There is a tendency to discuss Chinese avant-garde collectively and not individually.* It’s an exciting opportunity to immerse oneself in two artists from different generations, instead of tons of various artists that a curator randomly brought together because they are from the same by 1.379 billion populated country. At MoMA PS1 one can do this exact thing. Land: Zhang Huan and Li Binyuan brings together a selection of performance works by two Chinese artists of different generations, both of whom address the changing relationship between the body and the land in contemporary China.
However, this is a performance exhibition, and that’s always a tricky business. It’s the documentation of the performance that’s on view, this time a combo of a photograph and a projected video of the act. For me, looking at the documentation of performance art diminish the real thing. Although Amelia Jones has argued, everything we experience is mediated, so either way, perceiving performance art in the form of the live event or its documentation is never fully graspable.
Anyway, in the exhibition, one can see in each room a well explained wall text, providing a context of the social-economical circumstances of the time and place the performance took place. After thirty years of strict communism, the late 70’s and early 80’s was a time of the decollectivization of agriculture, opportunities for foreign investments, and permission for entrepreneurs to start businesses. Next to this context, recordings of the performances are on display in the form of a photograph and video.
Zhang Huan (1965) the oldest of the two, began his artistic career in this rapidly changing China. His work mirrors these changes, as well as tensions between the natural, the cultivated, and the urbanised, Li Binyuan (1985) continues Huan’s explorations of the body in the landscape. They both reflect on evolving ideas of ownership, belonging, and alienation, but also fight nature and themselves.
For me, the most striking work of the exhibition was Zhang Huan’s To Add One Meter to an Anonymous Mountain from the 90’s in which one can see performers stacked on each other, to as the title suggests, add one meter to a random mountain. In his work, he gently merges with nature by the simple presence of his body or other bodies.
Endurance and pain is a common theme within Li Binyuan’s work. For example, he sets his body against rushing water from a burst roadside dam until he collapses and gets back up again. In his most famous work, the artist spent two hours leaping through the air and falling into a muddy patch of soil that he inherited following his father’s death. With this act, he is both mourning and marking the legal and generational transfer of property. He also points to the changing value and significance of land in China during recent decades in communism and the transmissions. His work I liked the most is actually not about pain or endurance. In one of his earliest performances, Binyan sits and spinning in an office chair while casually tossing firecrackers around him in a quiet street outside of Bejing. He disrupts. And shows that it’s pretty easy to rebel.
The works in the exhibition range from simple and pure to provoking repulsive feelings of seeing pain and struggle. I loved the set up of this exhibition, one close up picture, the performances projected on the walls and lots of much-needed information. I highly recommend visiting this exhibition if you have the chance.
Land: Zhang Huan and Li Binyuan on view until through September 3, 2018, at MoMA PS1. More information here.
As Louis Soulard has written here.