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by Danita Fleck
San Jose State Graduate Student

modern artists have become tricksters through the use of language, specifically written characters, in their installation and performance art. They employ language signs and symbols as powerful tools to metaphorically dissolve boundaries and demonstrate their ideas about the potential for transformation, multi-culturalism, and communication in modern culture. These artists express their personal and political views. They battle censorship, prosecution, and persecution by the government of the People's Republic of China (PRC); and they also flout the social and cultural conventions of government-approved Chinese art. They take on the role of trickster in modern Asian society, and in the worldwide art community, revealing ideas and developments which have been hidden or denied. They add their stories to the long Chinese history of fools, misfits, and trickster characters that have long been traditional in China's folklore, fables and mythology.

These modern Chinese artists emphasize historical connections while they subvert artistic conventions, particularly in the PRC, but also in Hong Kong, Taiwan, and in the West. Chinese modern artists have fought since the end of the Cultural Revolution for the freedom, albeit sometimes limited, to study, create and exhibit modern art. Modern Chinese art movements have been summarily dismissed as naive and unsophisticated; many artists continue to struggle for identity and recognition from the worldwide arts community. The innovative art of Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Song Dong, and Huang Yong Ping has cast each of them in various trickster roles. They are breaking down the boundaries of Chinese modern art and are now gaining greater attention from and support of galleries, museums, art historians, and critics from the United States and Europe.

Tricksters in Chinese Folklore:

Trickster characters have long been traditional in China's folklore, fables, mythology and theater. Few modern Chinese artists choose traditional mythological subject matter for their art, while professional storytellers and actors in China and across Asia continue to tell the tales of traditional trickster animals such as the monkey, frog or toad, and fox in schools, at festivals, and in opera productions across the country. One of the most famous tales is that of the monkey king from the famous Ming Dynasty novel "Hsi Yu Ki (Journey to the West)." Sun Wukong (also called Sun Wu-Kung or Son-goku sora), joins a devout monk on a quest to retrieve holy Buddhist scriptures, and bring them back from India to China. The monkey king is said to have been born from a stone, fertilized by the wind, rain, and sun, and so contains within himself all of the four elements of the universe. Essentially a troublemaker and opportunist, the monkey is punished by the gods for his evil acts, including eating the peaches of the immortals. The gods imprison the monkey king under a mountain, but after he suffers alone for a long time, the gods take pity on him and assign him to a quest. And so he accompanies the wise monk in search of the Buddhist scriptures. Along the journey, the monkey and monk are joined by other companions including a tortoise called Sandy, and a hog named Pigsy. They have many adventures along the way and the monkey often uses his wits and guile to trick enemies and protect his fellow travelers on their journey; he visits heaven, steals a magic fan, outsmarts the White Bone Demon, and survives the cave of the spiders. He and his companions succeed in collecting the holy scriptures and bringing them back to China, but the monkey does not become a god or holy man. In the end, the monkey gains knowledge and enlightenment, but remains a troublesome trickster.

In many ancient Chinese tales and legends, the frog or toad is a master of escapes and spells, a trickster and magician. He is also the keeper of secrets such as the mystery of immortality. Many tales describe Liu Hai, a wandering wise man, and Ch'an Chu, his three-legged toad companion. The wise man looks after the toad, and in repayment of the favor, the toad reveals his secret of eternal life. In many stories this secret is represented by a fungus growing from the toad's forehead. Another tale recounts the story of the frog who convinced the emperor to let him marry the princess, and how he became emperor by eating glowing coals and spitting them out over the enemy, defeating their armies and saving the empire. Generally, the frog or toad is a reminder that things are not as they seem, and that small, ugly creatures can overcome huge obstacles and have great value.

In Chinese stories of magic and the supernatural, often the fox is the trickster. He has many mysterious powers; he can strike his tail on the ground to start a fire, and see into the future. The fox can change his shape into an old man, young girl or scholar at will as the situation warrants. He can hold the spirit of the dead, using it to scare off enemies when necessary or carrying it to a place of rest and safety when the adventure is over.

Other Chinese folklore trickster characters are clever humans who are confronted with dangerous or difficult situations; these are the characters emulated by the modern Chinese artists. One trickster is the Bigmouth who fools the Skinflint with a golden colt and fire dragon shirt. He succeeds in fooling the rich man to give away money and freeze to death, leaving the Bigmouth in control of the village. Clever tots in folk tales include Little Red (Lon Po Po) and Little Plum who, though they are merely tiny children, outsmart their evil rulers and rescue their townspeople from oppression. Modern Chinese artists are most like these clever people, fooling the authorities and negotiating difficult trials to gain power and control of their situations.

Trickster as Political Label in China:

The PRC government and official press organization have long used the "trickster" label to identify and denigrate any Chinese, or non-native individual or group, deemed to be a threat to the Communist Party. For example, the literal translation of the word attorney or lawyer from Chinese to English is "litigation trickster." This reflects the culturally questionable virtue of practicing law in China. Innocence is not assumed in Chinese courts, cases come to trial with enough evidence to convict and the court merely determines the degree of guilt. It is the judge who interrogates the defendant, not the lawyer; an attorney must complete three additional years of post-law school education and serve as a court clerk for another three years in order to become a judge. Chinese judges wield enormous power, command respect, inspire fear, and reach the highest political and social positions.

The Party has attempted to use anti-Falun Gong propaganda to warn other potential troublemakers of the threat any non-governmental group poses to the stability of Chinese society. Li Hongzhi, the expatriate leader of the Falun Gong movement, was labeled an egomaniacal trickster by the Communist Party in the organization's "People's Daily" newspaper. However, this propaganda seems to have had the opposite effect, aiding the Falun Gong to galvanize its membership, increasing their number and loyalty, while revealing how fearful the Party is of any organization outside their system. Since the Cultural Revolution, the Communist party has adopted language previously used by uneducated people in its media to label political subversives. Beginning in 1957, the commonly used abusive terms included freak, hooligan, double-dealer, scum, renegade, turncoat, shameless literati, arsonist, conspirator, careerist, garbage pile, and trickster. The Party launched a campaign of name calling; political enemies were labeled black sheep, wolves, monsters, forest-demons, swamp-spirits, ox-monsters, and snake-demons. Animal, insect and poison images from folk tales were the most popular derogatory terms. In their political speech, Chairman Mao Zedong and the Party had also appropriated mythological creatures with evil reputations from Chinese folklore as derogatory labels for non-citizens, dissidents, and other nationals.

Chinese Modern Art Movements:

The questioning of the goals of the Cultural Revolution and the influx of Western aesthetic ideas provided the impetus for many Chinese modern art movements after Mao's death in 1976. Although Deng Xiaoping almost immediately introduced economic and social reforms, it took years for publications on modern Western art to be disseminated and understood in China. The Chinese arts community did not immediately adopt new values nor abandon the Party-supported political and ideological subject matter. Gradually, influential older artists advocated apolitical
art-making and returned to traditional subject matter such as nude female figures, flowers, birds, and landscapes. They also returned to working in Western painting styles including Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, and Abstract Expressionism. A New Academicism movement grew out of small groups of artists working in oil on canvas who were devoted to the study of European painting traditions, while Chinese academy-trained artists pursued modern Chinese ink painting.

Important modern art movements which criticized the realities of contemporary China and the Cultural Revolution grew out of new literary groups. These new art movements included the Star group and New Realistic Painting. The sub-movement called Scar Painting focused on the emotional wounds suffered by the Chinese, particularly students and intellectuals. The Stars were the first influential self-taught, non-academy avant garde group of artists to challenge political authority and artistic convention. Their first exhibition was hung without official permission on the fence outside the National Gallery in Beijing, resulting in police action to remove the works, and followed by a protest march by the artists and their supporters. Subsequent Star group exhibitions were approved by the authorities, and primarily contained works which emphasized self-exploration and Expressionism. Rustic Realism, another sub-movement of New Realistic Painting, grew out of experiences of artists in rural and border regions, and depicted the impacts of the Cultural Revolution on peasants and farmers.

During the early 1980s the Chinese government vacillated between importing and promoting modern art, and condemning the modern capitalist nations and their art markets. Chinese authorities recognized Westernizing characteristics in Chinese art and launched an Anti-Spiritual Pollution campaign. The four-year campaign was intended to stop the spread of three growing trends: individualistic values, "art for art's sake," and abstraction. Aesthetic experimentation spread in and around Beijing. The Xiamen Dada group created conceptual and ready-made works which were gathered for exhibition, but never shown. Other shows are forced by the government authorities to close shortly after opening when the political content of the works was revealed. The national arts committee continued to hold its annual exhibitions and returned to showing works with approved political and propagandist themes.
After protests and threats of negative reinforcements from the West, the Chinese government relented and began again to pursue liberal reforms; avant garde artists, writers, musicians and filmmakers flourished in what came to be called the '85 Movement. The Chinese Modern Art Research Committee, an association of over 30 art critics, was founded in Beijing by the government as a planning organization for avant garde artists' exhibitions. New artists magazines and newspapers as well as established Chinese arts journals shifted their focus to new modern art. The Chinese Communist Party (CCP) supported the Chinese Artists Association, and other local artists' groups in order to encourage the manufacture of art for local sale as well as export, but canceled exhibitions and events if their content was deemed too critical of the regime. Eventually, the CCP withdrew financial support for artists, and many important Chinese avant garde artists begin to relocate overseas.

Chinese modern artists became antagonistic to traditional Chinese art and socialist realism while embracing modern and post-modern styles and creating conceptual art. These new groups were divided into two movements: Rationalist and Current of Life. The Rationalists emulated Surrealism, featuring landscapes with abstract forms, and presenting absurd humorous conceptual pieces. The Current of Life group advocated anti-urban regionalism, a return to pastoral themes, and exploration of individualism. Academically-trained artists shifted their work from government-approved themes to Neorealism, they subverted traditional styles into Scholar Painting, creating ink paintings with Surrealist forms. Chinese conceptual artists explored anti-art (fanyishu) ideas, they challenged propagandist art and traditional aesthetics as well as new schools of art education. Their principal goals were to eliminate utopianism, subjectivity and the artist's hand. The extremely successful Chinese photo realist school grew out of this movement. Newly active conceptual artists utilized language and ready made objects to create installations and performance works which examined vernacular traditional Chinese culture and juxtaposed it with modern sexual and contemporary themes in happenings and mixed media events.

After many political delays, the first official exhibition of Chinese new modern art was finally held in 1989 at the National Gallery in Beijing, and signaled the short-lived apex of acceptance for modern avant garde Chinese artists. The exhibition was closed twice by government authorities during its two-week duration due to the use of gunshots in a performance piece, and anonymous bomb threats to the gallery, municipal government and public security bureau. After the Tiananmen Square events and subsequent government suppression of all anti-Communist art production and criticism, the avant garde modern art movements declined rapidly and never recovered; in addition, Chinese art journals were ordered to suspend publication, and modern art discourse ceased in the PRC.

During the 1990s, few Chinese artists outside the academies were permitted to exhibit their works; artists became disillusioned and sought acceptance outside China. The Cynicism movement (also called the Cynical Realism movement) was founded. These artists created works which mocked themselves and parodied the most mundane aspects of daily life while many more Chinese modern artists fled for better opportunities and freer artistic outlets in Western nations. International audiences were receptive to Chinese artists; galleries and museums organized exhibitions and sold many works. Back in China, artists and critics tried to break free from political censorship. The New Generation artists of the Cynical Realist movement successfully exhibited in Beijing, but other installation artists' exhibitions were closed by the authorities. Small avant garde shows were held in regional museums, but Chinese Political Pop Art which was characteristically critical of the government was not permitted.

By the mid-1990s Chinese modern artists in the PRC focused on consumerism and materialism as their primary subject matter. They struggled for acceptance in China as their movements spread across Asia and into modern art capitals worldwide. The New History Group and the Long-Tailed Elephant Group organized multimedia and installation events, changing focus from the art objects themselves to the artists' creative processes. Lack of government support for Chinese artists of all kinds led to the exploration of alternatives for exhibiting their work; they utilized books, magazines, and venues in rural areas to show their artwork. During the last years of the millennium, Chinese artists mounted installations in private homes and spaces creating the Apartment Art (Gongyu yishu) movement.

Chinese Expatriate Artists:

Chinese artists living abroad, in spite of their greater political and social freedoms, were often constrained artistically; their works often conformed to "Chinese characteristics" or techniques extolled and labeled by art communities in the West. These outdated and limited stereotypes were perpetuated by studies of pre-Cultural Revolution Chinese art and cultural history, and by the Western media. The Shanghai Bienniale 2000 drew criticism from Chinese artists as it included far more non-Chinese artists than in previous years. Organizers explained that well-known Western artists were included in order to capture the attention of art critics and dealers from the United States and Europe. Conversely, many expatriate Chinese artists have become transformed and assimilated into Western culture. They exhibit expertise in adaptation, and like chameleons, some have adopted modern artistic styles and subject matter which mimic the Abstract Expressionists, Cubists, and Dadaists.

Modern Chinese Artists as Tricksters:

Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Song Dong, and Huang Yong Ping each have acted out various trickster roles using the details and symbols of fake and real languages to magnify, transform and blur the boundaries between China and the West. Each has become a nonconformist in rejecting the artistic limitations imposed by PRC-funded arts institutions and schools. They became mediators, existing at the borders between Chinese and Western art forms and their meaning. They questioned the entities, concepts and ideologies of traditional Chinese culture, and exposed these ideas as mere human reflections perpetuated over time for manipulative political, social, commercial, and artistic purposes. These artist explored the mental experience of the viewer by playing with symbols and images, combating absolutism and rigid dogma by showing it to be empty and bereft of meaning. Individually they each parody traditional Chinese art, culture and language. They introduced uncertainty, indeterminacy, ambiguity, and chance into the making and communication of art and ideas. These artists exposed the norms of Chinese art and writing as static and flawed human constructs, and redrew the boundaries of modern Chinese culture to encompass other languages, symbols, people, concepts, and technology. These artists manipulated the arts community to transform the traditional nature of Chinese culture. They questioned the existing stereotypes about artists and brought fresh ideas to improve the nature of modern Chinese art and society.

Xu Bing and Gu Wenda both created installations which surrounded the viewer with facsimiles of Chinese script (and other languages). By doing so they became tricksters playing a double conceptual game. They forced their audiences to move from one culture to another. Their characters were unreadable for both the Chinese and non-Chinese viewers; it is also unknowable whether the texts were real or fake for both Chinese and non-Chinese audiences. The concept of an unidentified Chinese language could have been interpreted by Chinese viewers to support a myth of lost culture or history; it could also have been interpreted by non-Chinese as misunderstandings of exotic beauty. In general, fake language simultaneously symbolized misunderstandings between cultures across space and time, and also the attainment of eternal and infinite knowledge of the universe currently beyond our understanding. In this way, these artists were trickster guides to the knowledge of a transcendent space.

Xu Bing created large scale installations which tricked viewers into questioning their language use and thinking processes. He appropriated conventional Chinese artistic forms and contemporary Western language to negotiate the cultural differences between the past and present, the Chinese and the non-Chinese. He was best known for his creation of a fictional Chinese language made by manipulating standard forms which look like real Chinese characters, which cannot be found in any dictionary, into beautiful but unintelligible designs. Xu was born in Chongquing, China. He has taught at the Art Academy in Beijing, and since 1990 has lived and worked in New York City. His works have been recently shown or commissioned for exhibitions in the United States, Spain, Japan, Germany, and Beijing. In his installations, he tricked the viewer by contrasting traditional Chinese art forms with his invented yet meaningless pictograms. He used traditional Chinese materials such as rice paper, black ink, and bamboo brushes; his techniques include wood block printing, calligraphy, and bookbinding. The traditional forms and fine craftsmanship of the items created for the pieces lent preciousness and importance to the works while the pseudo-characters revealed a complete lack of textual content.

In the "Introduction to New English Calligraphy," an installation piece exhibited in various locations from 1994-1996, Xu presented a classroom in the gallery. He arranged desks in rows all facing a single direction with an ink container, brush and an elementary calligraphy book, handmade by Xu, at each student's seat. The book mimicked a familiar teaching guide for learning calligraphy and the characters depicted had a Chinese character style, but could not be deciphered by Chinese viewers because the pictograms were really English words. Xu provided a "Elementary New English Calligraphy Instruction Video" to aid the audience in understanding and learning the words. This piece tricked the viewers by confronting them with a puzzle-like code of words which must be deciphered, and by casting them as his special students, presenting them with a lesson of his singular design. To the Western viewer, the text at first glance was beyond comprehension, while to the Chinese, it was familiar and unfamiliar simultaneously. Xu Bing described the decoding of the work by the viewer:

"When people try to recognize and write these words, they begin a process of having to forcefully and constantly readjust their ingrained thinking. During this process of readjustment and transformation, their former concepts are powerfully replaced and attacked. People need to have their routine thinking attacked in this way. While undergoing this process of strange and yet familiar (the strangeness comes from within oneself) m transformation one can enter a realm never experienced before."

Often, Xu's works grew to monumental scale with each reinstallation as he expanded into larger spaces and created more elements to fully realize his ideas. In "A Book from the Sky," an installation piece first exhibited in 1988, 400 oversize handmade books and 800 feet of horizontally hung rice paper banners and vertical wall hangings entirely covered with tiny characters from his imaginary language, occupied a three floored installation space. The visual effect was monochromatic, graceful, and restful, the undulating waves of the banners and open books echoing the sea and sky, but simultaneously the volume of the "texts" and the energy invested in their creation overwhelm, completely and incomprehensively filling the installation space. The piece tricked the viewer into thinking it has importance and significance, implicitly symbolized through its traditional Chinese forms and monumental austerity, while it communicated an absence of meaning, and was essentially nonsense.

Another installation work from 1995, "A Case Study of Transference" was a performance piece, at least for the pigs. It consisted of a pig pen bedded with discarded and torn books instead of hay. In the pen, a white male pig completely covered with painted English words copulated with a white female pig completely covered with painted Chinese characters. When exhibited, this piece drew huge crowds, one might guess that it also drew some flies. The pig has long been a cornerstone of agriculture in the United States and Asia, particularly in China, as well as a symbol of gluttony. In this piece, Xu criticized the current Chinese cultural shift away from the careful study of written knowledge and history in favor of a voyeuristic, spectating of current economic and political events. The male pig's activity needed little translation. However, one might have wondered how Xu's fantasy piglets would look, would they be covered with Chinese or English or some combination of the two. Xu asked the viewers to ponder how China's future may look as it continues to yield to outside forces, including the United States.

One of Xu's works, "Nin Gui Xing (Your Surname Please)," was an interactive language project which utilized his psuedo-Chinese language and tricked the viewer into thinking about language and multi-culturalism. Visitors at computer workstations typed in their names in English; each name was dynamically and gradually animated and transformed on screen into Xu's beautifully designed Chinese-like characters. Approximately 3000 names could be transformed, including Clinton, Roosevelt, Reagan, Doe, and Smith. Each name was not translated (literally or phonetically) into "real" Chinese, but only graphically redesigned to appear to be brush-written Chinese; the computer software was encoded to produce arrangements of pictograms which are visually similar to Chinese, but retain their English content. Xu made the names more Chinese-looking, helping English speakers in crossing the boundary of image, but not of language. The transformed name characters were untranslatable and have no significance in Chinese. Again Xu drew our attention to the contrast between form and content, and to the profound implications of speakers of English pretending to be more Chinese without understanding any of the actual language, nor changing their essential identities.

Gu Wenda, also called Wenda Gu, was perhaps the most well-known modern Chinese artist. Born in Shanghai in 1955, Gu currently resides privately and quietly in New York City. Gu acknowledged that some artists try to be more Asian, or to be more Chinese to increase their exotic appeal, and that it is a complicated game of understanding and misunderstanding which depends on the background and language knowledge of each individual viewer. He always included classical Chinese characters and symbols in his works; these symbols of China's past represent the solidification of Chinese culture. He was one of the first contemporary Chinese artists to begin faking scripts. In 1984, he created his "Pseudo-Characters Series." In "Contemplation of the World," one of the ink on paper installations from the series, which consisted of three hanging scrolls, Gu tricked the viewer with art in a traditional Chinese format which does not contain any real Chinese text. The text was merely decorative design, demonstrating the irrelevance of traditional Chinese arts and language in the modern world.

Gu was renowned for creating specially commissioned, commemorative installations; he called them national monuments, and named them after their sites. Since 1993, Gu has been working on the controversial "United Nations" project, conceived as a global series for the twenty-first century. The project was planned to include monuments to twenty-five countries, and has so far been installed or exhibited in eight different countries with varying responses. The installations consisted of screens or curtains which enclose spaces containing other objects including furniture and video screens. As part of this ten-year project, he has exhibited the work in an organic and evolutionary manner (at least 14 separate installations, each with a project subtitle) in South Africa "The Praying Wall," Hong Kong "The Historical Clash," New York City and Korea "Dreamerica," London "The Maze," Moscow "Interpol," The Netherlands "VOC-WIC," Milan "God and Children," and Lodz, Poland "Hospitalized History Museum." Over the course of this project, Gu has allowed various cross-cultural influences to change the content of the work. At first, he used only Chinese and English characters for the New York works, later he inserted false Arabic and Hindi scripts to emphasize the multi-cultural, multi-racial nature of the city. His goal was originally to translate his own culture for a Western audience, but then also to be a trans-cultural hybrid, to sum up the different races and contexts of global issues. The work had two aspects: it was very large, monumental in scale, almost architectural, and it was also politically incorrect. He created the works alone, pushing himself to personal and financial limits. As a solo artist, he knowingly excluded some races and cultures, eschewing a multicultural team for each work's construction in favor of his own ego and ambition.

The most recent of the subprojects, the "Temple of Heaven" in New York City for The Asia Society, was named after the beautiful cylindrical, blue tile roofed temple in Beijing. The space was totally sealed by curtains with eight stones, and twelve Ming-style chairs surrounding two large tables. The seating area of the chairs was replaced by television monitors which show continuously running video of moving clouds. The visitors were encouraged to come in and sit on the clouds/chairs. The viewers faced each other across the table and are surrounded by the heavenly curtains decorated with fake text in many languages. In a letter to journalist Joan Kee, written after the installation, Gu explained the transcendent nature of the piece:

"The image of the running clouds is, in a way, urging the audience to think freely beyond the burden of cultures, beyond the limitation of mankind's knowledge ... We [mankind] created all artificial civilizations, and yet we are not free from what man made ... this meditating site provides a moment of freedom."

As the trickster, he showed the viewer the way to break free of the boundaries of culture and conscious human-based knowledge. The artist's strong ego and controlling nature were clearly expressed in the text as he remade the world as he wished it to be, and directed the viewer to become a performer in the piece:

Ancient wisdom says that life is as fleeting as the clouds ...
you shall sit ...
you shall listen ...
you shall be silent ...
you shall meditate ...
you shall be free from gender, nationalities, races, politics, cultures, religions ...
you shall fantasize while you ride on running clouds ...
you shall have moments of transcending ...

Gu's exoticism was rooted in the unmistakably Asian forms and symbols used in the work, but the most unique feature of his pieces was their characteristic use of human hair. He created openwork screens and banners by configuring strands and ropes of human hair into "written" characters linked together by a membrane of hair; the characters are fixed into place with adhesive. He collected the huge quantities of hair from barbershops, usually in the country where each piece was installed. All the participating barbershops' names from Canada, China, England, France, Hong Kong, Israel, Italy, Japan, Korea, The Netherlands, Poland, Russia, South Africa, Sweden, Taiwan, and The United States of America (now numbering over 350), were listed in the beginning of the show. Asian barbershops are public meeting places often in the street, while in the United States, they are more private. Generally the museum commissioning the work has performed the collecting, sometimes taking three to four months, then the hair was shipped to Gu or sent to the installation site. The commissioning museum often set up a precutting area; when visitors came to see the installation they could think about how and where their own hair had been included. Sometimes it was difficult to send hair through customs. For the Chinese "Temple of Heaven" project, hair was gathered in New York City, but small portions were also sent from Hong Kong and Taiwan. Gu used human hair because the work then became a ready made object. He wanted viewers to understand the uniqueness of the material and relate to it because it also comes from themselves. The work has been constructed by real, living people. The hair was intended to close the gap between the media and the audience, to be more connected to the people than any sculpture of stone or metal. In an interview with Joan Kee before the installation was completed, Gu asserted:

"Hair always becomes the identity of the person, the culture of the person ... people cut or do their hair according to their political stance.... When you go to the barbershop and cut off your hair, you don't really think about it. But when you put all this hair together as an installation and make people think about their body waste it's sort of like body waste becomes an aesthetic."

Hair does not decay as fast as other materials; samples from ancient times are well preserved. People fear body materials, particularly those which persist through time as if they contain some mystical power. During the Qing Dynasty of Chinese history, people believed that one's soul resided in the hair; there were people called "soul stealers" who were known to cut off the long ponytails worn by many fashionable and devout men of the period. As a trickster, Gu emphasized the contradictions of human hair: it is waste, but it was once alive; it is universal, yet it embodies individualism and identity. The most controversial of Gu's "United Nations" subprojects, "The Holy Land" in Tel Aviv, Israel, needed parliamentary review and approval after the proposal was decried in the press for mocking the 50th anniversary of the Holocaust. The work reminded many Jews of their experiences in the concentration camps where many had their hair cut off.

Song Dong, a Beijing photographer and performance artist, born in 1966 and educated at Capital Normal University in Beijing, explored the Taoist ideas of existence and non-existence. He used a nothing to make a something; he acted to make things appear and disappear. In Song's earliest works, he wrote characters with his fingers on ink ("Ink," 1994) and with an ink brush on a large block of ice (1995). Since 1995, he has kept a diary every day with an ink brush using water to write on a stab of stone. The "Diary Written in Water" forces individual moments into conflict with the limits of history and time. On New Year's Eve 2000, in "Recording a Millennium in Water", he videotaped how he spent 24 continuous hours counting down for each time zone around the globe with a brush and water on stone. His works demonstrated how the past is lost and how fleeting the
present is; the works focued the viewer's attention on significance of the moment, of the uniqueness of each second of communication.

In his piece "Printing on Water" from 1996, Song literally took on the trickster role. In a series of 36 photographs from an hour-long performance, freeze frames captured his own iconic image, beautifully framed and backdropped by the rolling hills along the bank of the Lhasa River in Tibet. Song sats cross legged in the river, meditatively raising a wood block for a single printed character for water over his head, and then slapping it against the surface of the slightly rippling water. The photographs captured the lively sparkle of the water droplets against Song's somber garb. Song played the fool, continuing the printing activity with culturally appropriate seriousness and exactitude, while apparently oblivious to the chilly water, or lack of ink and paper. By so doing, Song was in actuality, the knowing fool, communicating the futility of traditional Chinese documentation and production methods. The photographs showed how this activity agitates the water immediately surrounding the "printer" but made no impact on the pattern of waves across the wide river. Song demonstrated the eternally moving, continuously erasing power of nature over the transitory, static, invented words of mankind. Perhaps even, the meaninglessness of the Chinese words to describe, name, and possess the untamed beauty and energy of the water flowing through the land. Song acting as the printer may also be seen as a manifestation of the PRC's futile efforts to invade and subjugate Tibet. The piece can be interpreted as philosophical interpretation or commentary on the ongoing Sino-Tibetan conflict.

In another of his works, "Culture Noodles," shredded stone rubbings obscured a video screen. He juxtaposed an ancient method of copying and transmitting knowledge with a modern means of gaining information; the meaning was clear that the traditional Chinese ways of learning are inhibiting the possibilities of modern education about and with technology.

Huang Yong Ping, born in 1954 in Xiamen, Fujian Province, People's Republic of China, educated at Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, and now living in Paris, has created a series of several thought-provoking mound-shaped sculptures comprised solely of paper pulp. One of them, entitled " `A History of Chinese Painting' and `A Concise History of Painting' Washed in a Washing Machine for Two Minutes," was a series of nondescript piles of paper fragments. The 1993 version, which could be mistaken for a pile of laundry, retained some text recognizable as Chinese characters on white paper. The works symbolized the washing away of art, Chinese and Western, by the forces of the Cultural Revolution. The series also suggested that the resulting waste of the cleansing process has rendered both histories of art equally indecipherable and irrelevant to modern Chinese society. Huang has created other pieces which question the written rules and proscribed processes for making art. His wooden "Roulette Wheel: Paintings Created According to Random Instructions" of 1985 and "Turntable" from 1988, explored the forces of chance and predestination in the ideation and creation of art.


Dynamic new art is being produced by artists in mainland China, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and by Chinese artists who have emigrated to the West. Their works focus on the complex relationships between society and the issues of the modern/post-modern political and economic environment. Asia is undergoing unprecedented change, China is adopting consumerism and developing a leisure class, while Taiwan and Hong Kong are seeking unique cultural identity. Artists have responded with an explosion of diverse works using a variety of media from traditional ink drawing to oil painting, and performance art. Many modern artists are exploring what it means to be Chinese in this period of increasing economic globalization and trans-nationalism.




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