"Body, Self, Society: Chinese Performance Photography of the 1990s" presents the richness and variety that marks Chinese performance photography of the mid to late 1990s. Although artists’ performances took place frequently in China during the 1980s, visual documentation of these events was initially haphazard, limiting wider awareness of them. By the mid-1990s, Chinese artists began to conceive performances with a clear anticipation of the way they would ultimately appear in photographs or short videos. They mastered the art of creating provocative, iconic images that documented the main elements of a fleeting performance that might been witnessed by only a handful of onlookers. Such images were intended to be visually striking, and to attract attention when they circulated internationally in art magazines and, later, virtually via the Internet. They also provided the artists with the opportunity to produce impressive, collectible prints for the art market.
The works brought together in this exhibition focus on individual artist- performers who explore three key themes: new visions of the performing body, the changing sense of self in modern China, and a continued confrontation with specific aspects of the country’s society, history, and culture.
In an arresting series of 20 black-and-white studio photographs, Zhang Huan’s Skin (1997) shows the artist exploring his own flesh as a material to be systematically manipulated and transformed. He pinches together his lips, tugs on his tongue, pulls on his ears—all the while gazing with ferocious intensity at the viewer. Ma Liuming’s Fen-Ma Liuming Walks the Great Wall (1998) brings together in a single, large-format print 16 images of the long- haired artist. Naked and presenting male and female attributes simultaneously, the artist strides along the cold stone surfaces of the Great Wall of China. In three sequential photographs, Ai Weiwei’s Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn (1995) shows the artist impassively letting a centuries-old Chinese vase fall, which shatters on impact with the ground. This performance has been both vehemently criticized as an act of art vandalism, and praised as an ironic commentary on the nationwide destruction of China’s cultural heritage during the country’s economic boom in the 1980s and ‘90s.
Huang Yan’s Chinese Landscape Tattoo series (1999) depicts a male torso covered with a Chinese landscape carried out in Song Dynasty style. Huang uses human skin as a painted surface to call attention to the surprising absence of the nude figure in traditional Chinese art. Cang Xin’s To Add One Meter to an Unknown Mountain (1995) is a record of a celebrated performance carried out by ten Beijing artists, male and female, including Cang Xin, Ma Liuming, and Zhang Huan. Having stripped off their clothes, the artists piled atop one another to brashly create a temporary extension of a mountain hilltop. Song Dong’s Printing on Water (1996) consists of 36 photographs made during a one-hour performance that the artist carried out while standing in the Lhasa River in Tibet. In these images, he is shown repeatedly raising and lowering a wooden printing block to the water’s surface—the block bears the Chinese character for “water.” With this repeated, symbolic action, the artist calls our attention to the fluidity and transience of language. Zhuang Hui’s One and Thirty Artists and One and Thirty Peasants (1995–96) are series of 30 collaborative portraits arranged in grid format. In each series, the individual images present the artist and a person selected from a specific social category, photographed together in a standardized pose.
The Walther Collection is dedicated to researching, collecting, exhibiting, and publishing photography and video art. Since opening to the public in 2010, the collection has grown to become one of the most important holdings of contemporary African and Asian photography and video art, American vernacular imagery, and nineteenth century photographs and books from Europe and Africa. The collection presents exhibitions and public programs at a three-gallery museum campus in Neu-Ulm, Germany, and a Project Space in New York City, USA. Organized by leading international curators, the exhibitions from the collection endeavor to create dynamic juxtapositions by artists whose contributions to photography significantly expand the history of the medium. The collection’s established publishing series with Steidl, complementing the exhibitions program with extensive catalogues and monographs, is informed by comprehensive research by acclaimed writers, critics, and art historians. Recognized as a leading institution in the study and presentation of African photography, The Walther Collection presents new exhibitions annually in Germany and New York, as well as traveling exhibitions around the world.
More information: The Walther Collection website