This summer, the longest running performance art festival in China, Open International Performance Art Festival, celebrated its 10th anniversary by hosting an eight-week long programme on an unprecedented scale. Wen Yau, AAA Researcher for Hong Kong, spoke to Chen Jin, Co-Founder and Chief Curator of the festival about his views on the past, present, and future of Chinese performance art in China.
Wen Yau (WY): The Open International Performance Art Festival was first launched in 2000. What inspired you at that time to organize the first-ever international performance art festival in China?
Chen Jin (CJ): I moved from Lanzhou to Beijing in 1997. There were a few artists in the East Village, such as Ma Luming, being invited to festivals overseas. At that time, a lot of artists abroad wanted to come to China to observe the Chinese art scene. However, China was not as open then as it is now so we could only learn about performance art from other sources and our own imaginations. We seldom had the chance to see live performances and only a few of us would have had opportunity to travel abroad. Therefore I decided to invite some international artists to come for an exchange. I talked to Zhu Ming who was positive about this new idea. We also invited Shu Yang, who had just come to Beijing, to join us because he could speak English. However, after ten years of organizing the festival I still regret that only a few local artists have taken the opportunity to exchange with overseas artists and to think about how to do things and how to think about certain things, especially having invited some of the most brilliant artists from around the world to Beijing this year on the occasion of the 10th anniversary of the Open – indeed only a few local artists have appeared regularly. I am not sure why this is the case and I think it is a shame that this happens every year. I think that even a good artist needs to constantly learn and reflect. Fortunately we have quite a large audience, most of whom are quite young.
WY: So, how did you become familiar with performance art?
CJ: I used to paint. Later on, when I arrived in Beijing, I read a book which really inspired me – it’s an underground book edited by Ai Weiwei , including an interview with Taiwanese artist Hsieh Teching. I found this very meaningful. First I started with oil painting, which I later found to have limited possibilities, so I started to collect fashion photographs found in advertisements. I would write numbers on them and then use my body to create performance art.
WY: Are you still practising art forms other than performance art?
CJ: No. I have not been a painter for about ten years. Maybe the way I make art is a bit different from others. I don’t use art as a way of making a living; I make art firstly as a way of revising and adjusting myself and secondly as a way of contemplating issues about society and human beings. Indeed a lot of my attitudes and ideas are shaped by art.
WY: While organizing the Open in the last ten years, have you observed any significant changes in the conditions surrounding Chinese performance art?
CJ: Yes, there have been a lot of changes. For example, in 2000 when we first organized the Open, we held the festival in West Siduhe Village, Huairou, a remote place, a long way from Beijing. Quite a lot of policemen came to observe what we were doing. The fourth performance that took place involved nudity and we were stopped and investigated by the police. This year, we held the festival in a public place, like the 798. During two months of intensive programming, we were neither stopped nor investigated. I think we can learn form this – we definitely need to keep on doing this in order to create a phenomenon. When the authorities have a greater understanding of what we are doing they are more liberal in their approach towards us.
WY: Judging by numerous events being organized by different artists in Beijing, Xi'an, Chengdu, etc in the last few years, can we say that the Chinese performance art scene is getting more diversified?
CJ: Nowadays more and more people are becoming aware of performance art and more young artists have been experimenting with this art form. However, there are only a few who keep up their practice. In mainland China, I think there are about thirty or more artists who are developing themselves as performance artists.
WY: So performance art seems to remain a small-circle activity...
CJ: For me, this is very normal. In such an economy-driven society we tend to link everything, including the arts, with economic return. Most artists would choose mediums such as oil painting and photography so as to make themselves commercially viable. As far as I know, there are not many collectors of [photos of] performance art. Even performance art photography can be a commodity, but this is different from what we are doing generally – you need a brilliant camera, you need an excellent photographer, and you need to create a pose for photo shoots.
WY: If the Chinese art market fever were not here – and we both understand that performance art is not in the heat of it – do you think performance art would be very different from other mediums?
CJ: There are still big differences. Firstly painters, for example, would be concerned about what collectors or the art market need or like, whereas performance artists would be more independent. I do not mean that painters are not independent at all, but their concerns about the art market would influence their independence and attitude towards making art. Secondly, painting is a comparatively older and more well developed form of which the possibilities are inevitably fewer than performance art which is newer, especially in the sense of relating to the rest of the world.
WY: In the visual arts, exhibition organizers and curators are normally critics or other professionals. However, in most performance art festivals it is the artists who also take up the role of organizers. What do you think about this?
CJ: There are two aspects to this issue. First of all, from the perspective of art history or conventions of the form, works of art can only be viewed by a curator after their production. Performance art, on the other hand, depends a lot on the live presentation – even though artists can submit a proposal beforehand, there may be a discrepancy between the proposal and the final performance. Secondly, due to economic reasons, most curators are not that interested in performance art. In addition there are other problems that cannot be easily overcome, for example exhibitions in galleries and museums usually run from one to a few months. How can the exhibition carry on after the live performance is over? Even if photo or video documentation of a performance piece is being shown, it would be a representation of the piece of work rather than the work itself, for example documentation would not necessarily show how the artists use certain materials to interact with their own bodies or with the audience and their live performance could never come alive again. Indeed there are lots of difficulties.
For more information about Open International Performance Art Festival, please go to http://www.open10.com
For material about Chen Jin, please click here.
1.Black Cover Book, 1994: (Black Cover Book)
This interview is an abridged version. The full version is viewable at the Asia Art Archive: https://aaa.org.hk/en/collection/search/library/interview-chen-jin