Li Xinmo: A Performance Artist in China
Performance art has a genuine history in America, where it was launched by people like Carol Schneeman, whose group performance entitled Meat Joy took place in 1964. For the Chinese artist, there has also been a history of performance art, although it began some twenty years after Schneeman's erotic, polemical presentation; in particular, the art of Zhang Huang comes to mind as an early performance artist of exceptional talent and grit. His remarkable event, in 1994, entitled 12 Square Meters, consisted of his sitting naked in a filthy public lavatory for approximately an hour; covered with fish oil, his body attracted flies that intensified the discomfort Zhang endured. At the same time, not only in the West but also in China, there has been the development of women becoming performance artists; Beijing-based Xiao Lu's shooting of her installation 1988 was a shot heard around the world, which took her action as a blow for democracy. Xin Mo belongs to this burgeoning group of ambitious female artists, who perform secular rituals that pay attention to social, political, and ecological issues.
Xinmo, who was trained in Chinese ink painting and calligraphy at the Tianjin Academy of Fine Art, felt after a period of time that the traditional arts did not satisfy her need to express herself, and so she turned to contemporary art. She began teaching in Tianjin, at the institute of Modern Art, which is very much devoted to avant-garde concerns; with this change of venue, Xinmo decided to emphasize performance art as her major way of working. It seems that women lead in the medium of performance art; the Western philosopher and critic, Arthur C. Danto, has commented that women are particularly strong as performance artists. This proficiency may have something to do with the way in which women are expected to perform for the male gaze, from very early on in their lives. The female experience, often dedicated to entertaining and appeasing men and their gaze, has made them exuberant performers. Usually, feminist performance artists are committed to building a sense of solidarity among the female members of the audience and to tearing down the assumptions and conceit of male society, eager as it is to maintain the perquisites of power. As contemporary art has determined, the imagination is naturally an expression not only of beauty but also of social force; and the notion of performance inherently speaks to the desire for group integrity among a united body of people. Performance art comes close to being contemporary ritual, which can offer solace to those of us who feel alienated from social customs that no longer recognize people's deep need for shared belief.
Xinmo is one of the more interesting artists working in performance art in China today. Much of her work has to do with protest and the propagation of personal ethics; in the works that will be described, Xinmo has made pollution a powerful theme. She creates, like Zhang Huan, extremely uncomfortable circumstances for herself in order to emphasize the imminent catastrophe of China's fragile ecological environment. Her art is consequently political, although it is couched in the language of individual, personal protest. Additionally, Xinmo has created a memorial of a personal tragedy, the 2008 murder of a female art student in Tianjin, whose corpse was thrown into the river. The conflation of private and public moralities in this particular piece reminds us of the art of the Cuban-American artist Ana Mendieta, another early, highly gifted practitioner of performance art who worked with nature to express longing and an awareness of mortality. Like Mendieta, Xinmo sees a continuum between the private and the public, and strives to commemorate the microcosm of the individual and the macrocosm of nature. Intrinsic to Xinmo's search for a public self is the awareness that yearning for change is not the same as effecting change-there is a kind of futility built into the moment of the performance, whose pointing to the problem by no means ensures that the problem will be solved.
In her action titled Death of the Xinkai River, Xinmo addresses the severe pollution of that body of water, which is one of the major rivers in Tianjin and previously nourished the city. Now, however, the river is overwhelmingly dirty--in large part because of the excessive discharge of industrial pollutants. According to Xinmo, every summer the river gives off putrid smells, and a vast quantity of blue-green algae covers the water's surface. In the spring of 2008, a female first-year student at the Tianjin Academy of Art was murdered, and her body thrown into the river. To protest this violent crime, Xin held a performance in which she gradually submerged herself in the Xinkai River. Wearing all white, she slowly walked into the dead water and its stench, becoming a corpse herself for the moment of her action. Xinmo points out that both the river and the young woman are dead, victims of different kinds of violence, but victims nonetheless. She comments, "Perhaps intentionally, I want to make death visible before us, to make people see their crimes." This powerful performance becomes an elegy not only for nature, in the form of a river, but also for human nature, which after all is central to the interests of art.
Performed at the Dadao Art Exhibit, A Farewell Ritual also explores the relations between the private and the public; Xinmo again points out how pollution might affect the individual, who often has no defense against the contamination of nature. For this action, Xinmo had a very large glass box placed in the performance space. The glass container was then gradually filled with water gathered from a polluted river that flows from Tianjin to Beijing. Wearing all white clothing, Xinmo got into the box while the foul water was being poured into the container. The freezing cold, putrid-smelling water continued to cover Xinmo, even while she had difficulty breathing and groaned in discomfort. When the water covered her completely, the performance ended. As Xinmo comments, "I'm just like a fish approaching death, lying in polluted, dirty water. This is the environment in which I live. The spectators are watching the process of my death; in the same way, many Chinese people can walk past a dying person and not even notice her or him. Sometimes the heart can be colder than freezing water." The quotation clearly places Xinmo as a moralist in contemporary art; her choice of performance accentuates the public force of her political beliefs, which she intimates cannot be severed from personal concerns that are of moral interest to everyone.
In a third performance, entitled A Poem Written in Water, Xinmo again dresses in white, as a symbol of purity. In this action, Xinmo sits in the water, writing a poem in vermilion ink.(This is a Tang poem, describing the beautiful natural.) Traces of the red words spread outward in the water, and at the end of the event, there remained on the white silk cloth stained spots that resembled tears. For A Poem Written in Water, Xinmo uses the contemporary art form of performance, as well as referencing Asian notions of the inherent-and inevitable-changes people face in life. As Xinmo points out, the work was developed as a performance piece, but the writing resulted in the creation of an abstract work of art, in the form of the stained areas on the white cloth she was wearing. Xinmo's art often refers to the understanding that life is impermanent and quite literally stained by pollution. In these primal performances, Xinmo looks to overwhelm her audience with images of distress and suffering; and a large part of her effect stems from our recognition that she is undergoing actual pain. Performance artists are able to make issues clear to their viewers because they tend to express themselves in images of clear vulnerability and anguish; Xinmo mock dies in her performances, but there is enough real distress in them that we worry for her safety and health.
This is where Xinmo's art, like the art of all good performance artists, commands a response from her audience. Often, in order for a sacred community to exist, the members of the group must experience an extreme experience in a shared fashion. Xinmo's mock death is such an experience, without which we would not be galvanized into changing our minds about pollution or the inevitability of death. Clearly Xinmo's art regularly deals with situations that are close to being unbearable, with the result that responsibility for her suffering is intended to include everyone watching her physical discomfort during the performance. This is not an art that entertains or that underscores lightly the effects of existence; nor is it subtle in its intimations of mortality. Indeed, Xinmo presses her arguments to the point where the viewer is faced with an either-or predicament: either one accepts the weighty negativity of Xin's artistic decision or one disavows the sense of responsibility that is key to her art. In actuality, there is no choice in the matter-simply by viewing the action, one becomes a witness, someone who is meant to respond to Xinmo's unmitigated pain. In fact, it can be argued that the audience has no choice but to submit to the effects of her suffering, at least in an emotional sense-the artist communicates not only the emotional consequences of her choices, but the experience itself, which her viewers must bear.
Thus, to focus on the experience in Xinmo's art is to become, with her, a fellow supplicant, vulnerable to the toxic effects of pollution and change. The universalism of her outlook is symbolic but also genuinely all encompassing: throughout the world, we all experience the pollution of nature and the awareness of death. Sharing our recognition that there are problems beyond our control may bring about the determination to solve them, even if we understand that our actions are only partially effective and, at times, merely symbolic-much like Xinmo's art. Performance art shows us that the shared imagination of the artist and her audience easily becomes a precursor for group action in response to an actual problem. Thus, Xinmo's activities belong to a kind of artificial experience that behaves as real experience in order to galvanize her viewers into genuine protest. The key to Xinmo's imagination is found in her ability to symbolically present practical knowledge as if it were genuine, that is, as if the imagination's reading of pollution and death were not affected by the artificiality of art. We thus understand that Xinmo's performances are a cry for a changed reality, one aligned with the unhappy truths of Chinese society: for example, the pervasive problem of pollution accompanying economic development. In actions like Xinmo's, the line between what is imagined and what is real is impossibly thin, so that the audience cannot tell whether Xinmo's predicament is actual or imaginary. Perhaps it is both.
In consequence, Xinmo's art becomes a meditation on the gap between art and experience; it brilliantly bridges the two categories. Additionally, like many Chinese intellectuals and artists, Xinmo comments on the absurdity of a one-party government and its effect upon imaginative works. In Ashes, Xinmo is brave enough to face the Chinese government's grievous mistreatment of its country's intellectuals: she writes numbers on a piece of paper, which are actually years of extraordinary political change-1949, 1950, 1951···1976, 1989-and sets the paper on fire, distributing the ashes among the audience. The years mentioned are based on the founding of Communist China and the subsequent history of its suppressions, in which many, many thousands of people died. Xinmo puts it simply: "The work is a memorial to those dead." In an even more extreme political gesture, a performance entitled National Memory, pictures of a liberated China were projected onto the walls of the exhibition space, including news and records of the establishment of a Communist government. Xinmo then appeared nude, and using a sharp knife, cut the number 1 into her body, with the single vertical line of blood referring to the authoritarian dictatorship of a single party. The performance was then concluded with the sound of roaring tanks. Xinno comments, "By contrasting national news with individual suffering, this work points to the emotional and physical domination and destruction that occurs against individuals under a dictatorship. The scar becomes a permanent memory of the nation imprinted on the body."
Xinmo belongs to a younger, different generation than that of Xu Bing, Zhang Huan, and others, whose early idealism still stands out as a way of handling pressures from the government. But, according to Xinmo, even that group is now changing in response to China's commercialism, which has made art primarily a commodity. Now that the artist's attitude has adapted to prosperity, in the hope of selling artworks and making money, the new generation has its work cut out for them. Young artists must struggle to maintain idealism at a time when it is no longer valued by Chinese society. One of the more radical attributes of Xinmo's art is the fact that, being a performance, it cannot be sold in a gallery. In this way, Xinmo's actions belong to work that rebels against the materialism that is currently so strong in her culture. Inevitably, it seems, any artwork based upon experience, as opposed to being a constructed object, will present a critique of the society to which it belongs. Xinmo knows that her work can hardly result in a revolution in attitude, much less a revolution in action. But she persists in creating work that registers deeply in both the Chinese psyche and the outlook of an international audience, no matter who they are. In her courageous pieces, the space between the imagination and reality is momentarily closed, with consequences that last.