View of “Hu Xiangqian,” 2015.

View of “Hu Xiangqian,” 2015.

Hu Xiangqian

View of “Hu Xiangqian,” 2015.

A central concern of Beijing-based artist Hu Xiangqian’s oeuvre seems to be: Is the body a performance artist’s only tool, and are the performative acts of a single body enough to constitute a resonantly critical practice? As if to explore these questions, Hu introduced a second body to Reconstructing Michelangelo, 2014–15, the predominant work in “A Performance a Day Keeps the Doctor Away,” his recent exhibition of four new projects.

Reconstructing Michelangelo considers what the relationship between a master and an apprentice might be in the context of performance art, and attempts to articulate what it even means to teach the discipline. The work consists of a live performance and five videos that follow Hu and his assistant, who wear matching red-and-blue 4S car shop uniforms, as they execute a number of mundane tasks: They eat, exercise, chat, and perform at two museums together as a sort of performance-art boot camp. By recording these activities, Hu transforms studio work into a kind of reality show, in which the exchanges between master and apprentice are almost indecipherable as either truth or as fiction.

In this way, Hu intends to mockingly challenge the professionalization of artistic practice: He short-circuits the master-apprentice formulation by allowing his student to collaborate on this work, and thus enjoy the attendant cachet; the interaction between the two recalls the way in which he reveals his “teachings” to an audience. Though he appears to demystify the often-ambiguous terms of performance-art production, Hu in fact further obfuscates them. His approach to the apprenticeship is to spout ineffective platitudes. His lessons on the contemporary-art industry and the strange physical exercises he prescribes don’t seem particularly practical or helpful.

Intensifying not only the work’s emphasis on transparency but also its focus on preparation and incompletion, these scenes of performance “practice” are shown here as they would appear in the interface of Adobe Premiere Pro CC. The mechanics of video production are exposed: A menu containing folders and files runs down the left side of the image, and an editing timeline sits underneath. This aestheticization of editing is mirrored in the performance Reconstructing Michelangelo – Perfect Editing, 2015, the project’s culmination, which was staged during the exhibition’s opening on a set rendered to resemble the Adobe Premiere timeline. This installation collapses the distance between performance and its documentation, and thus begs a consideration of the value of the liveness of the performance—does the work lose something when experienced as a video? And indeed, does it matter what body is performing?

With the event of the live performance, the apprenticeship symbolically came to an end. As the assistant performed alone onstage, he exuded relief and victory. The master hid in the crowd, watching his student emerge fully as an “artist.” We might juxtapose Reconstructing Michelangelo with Hu’s earlier video Speech at the Edge of the World, 2014, which was recently on view at Para Site in Hong Kong. In the latter piece, the artist is seen delivering a twelve-minute motivational speech on the benefits of education to a group of several thousand adolescent students in his hometown, Leizhou, on the southern tip of Guangdong. He orates with empty passion and cliché, his enthusiasm matched by the vacant stares of his audience. Whether Hu’s strategy is to preach or to collaborate, his work reveals that the quality of an education goes far beyond the simple transference of knowledge, extending to the nuances of language, attitude, and affect with which it is imparted. And in the end, performance is valued above all.

Yang Beichen

Translated from Chinese by Chelsea Liu.