Dec 15

PASSAGES: China at the Crossroads

Art critic and curator Maya Kóvskaya discusses the new pathways of Chinese contemporary art as seen in the works of the new generation of artists who are exploring video and performance art in a China passing through momentous changes.

The concept of passage is a polyvalent term. A passage is sometimes a corridor or thoroughfare that leads from one place to another; at other times, it is a rite or a Rubicon or a symbolic moment in which one state is transcend and another initiated. Most commonly, a passage it is a journey, a process of being underway and on the road. As the passage of major historical change is being undergone and carried out in everyday life, economics, society, politics and culture in China, Chinese contemporary art has reached a nexus of crossroads. In the early and mid-1990s, easily digestible, foreigner-pleasing formulas from China, such as Political Pop and Cynical Realism, captured the international art community's imagination. By the late 90s, however, growing numbers of Chinese artists, many born in the 70s, were unwilling to bow to foreign fetishes in order to follow the previous generation's path to easy success.

Images of a country attempting to carry out unprecedented and rapid economic "modernisation" by political fiat have overtaken the old creative canons, bringing a more diverse generation of new Chinese contemporary art to the international stage. In China, the concept of generation is not necessarily limited to an age cohort, but rather a group that comes of age together, united less by age than by the sharing certain crucial formative experiences that have shaped the central preoccupations in their works. The video art and performance art documentary videos in ‘Passages: China at the Crossroads,’ an exhibition I recently curated at the OED Gallery in Kochi, show various ways in which China is undergoing dramatic changes in almost every facet of life during this era of localised globalisation, and so-called “modernisation.” This new generation of contemporary art in China, exemplified here by works from Cui Xiuwen, Dai Guangyu, Hei Yue – Jishengli, Qing Qing, Ma Yongfeng and Han Bing, rejects neat labels and gimcrack gimmicks in favor of the messy, quotidian world, offering glimpses of a rich diversity that outstrips the tired iconic ‘big head’ oil paintings of the current auction house darlings, who are often seen as leading representatives of Chinese contemporary art.

Born in the 70s in China's Northeast, multidisciplinary artist Cui Xiuwen rose to international prominence in the late 90s with her provocative video work, ‘Lady’s,’ featuring ‘ladies of the night’ filmed in the ambiguous, fraught space—both public and private—of the Lady's Room in a karaoke hall. In her video ‘Drifting Lantern’ (2005), we see a classic symbol of traditional Chinese culture undergoing a tenuous journey through the darkness. The glowing vermillion lantern bobs and sways in the dark, following a pattern that is hard to predict. At times it feels as if the movements of the lantern are both random and governed by an invisible, unknowable force—much like the experiences of ordinary people in the face of these massive changes transforming today’s China, who often feel that they are being taken on a path they cannot see, and know not where it leads. There are moments, however, with the human hands behind these driving forces are revealed and we realise that these huge, global processes that push and pull us are wholly human creations. In the video as well, we catch glimpses of the human bearer of this light – a hand holding the bright orb aloft, a leg tentatively stepping onward in the darkness.

‘Missing/Gone Astray,’ (1999) is a landmark work by Dai Guangyu, a leading figure of the Southwestern public action art and environmental art movements, who is known for his daring political critiques, brilliant performance interventions and inventive use of ink wash. This performance took place on June 4th, 1999, exactly 10 years after the tragic denouement of the student movement in Tiananmen Square. Dai Guangyu and a friend don masks and attire that make them appear de-individualised and uniform. They take to the streets of Chengdu. Their journey through the city is accompanied by ongoing references to Tiananmen and the power arrangement that keeps the anniversary unutterable in public discourse. Motifs of complicity and absence permeate the work. The masked men pass through the city reading the newspapers, which have no news about the anniversary, of course, and engage in bizarre repertoire of familiar everyday postures, which appear absurd because they are taken out of context. Clapping to show approval, raising hands to vote assent, and cringing as if to ward off blows, are all normal behaviors one frequently encounters in everyday life. But the settings for these, such as speeches by leaders, party meetings, and confrontations with violence, are conspicuously removed from the scenarios enacted here, and thus are highlighted by their absence. And by considering these behaviors outside their normal context, we are forced to recognise the performative function they fulfill – to underscore, support, perpetuate and reinforce existing power arrangements and the status quo order of things. These behaviors speak volumes: “we consent, we approve, we will not fight back.” Power, in the post-totalitarian era is not grounded in true belief so much as the public, collective expression of such complicit conformity, which serves to sustain the system in place and tacitly affirm its ‘rightness.’

Born in Qinghai Province, Hei Yue·Ji Shengli graduated from Qinghai Pedagogical College and moved to Beijing in 1991. When he adopted the name ‘Black Moon’ (Hei Yue), back in the heyday of the Yuanmingyuan artist colony, he could hardly have known the intimate connections in English between the verb ‘to moon’ and the performance art that would bring him fame, using his buttocks. ‘123 Buttocks’ is the title of Hei Yue’s ongoing performance art and video, photography and painting series (2002 – present). In ‘Buttocks, 123,’ Hei Yue – Jishengli tackles questions of authority from a different angle. Using a humorous, cheeky method to make a serious point, he dons the ‘split pants’ of Chinese childhood, and spanks himself in public, often in front of symbols of tradition and authority or dominant values and notions of propriety. Wearing pants specially designed to reveal his butt, Hei Yue appears before various symbols of power, authority and tradition, and spanks himself repeatedly – Chinese policemen, Buddhist monks, Japanese fishermen in traditional (and more notably, butt-revealing) garb, and more. By spanking himself like this in public, he poses the question, who has the right to discipline and punish – and he answers it in turn by reclaiming the sovereign right for himself alone and rejecting the claims of a higher authority to mete out punishment.

Beijing-born Qing Qing gained international recognition for her diorama installations and hemp fiber ‘artificial artifacts.’ Her unique visual language engages a symbolic universe that plays lightly on the ugly ironies of the contemporary world. Her ‘End of the Century Ambiguity’ (2003) performance video work also employs a humorous device to make a cutting critique of contemporary masculinity, gender relations and the self-satisfied, complacent culture of consumptive excess and leisure idolised by the Chinese nouveau riche, and enjoyed disproportionately by men. If the sex trade –  symbolised by massage and karaoke singing – has long been a rite of passage supplies the lubricant of political and business deal-brokering, taking place in settings in which women can have but one role, the meaning of former Traditional Chinese Medical doctor Qing Qing’s metaphorical send-up of the massage, by substituting a pig for the man, can hardly be misinterpreted.

Hailing from Shanxi, China, Ma Yongfeng is known for his video and medium-large format photography works. Investigating ‘scientific’ typologies, taxonomies and conceptions on ‘Nature’ and the ‘natural world,’ his work reflects his preoccupations with the social construction of knowledge and aesthetic systems. In ‘Beijing Zoological Garden’ (2004), Ma Yongfeng also brings animals into his work, albeit in a different way. Here the passage is from a naïve childhood orientation towards nature, in which fantasies of the great and vast natural world are fueled by trips to the zoo, to a knowing adult complicity with the confining, cruel arrangements that place the human being in a hierarchical relationship to nature. Placing the pitiful images of the Beijing Zoo in the round classical Chinese frame, visually echoing Song Dynasty painting, the aestheticisation of routine suffering is brought to the fore. As we watch the animals attempting some semblance of a ‘life’ in their cramped and miserable cement ‘habitats,’ we learn more about ourselves than we do about these creatures. Nature exists here as rendered by the human imagination, and the poverty of vision and compassion that makes such conditions possible is what is inscribed most visibly in these scenes.

Han Bing grew up in an impoverished village in rural China in the 70s, but went on to study at the Chinese Central Academy of Fine Art. Exploring the struggles and desires of ordinary people in China's ‘theater of modernisation,’ he employs photography, video, multimedia installation and performance, and his works invert quotidian practice, reinvent everyday objects and ask us to rethink the order of things. For the past decade Han Bing has engaged in an ongoing public performative intervention – ‘The Walking the Cabbage Project,’ (2000 – present). In this series of social intervention performance, video and photography works, Han Bing walks a Chinese cabbage on a leash in public places, inverting an ordinary practice to provoke debate and critical thinking. ‘Walking the Cabbage’ is a playful twist on a serious subject – the way our everyday practices serve to constitute ‘normalcy’ and our identities are often constituted by the act of claiming objects as our possessions. A quintessentially Chinese symbol of sustenance and comfort for poor Chinese turned upside down, Han Bing's cabbage on a leash offers a visual interrogation of contemporary social values. If a full stock of cabbage for the winter was once a symbol of material well-being in China, nowadays the nouveau riche have cast aside modest (monotonous) winters of cabbage in favor of ostentatious gluttony in fancy restaurants where waste signifies status. They flaunt ‘name brand’ pooches, demonstrating how they no longer rely on the lowly cabbage, and can not only fatten themselves to obesity, but also pamper a pedigreed pet. Yet, for the poor and struggling, the realities of cabbage as a subsistence bottom line have not changed – what's changed is the value structure that dictates what – and who – is valuable or worthless in Chinese society. Han Bing’s social intervention performance art practice has been conducted in a vast array in public spaces and quotidian social settings ranging from tiny rural villages to cosmopolitan metropolises across the globe; from flourishing downtown bastions of the white-collar consumer elite to the agricultural fields of the salt-of-the-earth rural labourers; from the Great Wall to the Mississippi River; from Miami Beach to the Champs Elysees; from Harajuku to Haight-Ashbury; from Tiananmen to Times Square.

This ongoing journey of Han Bing and his cabbage, mirrors, in many ways, the larger journey of China – from uniform poverty to an explosion of wealth for a few; from rural villages to massive megacities filled with hope and desperation; from the humble cabbage as a bottom line source of sustenance for ordinary people to the pedigreed lapdogs of the new rich – China is on the road and undergoing the difficult passage from one kind of society to another. But, as Han Bing’s work makes clear, this is not an unambiguous, teleological process from benighted backwardness to uplifted progress. Far from it, while the vast majority of people continue to struggle, and the reality is that the current order will not fulfill the dreams of most, it is the meretricious allure of the superficial new value system that keeps people pinning their hopes on a system that often works against their own interests.

We live in fragmented times, times that need an art that offers not only a mirror in which to see the status quo, but also transforms our understandings of ourselves, giving us new ways of seeing who we are and can be. Explorations of the everyday lived connections between the individual and the social, the micro and the macro, and the local and global realities that we all, increasingly face in this rapidly changing world, imbue this new generation of Chinese art with unprecedented global relevance.

(Maya Kóvskaya is a Delhi and Beijing-based writer, art critic, curator, translator, scholar and consultant with over a decade of experience in China. She has curated numerous exhibitions, in China, the USA, India, and Europe, and her art criticism appears regularly in art catalogues, international art magazines and academic journals. Her book, ‘China Under Construction: Contemporary Art from the People’s Republic’ (2007), is available in bookstores worldwide. Email:

©2009, Maya Kovskaya