The Late 1980s in Chengdu
Keepers of the Waters: A Dialogical Aesthetic Project
How Did Damon Find or Choose the Participating Artists from China
The Process
What Did It Take to Realize Keepers of the Waters within the Prevailing Political Climate of the Mid-1990s?
The 719 Artist Studio Alliance
Performance Art Practices in Chengdu at the Turn of the Millennium

The following paper aims to give an explicit insight into my research on performance art practices in Chengdu during the 1990s. My interest in this specific topic began after meeting the Chengdu-based performance artist Zhou Bin at the Guangzhou Live International Action Art Festival in 2010. Some years later, I decided to take a trip to Chengdu to learn more about the local art scene there. Through intense research for my master’s thesis, I was well acquainted with the experimental art scene in Beijing during the 1990s, and was curious to learn more about the scene in Chengdu. While visiting the 1000 Plateau Gallery (Qian gaoyuan yishu kongjian) and flicking through the catalogue for the exhibition Echoes: Chengdu New Visual Art Documentary Exhibition 1989–20071, held at the gallery in 2007, I came across a short text by art historian Gao Minglu that caught my attention. In this text, Gao Minglu refers to the characteristics of the performance art scene in Chengdu as jietou yishu (“street avant-garde”). He compares it to gongyu yishu (“apartment art”)2, a phrase he coined in reference to the avant-garde in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Nanjing3. While browsing the internet in search of further references to this term, I came across the text “Conceptual Art in China’s Southwest Region” by Wang Lin, a professor in the department of art history at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute. In this article Wang states that Chengdu was the center of conceptual art in southwest China during the 1990s4. After meeting several people involved in the art scene during this period, I learned that one reason for Chengdu’s open climate was the untiring engagement of a number of local artists, such as Dai Guangyu and Liu Chengying. Another reason can be detected in the collective art program/project Keepers of the Waters (Shui de baoweizhe), an early example of an interdisciplinary, transcultural, and socially engaged art project initiated by the American artist Betsy Damon in Chengdu in 1995. The following paper takes Keepers of the Waters as a case study to investigate how artistic strategies can intervene into politics. The paper further aims to broaden or recontextualize the history of contemporary performative art practices in Mainland China.

In order to fully understand the subject matter, the first section of this paper gives a brief insight into the art scene in Chengdu during the ’85 Avant-garde Movement. I further delve into the development of performance art practice in Chengdu from the early to late 1990s, investigating the influence of Keepers of the Waters on the artistic language of the Chengdu artists, with a consideration of its media coverage. In the conclusion I will look at why this specific period in Chengdu has not been more broadly discussed until today and how the works can be historicized in the context of Chinese contemporary art.

The Late 1980s in Chengdu

In the course of the ’85 Avant-garde Movement (Bawu yundong)5, between 1985 and 1989, artist collectives were formed all over China. The center of this movement was Hangzhou, and the most influential academy for this generation of artists was the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, formerly known as China Academy of Arts. Besides the Zhejiang Academy and the Central Academy in Beijing, the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing was regarded as one of the prime art universities in Mainland China, and several of the most influential Scar and Rustic Realist painters studied there6.

In Chengdu several artists joined the Red, Yellow, Blue Painting Society, the most popular local artist collective to emerge from the movement. The name of the society derives from the largest unofficial exhibition in Sichuan province in the 1980s, Sichuan Youth Red, Yellow, Blue Painting Exhibition, organized and financed by 70 young artists. The exhibition, which was accompanied by several meetings and seminars, took place in the Sichuan Exhibition Hall, on Renmin Nan Lu in the center of Chengdu. The artist Dai Guangyu, who became one of the key figures in the Chengdu experimental art scene, joined the painting society as well. At the time he described himself as an independent artist who was not well connected to the art scene and who studied art privately. During the 1970s the well-known artist He Zhesheng was his teacher, and he became an autodidact in the 1980s—a fact that for him was closely related to his own upbringing as a member of a family that had been repressed since the communist regime took power in 1949. Because his father was a professor of history, his family had always been on the outside of society. This was also the reason he kept a distance from official art circles and started studying art privately, paying attention to Scar Art7.

Although the Red, Yellow, Blue Painting Society disbanded in 1988, Li Jixiang, Dai Guangyu, and Wang Falin were invited to join the exhibition ‘89-China/Avant-garde in Beijing, which has come to be known as a résumé show for the ’85 Movement. Works by artists and artist collectives from all over the country were on display at the China Art Gallery, now known as the National Art Museum of China. The exhibition took place in February 1989, during the Chinese New Year, and was closed down on the opening day after the artist Xiao Lu fired a gunshot into her installation Dialogue. The exhibition in Beijing was widely regarded as heralding the pro-democratic student protests, a nationwide social movement in May and June 1989. In reporting on and remembering the student protests, international media coverage has almost exclusively focused on events in Beijing. Despite eyewitness reports and some academic publications, it is easily overlooked that what happened was actually a nationwide social movement, with “massive protests … engulfing cities and towns across China.”8 Some of the most violent clashes occurred in Chengdu, as Louisa Lim states in The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited. Security forces in Chengdu undertook two major actions against demonstrators, one on the night of Sunday, June 4, the other on the following night, Monday, June 59. Several artists were involved in these demonstrations and were under surveillance afterwards, or even had to go to Tibet for a certain amount of time.

It was also during these weeks that the American artist, activist, and performer Betsy Damon, known mainly for her involvement in the feminist art movement of the 1970s and 1980s, visited China with her two kids for the first time. They spent three weeks traveling to Kunming, Dali, and Lijiang, before leaving for Hong Kong:


"I came to China in 1989, May 25. My son had been learning Chinese in high school, and I decided to take him to China. I was not aware of the Avant-Garde exhibition in Beijing. I did not go to China to connect to the artists originally. I just went. I was in Beijing during Tiananmen. We left Beijing for Chengdu two days before June 4, 1989. In Chengdu, we were met with other demonstrations. We were carefully followed by an organization that monitored tourists. We also had a dedicated tour guide. When I asked to see art, I was taken to various exhibitions in Chengdu, and this was traditional art, woodblock prints."10


During this first encounter with Mainland China in 1989, Damon’s interest in the country and the healing water sites close to Chengdu deepened. At the time, the artist was already focused on environmental exploitation issues in her artistic work. For her performative sculpture A Memory of Clean Water (1987), she and her collaborators called attention to problems of toxic water caused by upstream mining and agricultural pollution by creating a 250-foot casting of a dry riverbed along Castle Creek in Castle Valley, Utah. She cast the mold on site with paper made from available fibrous plants and colored it with clays found in the area. The cast contained swirls of color reminiscent of water, as well as bones, feathers, and pebbles from the river, integrating the site into the work11.

Finding this experience transformative, Damon decided to devote the rest of her artistic life to issues involving water. In the 1990s, she began creating ecological artworks that continued to incorporate feminist-inspired performative collaboration while being primarily focused on creating public awareness for environmental problems. In 1991, Damon initiated the Keepers of the Waters: Citizens’ Rights and Responsibilities project12, with a mission of initiating collaborations among artists, scientists, and communities in order to build projects that developed local awareness and practical, inspirational, and educational solutions to local water-quality issues. The project offered information about water cleanup and workshops to teach citizens how to become water activists, and drew attention to each person’s right to safe, unpolluted water as well as the shared responsibility of protecting water resources.

Keepers of the Waters: A Dialogical Aesthetic Project

Damon’s work is often referred to as “ecological art,” a term that Christine Filippone defines as artistic work that specifically addresses environmental degradation and the health of the ecosystem by establishing a relationship between the viewer and the site, often by posing solutions13. A term that might even be more adequate is “dialogical aesthetic,” coined by art historian Grant Kester, referring to dialogue-based and socially engaged art projects in which the tradition of object-making is avoided in favor of a performative, process-oriented approach that “involves the creative orchestration of collaborative encounters and conversations well beyond the institutional boundaries of the gallery or museum…. These exchanges can catalyze surprisingly powerful transformations in the consciousness of their participants.”14 Dialogical aesthetic projects are collaborations with participants of different nationalities, cultures, religions, and classes. It can be looked at as a tool used to break down barriers or form networks between people from different groups through interaction and participation. Further, it requires a common discursive matrix (linguistic, textual, physical, etc.) through which participants can share insights and forge a provisional sense of collectivity. When speaking about a “shared insight,” Kester is referring to an empathetic insight that can be produced along a series of three functions: solidarity creation, solidarity enhancement, and the counter-hegemonic.15

In terms of its performative, process-oriented, social, and interdisciplinary aspects, Keepers of the Waters is inarguably the first project of its kind in China. Another project that touches upon those aforementioned aspects is Wang Jianwei’s Circulation-Sowing and Harvesting (1993–94). In the course of this work, the artist returned to the village he was sent to during the Cultural Revolution. For eight months, he worked alongside the farmer Wang Luyan, making analyses and documenting of the entire process of crop production from sewing to harvest. The work and its working processes relate to the lives of ordinary working farmers who had little or no understanding of the status of contemporary art, nor of the artist’s interaction with them. The project’s focus was, in that way, also process-oriented—an approach that can also be found in the works of Betsy Damon, especially in Keepers of the Waters. Both projects concerned natural resources and local landscape, but Wang Jianwei’s project was a one-man project, a one-direction project; the farmer and his actions served as a subject to be observed by the artist, and the artist did not attempt to intervene in the farmer’s consciousness or practice. Damon’s Keepers of the Waters, alternately, focused on the dialogue, and within that faced a complex communicative structure.16

Betsy Damon’s interest in China began during her childhood. As stated in an interview in the spring of 2017, Betsy’s great-grandmother’s grandfather was a sea captain whose house was full of beautiful things from China that Betsy was fascinated by17. After her first visit to China in 1989, she was most certain about the fact of going back to increase her knowledge about the water sites close to Chengdu. Fortunately, in 1993 she received a Jerome Travel Grants18. As Damon mentioned in our interview, upon her arrival in Chengdu she visited the Chengdu Exhibition Hall on Tianfu Square, where she accidently ran into a scientist, whose name Damon did not recall, but who invited her to join an international environmental conference put on by engineers and Qi Gong masters that focused on the issue of environmental protection.

It was also during this conference that she met Zhu Xiaofeng, who became the closest confidant and collaborator of Damon’s in realizing Keepers of the Waters in Chengdu (1995) and Lhasa (1996). At the time, Zhu Xiaofeng was involved in the conference as a translator. During the 1980s, he was the chief director of Chinese Civilization (Zhonghua wenming), a widely known television series. In the 1990s he became a professor at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences (Sichuan sheng shehui ke xueyuan). Originally, Damon and Zhu were thinking about creating a project called The Living Yangtze. Their vision was to have artists at the upper Yangtze and the upper Mississippi, traveling from one to the other, creating remediation works in the uplands that would clean water downstream. The project was never realized, but these ideas would eventually lead to the project in Chengdu. After Damon left China in 1993, she was persuaded to come back for the implementation of Keepers of the Waters in Chengdu. Once she found adequate funding for the project she did so.


"I had no budget, as no foundation would fund a project done in China, but fate intervened in the form of an anonymous phone call that yielded $15,000. With additional fund-raising, I returned in 1995 with my new assistant, Kristen Caskey. All of my money—$23,000 in cash and traveler’s checks—was in a money belt around my waist, as China did not yet have a banking relationship with the rest of the world. Although I had no official invitation or sponsor, within one week of arriving in Chengdu I was engaged in discussions about the project."19


A structure with three main collaborators, besides Damon, was established: The local authorities; translators and the media, who functioned as mediators; and the artists and scientists from China and the US.


Local authorities

Since the 1990s, the number of Chinese environmental organizations has grown rapidly. The government in Chengdu began engaging in environmental protection, and announced the Five Year River Clean-Up Plan for the Funan River in Chengdu, which became heavily polluted during the 1980s as factories discharged industrial waste into the water. In 1992, Chengdu’s municipal government resolved to revitalize the Funan and to move all 30,000 households that were situated along the river20. In the course of that program, the government looked for a strategy to create awareness about environmental pollution among its citizens. The resettlements along the Funan River seemed to be an appropriate point of departure, as an entire generation felt the negative effects of environmental pollution. Zhu Xiaofeng was working in governmental circles at the time, and his network offered a solid base for cooperation between Damon and the government. It’s important to note that perspectives of the project from the side of the artists and the authorities differed completely, as Zhang Yingchuan, a very active journalist, told me in an interview. She interviewed the mayor of Chengdu after the event and, as she mentioned, he stated quite clearly that Keepers of the Waters should and would be referred to as an environmental protection project and not as an artistic project in any sense21. In other words: “It all started as propaganda,22” as Zhu Xiaofeng told me in an interview. The artists involved in the project were very well aware of that fact, but they still saw a chance to break with the old system at a time when they were looking and aiming for a new artistic language. As Dai Guangyu pointed out: “For us the social aspect was much more important than the environmental one. First of all, we wanted to have more social freedom as artists.”23 This opportunity recalls the political theorist Chantal Mouffe’s description of a new kind of critical engagement from within, stressing the need to combine political strategies in art and art strategies in politics24.


The media, as well as Zhu Xiaofeng and a couple of students who helped with the translation work, can be regarded in this context as mediators. Several newspapers, including Chengdu Shangbao, Chengdu Wanbao, and Sichuan Wenhua Bao, as well as local TV stations, reported on Keepers of the Waters. A headline in the one of the newspaper articles was “Artistic Earthquake in Chengdu,” and the article went on to explain the entire process of the project. A video collage of Damon, now part of the Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong and New York, includes some snippets of media broadcasts that make it clear the media coverage was consistently affirmative, primarily focusing on the project’s positive influence for society and the environment. In fact, Zhu Xiaofeng played a central role in all of these collaborations—because he spoke Chinese and English, he was able to communicate with all the collaborators involved. Further, he had a solid network and connections to figures in the government and media.

Artists and scientists from China and the US

The range of collaborators involved was quite diverse, and showcased the interdisciplinary approach of the whole project. Damon invited artists as well as biologists from the US to collaborate with her on Keepers of the Waters in Chengdu. Present were Betsy’s son John Otto Damon, who studied Chinese in high school and was able to speak the language quite fluently at that time; Betsy’s assistant Kirsten Caskey; Beth Grossman; and Christine Baeumler. All three realized performative and socially engaged works in the course of the project. Furthermore, Damon invited Ann Pilli and Jill Jacoby, who were biologists leading water-quality workshops with people from Chengdu. Damon stated in our interview that it was not easy to get local people to participate in those workshops because of the sensitive political situation, but once their curiosity was piqued people were eager to take part.

How Did Damon Find or Choose the Participating Artists from China

The artists from China predominantly came from three regions: Beijing, Chengdu, and Tibet. Before Betsy Damon, Zhu Xiaofeng, Kirsten Caskey, and John began working in Chengdu, they undertook a road trip to the headwaters of the Yangtze River, and from there they decided to head toward Lhasa. That was where they met the Tibetan artists who participated in Keepers of the Waters in Chengdu. In their works, these artists focused primarily on traditional Tibetan painting, whereas the artists from Chengdu and Beijing had been experimenting with installation and performance art since the early 1990s.

Zhu Xiaofeng was familiar with the artists Wang Peng and Yin Xiuzhen from Beijing. Both of them, together with like-minded young artists including Song Dong, Zhu Jinshi, Wang Jingsong, Zhang Lei, and Luan Anying, mounted small exhibitions in their Beijing apartments. Their works became known under the aforementioned label apartment art. They also spent time in Beijing’s suburbs and made works in more natural surroundings. They never articulated common themes for such activities, and rarely engaged in theoretical discussions. Rather, for them art was spontaneous, responding to the environment and capturing momentary emotion and thought. 

Around the same time, the artist Dai Guangyu was becoming a key figure in the art circles in Chengdu25. From 1990 on, as some of his paintings began to be bought by art collectors from abroad, Dai Guangyu was able to maintain his own studio. In 1993, a wealthy businessman from Chengdu started to pay a monthly stipend to the artist to support his work. His studio offered a space for artists to hang out, discuss art, and exchange ideas. Namely present were Zeng Xun (b. 1962), Zhang Hua (b. 1969), and Liu Chengying (b. 1957), who, along with Dai Guangyu, already knew each other and were looking for a way to depart from the tradition of object-making and painting toward a more performative, process-based approach. During this period this group of artists, ranging in age from their mid-twenties to mid-thirties, were exhibiting mainly in China, making money through part-time jobs and experimenting with installation and performance art in abandoned spaces like demolished houses, industrial sites, and the like. The art historian Wu Hung states that such representations of ruins started to become an important phenomenon during 1970s and 1980s in Chinese art. As an example, he mentions the genre of Scar Art (shanghen yishu), which has its origins in Sichuan, in which the tragedies of the Cultural Revolution were depicted.

"While such paintings were often created by academic artists in a realistic style, young experimental artists used installations and performances to restage their experiences during the Cultural Revolution. Instead of representing a past era realistically, they often evoked a chaotic environment typical of the Cultural Revolution – ruined big-character posters, tattered papers and broken objects, dilapidated layers of writing and painting."26

One example would be Dai Guangyu’s installation Scenery Inside and Outside a Red Room (红房及红房之外的风景, 1994), in which the artist painted the walls of a flat in an abandoned apartment in a saturated red and drew characters from Mao Zedong’s quotations on the floor.

Beside these politically critical and clandestine interventions, there were also a couple of exhibitions in which some of the Chengdu artists participated that were quite influential to them, such as the 0090 Modern Art Exhibition by five modern artists (00090 Xiandai Yishu Wurenzhan) in 1990 or the Three People Exhibition: Dai Guangyu, Wang Falin and Li Jixiang (Dai Guangyu, Wang Faling, Li Jixiang: Huihua Lianzha, Qun Zhan) in 1991, both held at the Chengdu Exhibition Hall. Some of them also participated in the controversial Guangzhou Biennale (Guangzhou Shuangnianzhan, 1992) or the exhibition China’s New Art: Post-1989 (Hou Bajiu Zhongguo Xin Yishu), which was first held in Hong Kong in 1993 and subsequently traveled to Australia and the United States. The show was curated by Li Xianting.

The artists in Beijing and Chengdu had been working outside the bounds of the art market that had started to grow in China in the early 1990s. The preoccupations of the artists from Beijing and Chengdu were different at that time: While the artists in Chengdu were holding exhibitions and events in which they were also looking for a dialogue, an exchange with the audience, the artists in Beijing were leaving the city center to work in the more or less low-populated countryside, becoming isolated. This becomes clear in the following statement by Zhu Xiaofeng:

"In 1990 the Central Propaganda Bureau and the Cultural Ministry produced a paper stating that performance and installation art are forbidden art forms in China. As an example, if an artist would practice one of the art forms in Beijing, he or she would get arrested immediately. The police would confiscate art-related things in this person’s home. Wang Peng and Yin Xiuzhen, who both came from Beijing, were really hesitating to participate in Keepers of the Waters. They even asked me if they could really do that kind of art in Chengdu in the public space. They knew that if they did it in Beijing, they would get arrested immediately. In these years, performance and installation art were understood to be rebellious."27

The Process

Once the artists, organizers, and translators were set, the group began coming together for meetings. The first meetings for the Keepers of the Waters project took place at the Academy of Social Sciences. Later, they were held in the vacant offices of the local environmental protection agency. Many artists from Chengdu who were in those meetings stated in interviews that they did not really know what the meetings were about, nor how the project could be related to art. It was mainly Dai Guangyu who kept convincing the local artists to participate. Damon describes the process in the following:

"I insisted that the artists learn the history of the river and the fish species that remained in the Fu and Nan River. When we first met, every artist from each group, only stayed with their own groups. They would look left and right and sit with their own groups. How was I going to bring these artists together as a group? I said: “Hm, this is very interesting. You do not say hello, you just go to your own group. In the US, we say hi and hug each other.” So, I had everyone practice hugging. For the first few hours everyone was laughing and hugging. Before this, people would not work together, but this changed as people got to know each other. After that, we would do day trips together, we would go swimming." 28

Damon was looking for a way to build a community and to strengthen the team spirit of the collaborators—everyone had a different background in terms of knowledge, professional practice, and culture. Artists were asked to hand in proposals of the work they hoped to realize in the course of Keepers of the Waters. Some of them were rejected because the ideas were not fully developed, or they simply did not fit within the budget. What seems important to mention here is that, even though several artists did not get the chance to realize their proposal, they became part of the project by supporting the other artists in the organization, realization, and documentation of their works.


Keepers of the Waters was a 2-month-long process consisting of three American artists and 25 Chinese and Tibetan artists, who together developed 30 public art pieces and events and were on national Chinese television for several days. I will now briefly discuss three interventions realized in the course of the project.


After almost two months of talks, exchange, and community building, the final weekend of the project started with a march from a hotel to the riverside. The artists marched from the foreign guest house where Damon was staying to the river, handing out leaflets and carrying a banner on which the following was written:


Keepers of the Waters: The Funan River water quality projection event (Propaganda and Art project). Organizer: Keepers of the Waters Association from the US, the Chengdu Environmental Protection Promotion and Education Agency.29


The march lasted around 15 minutes and lead them to the benches of the river where Kirsten Caskey’s Washing Silk took place. As Damon and Dai Guangyu recalled in an interview, the government, although playing a major role in the whole program, became skeptical once the artists started their march down the streets: marching was an act that was especially sensitive after the events of 1989. But despite the delicate undertaking, once the artists arrived at the riverbanks to start washing the white silk, the audience started to cheer, as they were so enthusiastic about the performance. Caskey along with several other performers were standing in the water and washing the fabric while carrying red gloves, demonstrating the pollution of the water.

Another highly political work was Dai Guangyu’s Water Propaganda Board (Gezhi yijiu de shui zhibiao), a performative installation. First the artist took portraits of the participating artists and put them in trays that had been filled with water from the river. After a couple of days, the photos were badly eroded. He also set up a bulletin board or propaganda board, something every Chinese person was familiar with—similar boards had been erected in every village, no matter how small, during the Cultural Revolution. Dai Guangyu used the political tool to share information about water protection and asked people, including the mayor of Chengdu, to sign their names on it. The signing of such a propaganda board was a quiet political act and statement. Dai Guangyu describes the third part of the installation below:


"On the third day of this installation, I also did a performance. I took water from the river, made tea with it and invited everyone to have a cup of tea, but nobody dared to accept. So, I decided to have one. Then, the other artists realized, what I wanted to do and had a cup of tea with me. Still the audience did not want to drink that tea. A behavior that demonstrates how worried everyone was about the pollution. The audience really seemed to understand that it is important to save the water and protect the environment. It was a great success." 30


Several works can be discussed under the introduced term dialogical aesthetic, as they were participatory and were aimed for a dialogue to create awareness of the environmental problems in and around the river. Yin Xiaofeng, an artist from Chengdu, placed 20 wash basins at the entrance to the Riverside Park and encouraged passersby to wash their faces with water from the river. Hardly anyone participated, but the performative installation became a place for discussions, exchange, and dialogue. Yin Xiuzhen’ s work Washing River also aimed for participation. Although the work is discussed in several publications, the broader context of Keepers of the Waters is rarely mentioned. In Washing River, which was reenacted at the Dark Mofo Festival in Hobart, Tasmania, in 2014, the artist exhibited 10 cubic meters of frozen water from the polluted river on the streets of Chengdu. She had it frozen at an ice factory and brought the ice blocks back to the river banks. For two days she invited passersby to “wash” the blocks with pails of clean water. Their efforts washed the ice away and returned the water to the river. Again, the social sculpture created a dialogue between the passersby and the others involved in the project. As Damon recalled in our interview:


"People were standing around that place and some of the elderly people were like: “You’re wasting ice! I want to take that home to cool my environment,” and the children asked if they could eat it. So, we had to have a guard there to protect the ice blocks. Other people came and just stood there, pontificating or reading literature to each other." 31


It should be mentioned, in regards to Yin Xiuzhen’s work, that the number of female artists in performative art practices in China was comparatively low, especially in comparison to performance art in the Euro-American context. Xiao Lu, who fired a gunshot on her installation Dialogue during the China/Avant-garde exhibition in 1989, was by far an exception. Western art historians such as Peggy Phelan and others saw performance art as a way to avoid being occupied by the financial systems of the art institutions. Furthermore, in its insistence on bodily presence, performance art was assumed to articulate experiences that otherwise would have slipped through the hegemonic phallocentric symbolic language. “There was a strong feminist agenda in these ideas, and the specific genre of performance known as body art was perhaps the first major movement in art history to be predominantly defined by female artists and theorists,” states Laura Luise Schultz32. This was also the discourse that Betsy Damon was coming from. Realizing this large-scale project as a Western woman in China would likely have been challenging in many ways.

What Did It Take to Realize Keepers of the Waters within the Prevailing Political Climate of the Mid-1990s?

First of all, there was Betsy Damon, who initiated the project. Zhu Xiaofeng, who was a well-known and recognized university professor at the Sichuan Academy of Social Sciences, and fluent in English, served as the link between Damon and the local collaborators. The project was supported by the Chengdu Environmental Protection Bureau; the government was right in the middle of a Five Years Protection Plan for the Fu-Nan River, which started in 1993. The government did not look at this project as an artistic work. Rather, it was understood as an environmental education project 33. On the other hand, Dai Guangyu, a well-known artist at that time, and his peers were aware of this fact and knew how to deal with it. They understood the project as an opportunity to make performative art practices a legitimate art form in Chengdu, as they were working on escaping the traditional and state-controlled frame. Another exceptional point in that project was the media participation. With Keepers of the Waters the media started to pay close attention to performative art practices in Chengdu, a fact that also becomes clear in the comprehensive collection of newspaper clippings I have been able to collect throughout my research. The Chinese media was just in a state of reform at the time, and newspapers and magazines were looking for attractive topics to brand their name and reach higher sales. The Chengdu Shangbao (Chengdu Commercial Newspaper) was the first media source to report on Keepers of the Waters, as the project seemed to be a good opportunity to generate a readership. And the most important factor in the success and impact of Keepers of the Waters was a curious audience.

The 719 Artist Studio Alliance

Summing up the different collaborators that came together in the course of Keepers of the Waters further raises the question of how the project influenced the art scene and the language of the local artists in the following years. In fact, the project activated all these above-mentioned collaborations. After the great success in Chengdu, Damon, Zhu Xiaofeng, Dai Guangyu, and a number of other artists decided to realize Keepers of the Waters in Lhasa, in 1996. The artist Song Dong did his well-known work Stamping the Water there. At the same time, Damon started to work on the realization of the Living Water Garden, an ecological park in the inner city of Chengdu, the local artists were able to proceed working in this open and supporting atmosphere34.

After 1995, the first series of performances was Men Telling Stories about Women (Nan Ren Ting Nvren de Gushi) at the Yafeng Gallery in a hotel in the west of Chengdu, which was curated by Wang Lin. At the time, Wang Lin was the editor of Art World (Meishu Jie), which as a very influential art magazine. The concept of the exhibition was to express female concerns through a male view. Hence, the artists included were all male, namely, Liu Chengying, Dai Guangyu, Zhang Hua, Zhu Gang, Yu Ji, and Yin Xiaofeng, and they showed performances and installations. Liu Chengying reproduced several portraits of famous women, such as Lady Diana, Marilyn Monroe, Gong Li, or Sophia Lauren, and hung them on the wall, with a table in front of the portraits equipped with laser arms through which a visitor could shoot his or her favorite starlet. As Liu Chengying stated in an interview, the majority of visitors were men, and through the installation and its interaction the artist aimed to demonstrate male power and chauvinism. The artist also stated that he received a lot of criticism for this work from female graduate students.

Wang Lin said in our interview that he would have preferred to feature female artists in this exhibition, but it was hard to find female artists in the mid-1990s in the southwest region of China. So, six years later in Chongqing, in 2002, Wang Lin curated a show entitled Listen to Women Telling Stories About Men (听女人讲男人的故事)35.

In the course of the Chengdu exhibition the artist Zhou Bin, who is nowadays a very active performance artist in the southwest region, got a chance to meet Chengdu artists for the first time:

"I saw a report in the newspaper about Wang Lin’s exhibition “Listening to men telling stories about women”. I decided to go there. On that weekend, Liu Chengying was showing an installation. (…) The whole exhibition gave me a great insight on a new artistic language. The art works felt so real, so pure. They were free, diverse and demanded the imagination of the audience. Only after a short time I gave up on painting in favor for performance art. I knew this was the way how I wanted to proceed. Retrospectively, I could say that Beijing was the place where I gave up my artistic language. Chengdu was the place where I found it again." 36

It seems noteworthy that Zhou Bin, who left his hometown Xi’an in the early 1990s for the artist village Yuamingyuan in Beijing, was aware of the works of the Beijing East Village artists but never collaborated with them. Around the same time, when Wang Lin curated the above-mentioned exhibition, Dai Guangyu also encouraged the three young artists Zhu Gang, Luo Zidan, and Zhang Hua to establish an artistic collective. They came up with the name Spiral Group (Luoxuanti Yishu Xiaozu). Although they started working straight away, they stopped their collaboration after two months without any outcome.

The influence of Keepers of the Waters and, through it, the continuative collaborative art practice is without a doubt illustrated best by looking at the 719 Artist Studio Alliance (719 Yishujia Gongzuo Lianmeng), which was established on June 19, 1996, by Dai Guangyu, Liu Chengying, Zeng Xun, Zhang Hua, Zhu Gang, Yin Xiaofeng, Yu Ji, and Luo Zidan. This all-male alliance chose the name according to the date of their foundation: July 1937


As Zhang Hua stated in our interview:


"Not only the number 719 was carefully chosen, also the term Lianmeng (Alliance) was quite well thought about. First, we thought of the term jiti (collective), but for the government it can easily be understood in a political context. Furthermore, for us it would have meant to produce art pieces together. It was important for each of us to keep on working on our own artistic style and language. We were looking for a way to enable discussions and to establish a platform to exchange our thoughts about literature and art."38


Subsequently, the group undertook meetings in a Chengdu Tea House on the 19th of each month and, as with the Red Yellow Blue Painting Society during the mid-1980s, their structure was quite loose and open. Hence, everybody was invited to join the meetings. Every now and then, artists, critics, and curators from all over China—including Xu Zhen, the Gao Brothers, or Wen Pulin—joined them during their monthly gatherings. The main group consisted of eight artists—who in media reports were referred to as “eight strange guys of the Shu State” (Shu Zhong Ba Guai)39 — most them with long hair and black clothes. Their appearance must have been quite eye-catching at the tie. Following the tradition established during the ’85 Art Movement, they also created a manifesto in which each of the artists stated his view of the artist alliance40.

Between 1996 and the early 2000s, the Chengdu artists undertook numerous installation and performance events in more or less public places, including a cinema, a library, an underground parking lot, abandoned places, and a book store called San Yi Shudian. They primarily referred to their artistic output as shengtai yishu (ecological art). Other terms mentioned in interviews were fengwei yishu (experimental art), qianwei yishu (avant-garde art), and xianfeng yishu (pioneer art), as well as jiashang art and jiaxia art. These two latter terms are not applicable anymore, but they were central for Liu Xiaochun when he was curating the Chengdu Shuangnianzhan (First Chengdu Biennale) in 2001.


"Because a variety of Western arts, which came into being during the last century or so, have flooded into China within such a short period of time since the 1980s, Chinese art critics involuntarily classified them into two categories to get a better understanding of them. The forms customarily known as arts,, such as painting, wood engraving, photography, calligraphy, and sculpture, fell into the first category, while installation, concept art, land art, performance art, and new media, which were unfamiliar to Chinese artists and certainly could not be anything other than arts, were put into the second category. For these two major categories of art there were no names yet, the anxious critics therefore created terms of Jiashang art and Jiaxia art, or Jiashang art and non-Jiashang art."41


Inside China, however, these forms have served to forge an independent field of art production, exhibition, and criticism outside social and academic art. In denouncing painting, artists could effectively establish an outside position for themselves because what they rejected was not just a particular art form or medium, but an entire art system, including education, exhibition, publication, and employment.


Also, the Artist Studio Alliance understood their artistic practice as a clear delimitation towards the art market and gallery system—which they did not want to become a part of. They clearly wanted to demarcate their work from those of the famous Chengdu painters such as Luo Zhongli and Zhou Chunya. “719 was the most influential circle in Chengdu back then,” Zhou Bin stated in our interview. “When people, for example Fei Dawei, would come here, they all wanted to meet the performance artists.”

The main idea of the alliance was to undertake events together, as well as do solo performances throughout the year in which the artists supported each other with documentation as well as by doing organizational tasks. The artists themselves documented their collaborative works quite well and sent photographs and pamphlets to national and international artists, critics, and curators42. Also, the media continued to follow the undertakings of the artists with great interest, which can be seen in one of their first collective events: the third edition of Keepers of the Waters: Source of Life (Benyuan Shengming: Shui de Baoweizhe) in Dujiangyan, north of Chengdu. The Dujiangyan Irrigation System has a history that dates back to the Qin period and is therefore honored as a Treasure of Sichuan. Even nowadays the system plays a crucial role in draining floodwater, irrigating farms, and providing water resources for more than 50 cities in the province. The goal was similar to the one introduced in the course of Keepers of the Waters: establishing awareness for issues around water protection. The project was supported by the environmental office of Dujiangyan, but the performances, installations, and interventions needed to be financed by the artists themselves. The media attention was even more concentrated, as there had been a comprehensive report on CCTV2 that was broadcasted all over China, and Wen Pulin documented the whole event extensively43. In documenting ephemeral art events, Wen Pulin became a central figure throughout the 1980s and 1990s. At the time, he was working for CCTV and was one of the few people who owned professional equipment for capturing these ephemeral events44.

The Chengdu Shangbao published a survey on October 14, 1997, in which they asked passersby about the content of the different works and then briefly introduced each of the artworks. In the headline the author asked: “Did You Get Those Interesting Ideas?” (Qisi miaoxiang: Ni wu dao le ma?). As Cha Changping, who served as an academic host for the event, stated in our interview, there were around 13 media stations and newspapers, including Sichuan Television and the most influential medium in the region, the Chengdu Shangbao. They all came to report about the events for four days. There was even a telephone hotline especially for the event. People called and shared their thoughts—it was a platform for discussions45.

In general, the artists’ interventions received a lot of attention from the media as well as from the audience. So did the Ming Wall Series (Ming Cheng Qiang Xia Shishi), a performance series that happened on four ensuing weekends at the old Chengdu City Wall featuring site-specific and process-oriented works by the artists Dai Guangyu, Zhu Gang, Yin Xiaofeng, and Zhou Bin. The main concern of this performance series was the ongoing changes that were occurring in the city, as real estate companies tore down many old buildings to make way for new ones. They also wanted to tear down the old wall, which dates back to the Ming Dynasty. Zhou Bin did his first performance, Historical Watermark (1998), in the course of this performance series. He described the work as follows:


"For my performance, I used water from the Funan River and painted several symbols on the ancient wall. A Buddha statue, logos from commercial brands such as the one from Motorola. For me, this mixture of symbols resembled the development of society from ancient times until today. Of course, they just served as place holders, or representatives. Obviously, I have chosen the logo of Motorola because mobile phones and the internet started to come up around that time. I have been there for 8 hours, which resembles the length of a working day. Several people passed by, stayed at the wall and watched us. One elderly lady saw the Buddha statue and started to pray, as she thought it was there originally."46


In the end, large portions of the wall were destroyed, but a small part was left and is still there today.

The artist Zhan Wang took a similar approach when undertaking the performance Ruin Cleaning Project ’94, in which he drew attention to changes in the cityscape of Beijing. In the performance the artist washed and painted parts of a half-demolished traditional house at a construction site in an effort to save it. Nevertheless, before he could finish his restoration work, a team of construction workers completely demolished the house. On the state of helplessness in opposing rapid demolitions, Zhan revealed: “This was not about nostalgia, but about my state of embarrassment and impotence, knowing that nothing I could do could change or stop this process.”47 Looking at the performances of Zhan Wang and Zhou Bin, the open public atmosphere for performance art practices in Chengdu can once more be underlined.

Performance Art Practices in Chengdu at the Turn of the Millennium

In 1999, the Sichuan Huabao produced a series about artists living and working in Chengdu, in which the work of 719 Artist Studio Alliance was featured. In 2000, Zhou Chunya, Dai Guangyu, and Luo Zidan were selected as the three most influential people in the Chengdu art scene48. Meanwhile, in Beijing, artists started to turn to Shock Art (zhenhan yishu), a term that was first used among artists and critics in Beijing in early 1999 after they witnessed several works involving human corpses at the exhibition Post-Sense-Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion49. Works by Shock Art artists always inherently involve an infringement, a violation, a breach, or a flouting of conventions and taboos. This transgressive approach is primarily visible in the inclusion of parts of corpses and/or animal cadavers in performative masochistic experiments on the artist’s own body. The beginnings of this tendency can be traced back to the early 1990s in the Beijing East Village.

In her paper “Clandestine Interventions,” Cheng Meiling states that “clandestine public art reached a certain critical mass in 1999 and 2000, with the openings of three controversial exhibitions.”50 These were Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion (1999) by Wu Meichun and Qiu Zhijie, Infatuation with Injury (2000) by Li Xianting, and the touring exhibition with the general title Human: Animal (Ren he Dongwu, 2000) by the independent curator Gu Zhenqing. Whereas the first two exhibitions were held in Beijing, Human: Animal was held over five months in six cities: Beijing, Chengdu, Guilin, Nanjing, Changchun, and Guiyang. In Chengdu, the atmosphere slowly began to change after the opening of this show, and it might have been the starting point for the audience and also the media to begin questioning the performative undertakings of the Chengdu artists. In the course of the exhibition, the artist Yu Ji did his performance Pet’s Kiss (Youwu zhi wen), in which he held 1,000 chickens in a glass box while he was sitting in it himself. He kissed one animal after the other and threw each of them out of the box. In the course of the performance several chickens died.

In reference to this exhibition, the Tianfu Moring Post (Tianfu Zaobao) published an article asking “Is This Art or Murder?” (Shi Yishu haishi Mosha?) on May 14, 2000. The exhibition was followed by a series of events that fostered a turning point for the performance art scene in Chengdu and also influenced the tone of the media reports. Another incisive event was the Second Open Performance Art Festival (Dakai Xingwei Yishujie) that took place from August 12 to 16, 2000, in Leshan Village, Pengshan County, as well as in Chengdu. In his work Happy Easter, the Beijing artist Zhu Yu involved two doctors who operated on a living pig at a secret warehouse space in the city. Originally the plan was for the doctors to reveal the heart of the pig to the audience, after which the cavity would be stitched up again. Because of the doctors’ miscalculation in applying the anesthesia, the pig awoke during the operation and screamed until it died. In several talks with artists who were present as spectators, I was told that the audience was shocked as blood spread all over the place.

These transgressive performance and installation pieces prompted the publication of several articles, including “A Discussion on Performance Art” (Guangyu Xingwei Yishu de Taolun) in the fourth edition of the Annual Conference of the Chinese Artists Association (Zhongguo Meishujia Xiehui Jiguan Liwu, 2001), in which performance art was fiercely criticized. Another negative influence on the performance art scene was the publication of Yi Yishu de Mingyi (“In the Name of Art”) by Chen Lusheng in 200251. The book takes an extremely critical stance toward the art form. By looking at Chengdu and the artists involved in the 719 Artist Studio Alliance, it should also be mentioned that the departure of Dai Guangyu for Beijing in 2003 further depleted the Studio Alliance52.


In this paper I aimed to depict the development of performance art practices in Chengdu, a topic that has not yet been fully investigated on an academic level. After detecting the cornerstones of this specific area, the most urgent questions that came up for me are: Why has this specific period not yet been discussed in the canon of Chinese contemporary art? And how should this specific period of art production be historicized?

To discuss the first question, I would like to bring to mind the headline of this paper, “The Heaven Is High and the Emperor Is Far Away” (Tian gao, Huangdi yuan). A Chinese saying (Chengyu) that was also given to me as an answer on the aforementioned question by Dai Guangyu: “The heaven is high and the emperor is far away. We [the artists in Chengdu] have always considered ourselves a little bit removed. Everything that is said in Beijing is the law and is taken more seriously in comparison to Chengdu.” After the cultural and political incidents in 1989, Beijing became China’s cultural center (wenhua zhongxin). Artists in other provinces had the freedom of being “far from the emperor’s eye,” as Sasha Su-Ling Welland states it 54, but those areas were not equipped with the same cultural infrastructure as the capital. Artists in Beijing had a chance to gain more visibility due to an increasing number of foreign-owned galleries, more universities, and so on. On the other hand, government control was much more present in Beijing, and exhibitions were more likely to be shut down by the authorities. As already mentioned above, after 1989, the Chinese Communist Party imposed a ban on performance and installation art, as well as on exhibitions and publications in China. The focus started to be on the establishment of an art market, on art that sold. Once the Chinese art market was aroused, Chinese art encountered a global interest. Hence, from the early 1990s on there were more and more opportunities for Chinese artists to encounter Western artists and to participate in exhibitions abroad, including the first participation of Chinese artists in the Venice Biennale in 1993. This change was also felt in Chengdu. In 1993, a wealthy businessman from Chengdu started to pay a monthly stipend to Dai Guangyu to support his work, and his paintings also found international recognition. They were bought by a Canadian as well as an American art collector. In 1996, paintings by Dai Guangyu were displayed in the show China! (February 29 to June 16, 1996) at the Bonn Museum of Modern Art 55.

When it comes to the artistic output of Keepers of the Waters or the 719 Artist Studio Alliance, we are looking at an ephemeral art practice that was not aiming to become part of the art market but was, rather, focused on the aforementioned dialogical aesthetic. The local artists positioned their work in opposition to famous local painters and didn’t subscribe to the idea of documenting their performances for the sake of the art market. The documentary strategy of the artists working and living in the Beijing East Village was much more concerned with documentations that would fulfill the status of an owned art work and could be distributed and become part of the art market 56.

Of course, object-disorientation and, consequently, ephemerality are the principal components of performance art practices. Peggy Phelan pointed out that “performance’s only life is in the present and cannot be saved, nor recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations (…).” 57 These approaches imply that only a few people have experienced performances, which are globally discussed in the context of art history. Hence, the majority only knows these works through documentation, material leftovers or, to use the words of Rebecca Schneider, performance remains that are by now exhibited as kinds of relics in art museums 58. Philip Auslander, an American performance and media scholar, makes this point even clearer when he argues that the act of documentation is the crucial performative gesture of performance art, since it is through documentation that a live performance is established as a work of art. It is through documentation that artistic performance is circulated within the art system and academic institutions. Hence, more attention should be given to the performative gesture of documentation: how works of art are archived, classified, and culturally recognized 59.

Which leads me to the second question: How should this specific period be historicized? During my field work I was able to collect archival material such as newspaper clippings, sketches, videos, photographs of performances and gatherings. The most important part of my research was the dialogue with people who were actually involved. Through their memories and stories, as well as the material they handed over to me, it was possible to archive, classify, and recognize what happened culturally in Chengdu throughout the 1990s. Another point that seems important to note is that, through several encounters with artists, curators, and critics from Mainland China, it became clear that they were very well aware of Keepers of the Waters as well as the 719 Artist Studio Alliance in Chengdu. It is mostly for a Western readership that these works seem to be quite unfamiliar.


Besides the interviews and the newspaper clippings, I came across the self-published series Humanities & Art (Ren wen yishu) by the Chinese art critic Cha Changping, who was himself involved in several exhibitions and events in Chengdu throughout the 1990s as organizer and critic. Some of the above-mentioned art events are part of texts published in those books. In fact, when it comes to the history of performance art practices in Chinese contemporary art written for an international readership, the focus is mainly on Beijing; other regions are not discussed in their full potential. The standard works on performance art in Mainland China are, from my point of view, written by Thomas Berghuis, Cheng Meiling, and Silvia Fok, all three of whom mainly focus on an early stage of performance art in Mainland China in which shock, pain, and auto-aggression were prevailing aspects the artists used to work with. Whereas Berghuis and Cheng exclusively focus on Beijing, Fok opens up her investigation toward works from other regions and cities in Mainland China.

I would suggest looking at this period as a time in which politics and art entered a successful liaison that was very fruitful for both parties. Projects and events were implemented that would not have been able to be realized in other areas in Mainland China during the time. In Beijing, 1994 was the year the Beijing East Village was disbanded; only a year later, the Yuanmingyuan Village was dispersed by police power. Betsy Damon was a foreigner joining a project with money from the US, quite likely a fact that made the whole project easier to enact. Even today, when speaking to the Chengdu artist Chen Jianjun (b. 1980) for example, he recalls Keepers of the Waters as a huge source of inspiration and influence when it comes to his own artistic work. Though he did not participate in the event himself, he is aware of the stories that have been passed on during the past two decades about this work. In general, there is not enough art historic research being done so far in regions besides Beijing, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. I believe, if we dig deeper, several interesting projects that deserve more comprehensive investigations and research will appear.



(1) GaoMinglu, “Street Avant-Garde in Chengdu (Jietou Qianwei yu Chengdu xushi),” Echoes: Chengdu New Visual Art Documentary Exhibition 1989–2007 (2007), p. 3–4.

(2) Read more on the term: Gao Minglu (2008): “What Is Apartment Art,” in URL: accessed on 11.08.2015)

(3) I have used the term apartment art to describe the avant-garde in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou,and Nanjing in the beginning of the 1990s. But the art production happening at the same time in Chengdu cannot be called apartment art; rather, it should be described as jietou yishu. Gao Minglu, “Echoes: Chengdu New Visual Art Documentary Exhibition 1989–2007,” p. 3–4.

(4) WangLin, “Conceptual Art in China’s Southwest Region” (2000), in, Volume 3:1. URL: (Last accessed on 26.12.2015)

The Late 1980s in Chengdu

(5) The art historianGao Minglu discussed the movement extensively in his dissertation. Gao, Minglu (1999): The '85 movement: avant-garde art in the post-Mao era: a thesis, PhD Harvard University.

(6) Back then, the two cities Chongqing and Chengdu still were part of the province of Sichuan, and getting from one city to the other took a train ride of around 12 hours (which today can be done in 1.5 hours).

(7) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Dai Guangyu, undertaken on December 2016 in Beijing.

(8) Jonathan Unger, ed., The Pro-Democracy Protests in China: Reports from the Provinces (1991).

(9) Louisa Lim, The People’s Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited (2014).

(10) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Betsy Damon undertaken on March 2017 in her apartment in Brooklyn, New York. Transcription available via Asia Art Archive.

(11) Christine Filippone, Science, Technology, and Utopias: Women Artists and Cold War America(2016), p. 165.

Keepers of the Waters: A Dialogical Aesthetic Project

(12) For further information, visit: (Last accessed on 21.03.2018)

(13) Christine Filippone (2016), p. 1

(14) Grant H. Kester, “Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialoguein Socially-Engaged Art,” in Zoya Kocur and Simon Leung, ed., Theory in Contemporary Art since 1985 (2012), p. 76–88. By shaping the term Dialogical Aesthetic, Kester refers to the Russian literary figure Mikhail Bakhtin, who argued that a work of art could be regarded as a kind of conversation: a locus of differing meanings, interpretations, and points of view.

(15) Kester, “Conversation Pieces: The Role of Dialoguein Socially-Engaged Art,”  82.

(16) In Mainland China such projects also started to become widespread, as the comprehensive online archive of the researcher Zheng Bo of Hong Kong demonstrates. Since 2014, Zheng Bo has been running A Wall, a web platform for documenting and presenting projects by artists such as Ma Yongfeng, Xiong Wenyun, and Xu Bing that can also be discussed in the context of Dialogical aesthetic. A Wall: Research Project led by Dr. Bo Zheng, available via URL: accessed on 21.03.2018)

(17) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Betsy Damon.

(18) Jerome Foundation: For further information, visit: accessed on 21.03.2018)

(19) Lilian Ball with Tim Collins, Reiko Goto, and Betsy Damon, “Environmental Art as Eco-Cultural Restoration,” in DaveEgan, Evan E. Hjerpe, Jesse Abrams, eds., Human Dimensions of Ecological Restoration (2005), p. 305.

(20) Chris Richards: “How Children Saved the River” in URL: (Last accessed on 21.03.2018)

(21) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Zhang Yingchuan undertaken on January 2017 in Chengdu. Transcription available via Asia Art Archive.

(22) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Zhu Xiaofeng undertaken on December 2016 in Chengdu. Transcription available via Asia Art Archive.

(23) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Dai Guangyu undertaken on December 2016 in Beijing. Transcription available via Asia Art Archive.

(24) Chantal Mouffe, “Strategies of Radical Politicsand Aesthetic Resistance,” in Truth Is Concrete: A Handbook for Artistic Strategies in Real Politics (2012), p. 66–75.

How Did Damon Find or Choose the Participating Artists from China?

(25) In our interview, Dai Guangyu described himself as an independent artist who was not well connected to the art scene and who studied art privately. During the 1970s the well-known artist He Zhesheng (b. 1941) was his teacher, while he became an autodidact in the 1980s. A fact, for him this stands in close reference to his own upbringing, as his family had faced repression ever since the communist regime took hold in 1949. As his father was a professor of history, his family had always been on the outside of society, which was also the reason why he kept distance from official art circles back then and started studying art privately, paying attention to Scar Art.

(26) WuHung, Transience: Chinese Experimental Art at the End of the Twentieth Century (2005), p. 80–81.

(27) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Zhu Xiaofeng.

The Process

(28) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Betsy Damon.

(29) 水的保卫者:府南河水质保护艺术宣 传活动 / 主办单位: 美国“水的保卫者”协会 / 成都市环境保护宣 传教音中心

(30) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Dai Guangyu.

(31) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Betsy Damon.

(32) Laura Luise Schultz, “The Archive is Here and Now: Reframing Political Events as Theatre,” in Gundhild Borgreen and Rune Gade, eds., Performing Archives/Archives of Performance (2013), Copenhagen, p. 201.

What Did It Take to Realize Keepers of the Waters Within the Prevailing Political Climate of the Mid-1990s?

(33) Translation of the full official title of the event is “Keepers of the Waters: The Funan River water quality projection event (Propaganda and Art project)”.

The 719 Artist Studio Alliance

(34) Betsy Damon, “The Living Water Garden,” Whole Earth Catalog(2000). URL: (Last accessed on 21.03.2018)

(35) The catalog of this exhibition can be found in the library of Asia Art Archive.

(36) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Zhou Bin undertaken on January 2017 in Chengdu.

(37) Originally, the founding date of the Alliance was on July 18. The numbers 718 would have been too common as a name, said Dai Guangyu. Also, a certain sensitivity toward numbers is rooted in Chinese culture and there is the saying of yao fa(“making lots of money”), which would have sounded similar to yao ba (one eight). Whereas, 719 also has this meaning of being together for a long time (yiqi henjiu).

(38) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Zhang Hua.

(39) 蜀中八怪 . The State of Shu was an ancient state in what is now Sichuan Province. It was conquered by the state of Qin in 316 BC.

(40) There were two sets of the manifest, as there were some changing in the members of the group after a short while. Members of the Alliance were Dai Guangyu, Liu Chengying, Zeng Xun, Zhang Hua, Zhu Gang, Yin Xiaofeng, Yu Ji, Zhou Bin. During the very beginning the artist Luo Zidan, who as well made some outstanding performance art pieces, has been part of the Alliance. As there were some disagreements between him and the group, he left after a short while. Instead of him, the young artist Zhou Bin, who just moved from Beijing to Chengdu in 1997, joined the group.

(41) Xiachun Liu, ”About the Definition of Jiashang Art,“ in the catalogue of the Chengdu Biennale, 2001.

(42) A list of addresses was given to me by Zhang Hua and includes names like Lin Yi Lin, Wang Lin, Wang Qingsong, and many others

(43) The 30-minute clip from CCTV can be looked at via Asia Art Archive. Further, Wen Pulin has a lot of uncut material in his private archive on the event.

(44) Wen Pulin captured and documented a wide range of contemporary art events, such as installations, performances, and rock and roll concerts throughout the 1980s and 1990s. He also documented the performances throughout the China/Avant-garde Exhibition. (Wen Pulin, Seven Sins: 7 Performances during 1989 China Avant-Garde Exhibition)

(45) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Cha Changping undertaken on November 2016 in Chengdu.

(46) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Zhou Bin.

(47) Francesca Dal Lago (2000): “Space and Public: Specificity in Beijing,” in Art Journal59:1 (2000): p. 84.

Performance Art Practices in Chengdu at the Turn of the Millennium 

(48) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Zhang Yingchuan undertaken in January 2017 in Chengdu.

(49) Berghuis(2007), p. 114.

(50) Meiling Cheng (2004), p. 28.

(51) Chen Lusheng: Yi ”Yishu de Mingyi“ (In the name of “Art“) Renmin meishu chubanshe, Beijing, 2002. As Thomas Berghuis writes in his publication Performance Art in China, there were a total of 5,000 copies published for the first edition of this book. Art books were usually published in quantities of 2,000 and 3,000 copies at that time. (Berghuis, p. 20)

(52) There are several statements about when the Studio Alliance dispersed. The monthly meetings stopped at a certain point, but the artists still kept working together. From my point of view, supported through several interviews in the course of my intense research, Dai Guangyu’s departure for Beijing separated the wheat from the chaff.


(53) Interview:Petra Poelzl with Dai Guangyu.

(54) Sasha Su-Ling Welland, Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art(2018).

(55) Franziska Koch, in her dissertation “Die chinesische Avantgarde und das Dispositiv der Ausstellung” (2016), about the approach of the curators and about the exhibition, which included 31 male artists and 160 works from several cities in Mainland China, p. 256–270.

(56) Wu Hung, Rong Rong’s East Village 1993–1998 (2003). Foremost, it was Rong Rong who documented the artist’s living circumstances as well as their artistic actions.

(57) Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance (1996), p. 21.

(58) Rebecca Schneider.

(59) Philipp Auslander, The Performativity of Performance Documentation.


list_petra 1
2016年度亞洲藝術文獻庫研究獎助金得獎者 | Petra Poelzl

2016年度亞洲藝術文獻庫研究獎助金得獎者 | Petra Poelzl


Petra Poelzl | 天高皇帝遠

Petra Poelzl | 天高皇帝遠

2017年11月21日 (星期二)