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
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.
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
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.
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
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 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.
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:
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:
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.