• Commitment and Practice in Female Performance Art

Commitment and Practice in Female Performance Art: Political Perspective in Bald Girls

Hao Qingsong

Due to the confusion in contemporary art and its ambiguity, the position of feminist art and its value to Chinese art are still hard to understand. For a long time, the self-awareness about female subject consciousness has remained self-deceptive, so the social consciousness of the natural gender equality failed to build natural female subject consciousness of self-esteem. Instead, the solemn-looking mask covered up women's awareness of individualism that is based on human nature, and even twisted their rational cognition of themselves. As a result, there is a lack of understanding, or ignorance about feminist art, or sometimes people tend to be amazed at the sentimentality of women's work of art without penetrating into the underlying significance. They talk about female art, but not about its value and its role in the contemporary world in the perspective of existence. Therefore, a conscientious feminist artist has not only to fight against (get detached from, stand separately from and remain different from) the male-dominated society and the canon of male art but also deny themselves and rid themselves of the superficial obscurity and pomposity.

Exported from the West, Feminism and even feminist art made a rift in the darkness and giving off a ray onto this wasteland. It takes great courage to enlarge the rift to allow for more light of truth, to avoid confusion from Chinese reality and to assimilate the essence from the West.

As a title, Bald Girls, homonymic to The Bald Prima Donna, a famous play in the school of Theatre of the Absurd, is intended for the absurdity in present China. This title lends a intelligible quality to this exhibition and a touch of sadness from our everyday life in which not only women but also people as a whole have to be armed and to fight. Therefore, the artists have to be courageous enough to break the overwhelming darkness.

Three female artists stand out bravely: Li Xinmo, Xiao Lu and Lan Jiny.

Feminist art, derived from the history and reality based on gender inequality, established and reinforces their legitimacy on the basis of ideology. The understanding, based on the difference in social construction lays bare the vanity of reality and penetrates the physical features of the human body. This does not mean, however, female art can become profound as long as it turns to society as form, because the human body is by no means superficial, as Wittgenstein pointed out, "The human body is the map of the soul". The human body has been neglected for a long time and in many places just because there is no soul in the corporeal form, let alone the awakening of the soul. In the awakened female consciousness, the body is the most fundamental and independent physical property, which provides a resting place for the soul in the subconscious world. The human body thus becomes the most immediate outlet that connects her history of being watched with her practice of self-justification.

Closely related to female art, performance art therefore has become one of the principal means of expression. The three female artists, to whom Bald Girls is devoted to, has a lot to do with the body experience and its practice not only in terms of performance and installation but also of traditional painting.

Xiao Lu made her name for the shots at the First National Modern Art Exhibition. Dialogue, her installation about love, featured a hung-up telephone that joined two telephone booths with different symbolic meanings. The mere connection between the meaning and the image was far from enough for Xiao Lu to express her feeling, so she took a teacher's advice that there had to be an exterior force that could break the totality of the work. She fired two shots at the exhibition site with a pistol she borrowed. She could not have expected that the exhibition was shut and, more importantly, that the shot seemed to be a prophet of the end of an age that came a half year later. The installation had remained as it was first planned. It might have been forgotten long ago. When Xiao Lu intervened in this work with her body, coupled with her brave action and shots, she was placed in an important position, along with her Dialogue in the history of art. Communication seemed to be always impossible and the shots and her action are given eternity. When she returned to China fifteen years later, she still remembered clearly her brave shots at The National Art Museum. She thus extended it into her present works in which she, as brave as she was fifteen years ago, fired fifteen shots to say goodbye to her illusion of "dialogue".

She carried on her practice in performance art and derived from it other imagination in material form to formulate her life philosophy. In her performance Wedding, she got married to herself, lending such an important moment as wedding sense of emptiness, though it was accompanied by the clamorous public and glamorous body. It is a farewell to her body that was devoid of soul in the past fifteen years, as well as confidence and promise to the autonomous, though lonely, body. The confidence enabled her to collect sperms from men in Sperms, which, in a shocking manner, challenged the conventional ethics. Standing for the source of life and esteem of the body, sperms, according to the public ethics, should not be given away carelessly and it has to be related to private promise and family bond. In such a morally chaotic age as ours, the esteem of the body is meaningless. Xiao Lu was challenging the bottom line of male body and psychology and measuring to what extent they respected their bodies. She probably experienced momentary pleasure in the pervasive awkwardness. With the disconnected body and society, along with the social ritual that tinged with irony, she was amused and sneered at the empty ritual in the consumer society. She needed to avoid the conflict between the characteristics and restore confidence in communication in a common sense. Faced with a world with false prosperity, Xiao Lu's close questioning showed extraordinary power from the reality.

Remarkably sensitive to concepts, Li Xinmo used to excel in traditional brush work, but in reflections, she awakened herself and made a sharp turn in concepts and plunged into contemporary art. As a brave artist, she keeps questioning and practicing with her life.

The sociological turn in contemporary art is not limited to a form of narration that lies across boundaries, but more importantly, in the standpoint of art in society. Preaches, kitsch and cynic art all deal with social issues, but they are in a value vacuum, ignoring the human reality. The road to art is always paved with hardship, and only those who lead a serious life can come to the realization that the significance of life lies in its hardship. The reality is by no means perfect, and human beings have to pursue an ideal world. The endless way paved with paradoxes, sadness and absurdity. Those hedonic, selfish and arbitrary people can ignore the reality and indulge in the false prosperity, but an honest thinker cannot thanks to the conscience derived from the human esteem. In a so-called prosperous society, somebody who pretends to be a fool will not meet with strong criticism, but it will be a humiliation to a self-demanding thinker. She must talk and she must cry out. She lead the much tortured survivors in the gold ore into art, with their dry and heart-breaking voice and indifferent and helpless looks. In her performance art, she revived the soul of the girl who was pushed by evils into another world at a young age and restore the shocking scene of death to question the on-lookers' conscience. From Death on Xinkai River to A Farewell Ritual, Li Xinmo traveled in the plight of human and nature with her own body until it reaches the destiny of death, vividly depicting material and spiritual crisis of human existence. Art that is courageous enough to challenge the public silence established its own stance and its fundamental value lay in independence. Sociology of art is not neutral sociological analysis but value judgment that expresses human stance. In this case, both female and the body, as an approach, are committed to the high value of art and human being.

Female art starts with gender inequality, so it has to break the silence and assert itself, and it also means opposition. Female art is still valid in this state and stage, for the unbalanced reality might get more and more obscure in the urban material world, but it is still distinct and deep-rooted in the vast city skirts, pigeonholes, mines, blind mountains and the midnight world. The marginality of female identity is not limited to itself but co-exists with marginality of any kind with which women fight for their esteem as human being. Li Xinmo succeeded in breaking the silence and giving her voice as minority. The voice is about life and ecology, society and politics, for she regard them as part of her body. In her art, the body, carrier of concepts and language, is the immediate victim of mental and physical injury. She is brave because she is courageous enough to expose her own wound and get hurt again in art, believing that only the physical pain can recall the pain in the world. Her body consequently invariably grows out of the spiritual ruin and find itself in an awful natural and cultural predicament, which undoubtedly challenges the indifferent on-lookers who revel in watching the human body. In this sense, Li Xinmo's performance art is different from the lust of the flesh in consumerism.

The shift to body after Nietzsche and Foucault put an end to the tyranny by subject, reason and knowledge since Plato and Descartes, which helped the body and perception, desire and impulse it stands for to pave the way for the philosophy of human nature and played an important role in contemporary art. The problem today is, however, after the body's rebellion against the mind, human beings are physically emancipated and become isolated from reason and divinity. The unconstrained desire and physical gratification were soon replaced by the body's defeat and the imbalance between the corporeal form and the soul. Li Xinmo is quite alert to it as the dichotomy of the body and the soul is the key note in the western ontology, which resulted in the alternate failure of the body and the soul. The soul is directed at the soul, and it is from the body that the primal details or the chaos come, which accounts for the reason and the divinity on the way to the known and the unknown. The body is the forum of the soul. Facing the soft real world of our body, we have not only to return to our soul but also to keep reflecting on the discourse endless manner in which the soul and the body take turn to go on campaigns. The new shift to the body calls for the concurrence of the body and the soul in order to save the depraved corporeal form in the consumer society. Li Xinmo put these ideas into practice in her art owing to her post-female consciousness that is embodied in her ongoing pursuit of justice, democracy and equality. A Love Song Written in Water, a performance art went a step further than the common realistic discourse, expressing the lament at the loss of emotion in the real world without concealing her wishes for the future.

By contrast to Xiao Lu and Li Xinmo, Lan Jiny has a more liberal female subject consciousness. Exposed to overseas life and culture for many years, she went beyond her peers in China in terms of thinking and behavior pattern. A perspective of "the other" to retrospect has nothing to do with herself but with the meaning that comes from the comparison with the viewers. Liberated from the natural and social narrative of the past or the surroundings, she focuses on the joy that her body experiences. The pride centered on the body, coupled with the sense of superiority in the gender difference, differs her from the indigenous feminist art. Her instinct gives her voice, for she gives priority to the joy and pleasures the human body experiences. As one of the starters of body writing, she challenged the traditional thematic and reflective writing. She values perception and the physical quality of human existence. The pleasure a individual's body experiences is not necessarily to be kept in secret, so in her art, the public debate on body writing becomes visual and scripts and icons mix with and refer to each other, so the open mind gives pleasure. Her oil paintings give a natural description of the changes in her life, body and the mind. The essence of self appreciation is active confirmation of the truth rather than "the other" in men's eye. On the contrary, she puts "the other" in art in a position where women were viewed in history, reinforcing the free state of the subject by destroying the absurdity in the traditional reading.

The mind and the absolute pleasure the human body experience are unified in her art, which differs her body writing and her body art from art of the "lower body part" that "stars with the body and ends with it". The happiness the body experiences and the recognition of the self are in a unity, so the happiness to understand the body consists in the finding of the identity of the self. Lan Jiny offers a beautiful blueprint for female art, in which an individual can approach the future in a real sense.

In the history of art, the body is always present, and even its absence is one way of presence. Contemporary female art is present in a more concrete sense. No matter it is the body that Xiao Lu extends in the crossing of the physical property and life ritual or the one Li Xinmo directly represented, restored and performed, or the one Lan Jiny was quite confident about when she challenged "the other's" power to view they are present. They take up and put female subject consciousness in practice.

In the context of current China, feminist art makes up a new force of criticism, questioning the gloomy reality. The burden of history and the temptation of consumption add performance art too much of economic and cultural qualities and devoid it of a political perspective. In the post-totalitarianist and hedonist China, the consumption of the body has become a fashion. The subject is as empty as it used to be, for in the past, it was ethical to get sacrified to morals and classes and in the present it turns to consumption. We get the so-called free consumption at the cost of political freedom, and the first obstacle to the body's awakening is the lost control of the body. Therefore, how to understand and keep control of the body is essential for the independence as a human being. As the title of the exhibition suggests, revitalizing and highlighting the political perspective in the Chinese reality that is still effective, it is more than necessary to attach great importance to independent female consciousness in performance art.