Embodied Mirror: Performances in Chinese video art

Performance’s only life is in the present. Performance cannot be saved, recorded, documented, or otherwise participate in the circulation of representations of representations: once it does so, it becomes something other than performance. To the degree that performance attempts to enter the economy of reproduction, it betrays and lessens the promise of its own ontology.[ Peggy Phelan, Unmarked: The Politics of Performance, p.146]—— Peggy Phelan
In the eyes of a performance fundamentalist like Phelan, once this medium degrades to the object of reproduction of images would be fully degenerate. Behind this, one would likely find its supporting position of “dematerialization,” advocated by the second avant-garde art movement where the medium is isomorphic to capitalism – although such ideology may seem somewhat flimsy before the realities of a new medium. The inception of video art in the 1960s coincided with the apex of the Happenings and the Fluxus. Artists such as Allan Kaprow adamantly rejected performance as a media event; others like Nam June Paik, on the contrary, fully embraced this notion. In the absence of digital technology, the first-generation video-performance artists relied on features of analog technology (closed-circuit system), who pointed the video camera at themselves in exploring the infinite possibilities of the body in their artist’s studios or gallery space. With a minimal temporal delay, the images of the body captured on video unfolded in a timely fashion. This new mechanism of feedback achieved an interactive “collage” and “de-collage” effect, attaining a physical representation unmatched by other space-based medium such as sculpture or painting. Carolee Schneemann once pointed out, that video art to performance is comparable to “an enlarged ‘collage,’ to break up solid forms, frames, fixed conventions or comprehensible planes, the proscenium stage and the separation of audience and performer.”[ Johannes H. Birringer, Media & Performance: Along the Border, p.155] A reflected “mirror image” of the body is discovered at the liminal site between the camera and the monitor, which is both divided and united with the performer, one who is watching/monitoring while being watched/monitored, both are “real” and “live,” such self-reflexive embodiment becomes the metaphor for the self and other, the individual and society.
Video art in the early stages overlapped with the rise of new movements in performance and dance in the 1960s and 1970s, on many levels, these mediums share similar notions: undo the illusions in theatricality/representation, emphasize on participation and interaction, and pursue a presentation of real-life taking place in real-time. Such affinities are often propelled by complex political and aesthetic impulses, for instance, to undermine the actual intent, to resist power, and systematically to address (in artistic ways) the crisis in identity and gender politics, and so forth. Like other art forms from that period, all attempt to take on a critical position: either subverting the totality of modernism, the myth of artistic autonomy and medium specificity, revealing the ideology behind the organized everyday experience, exposing tension in the oppressive social structure, or engendering a new subjectivity. However, since the mid-1970s, as technology continued to advance, the performance-oriented video art began to break away from using collage as did the Fluxus. On the one hand, it shifted towards installations; on the other hand, it becomes more intimately tied to mass culture and media. With the institutionalization of the medium, the nomenclature of video art changed to “media art.” Video art gradually departs from the avant-garde and its contentious position, and “retrieved” back to the domain of “technical aesthetics,” making an impact on “operating in a yet undermined space between the established arts, popular culture, and social documentary.”[ Ibid., p. 153.]At this point, video performance, unlike the early phase of experimentation that revolved around exploring the possibilities in the machines of the medium, tried to derive diversified visions. As Ina Bloom pointed out, “(video technology) their particular performance in concrete contexts or situations becomes more important; that is, the way in which their operational logic creates connections between different levels of expression and processuality, which must be understood both as new memory-events and as the constitution of new social links.”[ Ina Bloom, The Autobiography of Video: The Life and Times of a Memory Technology, p.16. ]The invention of VHS and popularization of DVs allowed the form and ideas of video to overcome the video’s domain as memory technology and become a truthful social memory. They had a direct impact on the development of video performance, also mark the point of departure for our discussion on the performativity in Chinese video art.
The inception of video art in China tied intimately to performance. 30 x 30 (1988), commonly known as the first video art in China, artist Zhang Peili shattered a mirror repetitively and glued it back together, often interpreted as an action that radically dissolved meaning. To take an awkward yet resolute position to abolish meaning is undoubtedly implying a new political voice which can be interpreted on multiple levels: a probe at the meaning of the subject and time, skepticism towards action and labor, and historical nihilism, etc. in fact, this kind of operation on “boredom” has always been a pivotal means for aesthetic expression in video art. Like the Fluxus artist Dick Higgins wrote in his volume Boredom and Danger, “It was a time of shocks, danger, chance occurrence, but also of “nothing” in particular going on.5 [ Dick Higgins, Boredom and Danger, p.4. ] The West in the 1960s and China in the 1980s reflect each other in exciting ways. The artists unanimously considered boredom as uncertain “temporal excess” and a practice of resistance, exploring private and individualistic times. The temporality of video perpetuates between the controllable and the lack thereof: the limit to record time (measured by the length of the cassette tape) paired with the possibility of continuous filming, which contrasts with the spiritual time of man, and the physical/social time. Here, Zhang Peili created a chain that strings together the body, concept, and performance, projecting the Zeitgeist when artists pursued the freedom of aesthetics in a specific period. Even though there was an apparent tendency to depoliticize in the 1990s,  this line of thought concealed under the facade of microcosmic politics was nevertheless preserved in the chronology of Chinese video art. I have always believed that technology had never overwhelmed the practices of Chinese video art. The limited and stark material condition led us to treat it as a tool to experiment with the medium and as a spiritual supplement relevant to the body subjectivity.
In the “Autobiography” section, Li Ming’s Let the Light Prove I am disappearing (2007), which undoubtedly responds to Zhang Peili’s practice two decades ago. The artist peeled off the dust and skin on his body and allow the light to configure them. Its title reveals the actual intent of this work: what connects subjectivity with tedious actions is precisely the kind of liberal poetic, meaninglessness hence transforms into a proof of meaning. As Zhang Peili’s student, Li Ming inherited the nihilistic tendency to conceptualize Chinese video art in the early period, from there to reach for a desire for freedom. On the “contrary,” Li Binyuan’s Freedom Farming (2014) behind the artist’s meaningless action of throwing himself into the field is not necessarily nihilism or despair but an attempt to critically investigate the relationship between the self and social history.Among the other works in this section, the artists focus on issues of identity, gender, and emotions. Since Rosalind Krauss’s famous statement, “narcissism” has become a fixed tag for video art. Although the mirrored narcissism in early video art practice was anti-memory, thereon narcissism transforms into autobiography precisely had to abort the formal and conceptual expressions, shifting from abstraction to figuration and sensibility, to engender the time-image necessary for building memories. The development of the language of video art, in fact, could not be devoid of influences from other artistic or cultural forms, especially from visual media such as television and film, providing opportunities to connect the video to social memories and individual narratives. Be it Cao Fei’s Chain Reaction (2000) featuring sub-cultural and B-class movie performance, or Ma Qiusha’s An Incident of Love (2004) iconic execution on the ritual of love/kissing, or Yan Xing’s Arty, Super Arty (2000) whose cinematic composition draws from meta-painting, or Tao Hui’s Talk About Body (2013) that mocks news broadcast on TV and reality shows. For these works of art to present the subjects’ emotional realms and lived memories, they have extracted, appropriated, or mobilized the power of affect from other artistic forms.
“Event” section addresses another essential aspect of video art: the possibility of intervention through recording. By the end of the 1990s, the popularization of the DVs and general application of digital editing made direct engagement into social reality convenient for the artists. In Xu Zhen’s Shouting (1998) and Kan Xuan’s Kan Xuan! Ai!(1999), actions became a direction for interrupting order in public spaces. This kind of practice, similar to Dadaism and the Fluxus movement, was umbrellaed under the “Post-Sensibility” movement. The actions in the style of post-sensibility relied on instinctive site dominated by the senses while screaming was the most convenient and harmless way of activating such scene – only that Xu Zhen leaned towards mocking bystanders, while Kan Xuan anxiously sought out the self. Later, art practices such as Tang Dixin’sReed (2009) and Li Liao’s A Slap in Wuhan (2010) adopted different approaches. They set up unique scenarios for the encounters of the individual and others in reality, and assigned them with dramatic plots, to allow the relationships, either absurd or violent, to come true.Zhao Zhao’s Rain (2012) testifies for the artist’s acute perceptions of social reality, and through incisive intervention and poetic transformation, the artist adroitly transitions social events to art events, social politics to biopolitics. Interestingly, Each is a Corporate, and Each is a Product (2015); on the contrary, it tries to efface the difference between social events to art ones. Payne Zhu expanded his interests in the operational models of various social organizations. It is an acting competition of “take one to know one,” the artist adopted outrageously mad actions in intervening and destroying an illegal Ponzi scheme. Here, we are witnessing the collide between two kinds of “obsession.” Payne Zhu seems to suggest that translating social events to artistic events may be unnecessary, and the artist could engage in social life like a guerrilla, piercing through the imagination and deceit on the surface, as brief and ineffective as it may be. The artist’s performance made us suddenly realize that there is a mad mechanism of social performance behind economic activities and capitalism, which is not any less rational than the artist’s performance.
In the early stage of video art and extended films, there have been many examples related to dance. The dancers often adopted media landscape into their choreography, that would interact with video installation or projected projected images. However, we are not looking at trained professional dancers’ elegant movements or sophisticated choreography in the “Dancer” section, but the artists’ everyday bodies in free yet rich and expressive movements in off-stage settings. Jiang Zhi’s Fly, Fly (1997), and Chen Xiaoyun’s Drag (2006) present monotonous movements captured from multiple angles with compelling visual and auditory effects through post-production editing. Be the actor’s hand gesture mimicking wings, or the half-naked body pulling on a rope, either embodies the impressions of sensibility and impulse where corporeal gestures rhyme with the moving images to generate fluidity and resonance.In another group of works, the body becomes the vehicle for sensibility and imaginary space. Zhou Tao’s Mutual Exercise (2009) reminds one of a duet dance where the two actors’ familiarity and confidence with each other in their immediate living environment while unfolding their interactions with the various elements around them. They are the performers and residents; these parallel and non-contradictory identities allow them to maintain a harmonious and intimate relationship with the objects involved in the performance, while the camera lens’ gaze from a distance is similar to a resident passing by. Likewise, Hover (2017), Tong Wenmin’s “flying” trajectory switches between multiple public and private spaces. The feathers attached on her hands possibly suggest an impulse to escape, or perhaps romanticizing the imagination of an intimate space. Unlike Zhou Tao, her interactions with objects and the physical space becomes an effort of re-mapping; in other words, adopting private and corporeal geography to portray the world.In Golden Journey (2011), Lin Yilin played the role of an “intruder.” The artist rolled on the ground to slowly traverse urban landmarks, whose outstanding gesture becomes a distinct or even defiant contrast to other pedestrians. Being an alien to a place naturally provokes confusion, fear, or even anger to this kind of “on-site,” while Lin Yilin’s “mapping” attempts to touch on the anxiety and restlessness symptomatic of identity difference. Here, the body becomes a thinking organ, adopted for “intruding” the areas of overlap among different histories, cultures, and societies, and performance marks the mode of thinking. Zhang Qing’s Taxi Samba (2003) restores man’s existential anxiety to an animal instinct nervousness; for those who intrude into the car dance formation, all uncertainties about the self seem to dissipate in such playful atmosphere.

Lecture-performance is a productive topic at present. Its early prototype may be traced back to Robert Morris’ 1964 experiment. In that performance, Morris’s lip-synched his original recording while “reciting” the first chapter of Erwin Panofsky’s acclaimed volume, Studies in Iconography. During this performance, the artist’s “additional” small gestures – walking to the side of the podium, raise the water glass, hugging oneself – disrupted his synchronization to the soundtrack. The significance of this work lies in forecasting the fundamental principles of performance speech thereon: as an analytical tool, opening up the relationship between the document and the work, between the presentation and the mediation. Later on, Andrea Fraser further expanded the boundary and implications of lecture-performance, connecting it to the position of institutional critique. Inspired by Pierre Bourdieu, Fraser adopts the theory of the social site to criticize the institutionalization of knowledge and power structures in contemporary art and questions the relationship to capital.The four works in the “Speaker” section are all inclined to engage in institutional critique and skepticism in the knowledge production mechanism. In Xiangqian Museum(2010), Hu Xiangqian builds an “imaginary museum” from his body, memories, and language, underscoring the artist’s challenging to the value of art museum and its power of discourse. Li Ran’s Mont Sainte-Victoire (2012) explores the significance of “imitation” in artistic and intellectual histories through “dubbing” and “translation.” Dai Chenlian’s How to Become a Poser in the Art World (2012) is similar to a guideline for “success,” where the artist reflected on the internal discourse and logic of theater art and its vanity through commentary and satire. In The Trial (2013), Yao Qingmei’s heated discussion with the vending machine undoubtedly projected the limitations and dilemma in the “battle between the left and right” in the contemporary..
The last section, “Theatre,” includes two artworks. Interestingly, both Anorexia (2006) and Dilemma: Three-Way Fork (2007) are both related to the performance of “eating.” For Shi Qing, anorexia is a destined fate for those who have experienced modern Chinese history, and the root for such self-loathing ailment comes from the indigestible historical experience accumulated and fermented in the body, in other words, history is the spiritual and physical trauma in our throats or even what makes us gag. At the same time, Wang Jianwei’s “eating” is different. People from different times and forms eat boxed lunch and steam buns, filling up a supposedly empty stage, this synchronic scene allows us to realize the various textures and clues of history. These two artists perhaps have the most profound understanding of theatre among contemporary artists, although agree with the possibility that the form of theatre (for example, the distancing effect) may stimulate intellectual advancements and vice versa. However, both are reluctant to confine the relationship between the two on a formal level. Hence we could observe the highlighted significance of moving images: the vivacity of thoughts must be shaped collectively by the actor and camera lens, the stage and screen, the mis-en-scene and the montage, would they not be subdued to any conventional frameworks. For this reason, these two works are mainly different from what we often refer to them as audiovisual theatre or live theatre.
For this exhibition, I purposefully avoid the direction of video as documentation of performance and selected examples that integrate these two aspects. Since the birth of video art, it has exhibited cross-disciplinary and anti-medium specificity characteristics. In other words, each attempt at emphasizing medium specificity would introduce new “impurity,” and the new relationship of video art with its neighboring artistic forms. The case between video art and performance is such that, the interaction of the body and technology in recorded performance or performative video blend two different types of discourse, where the organic and the artificial, the immediate and the recorded, the flesh and the screen generate unavoidable friction and integration, these mark the points of departure for this exhibition, “Embodied Mirror.” From the video performances that embodied distinct conceptual affinities at the early stage, the elements of performance in Chinese video art gradually diversified, the artists adopted different types of technology and set cultural, social and political goals in expanding their practices. Presenting these five sections thematically, where “autobiography” addresses subjectivity, “Event” focuses on social features, “Dancer” emphasizes on corporeality, “Speaker” highlights institutional critique, and “Theatre” projects intellectualism, this kind of organization may undoubtedly run into some risks. The process of selection has been especially tricky. As a stylistic practice, while the imposed consolidation would achieve a certain degree of clarity.“Embodied Mirror” points to the fact that video art does not necessarily provide the “stage” for performance, but a “mirror” or “exit” to access the world. It does not necessarily emancipate the body or to isolate it from the confines of social and historical discourses but to provide new strategic device or decoder. The body becomes the embodiment of “eternity” and “transmission” in the context of moving image, and in such context, the medium becomes a new scenario of life. Meanwhile, the subject’s response to reality translates into a shared media sensibility.

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