Keepers of the Waters was a community-based water activism initiative founded in 1991 and directed by the artist and environmental activist Betsy Damon. This talk brings artists Dai Guangyu and Zhang Xin—who were participants of the initiative—in discussion with art historian Jane DeBevoise and researcher Cici Wu.
Damon initiated two instances of Keepers of the Waters: one in Chengdu, Sichuan Province (1995), and the other in Lhasa, Tibet Autonomous Region (1996). She invited local and international artists—including Song Dong, Yin Xiuzhen, and Zhang Shengquan (Datong Dazhang)—to create performance art and installations to raise awareness about water protection.
For the Chengdu edition, Dai Guangyu—who also acted as a co-organiser of the project—created Long-abandoned Water Standards (1995), a durational piece where he placed portraits of participating artists in metal trays filled with polluted water, causing the prints to decay over time. For the Lhasa edition, he developed a performance entitled Listening (1996), inviting the public to write on a white cloth that created a path to the Lhasa River, and later lay prostrate with his body immersed in water, as a traditional Tibetan gesture of reverence. Also at Lhasa, Zhang Xin performed Sowing (1996), during which she threw dirt and planted seeds on the road outside an army base.
This talk draws on the Betsy Damon Archive to discuss the context in which these performances were created, and how Keepers of the Waters, as a series of collaborative, participatory, and community-driven performances, enriches the art historical canon about performance art in China.
This talk also builds on the public programme organised by Asia Art Archive in America with Betsy Damon in March 2018, and on Asia Art Archive’s research initiatives on performance art, women in art history, exhibition histories, and the development of regional contemporary art in China.
Free and open to the public with registration.
Dai Guangyu is an artist based in Beijing. A leader of the ’85 New Wave movement, Dai was one of the initiators and organisers of avant-garde art in southwest China. He has participated in exhibitions including China/Avant-Garde Exhibition (1989) organised by the National Art Museum of China, as well as the China! (1996) exhibition held by the Museum of Modern Art in Bonn, Germany. Since Keepers of the Waters (1995–96), Dai has organised dozens of contemporary art events in Chengdu, transforming the city into a centre of Chinese contemporary art in the mid–1990s.
Zhang Xin is an artist based in Shanghai. She graduated from the Shanghai University Fine Arts College in 1990, and later joined the Shanghai Oil Painting and Sculpture Institute. Group exhibitions include Portrait of the Times: 30 Years of Chinese Contemporary Art (2013), Shanghai Contemporary Art Museum; Hot Pot: Chinese Contemporary Art (2001), Kunstnernes Hus; Text & Subtext: International Contemporary Asian Women Artists Exhibition (2000), Earl Lu Gallery; Half of the Sky: Contemporary Chinese Women Artists (1998), Bonn Women’s Museum; and Keepers of the Waters (1996), Lhasa.
Jane DeBevoise is the Chair of the Board of Directors of Asia Art Archive.
Cici Wu is a researcher with Asia Art Archive in America.