By Qian Zhijian
Art Journal, Summer 1999, USA
With this issue, Art Journal is pleased to inaugurate a three-part series of conversations on aspects of contemporary art by Chinese artists. Featuring leading artists and scholars, each conversation is devoted to a specific theme. In this, the first conversation, the art historian Qian Zhijian interviews Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan, two of the most prominent performance artists from mainland China. In the second conversation, to be published in the Fall 1999 issue, the artists Wenda Gu, Simon Leung, and Xu Bing and the scholar Jonathan Hay discuss writing, language, and calligraphy in contemporary Chinese art. In the third conversation, a group of artists living and working in Beijing discuss site-specific interventions by artists into the urban fabric of that city, which in the last decade has experienced transformations on the scale of Haussmann’s Paris. As the work of contemporary Chinese artists acquires a more visible profile in the international arena, we seek to provide readers with a deeper understanding of its formal, social, cultural, political, and philosophical complexities.
In 1993, Zhang Huan (b. 1965, Anyang, Henan Province) and Ma Liuming (b. 1969, Huangshi, Hubei Province) presented their performances for the first time in Beijing. They are among the first few artists in China to take performance art as their medium after the June 4th Incident of 1989, but they have not had the opportunity to show their work in public spaces in that country up to this day. In 1996, they began to draw international attention and to show their work abroad.
Born in the late 1960s, they have only vague memories of the Cultural Revolution (1966-76). They attended college in the second half of the 1980s, when China began to become more open to the rest of the world. Like most artists of their generation, Zhang and Ma were deeply influenced by translations of modern Western art history and the new art experiments by Chinese artists in the 1980s. When the June 4th Incident occurred, Zhang was a college teacher of art in Henan, in middle China, and Ma was still an art student in Hubei, also in middle China.
Zhang first went to Beijing in 1991, to study at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. Ma moved there in 1993, after two years of teaching at a college in Hubei. They met each other after Zhang had his first performance at a group painting show that was canceled after the opening because of the performance. Later that year, because of personal economic difficulties, they had to move, together with a small group of avant-garde artists, to a village in the eastern suburbs of Beijing. In October 1993, the British artists Gilbert & George, who were the subject of an exhibition in Beijing, visited this small group of artists in their studios. The visit highly encouraged the young artists, who were then not very clear in their artistic direction. Zhang and Ma collaborated in a few performances before they began to concentrate on their own work in 1996.
Qian: You are one of the first few artists who began to use performance as the medium of your art after 1989. When and where was your first performance?
Zhang: My first performance in a public space was in October 1993, when I participated in a group exhibition at the National Art Gallery in Beijing. Before that, I had done several pieces in my studio but never had the opportunity for a public show. This performance was somewhat accidental, however, because I originally intended to present an installation in what was mainly a painting show. Most of the artists included were graduates from the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Unfortunately, just two days before the opening, we were told that installation and performance wouldn’t be allowed in the gallery, an official institution that does not permit these mediums to this day. But the whole exhibition had been well prepared, and I didn’t want to give up. So I decided to replace my installation with a performance.
Right before the opening, I began the performance outside the gallery. First, I spread a sheet of white cloth on the ground and removed from a large bag a jar filled with bloody red color and fragments of toy babies. I then took off my clothes, lifted the jar above my head, and suddenly dropped it onto the ground. I picked up the bodies, heads, and limbs of the toy babies and made a totally new whole. I took my toy baby, which I called The Angel, and went into the gallery, where I hung it on the wall, in the place where my installation was supposed to be.
Very unfortunately, the gallery immediately decided to cancel the exhibition. They had me write a self-criticism and pay a fine of 2,000 RMB for my "misdeed," promising that they wouldn’t send me to the police and that the exhibition would be reopened if this would be done. t did what they said only for the sake of the show. But it was never opened. Many blamed me for that event and insisted that I was fully responsible for the cancellation of the show. I didn’t know what to say. Negative comments were also heard in art circles. The small art newspaper Art News in Beijing published a short account of the event. That was the first time that my name and "Beijing East Village," a place where a small number of avant-garde artists lived, became known to the public.
Qian: What were the negative comments? Did they put pressure on you, since it was your first performance in a public space? Did you ever doubt your pursuit of performance art because of these reactions?
Zhang: The most negative comments came from my teachers and colleagues from the art school where I used to study. None of the art schools in China, as you know, regularly teach installation or performance art. By that time, only a few artists were experimenting with installation. No one was doing performance art, and there was little knowledge about it. They responded pretty sarcastically to my performance at the gallery. They said that the only thing I knew how to do was to strip off my clothes because I didn’t know how to paint. Others said that I was simply out of my mind and a complete pervert. Interestingly, a short report published in a journal in Hong Kong connected The Angel to the situation of population in China and even to the problem of compulsory abortion. That was very unexpected, and the connection was very much politicized. All of these comments caused a lot of pressure, but I wasn’t too concerned. I didn’t doubt my pursuit of performance art, though I wasn’t well informed about it. What was fortunate was that I had friends who understood and supported me. The Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who had lived in New York for quite a long time, encouraged me when he saw the photographs of the performance. Although I have never had the opportunity to present another public performance in China to this day, I have not given up, except for a very short time when I had to stop working on my art because of a personal economic crisis. I believe that my pursuit of performance as my primary medium is right.
Qian: Your performances have been given in private or "underground" spaces.
Zhang: Except for those outside China.
Qian: You have been trained as a painter. What made you give up painting and take performance as your medium?
Zhang: I didn’t know very much about what performance art was until the early 1990s. My knowledge was gained mainly from overseas exhibition catalogues that I saw at friends’ studios or from conversations with friends who had opportunities to go abroad. Besides this, the translation of the book Conversations with Experimental Artists in the early 1990s had deeply influenced me.
My decision to do performance art is directly related to my personal experience. I have always had troubles in my life. And these troubles often ended up in physical conflicts. I often found myself in conflict with my circumstances and felt that the world around me seemed to be intolerant of my existence. I used to have my head shaved, only leaving a small and short bunch of hair in the back. In the summer, I liked to wear a black vest, black boots, and sunglasses. But I found that, with my dress style, I was never welcomed by others. Sometimes in a bar, somebody would come up to me and shout "Get out!" for no apparent reason. Sometimes when I would walk by myself along the street at night, I would suddenly be attacked from behind by strangers.
All of these troubles happened to my body. This frequent body contact made me realize the very fact that the body is the only direct way through which I come to know society and society comes to know me. The body is the proof of identity. The body is language. My consciousness of the body as such became so strong that it became a pressure I couldn’t get rid of. I wanted to grasp this consciousness and get rid of the pressure in my painting, but I found that painting for me lacked the possibility of expressing the directness that I felt through contact with the body. Furthermore, painting could not make me feel the existence of my body in my work. I realized that any medium beyond my body seemed too remote from myself. Thus, I decided that the only way I could be an artist was by using my body as the basic medium and language of my art.
Qian: Do you mean that you wanted to express and make clear the existence and inescapability of external pressures by means of the body?
Zhang: Right. But for me, these pressures are not just inescapable. They go further to form an extremely unbearable fear and panic. I often had the fantasy that somebody would break into my room at night when I was sleeping and cut off my ears. This strong anxiety caused even greater pressure on me. When one is driven by such unnamable pressures to the edge of real madness, I kept saying to myself, the best way to get rid of the horror and to return to a state of ease might be to torture the body itself to calm it.
Qian: The conflict between the body and its surrounding conditions is often expressed in a radical way, which has the color of self-torturing. Is this conflict and tendency of self-torturing a personal issue, or is it a social one in the context of contemporary China?
Zhang: I often ask myself such questions. I think first it has something to do with my personal experience. Quite often I have felt absolutely helpless when facing troubles in my life. In 1993, I worked for a month at a commercial painting company in Beijing. My job was to make copies of Degas’s work from high-quality reproductions. Every day, I spent two or three hours commuting to and from work on the bus. My copies were very good and made a lot of money for the company. But I received a salary of only 250 RMB, less than my expenses for a week. I asked my boss for a raise, but he refused me very rudely, yelling that my copies were not good at all. I was furious but totally at a loss as to what to do. What I did was to punch at the bus on my way home, since I felt better when I was tired. But the other passengers stared at me as if I were crazy. Later that year, I went to Guangzhou, a southern Chinese city, and tried to earn enough money to do a private show. But business wasn’t easy for me. I was often cheated. You can’t find solutions to such problems in a society that lacks laws. Sometimes I became involved in fights with those who cheated me. I could feel better only after these fights, when the pressure seemed to be released. But these acts are acts of self-torturing. I tend to express this sense of self-torturing to an extreme because I want to make the feeling more strong and real. Each time I finish a performance, I feel a great sense of release of fear.
However, the tendency of self-torturing is not just a personal problem. It is a common phenomenon, especially so in the present circumstances of China today. In the suburban area of Beijing where we live, there also live thousands of peasants who come from all over the country to make a living selling vegetables. Every morning they have to get up at four o’clock for their work. I believe they wish they could have more time for sleep, like the rest of us. But they can’t. If one has to do something one doesn’t want to do, that is a kind of self-torturing. Everybody has this tendency. Some are conscious of it, while others don’t want to admit it.
Qian: Besides an emphasis on the experience of personal existence, you seem to pay much attention to the relationship between the body and the specific environment.
Zhang: That’s basically true for my work before 1995. In those works, I wanted to feel and experience the existence of the body under the pressures of different environments. In some of my works after 1995, I try to make this experience happen in a group of people, which often involves the collaboration of other artists and ordinary audience members.
Qian: In your earlier works, you seem to deliberately create an extraordinary environmental space for the presence of the body.
Zhang: Again it’s related to my experiences in life. Like many artists of my generation, when I graduated from art school in 1993, I could not find a job and therefore had no regular salary and place to live. I had to rent a peasant’s old house in the suburbs, which I shared with a few close friends. But it was in an out-of-the-way area, and friends often got lost finding it whenever we had private shows in an underground space. I thus renamed the area by changing the street sign from "Dashan Village" into "Beijing East Village," mainly for the convenience of helping friends find the location of our house. But there were also two other reasons. First, I knew of the East Village in New York, where artists from many places around the world live. It was a common wish shared among us that our place would become a similar place where many excellent artists from all over China would come to live. The second reason was that we wanted to differentiate our area from another artists’ village in the western suburbs of Beijing, which was then well known as an area for commercial painters.
But our village was dirty and messy, surrounded by hills of garbage from the urban area. To the west tall modern buildings and five-star hotels could be dearly seen. The contrast was very strong. 12 square Meters, which I realized in the summer of 1994, is closely related to my specific experience in this village. It was noontime one summer day, when I went to a public restroom in the village after lunch. I found the restroom had not been cleaned for quite some time because it had been raining for days. There was no way to step in. I had to walk to another public restroom where the village heads used to go. There was nobody else there. Once I stepped in, I found myself surrounded by thousands of flies that seemed to have been disturbed by my appearance. At that moment I felt as if my body were being devoured by the flies. That feeling was so strong that I decided to do a performance about the relationship between the flies and my body. Before the performance, I spread on my body a visceral liquid of fish and honey that would attract the flies. I sat in the restroom for an hour, almost motionless. My body became covered with flies.
Qian: It’s hard to imagine that you could have sat there for so long. How did you feel during the whole process?
Zhang: I just felt that everything began to vanish from my sight. Life seemed to be leaving me far in the distance. I had no concrete thought except that my mind was completely empty. I could only feel my body, more and more flies landing and crawling over my nose, eyes, lips, ears, forehead, every part of me. I could feel them eating the liquid on my body. Some were stuck but did not stop eating. I could even tell that they were more interested in the fish liquid than the honey because there were more flies on the left part of my body, where that liquid was. The very concept of life was then for me the simple experience of the body.
There was no audience other than nearly a dozen artists who lived in the village and my friends, who helped to take photos and video. The only uninvited viewer was a villager who came to use the restroom. He appeared to be intimidated by what he saw. He got scared and ran away. Minutes later, a village head carne and asked what was going on. My friends told him that we were making an advertisement for honey. He looked quite suspicious and left murmuring "Vicious."
Qian: Are all your works related to your life experience?
Zhang: Most are, in one way or another. The title 65 kg refers to my weight or, more precisely, to the actions of a body with this weight conducted in specific environmental conditions. The room in the old and dilapidated house where I lived served as both the living room and my studio. Besides a small bed in the corner, it was filled with various things I had collected for my installation projects. The room was dimly lit by a small lamp clamped on the bed. One night when I came back very late and turned on the light, I found that the light cast the shadow of everything up onto the ceiling. All of a sudden, an idea came to my mind. I said to myself, "I have been sleeping on this small bed for too long. Why couldn’t I sleep right under the roof?" I was really excited by that idea and started to work it out. At first, I wanted to do the performance in collaboration with a female artist, but I couldn’t find one. So I asked my assistants to tie my naked body with a thick iron chain and to hang me from the roof beam. A doctor was there helping to transfer 250cc of blood through a plastic pipe from my body down into a pan on an electric stove. The floor was covered with two layers of white quilts of the type found in hospitals. The small room slowly filled with the increasingly pungent smell of my blood and sweat burning in the pan.
Qian: It seems that you intended to force the audience to be aware of and accept the cruelty of reality as witnessed in your performance.
Zhang: You might say so. But my understanding is that no one can escape this cruelty, neither myself nor the audience. Once the audience members step into the site of the performance and onto the quilt, they become involved in the reality before their eyes. They have nowhere to escape, just as they have no way to escape reality. The smell of the blood was a reminder that further stimulated and reinforced their realization of the truthfulness of the cruelty they were witnessing. When I looked down onto the audience from where I was hung, I felt as if they were just as bound as I was. They, too, had nowhere to escape. However scared they were, they couldn’t leave. They seemed paralyzed by the fear and by their stronger desire to look. Some of them even fainted when they saw the blood. But they didn’t leave. Some peasants from the neighborhood stood watching behind the windows. I am sure they were really scared. But at the same time they seemed to be eager to know what was going on inside.
Qian: Besides your emphasis on specially designated circumstances, you also pay much attention to the selection of specific objects and sometimes animals for your work. What is this selection based on?
Zhang: The essential criterion is the physical feeling of the contact between the objects or animals and my body. Those objects or animals are things that people are reluctant to touch in their ordinary life. In the group activity The Original Sound, which I co-organized in January 1995, I used earthworms. Before that I tried other animals, including spiders and insects that I raised in my room and enjoyed looking at. But winter is freezing cold in Beijing. Spiders and insects do not move in the winter. They just stay where they are. Only earthworms could move out of the bottle that I used during the performance.
At around one o’clock in the morning, I stripped off my clothes and lay naked on the concrete ground under a highway bridge. There was no audience, with the exception of twelve artists participating in the activity and one or two passersby returning home on bicycle. I poured the worms out of a bottle into my mouth. They began to crawl out from my mouth and move onto every part of my body. I liked the feeling of the worms creeping into my mouth and ears and onto my face and body. I felt as if I were one of them. I think man and earthworm are similar creatures in the way that they are related to the earth. They come out of the earth, but eventually they all go back into it.
Qian: You seem to be fascinated with the physical feeling of your body in different environmental conditions. And you often put your body into situations of adventure.
Zhang: Adventure is what makes me feel and realize the true existence of my body. A good example is my performance 25mm Threading Steel of 1995 which took place in a construction site on the third underground level of a skyscraper in Beijing. At first the construction workers did not agree to let me lie in front of their working table because they were afraid that the grinding wheel would cut my body into pieces if an accident occurred. I promised them I would be fully responsible for anything that went wrong. I put my promise in writing and gave them some money. They agreed, though quite reluctantly. I lay there for an hour while the workers ground steel tubes. I felt some pain when sparks flew onto my body, but very soon I felt no pain at all because the sparks began to numb my skin.
Qian: I would like you to talk a little more in detail about how you feel at those moments, physically and spiritually.
Zhang: Many people ask me similar questions, in Japan, France, Germany, and now in New York. In Japan, they asked me what kind of gong fu I had been practicing. Some even asked me if I had been practicing sitting in meditation, which is the essential practice in Chan or Zen Buddhism. I have never practiced any kind of gong fu, but I do like Chan music and its lifestyle. I prefer to put my body in physical conditions that ordinary people have not experienced. It is only in such conditions that I am able to experience the relationship between the body and the spirit. In performance, I try to let my mind leave my body and forget the surrounding conditions. At that moment, I cannot feel any pain. Yet, the mind cannot really leave the body. Instead, it keeps going back to the body. And when the mind returns to the body, there comes an ever stronger feeling of the body’s real situation. It makes you more conscious of the cruelty of the reality and makes you feel more uncomfortable. But it is not the physical pain in the physical body, but rather the spiritual uneasiness. The shift between the mind and the body is what I prefer to experience. In the process of performance, I sometimes have a strong sense of hallucination. Once when I was giving a performance sitting among the legs of dancers in a bar in Beijing, friends moved me onto a chain And they kept talking to me. But I was not aware of anything that had happened until they told me about it after the performance. In my performance of New York Fengshui at P.S.I, I felt as if I had clearly heard my wife calling my name loudly. But she later told me that she hadn’t.
Qian: Are you saying that the spirit and the body are separated or depart from each other at those moments?
Zhang: I think so, but probably just for a short while. What I’m saying is that I try to experience the relationship between the physical body and the spiritual body in particularly designated circumstances. I want to make this experience clearer and deeper in some radical situations. Not just for the sake of testing the endurance of my physical body under external pressure, but rather through this process of endurance a deeper panic in the spirit might be released, though perhaps just temporarily.
Qian: Do you mean that, for you, the existence of the body and the spirit could be testified only when they are located in a specific environment?
Zhang: You might say so. I based the performance 3006 Cubic Meters: 65 kg at the Watari Museum in Tokyo in 1997 mainly on this assumption. The conflict between the body and the external environment is the way to prove the existence of the self. In the performance I tried hard to pull down the museum by a number of ropes that were fastened to many parts of the exterior wall of the museum. But the harder I tried to pull it down, the more I felt that my body was being pulled down by the museum. What I felt at that moment was how insignificant the body can be when it is inevitably conquered by something beyond itself. Resistance against any monstrous power would only result in a stronger consciousness of the powerless body. But the significance does not lie in the result but in the very act of resistance itself.
Qian: Are you trying to say that such an experience of the relationship between the body and the spirit could be intensified only when the body in its full nakedness comes in direct contact with the external world?
Zhang: Right. Nudity is absolutely necessary in my performance. Only in its full nakedness can the body be truly felt and its relationship with the spirit be identified through its direct contact with the object. In New York Fengshui for example, only in nudity can I feel the relationship between ice and my body. The contact of such objects or animals as iron chains, ice, sparks, flies, and earthworms with my naked body makes me feel my body more strongly and helps me to develop a deeper understanding of the body. Moreover, it reinforces my personal perception of the surrounding environment.
Qian: Does nudity in your work have anything to do with sexuality, privacy, and morality?
Zhang: It’s often the case in China that nudity is easily associated with those issues. But in my case, I do not think about such issues.
Qian: To Western audiences, your work may appear to have political meanings. Do you think such meanings are an aspect of your work?
Zhang: I cannot restrict audiences to certain interpretations, though I don’t like to look at things simply from a political angle. Perhaps it is because the problems in China are so complicated that people want to find answers for themselves from different angles. In China, many people say that I am crazy, perverted, and a self-torturer. That’s their point of view. For me, the question is how I can make good art.
Qian: Before we finish, I’d like you to talk more about New York Fengshui, presented at P.S.I for Inside-Out.
Zhang: As I said earlier, since 1995, I have done several performances in which I invited others to participate. They can be professional artists or just ordinary people. In The Original Sound, To Acid One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain and Nine Holes, professional artists were invited. In Raising the Level of a Fish Pond of 1997, I invited peasant-workers who had come to Beijing from all over China. As I said before, the conflict between the body and the environment is expressed in a radical form in my work. But such a conflict is not necessarily an entirely personal problem. I believe it’s a common phenomenon. It’s based on this idea that I invite other people to participate in the creation of my work.
The piece at P.S.I was originally based on a similar idea. But the final performance was somewhat different from the original project. Besides the bed and ice, I had planned to create at the show site an environment in the Chinese landscape style. In the project, there were to be hills of grass, a stream, a fountain, and pine trees. I had intended for the audience to enter the work and talk to me. But the project had to be changed because of budgetary limitations. The use of dogs originates from my impression of New York. There are so many dogs in this city, and they are very well taken care of. But like human beings, dogs are sensitive to the external environment and are afraid of possible dangers. What strikes me the most about this city is the co-existence of different races and their cultures. By the term fengshui, I am referring to the vitality and vigor of this metropolis characterized by the co-existence of cultures. Yet for me, there is a fear, or culture shock, if you like. I do like the city, but at the same time I have an unnamable fear. I want to feel it with my body, just as I feel the ice. I try to melt off a reality in the way I try to melt off the ice with the warmth of my body.