Falling Down

Lee Ambrozy on Hu Xiangqian’s The Public Speaker Who Forgot His Words

Hu Xiangqian, The Public Speaker Who Forgot His Words, 2014. Performance view, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, July 16, 2014. Hu Xiangqian.

ONE WEEK before his performance last month at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, I sought out Hu Xiangqian in his Upper East Side studio apartment. Amid dozens of ceiling-high houseplants, in front of a full-length mirror, stood a music-stand, to which were taped copious handwritten scripts. Hu was silent about the details of his upcoming performance, but screened for me instead a video of his most recent work, Speech At The Edge Of The World, made for inclusion in this year’s Gwangju Biennial. The two works share a protagonist, and the format of a public speech.

In his video, Hu plays the role of a motivational speaker, a familiar character in the world of performance art, though one to which Hu brings his own twist. Inspired by the work of the Taiwanese artist Hsieh Tehching, Hu employs a pared-down but theatrical approach, exploiting a highly stylized artist persona and the tension between structure and the caprice of the performance environment. Like any number of contemporary performance artists, documentation plays a constitutive role, and indeed Hu’s most significant and most public New York performance, retroactively titled The Public Speaker Who Forgot His Words, collapsed his emotionally palpable “real-time” performance with its implied future visibility.

The work’s setup was minimal: A low platform was installed in Saint John’s transept crossing, a wooden lectern that aligned perfectly with the nave’s central aisle and the crucifix at the rear of the choir. To the left and right of the lectern were two glass teleprompters. The audience sat in rows near the front, occupying just one-fifth of the space—at 121,000 square feet, Saint John’s is the largest gothic church in the world.

Hu emerged from a side corridor dressed in a striking, 1970s-vintage Easter egg–blue suit. His long hair was swept back, and he beamed with a practiced smile. Hu gripped the podium and began to read from the teleprompter, in English, but with an impenetrably thick accent. His camera crew scuttled around, documenting every possible angle. As Hu recited the text—an empowering talk on the potency of human presence and the enlivening effect of bodies filling a space—he drew on his repertoire of ostentatious hand gestures, affirmative head nods, and assured postures.

Hu is interested in psychology and in the boundary between truth and fiction, and both were evident in the performance’s staging. Standing between Xu Bing’s imposing Phoenix (2008–10), which has been installed in Saint John’s nave since earlier this year, and the crucified Christ, Hu situated himself between two symbols of resurrection. This point became all the more relevant when, several minutes into his energetic delivery, the artist suddenly collapsed onto the lectern, then onto the floor.

Hu Xiangqian, The Public Speaker Who Forgot His Words, 2014. Performance view, Cathedral of Saint John the Divine, New York, July 16, 2014. Hu Xiangqian.

The already diaphanous membrane between Hu’s personal truth and his performance fiction dissolved. In the first seconds of his speech, his voice and hands had quivered. He recovered, and the audience strained to hear his message, which seemed like a hard-won prize. His slow descent––embracing the lectern, then splaying on the ground, then raising to a slouched sitting posture, and then exiting unceremoniously––lasted a silent forty minutes. Ironically, his collapse and recovery evinced just as much bravado as his delivery of a motivational speech in a foreign language.

It was often unclear what percentage of what we were witnessing was “performance” and what was “reality.” My compassion was piqued at the moment when I was no longer convinced of the scripted nature, but the possibility of intervention was largely neutered by the performance context, as Hu’s band of roving photographers became a wedge between performance and reality.

The audience was in limbo, inspired, but seemingly powerless to act. Some were angered and exited; a minority turned to their smartphones. Our participation was both demanded and compromised. His was a condensed display of martyrdom, addressing what exactly? The “agency” activated and undercut by social media? The contraction of our supposed “attention spans”? Whatever the message, those present will surely remember how Hu managed to conquer that immense, overdetermined space with his silence.

Lee Ambrozy is Editor at Large at

Hu Xiangqian’s The Public Speaker Who Forgot His Words occurred at the Cathedral of Saint John the Divine in New York on July 16, 2014.