- Beijing Xingwei: Contemporary Chinese Time-Based Art by Meiling Cheng
Meiling Cheng’s Beijing Xingwei: Contemporary Chinese Time-Based Art unfurls as both a significant scholarly undertaking and a deeply personal journey. Deftly intertwining analytical insights with elegiac interludes, Cheng tracks the effects of impermanence and accumulated time on artists, artworks, sites, and audience members—including herself. As author, she is particularly sensitive to her dual roles as receiver and interpreter. This is aptly demonstrated in Cheng’s titular use of xingwei (behavior). On the one hand, the term serves as a shorthand reference to the kinds of artwork under consideration. That is, when xingwei is paired with the characters yishu (art) and zhuangzhi (installation), it refers to how “performance art” and “performative installation” are commonly used in Chinese. On the other hand, in only using “xingwei” and excising yishu and zhuangzhi from the title, the author invokes the literal translation of this phrase when presented singularly: “behavior.” By encompassing both “performance art” and “behavior,” Cheng makes layered references to how time operates. In terms of “behavior,” she connotes [End Page 173] both the context of habits and ethics through which she examines artwork as well as her own “scholarly behavior” in encountering and re-reading the works over time. In these multiple evocations of time, Beijing Xingwei not only tracks a web of radical durational art, but also unfolds as a matrix of the author’s experiments with language, interpretation, and critique. Indeed, Cheng posits Beijing Xingwei as a time-based work of art in its own right.
While the author puts forward a large corpus of concepts and neologisms throughout her book, “multicentricity” emerges as the guiding epistemology and methodology. She argues for the coexistence of multiple centers and the “fundamental inadequacy of any one” (xxii). In addition to her application of this framework to a number of broad contexts—geographical, biological, thematic, temporal, and perceptual to name a few—she also practices this as a mode of subjectivity. Cheng elegantly presents her own multicentricity in the preface where she traces autobiographical arcs—replete with embedded ideas, changing attitudes, candid accounts, and surfaced memories—that mark her journey to and through Beijing Xingwei.
As a multicentric author, Cheng feints and parries between “self-affirmation and self-critique” (26). This process is most revelatory when she confronts her uneasiness and, in some cases, disgust towards particular works. She reflects thoughtfully on her scholarly coverage and wrestles over moral thresholds and obligations: does her acknowledgment of a morally reprehensible artwork further validate its existence? Cheng relays her discomfort towards a particularly cruel performance by Zhu Yu that was so horrific that in an essay for TDR (“Violent Capital: Zhu Yu on File,” TDR 49:3 [T187, 2005]), she avoided discussing it as a form of protest. But, in relaying how she has come to live with this performance over time—both through the knowledge of the artwork and the work of writing the book itself—she allows it to come to light alongside her own apparent abhorrence: “These two pieces make me weep and force me to take a stand” (163). We witness as she grapples with her tolerance and repulsion, and finally comes to the conclusion that: “For me, art stops when exploitation of the weak begins” (167). Such self-reflexive critique opens up important space for readers to move beyond dispassionate observation into serious ruminations on the limits of art and ethics, consumerism and society, and ambition and theology.
By the author’s own account, nearly half of the works in the study fall into this particularly brutal strain of contemporary art in China, which has gained notoriety for its use of cadavers, fetuses, self-cruelty, and animal sacrifice. Chapters 2, 3, and 4 center largely on these kinds of works, but each chapter offers a specific set of concepts as foci while also following different multicentric narratives. Chapter 2, for example, begins and ends with Zhu Yu. In between, Cheng traces distinct temporal arcs from the technological afterlife of the artist’s work...