Chinese Performance Art

In reading the two pieces “Thinking Sex with An Androgyne,” by Joanne Meyerowitz, and “Postcolonialism and Androgyny,” by Miriam Kershaw, I immediately thought of two prominent Chinese performance artists whose work envelops the two seemingly different, yet largely intersected, issues of androgyny and postcolonial America.

Zhang Huan and Ma Liuming both began their work in the 1990s during a serge of underground performance art in China.  Both belonging to a group of artists known as Beijing Village East (referencing the performance art of Greenwich Village in New York) and are known for their heavily experimental work, having been arrested several times and also asked to make public apologies for performance pieces.

In Huan’s piece New York Fengshui (1998), he lays, face down, on blocks of ice situated on a Chinese bed frame with New York City dogs on leashes, tied to the bed frame.  Huan lays in the same position until the ice melted.  In this particular performance, he speaks to his experience as a Chinese man in American culture.  The well-groomed dogs, belonging to a society that is treated more high class that himself, speak to the great amount of attention that Americans give to taking care of and bonding with dogs rather than a person of another culture.  His lack of clothing proves his vulnerability, seeing as the body is superficially thought of as proofof identity, he is “baring it all.”  However, Huan remains in a state of ambiguity though out the piece, melting into his surroundings, while, at the same time, being frozen out.  Here, his body works as a vehicle to describe the discomfort and isolation that “Otherness” brings in the supposed “melting pot” that is America.

DIfferently, Ma Liuming’s work serves to challenge gender appropriation within the Chinese culture.  His performance piece Fen Ma Liuming (1993)call into question the “real” borders between “man” and “woman.”  By possessing highly feminine features, wearing makeup, and having long hair, while showing himself nude, exposing his seemingly male body, he presents himself as neither male nor female.  The somber mood Liuming evokes by appearing aloof, showing little expression while performing various controversial tasks, further sends the message that this is not a theatrical performance and he is definitely not echoing drag.  Ma Liuming’s embodiment of androgyny asks viewers to consider how he sees himself in relation to how onlookers perceive him.

These two Chinese artists bring forth questions of identity in reference to postcolonialism and gender in ways that ask viewers to reconsider their initial assumptions of another’s appearance.

-Elizabeth Nash

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