Pushing Boundaries: performance art in China (and its relationship to photography)


Zhang Huan, 65KG , 1994, performance, Beijing, China

In ‘Performance art and its constraints’, Thomas Berghuis outlines two distinctive characteristic of Chinese performance art: its reliance on auxiliary medium and its collaborative nature, both of which apply to the work of one of China’s best-known performance artists, Zhang Huan.

Member of Beijing’s East Village, Zhang Huan began making performances in the early 1990s after schooling as a painter in the Oil Painting Department in Beijing’s Central Academy of Art. When asked what made him give up painting and take up performance, he said:

“My decision to do performance art is directly related to my personal experience. I have always had troubles in my life. And these troubles often ended up in physical conflicts. I often […] felt that the world around me seemed to be intolerant of my existence. […] I found that, with my dress style, I was never welcomed by others. […] All of these troubles happened to my body. This frequent body contact made me realize the very fact that the body is the only direct way through which I come to know society and society comes to know me. […] I found that painting for me lacked the possibility of expressing the directness that I felt through contact with the body. […] I realized that any medium beyond my body seemed too remote from myself.”[1]


Zhang Huan, Rubens, 2000, Performance, Museum S.M.A.K., Gent, Belgium

In 1994, after finishing his studies, Huan moved to East Village where he found a community of likeminded artists with whom – and to whom he performed some of his best-known performances, such as 12m2. Due to the risk of censorship and imprisonment, [2] this work was never conceptualised as a live, public performance but a private event that would be photographed and shown to the public as an image.[3] While in the West, in order to escape “the palace gates of high art”[4], performance artists used alternative spaces such as streets and public squares to show their work; here in China, even those spaces were unavailable to them.[5] As a result a unique kind of performance art developed – one that relied heavily on documentation and was consequently envisioned, consumed and experienced in a particular way. Thomas Berghuis calls this “deferred” performance.[6]


Zhang Huan, 12m2, 1994, performance, Beijing, China (photo by Rong Rong)


Deferred performance varies from the “direct”[7] one (which is commonly practiced in the West and some Asian countries such as Japan and Singapore) in a few significant ways. In direct performance, for instance, artists highlight the importance of active audience participation[8] and emphasise the process over the finished product.[9] Here in China, on the other hand, such audience participation is rarely if ever possible and artists have no luxury to abandon the art-object. Instead, they depend on it (i.e. on a photograph) as a transmitter of idea, a bulletin that reports on a performance that has already taken place. The audience, thus, receives the performance as “simulacra,”[10] visually rather than through any of the other senses – such as smell, touch, or sound – which are all stimulated in direct performances.[11] The question, however, is whether this “reliance on visual experience,”[12]and the loss of the fuller phenomenological impact can ever adequately convey live performance? Isn’t it only the following verbal description that enables us to fully grasp Huan’s work – to imagine what it would feel like to directly experience his performance?

 “Zhang Huan said that he would do an experiment in the dirtiest and smelliest public toilet in the East Village. […] In the toilet, and completely naked, he would cover himself with fish sauce and honey. Countless flies would be attracted to his body, for a whole hour!

 11:30 am yesterday, Ai Weiwei, Curse, Kong Bu and Xu San arrived at the toilet. Weiwei and I selected a spot for Zhang Huan. Zhang Huan put a stool in the walkway before the latrine pits, and we set up a stationary camera focusing on him. Zhang Huan took off all of his clothes, letting Curse cover his body with the concoction. In a few minutes, swarms of flies started covering his body. I had put on a mouth cover that I had prepared the day before. You know how stinky that public toilet is. On top of that, it was more than 38 degrees centigrade yesterday. I don’t know how I managed to take pictures in those conditions; all I can remember was the noise of the flies and the sound of the shutter lens. Amazingly, Zhang Huan remained unflinching, even with the flies moving about and biting him. More and more flies accumulated, on his face and his nose. The worst was watching flies trying to get into his ears. Still Zhang Huan didn’t flinch a bit, sitting as still as a statue. Holding my camera, I felt that I couldn’t breathe, it felt like the end of life.”[13]


The necessity of this description brings few questions to mind, namely whether some of the crucial elements of the live performance have been lost in a photographic image? Does the image transfer the gruelling ordeal that Zhang Huan went through? Is retinal experience disturbing enough, and consequently effective enough? As noted by Singaporean artist, Cheo Chai-Hiang, “to simply look at something does not constitute a critical appraisal.”[14] The corporeal experience of our own physical discomfort seems to be decisive for the full effect of Huan’s work which was meant to shake us and alert as to a pressing socio-political issue, i.e. a sanitary condition of a public toilet.[15] Furthermore, another crucial element is lost in the photograph and that element is time, the duration of the work. The photograph is, after all, only an abstracted moment of the overall event that lasted for sixty minutes and in which the endurance played a significant role. If the photograph is already still in its nature, how can it convey Huan’s “unflinching”-ness that so impressed the viewer of the live event?[16]

All of the above leads to somewhat controversial question: Can we even talk about this work as performance art? Isn’t it simply a photograph? Some viewers are surprised when learning what the work is actually about – before knowing, and by simply looking at the image, they are mesmerized by the aesthetic quality of the image, finding it serene and beautiful. In fact, it is this serenity – “the Zen like calm”[17] – of the image that surprised Huan himself. So are the image of a performance and the performance one and the same? Or is the image of a performance an artwork in its own right with its own aesthetic (and monetary) value?

To answer this complicated and contagious question, we need to look back at the initial idea that generated the work, and the process of its production. The photographs of Huan’s 12m2 were taken by a talented young photographer Rong Rong who also lived in East Village and with whom Zhang Huan discussed the performance and planned the shots. But, Rong Rong, an inspiring artist himself, did not approach his task simply as documentarian. Instead, he imbued the work with his own sensibility and vision, shooting from above rather than from the eye level, and filming parts of the event that Huan himself didn’t conceive as parts of the performance.[18] “Zhang Huan thought that the pictures abstracted the performance, making it more concentrated and dense,”[19] wrote Rong Rong in a letter to his sister. “One of the pictures was not taken at eye level, and he felt it conveys a spirit of Chan (Zen) Buddhism that transcends his original plan. For my part, I always felt that the sequence of images showing him stepping into the pond after the performance foretells something hidden and unseen. This is the power of photography. I’m not simply recording what I see. I have my own ideas and views. The camera in my hands enables me to go beyond reality.”[20]


Zhang Huan, 12m2, 1994, performance, Beijing, China (photos by Rong Rong)

As noted in Rong Rong’s East Village, by “assum[ing] a more active presence,” and “act[ing] as an independent observer, recording while analyzing what he saw,”[21] Rong Rong made an image that is “memorable in its own right.”[22] Did he also found a way to more truthfully represent the live event? Could it be that by including the sequence of Huan washing himself, he documented an important part of the overall event, recognising what the viewer needed to see in order to capture “the complexity of the real-time event”[23], seeing the performance through our (i.e. the eventual viewers’) eyes and, thus, making the “deferred” performance a bit more “direct”?

Did Rong Rong have a right to disregard Huan’s instructions and insert himself in the work as an independent artist, as a curator of the work? What if a curator displayed Picasso’s painting alongside an image of him washing his paint-brushes, a curatorial decision that would affect our experience of Picasso’s painting in a way that was un-intended by Picasso himself? Dora Marr did, in fact, record Picasso in the process of making Guernica but Marr’s photographs and Picasso’s Guernica are two separate works of art. Should we consider Rong Rong’s photographs and Zhang Huan’s performance as separate artworks as well?

The fact that Huan had to rely on photographic medium to get his performance to the viewer complicates the answer to the above question, and differentiates this case from Picasso-Marr one. Instead of seeing these two works as separate, couldn’t we see them as symbiotic? This symbiosis or a collaborative nature is, in fact, the second distinctive characteristic of Chinese performance art, as outlined by Burghuis (and the characteristic that is, of course, a direct consequence of the first characteristic, i.e. its reliance on auxiliary medium). Beginnings of performance art in China, argues Berghuis were not so much about self-expression but have “involved a collaborative aspect,”[24] and this “discussion on collaboration is one approach to the analysis of performance art practice in […] Asia.”[25] What is more, one of the appeals of performance art in China, as noted by Wu Hung, was the potential of such collaboration. East Village artists, writes Hung, “found performance a shared platform for developing interactions between different art forms, including photography, painting, installation, acting, and music,”[26] and “the success of a performance-based project did not just belong to the performance artist, but also resulted from the participation of others.”[27] As a consequence, here we have an example of a unique art-form that challenges the idea that performance art must be “a live act of presence.”[28] Zhang Huan’s and Rong Rong’s collaboration indicates a specific genre of art, what Wu Hung calls “performance photography.”[29]


Multiple artists, To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain, 1995, Performance, Beijing, China

[TEXT: Ira Ferris, April 2016]


[1] Qian Zhijan, “Performing Bodies: interview with Zhang Huan,” in Art Journal 58.2 (Summer 1999): 60-81. http://www.zhanghuan.com/ShowText.asp?id=10&sClassID=3

[2] “In China […], performance art practices,” notes Thomas Berghuis, “have often been subject to public conduct laws, leading to restrictions on the public display of the body, even when the audience is limited to small, coherent groups of local artists.” Apart from this official sanctions, artists were also confronted with the general public hostility. This was due to the public perception of performance art as a Western moral corruption. Performance art, explains Burghuis, was publically vilified “with reference to negative Western influences.” Thomas J. Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints / Chapter 10,” in Eye of the beholder: reception, audience, and practice of modern Asian Art, edited by John Clark, Maurizio Peleggi, and T.K. Sabapathy, 186-214. (Sydney, NSW: Wild Peony, 2006),195.

[3] In the interview with Qian Zhijan, Zhang Huan explains: “There was no audience other than nearly a dozen artists who lived in the village and my friends, who helped to take photos and video. The only uninvited viewer was a villager who came to use the restroom. He appeared to be intimidated by what he saw. He got scared and ran away. Minutes later, a village head came and asked what was going on. My friends told him that we were making an advertisement for honey. He looked quite suspicious and left murmuring ‘Vicious’.” Qian Zhijan, “Performing Bodies: interview with Zhang Huan,” in Art Journal 58.2 (Summer 1999): 60-81. http://www.zhanghuan.com/ShowText.asp?id=10&sClassID=3

[4] In an interview Stefan Römer’s documentary on the emergence of Conceptual Art, minimalist dancer Yvonne Rainer says: “We were expending what was allowed through the palace gates of high art.” Stefan Römer, Conceptual Paradise: There is a Place for Sophistication, Documentary, 2007, 20’97’’

[5] Qian Zhijan notes that Huan’s performances “have been given in private or “underground” spaces.” Zhijan, “Performing Bodies: interview with Zhang Huan.”

[6] Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints,” 191.

In contrast, “direct” performance is conceptualised and experienced as a live event with audience present as it is happening.

[7] Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints,” 191.

[8] Berghuis notes “the tendency to insist on presence as the fundamental characteristic of performance,” Berghuis, 193. Furthermore, performance art often “encourages passive audience to become active.” Berghuis, 191. Singapore Manifesto also states this participation as crucial. Point 8 of the Manifesto notes the importance of “Audience participation in the process of artistic activities (besides artists).” Cheo Chai Hiang, “New Art, New Concepts,” in Singapore Monthly Magazine, 1972.

[9] Because, as explained by Berghuis, “[c]oncentration on the final object […] promotes artworks as commodities” Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints,” 193.
Point 4 in Singapore Manifesto (1972) states the importance of the “Precedence of artistic process over finished work.” Cheo Chai Hiang, “New Art, New Concepts,” in Singapore Monthly Magazine, 1972.

[10] “In the words of the French philosopher, Jean Baudrillard , many of the performances we have witnesses would in fact be simulacra.” Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints,” 199.

[11] Berghuis notes performance art’s interest in creating “a wide range of visceral experiences” for the viewer. Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints,” 198.

[12] Singapore Manifesto mentions a desire to avoid the “reliance on visual experience.” Cheo Chai Hiang, “New Art, New Concepts,” in Singapore Monthly Magazine, 1972.

[13] Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 1993-1998, (China: Chambers Fine Art, 2003), 70. Description by photographer Rong Rong, one of the few witnesses of the live performance.

[14] “Art that provides viewers with the visual will no longer meet the needs of men and women of the seventies… To simply look at something does not constitute a critical appraisal. It is therefore desirable to also include other senses …” Cheo Chai Hiang, “New Art, New Concepts,” in Singapore Monthly Magazine, 1972.

[15] As explained in the interview with Zhijan, 12m2 is pointing to the sanitary conditions of a public restroom in the village that “had not been cleaned for quite some time.” Qian Zhijan, “Performing Bodies: interview with Zhang Huan.”

In Rong Rong’s East Village, Wu Hung writes that “Zhang Huan called yesterday’s performance 12 Square Meters, because the toilet is 12 square meters in size. He said […] that this performance was a tribute to Ai Weiwei [who] told Zhang that when he was little, his family was exiled to Xinjiang during the Cultural Revolution. Every morning, little Weiwei would go with his father to clean several of the worst smelling public toilets. Those toilets were no better than the one at the East Village.” Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 70.

[16] Berghuis questions whether the records of what was once a live event can adequately “capture and transfer the complexity of the real-time event.” Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints,” 205.

[17] In Forward to Rong Rong’ East Village, Christophe W. Mao writes: “… unexpected camera angles and dramatic chiaroscuro transform the squalor and chaos of the actual event into dream-like images that add a new dimension to what Zhang Huan had in mind when he decided to submit himself to these tortures. Zhang Huan himself was surprised by the Zen like calm that characterizes the expression on his face in some of the photographs.” Christophe W. Mao, “Forward,” in Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 1993-1998, (China: Chambers Fine Art, 2003), 8.

[18] Hung Wu notes that Huan’s “project statement” does not mention bathing: “he conceives the project only as “to experience his essential existence” in the toilet and does not mention the bathing.” Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 24.

[19] Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 72.

[20] Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 72-73.

[21] Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 14.

[22] Christophe W. Mao notes that Rong Rong’s “photographs differ from the many images of Happenings in New York in the 1960s and 1970s which record that something happened and convey the chaos of the events but are seldom memorable as photographs in their own right.” Christophe W. Mao, “Forward,” in Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 1993-1998, (China: Chambers Fine Art, 2003), 8.

[23] Berghuis questions whether the records of what was once a live event can adequately “capture and transfer the complexity of the real-time event.” Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints,” 205.

Wu Hung argues that “[t]he sequence of [Rong Rong’s] photos, showing Zhang gradually disappearing in the water, gives the performance a poignant and unforgettable ending.” Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 24.
It is worth noting that if we were at the live event, we would, in fact, have seen this part of the performance.

[24] Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints,” 201.

[25] Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints,” 205.

[26] Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 64.

[27] Ibid.
Hung Wu writes: “It is clear that to Rong Rong, the event was a collaborative undertaking rather than a one-man show: again, in his account it was “We” who “did [it] yesterday.” Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 24.

[28] Berghuis, “Performance art and its constraints,” 193.

[29] Hung Wu, Rong Rong’s East Village, 54.


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