Contemporary Performance art in China bears witness to a fundamental division in artists' attitudes toward the social implications of capitalism. While newfound freedom of expression allows artists to penetrate the public sphere with bold, critical commentaries on China's burgeoning commodity fetishism,... [more]
Contemporary Performance art in China bears witness to a fundamental division in artists' attitudes toward the social implications of capitalism. While newfound freedom of expression allows artists to penetrate the public sphere with bold, critical commentaries on China's burgeoning commodity fetishism, this fetishism itself has prompted some artists to turn away from the public sphere. These artists seek to maintain a private, spiritual reality isolated from the corrosive influences of capitalism. Although these strains of Performance art are diametrically opposed in terms of method, they communicate at the level of what they reject: the consumerism that has swept China since its inclusion in the international economy.
Wang Jin's "Ice: Central China 1996", is typical of the first strain. Wang constructed a thirty-meter-long wall of ice, in which he implanted a number of highly valued commodities. The installation took place in Zhengzhou City, an industrial center that has experienced the full influence of capitalism. Long before the ice was allowed to melt, the inhabitants of the city hacked their way through it, seeking to get their hands on cellular phones, cosmetics, and jewelry. The piece -- with the help of its participants -- revealed the greed and divisiveness the new economic climate has created: an economy of desire nourished by a capitalist market.
On the other side of the spectrum, artists such as Zhang Huan and Song Dong turn away from the culture of commodity fetishism and create works that have no objective existence outside of the time in which they occur. Zhang Huan covered his naked body in honey and sat in a public restroom for three hours as flies swarmed over him, revealing the vicissitudes of existence by means of exposure to extreme discomfort. Song Dong practices traditional Chinese calligraphy, with this difference: he draws his figures on stones with a brush dipped in clear water. The reality of his characters remains only in his memory, and so their value is absolutely personal; as a work of Conceptual art, it shifts art away from a reliance on the object and toward the pure experience and spiritual process of art making.
The scope of contemporary Chinese Performance art is broad, but in every case it engages the climate of consumerism that has begun to sweep the country. For artists like Wang Jin, this engagement takes the form of a direct confrontation; for Zhang Huan and Song Dong, art insinuates its critique by turning away from all forms of consumerism. In both cases it is a matter of struggling to reckon with a society in the midst of tumultuous economic and social change. [show less]