Installation view of “Why the Performance?” at Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai, 2016. (Foreground) QIU ZHIJIE and FU LIAOLIAOPlayground, 2015–16, and (background) GENG JIANGYI, To Be Your Correct Self, 2005. All photos by Andrew Stooke for ArtAsiaPacific

Why the performance?

Ming Contemporary Art Museum

The Ming Contemporary Art Museum (McaM) opened in 2015 in a northern district of Shanghai that is undergoing a blitz of redevelopment. Converted from a paper machine factory, the building maintains the integrity of its former status as a manufacturer, and is a tenacious landmark on a street of rubble. What was originally the factory’s central workshop has become a lofty theater space overlooked by balcony galleries on three sides. The venue lends itself as a vividly appropriate location for the exhibition “Why The Performance?”, evoking a workforce of eccentric performers who linger as resonance in the building. In the large central space, spotlights single out a square area of brick debris. The organized heap gently discloses a life force as steady respiration is witnessed on its surface. This work by Xu Zhen, Calm (2009/2016), brings the wastelands that surround McaM onto its premises, within its walls. Haphazard piles of building materials are a common sight in Shanghai—a community apparently gone but actually in transition and soon to be reanimated.

ZHANG QING, Sideway Peak, 2014, still from single-channel video: 12 min 10 sec. 

This show continues the emphasis of the museum’s program, highlighting the relationship between art and performance. The title’s question signals a focus obliquely concerned with performance art, but reveals the strange and intense reenactments of everyday life. There were live performances at the opening, but the performance activities are now viewed only on video screens around the museum, creating a succession of intimate experiences. Zhang Qing’s Sideway Peak (2014) consists of two screens that show unexceptional and blurry surveillance images of six short people, who in a voiceover relate their private accounts of perceived stigma and social unease. A different surveillance model, yielding a five-channel video, takes Katarzyna Kozyra into a men’s bathhouse in Budapest. Disguising herself as a naked man (don’t ask), the female artist captures the bathers relaxing, and treats her human subjects with a wildlife filmmaker’s naturalism—while also evoking the sensual female bathers of the French Neoclassical artist Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres. In these works, the audience must speculate at what point the performance is constituted and how it might fit the rationale of the exhibition. Is Kozyra the performer, done up as a man, or are we watching these guys perform as they languidly enjoy a few hours in steam and water? Curators Qiu Zhijie and Fu Liaoliao relentlessly draw out such questions; each work adjoins nuance to the theme.

At its most direct, the work is performance art, as in the multi-video document Playground (2015–16). An archipelago of screens shows the teasing interaction of artists Li Haiguang and Zhang Yunfeng. In neglected urban environments, they chase each other around, sometimes butt against one another, or gently and rhythmically rock (and roll) together. We see this as neutral observers, and the duo’s editing of their footage abbreviates raw experiences. A number of works explore this effect in detail. Cao Yu’s Fountain (2015) is particularly witty, and is presented as a video transcription of Bruce Nauman’s 1966–67 photograph, Self-Portrait as a Fountain. Cao creates an extravagant shower against a deep baroque background by expelling her own breast milk; we see a cropped and looped image of her action. In a similar spirit, Han Qin’s Chocolate Love (2014) is a deliciously deadpan recording of the artist enthusiastically gnawing chocolate coating off various utensils and making a mess of herself in the process.

QIU ZHIJIE and FU LIAOLIAO, Playground, 2015–16, multi-video installation, dimensions variable. 

Being coerced to perform is another prevalent motif. It is enacted by Zhou Xiaohu, whose Concentration Training Camp (2007–08) persuades employees of the China-based Amway company to be suspended upside down during team-building activities—hilarious for us, yet disturbing once the scene sinks in. Similarly, there is cruelty and humor in To Be Your Correct Self (2005) by Geng Jianyi. The artist convinces strangers on the street to replicate their actions—sweeping the road, sorting through trash—in a TV studio. Video recordings of the original actions and their performances are shown side by side.

Simple documentation of everyday phenomena is another component of the exhibition. This is touchingly exemplified in Zhang Congcong’s Square Dance Ecology (2010). After recording each member of a square dance team practicing at home, the artist connects the dancers by placing these videos in a grid. They perform dance moves nimbly, avoiding the encumbrances of domestic paraphernalia, each alone but altogether synchronized. 

In Shanghai, where portable screens and digital filters mediate the quotidian experience and cynicism relentlessly erodes the framing of history, it is good to see an unapologetic exhibition of new possibilities for performance art that reevaluates the supremacy of live experience. “Why The Performance?” is a necessary contribution, enriching and validating the chasm between actions and recordings.

“Why The Performance?” is on view at the Ming Contemporary Art Museum, Shanghai, until November 20, 2016.

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CAO YU, Fountain, 2015, single-channel HD video: 1 min 10 sec.