• Li Xinmo: An Avant-Garde Critical Realist Artist in China

Li Xinmo: An Avant-Garde Critical Realist Artist in China

Tong Yujie

In contrast to the preciosity and ambiguity of consumerism that is popular among the mainstream female artists in China, Li Xinmo distinguished herself as one of the most avant-garde critical realist feminist artists in China for her keen awareness of the questioning of culture.

She had a video performance series Vagina's Memory. She told us about her understanding of the text of female production. "In the performance, the tools used in abortion and bearing were put into the vagina in order to convey the physical and mental memory left to women in abortion and bearing."

As Li Xinmo said, the meaning of performance did not lie in itself but in the physical memory it evoked, in other words, to turn the unforgettable pain into a memory for her to forget. As a girl, she had her puppy love that gave her the painful experience of abortion. As a passionate woman, she had strong affection for men and believes in the sincerity of the love from an opposite sex, which gave her a child as the result of the heterosexual love. All the sexual experience was concentrated on the pain her vagina suffered, along with the more painful experience of the mind. By turning the spiritual pain into visual images, she pieced up the fragments of her painful memory into a life ritual for her to question the culture. In her video performance there is a startling paradoxical visual contrast between the real exposed female genital organ and a number of virtual and destructive tools. Here, the resources of images from the physical memory were reshuffled in this painful journey in the inner world. The revolver, symbolic of the phallus, the screw drivers and some rhizome plants were put against the vaginal outlet, leaving some bloodstains. The allegorical treatment of the scalpels and infusion sets near the female genital was suggestive every moment of women's painful experience due to her gender, either in abortion or in bearing. In Li Xinmo's words, the image magnified the experience and damage the vagina suffered. The sharp contrast between the objects seems to remind us that it is a special experience of a wounded woman. Then why is the vaginal experience always the most sensitive to pain? What does the vaginal mean to a woman?

Yindao (meaning both the vagina and the Yin doctrine) assumes its properties on two levels, the political and the material. Its political properties come from the formation of the universe, i.e., Yin and Yang in the Book of Changes. According to Change: Earth, the earth and the sky form a contrast, with the earth for Yin and the sky for Yang , from which derives the principles of the Yin, such as that of the son, of the official and of the woman . The official, the son and the woman all stand for Yin with the Emperor, the father and the husband Yang. In Ancient China, the officials were to be subject to the emperor, the son his father and the wife her husband. There was no way for an official to say no to the emperor; neither did a son to his father nor a wife to her husband. In the hierarchical relationship based on Yin and Yang, the doctrine of the ruled, such as the official, the wife and the son, was called Yin in the political ethics in ancient China. As to its material property, the vagina refers to the female genital organ. It is a paradox of the Yin doctrine in a male dominates society, a conspiracy between its political property and material property, which gave women a passive role both in politics and social life.

In the patriarchal culture, the vagina is the way to production and a way to meet the men's sexual drive. In The Bible, Eve was tempted by the serpent to eat the forbidden fruit, so God warned her that she would suffer the pain of bearing as a punishment. In ancient China, women were regarded only as a reproduction tool, and to get married to the emperor meant giving as much birth as possible. The importance of women, if there was, lay in its role as a tool to give birth and to nurse. In the feudal society, there were seven conditions under which a man could divorce his wife, and infertility was just one of them. Reproduction was the only political and cultural heritage that survived after the transition of the matrilineal society to a patrilineal one. As the division based on sex and economic exchange grew, the female body became a commodity. The female genital organ became not only a reproductive tool but also something to release men's sexual drive. In classical literature, the female genital organ was described as a "flower path" or "flower in a beautiful yard" in order to conform to the male aesthetics while meeting their sexual desire. In literature, masculinity was described so vividly as "to storm the pistil". In modern Western literature, however, the vagina was often prejudicially described as something ugly. In her Sexual Politics, Kate Millet, a feminist critic in America, gave a great many such examples in Western literature. Take the American novelist Henry Miller for example. In his Tropic of Cancer, the public region was compared to an ugly cut, a wound that would never heal or a detestable gutter, etc. To mount sexual attacks on women's genital organ in literary texts was an invention. When it comes from a man, the sexual damage is worth considering. Li Xinmo's Vagina's Memory turned the sexual assault she suffered into a photograph performance. Though the artist called it a disappeared art scene, the exposed public region, the revolver, the scalpel and other tools that contrived the violence and bloodstains became evidence of the sexual assault.

To a woman, single or unmarried, the blood from the vagina can be interpreted in several ways. It can be menses, the physical sign of female maturity or the blood from the rupture of the hymen on the night of the wedding or from violent sexual assault. Culturally speaking, the painful memory of the vagina is also that of the mind. In ancient times in China when the bloodstains symbolized virginity, the most important task for the bridegroom, in a large family in particular, is to "find the blood" after the intercourse with the bride on the wedding night. Next morning the bridegroom had to hang the hankerchief that was stained by the rupture of the hymen in order to show that the bride was a virgin. It was called "virginity check". There were even special terms for the intercourse with a virgin, such as "kaibao" (literally meaning "opening the bud") and "pogua" (literally meaning "breaking the melon"). These abusive and discriminatory terms entered the folk language. The rupture of the hymen was called "luohong". The bride who did not have blood from the rupture of the hymen would be beaten up and dismissed to her parents. Lin Xinmo's Wedding Night turned the climax of the heterosexual wedding, i.e., the intercourse, into something strange and changeful that deconstructed and integrated the two sexes. "Luohong", rupture of the hymen, which was regarded the symbol of virginity by the patriarchal society, was invisible in the work. Instead, only some suggestive elements shuttled between the real and the virtual, giving rise to a symbolic and absurd mixture of life. The result is a weird sign of life with some sex elements, but it is also a weapon that denies the rules about sex. The work does not features men or women, but the absurd and sexual sign of life made up of sex symbols was put into the newly-wed's room. It is not only an irony to the rules about sex ethics in the heterosexual practice but also a challenge and attack on the history and the status quo of marriage based on gender inequality.

Her consciousness of cultural questioning and critical realist art perspective come for her own life experience of sexual suffering and her questioning of the social reality in which women are wlays victims to sex. Her video performance Death on Xinkai River, was based on a college girl of the first year at a university in Tianjin, who was raped and thrown into the heavily polluted Xinkai River. With this work, she hoped to show her mourning to a life. Dressed in white, Li Xinmo moved, step by step, into the stinky river covered with blue-green algae until she got immersed. Her performance was a double metaphor. On one hand, a girl was raped, killed and thrown into the river, so it is the end of life; on the other, covered with algae, the stinky and polluted river symbolizes the death of the ecosystem. The double cultural metaphor exerted strong visual impact. This work enlarged the performance into a ritual aimed to call attention to life on a wider scale. In A Funeral, she dressed in white, lay in a glass coffin. The dirty water from polluted rivers in Beijing, Tianjin and other cities was poured into the coffin until she was immersed. "Like a dying fish, I lay in the polluted dirty water. It is where I live my life. The audience watched me dying as many Chinese did when they could have save somebody dying but they pretended as if nothing had happened. Sometimes a heart is much freezing than the river in winter." Li Xinmo expressed her strong feeling as the player in the performance. Her individual performance can also be understood as a warning about the cultural co-existence, in other words, any hurt, whether on the individual level or on the public one, derives not only from the abuse of the individual culture but also from its indifference. By now, her attention to life has reached a higher cultural level, including individual life into the public one, or even the ecosystem before returning to question the individual life. It is a revolutionary production system of art images.

To any women with physiological experience, the menses makes them helpless. The metaphor of blood always involves a sad life experience. As a feminist artist, Li Xinmo was more sensitive to blood than most women. In Vagina's Memory, each image of the vagina had bloodstains on the metal tools. If the bloodstains are evidence of the sexual assaults, her Menses' Self Portrait was a recreated text of female reproduction, tracing the pain she suffered as the result of the natural life rhythm. As essential physiological female feature, menses symbolizes the life circle. Painted in menses, this work is more directed at the gender politics. Firstly, the menses, as a unique painting medium for women, involves politics. A self portrait with menses gave a special visual experience with blood, creating a texture causing visual pain. To the artist, it is more on the spiritual level. The "pain" is not directed to herself but also to the audience as a whole (both men and women). It changed the self defined image of life in the form of "my beauty", and also denied the ethics about women in the traditional male-dominated discourse. One of the most important features of gender politics is to build a female discourse system after demolishing the male dominated one to establish women's social identity. The concepts and techniques involved in this work serve her political purpose. Majored in Chinese ink painting, Li Xinmo knew quite well the physical property of blood as fluid. Ink-splashing enabled the blood that would otherwise dry very soon to move on the paper, leaving everywhere it went a natural and special atmosphere. Despite the bloodiness and violence the self-portrait evoked to the viewer, the skillful application of the techniques reduced the effect of uneasiness on the part of the audience. It is not that she creates bloody scenes because she loves it, and it is true of violence. She is very clear about her own political purpose, that is, to protest, in the form of the blood and violence of her own body, against the political inequality imposed on the female body. Or she was calling attention with the unique physiological feature that the female body itself is a political symbol of wound. She sacrificed her own blood of life to her soul with Menses' Self Portrait, a recreation of female reproduction. Culturally speaking, the value of bravely facing the bloody and painful individual experience in life and transforming it into a collective experience lies in the fact that the greatness of female life is connected with the pain of life, and the greatness and pain of the life are fundamental to the production and creation of human life.

There are not many Chinese artists like Li Xinmo, who can combine art practice with art criticism. The dual art activity gives her profundity and enlarges her scope. As an avant-garde critical realist artist, Li Xinmo is always ready to question culturally and stick to her peculiarity as an artist. It is her contribution to the Chinese art scene in the post-industrial information age, when consumerism became the predominant values. It also shows that Chinese critical realist female artists have grown into a significant academic force in the arena of contemporary art. Clear consciousness of their role in questioning the current culture as a critical realist artist leads to the conclusion that humanistic reflection is vital to the cultural role amid the cultural and political intervention into contemporary art. The discussion of human nature includes gender issues, though gender only provides one prospective in the discussion about human nature. Our inquiry into human nature requires that, in our critical realist art practice, we have to take into consideration the inequality between human beings in life, between human being and society. Here where human nature starts in art and culture is significant because artists' stand point and attitude depend on the role of culture. The paradoxical growth of culture's dual role is the critical realist attitude in contemporary art, which is embodied in the role of culture and vision in art practice. In the interaction between the artist's cultural role and the role in his art practice, the paradox of the duality of the role lies in questioning and criticism of the inequality in the society based on different roles. Li Xinmo, as a avant-garde critical realist Chinese artist, captured the essence of respect for the value of human nature in the cultural imagination in certain social dimension.

July 26, 2011
Notes to Li Xinmo's Vagina's Memory
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