while much of performance art today, whether that is Chinese or Western, is simply 'fun and games, artists amusing themselves.' (26)
The art festival then becomes more and more like a private gathering and social event, a vacation for Western artists visiting China, while remaining an exchange of sorts. After 2005, many performance art festivals in China have begun assuming a form that involves many cities at once, so that overseas artists invited to exhibit their work in China typically spend a fortnight to a month traveling to different places to exhibit their work, creating what is akin to a 'performance art tour group'. With the curators and coordinators of such events being artists themselves, they have-through the formation of these international networks- given themselves ample opportunity to take part in similar tours overseas, and this endless exchange of mutual invitation consolidates a cloistered performance art clique where young performance artists get the chance to mingle and converse with one another, but which also gives rise to closed hierarchical cabals of curatorial chieftains and rivalling tribes.
Seen in the light of such developments in the operation of performance art festivals, the formative early period of performance art in China, with its emergence in the cracks and interstices of urban fabric outside of institutional spaces, in its flight into the wilderness and spaces out in nature, in its establishment of interfaces with the public, open instigation of dialogues on social issues and pursuit of discussion and interaction, seems to have opened a new dimension of possibility for the autonomous production and exhibition of work, one that appeared to have broken out of the quandaries and frames of the white box, only to have these possibilities sealed up once more by a canonical emphasis upon a single form of performance art- live performance produced for the sake of periodic festivals- at the expense of others. This all constitutes to a paradoxical 'white box in the wild', a new 'inside' outside recognized white boxes, but a new box all the same that encages the body of performance art.
Within this box, the artist is compelled to produce a work within an allotted and scheduled duration of time and inside a designated space and atmosphere, at the foot of the mountain or beside a creek, in front of an enormous white wall, their bodies transformed into symbolic signifiers or metaphors, drawing from a visual language comprised of movement, materials, sound, smell, liquid substances and an array of techniques of self-torture and abuse to elicit or solicit a reaction from an audience, the range of which is restricted to those afforded by an environment determined in advance. Although there remain artists who disregard the risk of censure or surveillance and continue to adopt performance art as a means by which to further the discussion of social subjects (this discussion assuming a muted or metaphoric, allusive form to articulate social concern), such aspirations are becoming more and more difficult to communicate from within the bounds of such festivals, since the centralised nature and high profile of such festivals are certain to attract the attention of the authorities and censors. As such, to evade the eye of the state, several performance art festivals have taken place in the country or in abandoned industrial districts, far from the general public and ostensibly far from the powers-that-be. Otherwise, an artist might choose to return to the established art spaces, broadly accepting regulation while addressing censorship in circuitous and euphemistic terms. One might also try setting up courses, workshops and the like for performance art, attempting to codify performance art as a form and artistic language for the purposes of rendering it into a discourse for academic study and transmission. Whatever the case, any of these developments lead to performance art falling out of sync with the general social situation.
If we assume a broader perspective to survey the legacy of Chinese performance art and avant-garde art in the 1990s more generally, it has to be noted that apart from the two examples we have cited (the East Village of Beijing and the 719 Artist Studio Alliance of Chengdu) there have been many examples of artistic practice and experimentation in various provinces, including various works in the early period of Guangzhou's Big-Tail Elephant. The appearance of the 'performance art festival' in the 1990s represents a sort of watershed moment for performance art in China, a rupture in the form which would lead to an emphasis upon the live experience of art and its production for exhibition in festivals, which had become the dominant form for the transmission of performance art work. On the other hand, performance art work that is not centered on live experience has turned its sights to more conceptual territory or concerned itself with discussing social contexts. Performance art, however, remains but one of the possible forms of artistic expression.
(1) Ma Liuming (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Ma Liuming on 13 Aug 2017.
(2) Zhuan Huan (2012), About Beijing East Village, Contemporary Artists, vol 3.
(3) Zhuan Huan (2012), About Beijing East Village, Contemporary Artists, vol 3.
(5) Zhu Ming, (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Zhu Ming on 11 Aug 2017.
(6) Ma Liuming (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Ma Liuming on 13 Aug 2017.
(7) Seiji Shimoda (2008) Performance Art in Asia - A Personal Perspective, http://www.mam.gov.mo/oldmam/showcontent2.asp?item_id=20081108010202&lc=3 (accessed 3 Mar 2017)
(8) Seiji Shimoda (2008) Performance Art in Asia - A Personal Perspective, http://www.mam.gov.mo/oldmam/showcontent2.asp?item_id=20081108010202&lc=3 (accessed 3 Mar 2017)
(9) Rokko Juhasz (2018) Interview with Rokko Juhasz on 3 Dec 2018.
(10) Ma Liuming (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Ma Liuming on 13 Aug 2017.
(13) Ma Liuming (2000) Ma Liuming's manuscripts about the 'Sino-Japanese Performance Art Exchange' on 18 March 2000.
(14) Shu Yang, (2018) Transcripts of an interview with Shu Yang on 5 Aug 2018.
(15) Chen Jin, (2018) Transcripts of an interview with Chen Jin on 22 Aug 2018.
(16) Shu Yang, (2018) Transcripts of an interview with Shu Yang on 5 Aug 2018.
(17) Shu Yang, (2018) Transcripts of an interview with Shu Yang on 5 Aug 2018.
(18) Dai Guangyu (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Dai Guangyu on 19 Aug 2017.
(19) Dai Guangyu (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Dai Guangyu on 19 Aug 2017.
(20) Dai Guangyu (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Dai Guangyu on 19 Aug 2017.
(21) Dai Guangyu (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Dai Guangyu on 19 Aug 2017.
(22) Dai Guangyu (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Dai Guangyu on 19 Aug 2017.
(23) Zha Changping (2013), Chengdu Avant-garde: Performance Art, Installation (1995-2012), Chengdu the 3rd Street Art and Culture Promotion: 17.
(24) Liu Chengying (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Liu Chengying on 29 Aug 2017.
(25) Dai Guangyu (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Dai Guangyu on 19 Aug 2017.
(26) Zha Changping (2017) Transcripts of an interview with Zha Changping on 1 Sep 2017.