“Body, Self, Society: Chinese Performance Photography of the 1990s”

The Walther Collection Project Space
526 West 26th Street, Suite 718
April 14–August 19

View of “Body, Self, Society: Chinese Performance Photography of the 1990s,” 2017. From left: Cang Xin, To Add One Meter to an Unknown Mountain, 1995; Ma Liuming, Fen-Ma Liuming Walks The Great Wall, 1998.

A major performance-art exhibition opened in Beijing on February 5, 1989, with a bang—the young artist Xiao Lu pulled out a pistol and fired two shots at a mirror in her own installation, prompting her arrest. Thereafter, the government cracked down on all unauthorized public performances, a move that was exacerbated by the Tiananmen Square demonstrations, which started only two months later.

The artists’ colony that formed in the wake of these events (called the Beijing East Village, after their New York counterpart) used private performances to illustrate the political situation and recorded them on camera, perhaps to be exhibited later in a less rigid world. In 1998, Ma Liuming’s gender-fluid alter ego, Fen-Ma, trekked naked along the Great Wall, donning lipstick and, eventually, bleeding feet—an illegal body traversing the most grandiose symbol of China’s state rule. In Cang Xin’s photograph To Add One Meter to An Unknown Mountain, 1995, ten nude artists are piled atop one another, organized according to weight. Per the video of the work’s execution, another collaborator used a tape measure to verify the bodies’ collective form as one meter off the ground of Miaofeng Mountain, where the artists were able to address their surroundings by their own methods and systems, west of their censored city.

East Village member Zhang Huan once said, “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.” These artists documented their work to comment on the interaction between their bodies and the social and natural landscapes they struggled against. If performance and its photography were radical and unsettled genres in the West, their presence in this context takes the political power of such image-making to an unprecedented level.

— Blair Cannon