‘Performance art exhibitions’ are always fraught with the same issue, in that the term itself is really an oxymoron. So this show at Star Gallery’s new warehouse space actually comprised contextual photographs, sculpture and video projections by eight artists from different generations. These works were presented as ‘research’, which made it difficult to grasp for those not embedded in the subject. Many of the pieces assumed a degree of prior knowledge of the development of performance art in mainland China. For example, a documentary photograph of performance artist Ma Liuming (who adopted the androgynous alter-ego ‘Fen-Ma Liuming’) taken with Gilbert and George in 1994, when they visited the artists’ East Village in Beijing, was evidence of an influential trip the British duo made to China. It’s worth remembering here that performance art was the medium that signalled the impassioned beginnings of the contemporary Chinese art scene: in the early 1990s, performance offered a self-sufficient, economical and ephemeral form of art that could achieve a high impact and, at the same time, vanish without a trace if necessary.
Curator Su Wei stated that the aim of the exhibition was to raise questions about the accuracy of the critical discourse surrounding Chinese performance art, its distance from other media, as well as the ‘criticality’ of the show itself. But it was also possible to approach the works in ‘I’m Not Involved in Aesthetic Progress’ unhampered by these sorts of interpretive anxieties. The first and largest projection was a video documenting Ma Liuming’s untitled performance at the 7th Istanbul Biennial in 2001, in which the artist can be seen sleeping, naked, on a chair outside in broad daylight, having taken sleeping pills. Not far away were displayed several small photographs by Xing Danwen from his protracted series taken between 1993 and 1998, ‘A Personal Diary’ – these snapshots document the potent moments in the early history of Chinese performance art. Here, for example, was Wang Jin marrying a mule in To Marry a Mule in 1994, and Lin Yilin moving a wall of bricks gradually across a main road the following year in Across Lin He Road. The series made me wish I had witnessed these seminal works first hand.
The far corner of the gallery was occupied by a series of fluorescent light works by Chen Shaoxiong (72.5 Hours of Electricity Consumption, 1992), which deliver the kind of unselfconscious humour and pathos many have come to expect from him. Coloured fluorescent tubes are fashioned into basic figures with light bulbs for heads and wired up to metres which count their electricity consumption. In the artist’s own words, they are ‘meaningless performances to steal time’, offering at once a succinct and direct message. As such, they were an effective foil to the projections of bodily performances by other artists in the show.
The works by current-generation artists revealed a preoccupation with self-scrutiny enacted through performance. In these pieces, the work in question is offset by the presence, for example, of another artist figure (for Chen Zhou), a fictive parallel exhibition (for Li Qi), a confrontation of delusion (Li Ran, who commands: ‘Stop Imagining’), and for Liu Ding, a rather convoluted undermining of the artist’s talk on his own work. Their confrontation of their own practices through performance was an intriguing one, though one also detected in it a growing sense of introversion.
In all, and despite the likely gulf between the viewer’s perspective and that of the curator, ‘I’m Not Involved in Aesthetic Progress’ was a fulfilling exhibition. Ideally, of course, performance art should be seen firsthand, not through the membrane of screens that abstract it from its original time and context. The more recent works do not suffer from this in the same way that those from the 1990s (such as Fen-Ma’s) does, as they are less about the fact of physical presence than about taking the opportunity to examine the machinations of the medium – for which a video recording, endlessly repeatable, may be more effective. One senses, with some regret, the passing of that true immediacy and point of social ignition that performance art can achieve. In our present technological age, it seems, seeing in order to believe has adopted a new mode.