- Beijing Xingwei: Contemporary Chinese Time-Based Art by Meiling Cheng
The contemporary Chinese practices of xingwei (behavior/performance art; translates literally as “behaviors”) and xingwei zhuangzhi (performance-installation) can be read as Sinification of Western-oriented performance art, an epistemic propensity to make this art Chinese (11). In her assessment of these two glocalized genres in China, Meiling Cheng locates the production, exhibition, advertising, and collection of these artworks within the “Brand China syndrome”: namely, the global enthusiasm, curiosity, confusion, and anxiety about China as a rising, colossal Other. In doing so, she challenges readers to examine how contemporary Chinese time-based artworks (that is, artworks displayed and consumed for a limited time period and with an experimental ethos), through the macro-mechanisms of global contemporary art, transform into something “un-ephemeral.”
Identifying herself as both a native Taiwanese and Western observer, Cheng begins by enumerating important arcs of time that she has experienced in relation to China. Here, her methodological point of departure is multicentricity, which was also the core concept of her previous book, In Other Los Angeleses: Multicentric Performance Art (2002). In Beijing Xingwei, she again addresses the self-critical imperative of multicentricity by acknowledging her personal experience and knowledge structure. The arrangement of the chapters reflects the multicentric/multivalent perspective of the author as both a mode of subjectivity and location of epistemology.
Cheng devotes the first chapter, “Multicentric Repasts,” to two artworks whose genesis predated the global financial crisis of 2007. The first is Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale (2007), created with a budget of US$3.1 million, for which 1001 Chinese individuals were flown to Kassel for the 2007 Documenta. The second is He Yunchang’s A Rock Tours Round Great Britain (2006–07), which was funded by a commission of £200,000; per its title, this fourteen-week solo performance involved the artist literally carrying a rock from place to place along the UK coastline. Cheng finds these two projects comparable because of their dependence on their durational engagements with supplementary material archives and exhaustive planning (for example, communication, coordination, and documentation by their glocal support teams). Cheng also attributes the bank-ability of these globalization-enabled pieces to how their Chinese creative agents and cultural mediators (Ai and He) strategically regenerated and exerted the effects of Chineseness by enacting identity performances that operated on ethnic, cultural, and national registers, which inevitably negotiated with and were embraced by international art patronage.
The second chapter, “Violent Capital,” opens with Zhu Yu’s Eating People (2000). In this piece, one of most controversial xingwei performances to date, the artist appeared to cannibalize the flesh of a dead baby. From here, Cheng explores the effect of “posthumous” circulation and consumption of xingwei pieces that embrace such levels of brutality and extremity, and traces a genealogy of performative violence in Chinese time-based art to explicate how the violent performative capital of these artworks comfortably colludes with the violence of the transnational capital.
In the third chapter, “Limit Zones,” she investigates bodyworks that involve “limit actions”: that is, extreme behaviors that both inhabit the ethical sphere and transgress its entrenched principles. To do so, Cheng introduces two classic Chinese adages, one Confucian and the other Daoist, which provide an indigenous interpretive framework for the selected artworks; for example, He Yuchang burying his body in wet cement (184), Yang Zhichao having stems of grass planted on his back (195), and Qin Ga processing a naked female cadaver into an installation sculpted with dark lesions (215). These pieces challenge the received temporal-spatial duration and sociocultural habitus, re-navigate the existential coordinates of birth and death, and push ethical boundaries further into uncharted territory.
In chapter 4, “Animalworks,” Cheng examines the ways in which some artists incorporate and manipulate animals and animal bodies as raw materials for time-based art through a fascinating range of case studies of trans-species projects and homixeno-logical (Cheng’s term for the transitory fusion of two mutually alien forms ) fusions, and the shifting human–animal power dynamics within them...