By David Borgonjon
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright December 2017)
The Guggenheim Museum in New York currently has on view an expansive survey of Chinese contemporary art; as many of the reviews on the subject show, it focuses on the long shadow of Tiananmen. Yet, this survey is also an opportunity to rewrite the art-historical period that Theater of the World: Art and China, 1989-2008 covers. Such a rewritten narrative could do worse than to zone in from the scale of the state to the scale of the family; love, the origin story, retells the institution of the family as a voluntary association in the age of the market. If this is a story about 1989, it is different than the one we were told.
What does it say when the exhibition of at least seventy-nine artists has, by my count, only nine artists who were not men? What does it mean, furthermore, when one of the most prominent reviews of the exhibition must substantiate its critique of censorship with reference only to artworks by men? If we attend to the gender politics of Chinese contemporary art, our most important task as viewers is to see through the antagonism between abstractions like “the artist” and “the state” to the intimacies and antagonisms between specific artists. This essay does not review the survey at the Guggenheim, but rather takes it as an opportunity to delve deeply into a single work on half-view there
Everyone who has ever studied the subject in a college course has wondered: what happened to Xiao Lu (肖鲁)? It’s true that after her seminal 1989 performance Dialogue (对话), which I recount below, she disappeared for fifteen years. Yet since then, she has been active, putting out memoirs in both English and Chinese, and exhibited several new series of installations and performances. The obscurity of her trajectory today, then, has nothing to do with her cultivation of mystery and everything to do with an art world that could not assimilate her to its narratives.
Dialogue is not the first work in Theater of the World, but it’s close; it graces a screen in slideshow format at the base of the coil that runs up the interior of the Guggenheim. (The other images document other works in the seminal 1989 exhibition China Avant-Garde). It is not present, then, as an artwork but as documentation. It’s a fitting presentation for an artwork that circulated mostly as rumor and, eventually, the myth of the “gunshot incident” (枪击事件).
For her graduation project, Xiao procured two telephone booths and affixed an image of the backs of a young man and woman to the interiors. They are separated by a mirror and a telephone hanging off the hook. At the opening of the exhibition, she fired two bullets into the mirror from a borrowed pistol. A friend, Li Songsong (李松松), had sneaked the pistol out of his revolutionary grandma’s war trophy of the 1940s earlier that day.
What happened next complicated the performance: the police arrived promptly and mistakenly arrested Xiao’s friend, Tang Song (唐宋). Xiso escaped from the fracas, and turned herself in hours later; the exhibition did not escape closure. (China is not an open-carry state.) Soon after detention, a brief note of explanation of artistic (not terrorist) intent was released, signed by Xiao Lu and Tang Song, the arrested friend. “We consider that in art, there may be artists with different understandings of society, but as artists we are not interested in politics.” The show would go on to reopen (and close and reopen yet again)—her performance was not the only provocative one—and the pair, who were now lovers, emigrated to Australia.
For years, the artwork was shrouded in mystery. It was assumed to be a collaboration between Tang Song and Xiao Lu (usually in that order), and listed as such in most of the major textbooks and monographs of the day. Fifteen years later, after naturalization, divorce, and a long artistic drought, Xiao returned to China to remake the artwork, lost by now. She changed one thing: instead of two gunshots, she fired off sixteen in total, one gunshot for each year since 1989. Together with this recreation, the first thing she did was to publish a thinly-veiled autobiography, Dialogue. It now became clear that Tang Song had had no participation in the artwork and had either actively sought or allowed his recognition as a coauthor.
The full story runs something like this: after detention, the pair was released days later, and became lovers. As she put it in a poem, years later:
Fifteen years ago,
When I was bewildered by the gun,
“Love” seemed to have come to me. (Xiao 190)
Usually, Dialogue is read as an artistic reflection on modernity’s violent rupture. “The first gunshots of Tiananmen,” as an article years later in the Sydney Morning Herald put it. Tang spoke and wrote vociferously about the work, and critics and historians recorded the artwork as a collaboration. Many years later, she wrote,“ Tang acted as a spokesman for my work, using words such as modernity, politics, law, strategy, and plan, which I did not see as relevant to my work.”
Dialogue was Xiao’s response to an uncomfortable flirtation with her parents’ close friend, who described himself as like an adoptive parent, that ended in repeated rape. A she writes in Chapter 5 of her memoir, the sculpture expressed feelings of isolation, rage, and depression in the aftermath; the telephone spoke to her sense of being unable to communicate about the subject to family or friends. When she called him in the last years of university to express her hurt and hatred, he hung up on her. That’s how she conceived the sculptural component of Dialogue.
Her professor, unaware of its referent, felt the sculpture was too perfectly conceived and should be broken, somehow; she began to fantasize about the gunshot, then. (“You are safe,” her rapist had said, in a phrase that had haunted her for years.) Later, she would recall her desire: “after the bullet surges through the barrel of the gun, there would be tranquility all over the Earth.” Instead of tranquility, she got silence.
The shadow that Dialogue cast on Xiao’s biography is a good example of the ways the story of artistic rebellion hides more than it shows. That a work created as a protest against the trauma of sexual violence should itself become subject to an artistic violation by her lover, is cruel. That this violation was authorized by the master narrative of art as political rebellion seems echoed in the fact that the artwork’s authorship was literally determined by the state at the moment that the police arrested the wrong person. The ironies run deep: for years, there was nobody that Xiao could talk to about Dialogue.
Critics have been uniformly disappointed that this work was personal rather than political. This particular idea of the political is depoliticizing. Doesn’t the artwork—of a fragmented author enmeshed in broken lines of communication, in the alienation of modern straight romance, shattering a deafening refusal to listen with a wordless gunshot—say it all? “After the gunshots,” curator Gao Minglu later noted, “the interpretation of Dialogue no longer belonged to her, but to society” (my italics). Gao would come out strongly in support of her when she was criticized by the art world for being bitter and hysterical and facilitated the publication of her writing and the correcting of the narrative about Dialogue; his statement was not wrong, but that doesn’t make it right. The collective declaration of the death of the author here looks like an excuse for appropriation.
In an interview conducted by Anthony Yung for the Asia Art Archive in 2009, Tang Song was pressed for information about the bigger picture of Dialogue “The picture is very simple. We have recordings, descriptions, and witnesses. Everything that has been said is the big picture, including my attitudes as one facet of that. Don’t you think this is already a pretty big picture? . . . It’s not a simple canvas. Perhaps you understand what I’m trying to say. This is my style.” It is up to us to decide whether to interpret his words as a matter of artistic contradictions, or of courtroom evasions. Yet it is worth noting that matters can be both simple and complex, depending on the needs at hand, and the invocation of complexity itself is often strategic.
Xiao’s work has continued to explore her interests in intimacy. Her performances and sculptures have ranged over the family, childbirth, marriage and other institutions of social reproduction as they intersect with gendered desire. What comes through most passionately in Xiao’s later writing, besides her affirmation of authorship, is her pathos-laden belief in love: speaking of her artistic drought, she writes “I felt if a man was able to give me love, maybe I didn’t need art anymore.” The intimate violence of the couple is not something she shied away from, what artist and writer Hannah Black once described as “the most reductive, exclusionary and precarious imaginable method of meeting the probably universal need to feel close to and recognized by others.”
In a world after ideology, perhaps a lover could take the place of revolutionary belief, and if one’s partner was also a creative soul, so much the better. The couple, as a form, promised the recognition of love. The promise was not kept. This did not have to be a story about men and women in straight couples, but it often was: a man tilting at windmills in the long shadow of Tiananmen and a woman chasing after a self that her peers and partner considered unimportant.
A response to such erasures is a find-and-replace operation that took place between two orders of romance: the relationship (literally) between women artists and men artists, on the one hand, and between men artists and the state (or, by extension, the totality of society), on the other. These two relationships hinged on those who exploited their position by both declaring themselves representative of a universal human (the artist), while continuing to accrue particular gendered privileges (the man). We could call this the Tang Song story, though the Ai Weiwei narrative would be more catchy, given that artist’s continual abuse and overshadowing of artistic partners in the name of dissident activity. The reader is invited to come up with their own archetype.
It is, in some sense, the other half of what cultural theorist Dai Jinhua in Gendering China, years ago, named the cultural problematic of Mulan. For Dai, women’s subjectivity in China is historically embedded within the script of the daughter who furtively takes her father’s place as an imperial conscript, a story made famous by Disney. This “roleplay” (a process proximate to drag, for Dai) implies an understanding of gender as fundamentally a matter of social roles that can be put on and taken off. However, this fluidity is not liberatory; rather, when Mulan takes the place of the father, she receives his duties without necessarily his rights. Dai traces how this process of “substitution” for the patriarch is later deployed in socialism, such that the woman is hailed to stand in (and labor for) for society as a whole, or in global capitalism, to stand in for the orientalized figure of China.
Who got the best roles in the theater of this world, this particular world euphemized as “art and China”? Following Dai, behind every patriarch is a woman, dressed and armed to take his place but not his credit. “You love my gun, not me,” Xiao would later accuse Tang Song, in an incredible turn of phrase. The inversions of the phallus continue: the moment that triggered their breakup was Tang’s unilateral decision to sterilize himself as part of an art project, even though he knew that her single most important goal in life was to bear a child. He expected that she join him in sterilization; it seemed he was still looking for that dramatic artistic gesture that would catapult him to fame on his own terms, and thought that he could do this best by erasing not just her past but her future.
One of her first projects on returning to Beijing was Sperm, which involved a search for a sperm donor; because Chinese women were only permitted IVF if married, the newly-single Xiao had to search on her own for sperm and freeze it for an informal procedure. Sperm documents her failure to find, freeze, and impregnate. Later projects include Wedding (2009), a marriage to herself, and Love Letter (2011), a reflection on secrecy and pregnancy, which each deserve more thorough attention.
In the peculiar, post-Cold War, authoritarian, cosmopolitan, commercialized, countercultural, overexposed context of Chinese contemporary art, how is the artist addressed? The artist is hailed by the policeman, “You! Put down the gun.” The artist is questioned by the curator, “Was it really you, though?” The artist is summoned by the powers-that-be, “We need young men to fight.” She steps forward, but shoulders all of the burden with none of the credit.
In some ways, an exhibition of Chinese contemporary art belongs in New York. It is where many of the artists involved always imagined themselves belonging, as they self-historicized their way into a triumphant reception in Western texts and institutions. “I have arrived,” announces the artist at JFK, or “I have returned,” he declaims at PEK. And the long flight to China somehow insulates the two worlds of discourse from any real, mutual critique.
Beijingers in New York, a twenty-episode serial that broke all audience records in 1993, was just such an allegory of an artist from Beijing (read: socialism) that makes it big in New York (read: capitalism) at the price of his creative aspirations. Along the way, his wife, a promising textile designer, falls into a convenient plot hole. This show was then-rookie Jiang Wen’s breakout role—his counterpart, the actress Yan Xiaopin, is still only known for her role in this series. Her erasure as a character extends to her as an actress, and is visible in the promotion of the show; it was translated as Beijing Native in New York, and only Jiang Wen was placed on the poster, as if husband and wife hadn’t moved to New York together. As her character puts it in her amazing breakup line: “You hate New York. But I hate you.”
Yan Xiaopin and Xiao Lu both have something to teach us about the politics of specificity and the abuses of allegory. To recap: the allegorical struggle of the artist against society at large blocks from view another artist, who just happens to be beside him, and if everything’s on script, in love with him. New York has always meant “making it,” and almost thirty years later, we are still trying to find a way to talk about what Xiao Lu made in spite of her critics. Now we can do it on her terms.
David Xu Borgonjon (许大小) is a Ph.D. candidate at Columbia University, working on a genealogy of market concepts through Chinese writing in Southeast Asia. He also writes art criticism and curates exhibitions. He can be reached at www.davidborgonjon.com or email@example.com.
Black, Hannah. “The Loves of Others.” The New Inquiry (June 30, 2014). Accessed Dec. 12, 2017.
Dai, Jinhua 戴锦华. Xingbie Zhongguo 性别中国 (Gendering China). Taipei: Rye Field, 2006. See also Cinema and Desire: Feminist Marxism and Cultural Politics in the Work of Dai Jinhua. London: Verso, 2002.
Feng Xiaogang 冯小刚 and Zheng Xiaolong 郑晓龙, creators. Beijingren zai Niuyue 北京人在纽约 (Beijing native in New York). China Teleplay Production, 1994.
Gao, Minglu. “Introduction.” In Xiao Lu, Dialogue. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.
Tang, Song. Interview by Anthony Yung. Asia Art Archive, 2009. Accessed Dec. 12, 2017.
Wen, Philip. “25 Years on, Artist Remembers ‘First Gunshots of Tiananmen.’” Sydney Morning Herald (May 30, 2014). Accessed Dec. 12, 2017.
Xiao, Lu. Dialogue. Hong Kong University Press, 2010.