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Reflection: performance as a strategy

Reflection: performance as a strategy
This week, we looked at three projects, “Keepers of the Waters” in Chengdu in 1995; “Qianmen Wedding Photo Shoot” in Beijing in 2009; and “Everyone’s East Lake” in Wuhan in 2010. These projects addressed different issues, but they all took the form of performance in public space.
When we want to express our opinions on matters of common concern, we tend to think of speaking or writing. It can be formal, like giving a speech, or casual, like chatting with a friend. In any case, we rely on language to communicate and deliberate. In an important study published in 1962, German sociologist Jürgen Habermas observed that the rise of the public sphere, in which citizens could come together freely to discuss matters of general interest, has been crucial for the functioning of modern democracies. Today, most of us, whether we live in China or the UK, subscribe to the idea that rational-critical debate is the ideal form of public discussion.
However, scholars like Nancy Fraser and Michael Warner have pointed out that marginalized communities, like women or queer, are often excluded from formal politics which privileges rational-critical debate; these communities often resort to more performative forms to express their views.
As human beings, we are not just brains; we are also bodies. In her recent book “Notes Toward a Performative Theory of Assembly,” Judith Butler argues that in contemporary politics, “it matters that bodies assemble.”
She writes: “Showing up, standing, breathing, moving, standing still, speech, and silence are all aspects of a sudden assembly, an unforeseen form of political performativity that puts livable life at the forefront of politics. And this seems to be happening before any group lays out its demands or begins to explain itself in proper political speech. Taking place outside of parliamentary modes of written and spoken contributions, the provisional assembly still makes a call for justice. But to understand this “call,” we have to ask whether it is right that verbalization remains the norm for thinking about expressive political action.”
The possibility for bodily performance is limitless. In the three projects we looked at this week, the artists and participants performed rituals, scrubbed ice, jumped into the lake, and took wedding photos. While expressing their opinions, they created memorable experiences for the public, and fascinating pictures for the media. How do we situate these socially engaged performance works in the field of Chinese contemporary art? In the 1980s, performance art, in Chinese, “xingwei yishu,” became a popular form among Chinese experimental artists. As Meiling Cheng notes, Chinese performance art “routinely privileges the individual artists’ introspective experiences with the project at hand over the interactive dynamics between the artist-performer and the viewers.”
We see this clearly in a work created by Song Dong for the second iteration of “Keepers of the Waters” in 1996 in Tibet. The artist stamped the river repeatedly.
While performing publicly, the artist was privately engaged with the action at hand. In Jennie Klein’s words, performance art like this emphasizes “corporeal excess,” “extended duration,” and “quasi-mystical origins.” In contrast, Yin Xiuzhen invited the public to scrub the ice with her. The focus of the work was no longer the artist’s personal endurance, but shared responsibility symbolized by collective action. The work emanated a stronger sense of publicness because of its public participation.
In the performances we looked at this week, the line between art and life was blurred. For example, although the lake jumping event in 2010 was organized by a young artist within the framework of the art project “Everyone’s East Lake,” those who came to the event, to jump into the lake, may not have necessarily been aware that this was part of an art project. Most of them were BMX enthusiasts, and probably didn’t care how the event was labeled. In the wedding photo performance in 2009, the public had no idea that the same-sex couples were actually not lovers in real life, that their intimacy was performed. The salience of the project very much depended on the public not knowing this fact.
It would be different if it were a play staged in a theatre where the audience were conscious of the fictional nature of the performance. Unlike traditional theatre, the event was staged without “a closed fictive cosmos.” Furthermore, by venturing into a major tourist destination in central Beijing, the performers interacted with people of all ages, with diverse class and cultural identities, much broader than the typical theatre and art audience in Beijing. In summary, participatory performance in public space has been an important strategy for contemporary Chinese socially engaged art.

This week, we looked at three projects: “Keepers of the Waters” in Chengdu in 1995, “Qianmen Wedding Photo Shoot” in Beijing in 2009, and “Everyone’s East Lake” in Wuhan in 2010. These projects addressed different issues, but they all took the form of performance in public space.

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Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

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