Hong Kong

Xiao Lu, Polar–2, 2016, giclée print, 47 1⁄4 × 31 1⁄2".

Xiao Lu, Polar–2, 2016, giclée print, 47 1⁄4 × 31 1⁄2".

Xiao Lu

You really thought she might get hurt. For the opening of Xiao Lu’s solo exhibition “Skew,” the artist—decked out in a chic black dress embroidered with the basic details of the performance: XIAO LU’S SKEW ON AUGUST 14, 2019 IN HONG KONG—had gallery attendants load her into a thick Plexiglas pyramid. It was transparent, with a few panels tinted red and, just at eye level, a small circular opening. Visitors were instructed to pour buckets of red water into the hole, after which it was sealed. In the cramped confines of the pyramid, Xiao couldn’t stand up straight. She began to violently throw her body against its walls. After fifteen minutes, the structure burst apart at the seams, releasing her thrashing body onto the sidewalk in a pool of red water. At the moment of freedom, she was still gasping for air.

Xiao positioned her performance as a response to the violent oppression faced in that moment by the protesters in Hong Kong. Thirty years prior, the artist had made headlines around the globe, when, at the opening of “China/Avant-Garde,” curated by Gao Minglu at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing, Xiao fired two gunshots at her own installation, Dialogue, 1989. The gesture was hailed as both the official denouement of the ’85 New Wave movement and the first shots fired the year of the Tiananmen Square massacre. Xiao’s installation comprised two telephone booths containing life-size black-and-white photographs: one of a man, the other of a woman. Both figures had their backs turned. In between the two booths was a pedestal with a red telephone, its receiver slung off the hook. Behind this was a mirror. In firing her pistol, Xiao had taken aim at her own image.

At the time, no one knew what made her fire the gun, including her new boyfriend, Lan Jun, who would unceremoniously share the credit line with Xiao for this action for the next fifteen years. In 2003, as if reclaiming the gesture, the artist brought fifteen framed photographs of herself to a shooting range and shot each of them once with a pistol. She titled the resulting images Fifteen Gunshots . . . From 1989 to 2003. It had taken her fifteen years and multiple works to set the record straight about being the sole author of the shots fired at Dialogue. The residue of political and emotional trauma is sticky; it might be used as workable material, but it can never be fully cleansed of its viscosity.

One of the Fifteen Gunshots portraits was on view in this exhibition, alongside the remnants of Xiao’s opening performance and large-format photographic documentation of selected performances, including Polar, 2016, and Wedlock, 2009. In Polar, Xiao climbed a ladder into another chamber, this time a phone booth–size vessel with walls of ice. Once entombed, she used a knife to hack her way out. In the process, she gashed her hand, sending streaks of blood across the clear surface of the ice. The cold numbed her hand, allowing her to continue for another half hour, before the curator and several onlookers pulled her out and sent her to a hospital.

Currently, Xiao lives and works in Skew House, an architectural experiment featuring an annex constructed of slanted walls. Both the house and its location in Beijing remind her of what it feels like to live under extreme authoritarian pressure. Yet Xiao needs no such reminder. Every work feels like a burial but postulates her survival—sometimes literally. In Wedlock, she made a spectacle of her own funeral, emerging from a coffin in an elaborate white wedding dress. In sealing off avenues of escape, the artist outlines the contours of our own confinement, making us question the hold political and social regimes can have on us.