Performance Art and the Body in Contemporary China

Fok, Siu Har Silvia 霍少霞
Supervisor: Prof. D.J. Clarke

This thesis examines the historical development of performance art (xingwei yishu) in contemporary China since the mid-1980s. Xingwei yishu is the most common term used to connote the enactment of a performance by the artist’s body. This thesis aims to look into the specific role the artist’s body plays in Chinese performance art. The first chapter examines the diverse roles the body plays in relation to the site in different performance works to reveal its historical development. Comparison of performance works with similar content and body language is made. Works by Xiao Lu, Wu Shanzhuan, Shu Yang, Pan Xinglei, Song Yongping, Ai Weiwei, Zhang Huan, Yang Zhichao, Zhu Fadong, Li Wei, Cang Xin, Gao brothers, Zhan Wang, He Yunchang, Li Haibing, Luo Zidan, Kong Yongqian, Lin Yilin, Wang Wei, Song Dong, Qiu Zhijie, Yin Xiuzhen, Wang Jin, Young Hay, Zheng Lianjie, Wang Chuyu, Liu Jin, Wang Wei, Liu Wei, Shi Qing, Zhang Hui, Wu Ershan, Xiao Xiong and Qin Ga are examined. In addition, the second chapter scrutinizes nudity in Chinese performance art. The history of nudity in performance art as compared with other art forms pinpoints an unstable power relation between performance artists and the authorities. By analyzing ten performance works in the nude from 1984 to 2004 by Wang Peng, Concept 21, Qi Li, SHS Group, Ma Liuming, Zhang Huan, East Village Artists, Zhu Ming, He Yunchang and He Chengyao, it offers a historical study of the transformation of this genre in contemporary China. Lastly, the third chapter examines different approaches in representing life and death through the body in performance art. There is a significant development from performing in a symbolic way appropriating ritual symbols to directly engaging animal bodies and/or corporeal materials with the artist’s body. The controversies of exploiting animal bodies and corpses overwhelm the art circle and society. Works by Wei Guangqing, Wang Youshen, Huang Yan, Zhu Gang, Zhou Bin, Lanzhou Art Army, Neo-History Group, Gu Kaijun, Huang Rui, Dai Guangyu, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu, Xu Bing, Zhang Peili, Yang Zhenzhong, Wang Jin, Wang Chuyu, Zhang Shengquan, Xu Zhen, Wu Gaozhong and Zhu Yu are examined. This study shows that it is through pinning down the role of the artist’s body can we grasp the impact of the body and different relationships represented in each of these works. This thesis focuses on the diverse roles and impact of the artist’s body in Chinese performance art: be it personal, socio-cultural or political. It offers a contextual analysis that representation of the artist’s body is enhanced along with other artistic developments in contemporary China.