Walk and Talk about "The Other Shore of Desire"
A Performance by Chinese Artist Han Bing
Published: Tuesday, December 19, 2006
Perhaps one of the most perceptible differences between Chinese artist Han Bing and the other guest speakers of the UCLA Center for Chinese Studies was that Han's November 27, 2006, presentation began with "walking around" instead of "sitting down." Several UCLA students participated in Han's on-campus walking performance in the early afternoon of that day. Each of them put a cabbage on a leash and dragged it around from place to place. Professor David Schaberg, Professor Lothar von Falkenhausen, and other interested spectators followed the "cabbage-walking tribe," while also distributing flyers announcing Han's talk -- "The Other Shore of Desire" -- that afternoon and an exhibition of Han's work at the Bamboo Lane Gallery in LA's Chinatown.
Han Bing employs various artistic languages and media such as performance, multimedia installations, and photography to investigate and problematize modernization in China today. In his talk for the Center, Han described how his artistic impetus and his philosophical and ethical speculations are the subjects of his work. His memories of the small rural town where he grew up and of his early days as an artist in Beijing fluidly interweave with his anxiety about the rapid changes in China's cities as they undergo the wrenching processes of modernization, urbanization, and globalization. His artistic pieces often capture the most poignant and paradoxical moments of the Chinese common people, both rural migrants and urbanites alike, as they are inextricably involved in the "Chinese dream" and the dramatic, if not devastating, urban transformation of the nation.
Invisible -- Visible -- Invisible
The walking "happenings" on the UCLA campus echoed Han's performance art series Walking the Cabbage, in which he has crossed several regions of China, "from his home village in rural Jiangsu to Tiananmen Square, from the Yunnanese minority village in China's Southwest to the Westernized Bund in Shanghai."1 Part of the purpose of Han's series is to encourage both the performer and spectators to redefine the meaning of "performance."
On the one hand, we can consider a performance as an emerging scene that not only expands the restrictive scenarios of representation, but also provokes solicitation of sensation and cogitation over the performative subject(s). From such a perspective, Han Bing's walking piece aims to make visible what is normally invisible. For instance, cabbage is a quintessential comfort and nurturing food of China, but one that only ordinary people would take seriously. By means of injecting such a mundane vegetable with a particular social context and his individual interpretation, Han Bing always awaits questions, accusations, and challenges from spectators: "Is the cabbage your living 'pet'?" "Why do you abuse cabbages?" "What are you trying to say through this performance?" "Can the message be just as well delivered by walking a cabbage on the campus of a university in the U.S., since the metaphorical connotation of the food is certainly a localized one?" Likewise, in this state of constant interaction with spectators, Han's conceptual performative walking is also continuously revised and developed.
On the other hand, we can take performance in general as a practice in the public sphere that invites us to recognize how we rehearse own knowledge, memory, and identity in a world in which we are socially positioned and inscribed. We might ask ourselves: Are we ever be able to deal with our invisible "twice-behaved behavior" and move beyond the reiterative acts in our daily life? While walking toward Ackerman Union, Han Bing said, "I hope the day will come when what I am doing is not behavior arts anymore, but rather the manifestation of everybody's ability to chose what they want to do and the reflection of their decision making." His thoughts indeed respond to a central and enduring question in the field of performance studies: Except for the performative ephemeral state of being, how can people actively and consciously present their "here and now"?
Aestheticism and Ethics
Han Bing is a good example of someone born in China of the 1970s. As a member of the "postrevolutionary" generation, he personally experienced China's drastic social transformation as he grew up in the 1980s and 1990s. Born in a small and impoverished village, Han Bing helped his parents farm the land when he was a child. He was the only student in his class who had the chance to get into college. After studying oil painting at Xuzhou Normal University, he pursued advanced studies at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. He is one of many Chinese artists who have encountered a series of awkward contrasts brought by the China's national project of modernization and urbanization. He is also one among many who seriously reflects on the multitude of social problems that have resulted from the emergence of a consumer society and capitalistic market system, which were introduced to resolve the former problems embedded in China's socialist modernization project.
Through his visual and bodily representation, Han examines old problems unresolved in the early stages of modernization, such as the conflict between individual autonomy and ideological constraints. He also grapples with various types of new "capitalistic" problems that have befallen China, such as soaring social inequalities, increasing materialism and consumerism, a collective nihilism, and a lack of human care. Based on his own experience and understanding of the national project of modernization, Han Bing creates works always critically capture what seem like the inevitable contradictions of Chinese modernity -- the juxtaposition of the marginalized rural population and the urban nouveaux riches, and the overlap of "the developing" and "the developed" within a single spatial-temporal dimension.
By utilizing multiple conceptual perspectives and representational forms, Han Bing's works exemplify a certain postmodern metropolitan sentimentality and chaos. His latest conceptual photography series, Urban Amber, is an example. At first glance, one of the photos in the series appears to show amber-like twinkling pieces floating above the fancy cold high-rises in nocturnal Beijing. A second, careful look, however, reveals that those bright floating spots are in fact residue rising from a stinking industrial-waste-and-garbage-strewn river. The glamorous new middle-class urban space that we see is nothing but its inverted image reflected in the dark river. In this visual experiment, Han Bing "over-aesthetically" visualizes and even "romanticizes" a story about an urban dreamscape immersed and mirrored in the industrial poison of breakneck urbanization, thus representing another irony concerning the unavoidable coexistence of decay and progress in modern China.
Unlike many other artists who were also born in the 70s, Han Bing does not celebrate ambivalent attitudes toward ethics and traditional moral values. On the contrary, he repeatedly emphasizes the significance of human love and care, which seem to constitute the basic utopian vision embedded in his art. For instance, his photography performance series Everyday Precious (2001-2006) aims to depict the interchange between ordinary people and the ordinary objects from their daily lives. In the image of piece No. 2, Han and a row of migrant peasant construction workers stand in front of a half-way demolished building in a snow-covered field; each of them holds a piece of the quintessential building material used in China's earlier era of industrialization and urbanization: the humble and simple red brick. Behind the ruins of the building, in the hazy and freezing air, stand new high-rises built of concrete, steel, and glass. In the image, the rigid bodies of the workers are turned into "living monuments" and uncomfortably placed at the very front of both a past that has been forcefully smashed to pieces, and a rising yet uncertain future. Han Bing clearly draws attention to the bodies of the construction workers, which are positioned in a space where they simultaneously engage in construction and destruction, and yet to which they do not belong. Through a simple visual and bodily structure, the piece illustrates the meaning of existence of marginalized and underprivileged subjects, as well as the existential conditions of those who tenaciously struggle and dream about a legitimated space in the city. By both visually and discursively addressing the awkward attachment between human subjects and their objects which signify a supposed modernity, Han moves beyond a stage of pure self-presentation to emphasize a critical aesthetic revolving around how to make visible the ordinary Chinese, who have been left behind in China's pursuit of "being modern."
Body and Boundaries
Both in his ongoing performance series Mating Season, and his multimedia performance installation series Love in the Age of Big Construction, Han Bing effectively capitalizes on the flexibility and vulnerability of his almost nude and gender-blurring body, aiming to find ways to play with the boundaries that shape the "modern" body. In a few pieces, he constantly eroticizes and caresses different types of objects, such as shoes, shovels, stone, and cotton. Likewise, in his early performance piece Sleeping Together, he uses his naked body to animate a rusty kitchen knife, one of the few objects that he owned when he first migrated to Beijing and became one of the Bei piao (wanderers in Beijing). His performance displays what is almost a form of fetishism stuck somewhere between pain and pleasure, as the fragile body passionately tames and consoles the cold object, yearning for a reciprocation of love. Commenting on these works in his talk for the Center, Han Bing mentioned that early in his career, when he practiced art by following a self-aesthetic, he always hungered for allegorizing his solitude and alienation through physical contact between the living body and lifeless things, thus traversing the boundary between body and object.
Later on, Han began to complicate his desire for pure self-representation. In his three-hour performance Love in the Age of Big Construction II, Han presents a space containing a wedding bed decorated with white cotton like fluffy cumulous clouds. Under the canopy of the bed, Han repeatedly and almost ritualistically "strokes, kisses and caresses, and sleeps with" an enormous steel claw of a backhoe, a quintessential machine of both destruction and construction. Han juxtaposes his performance with a video titled Age of Big Construction, in which he presents a series of ghostly images meant to show the uncertain and fast-changing reality of China. To further make explicit his philosophy, Han Bing explains that "in a move that repudiates the logic of 'fight fire with fire,' I embraced a strategy of employing a dialectic of antinomies to create a space for overcoming." The softness of the bed of cotton, for instance, is used to overcome the hardness of the machine, weightless clouds to hold up tons of steel, sensuality to overcome the numbed philistinism of contemporary times, Eros to tame the death drive, seduction to overcome violation, and feminine generativity to overcome masculine destructivity.2 In his ceremony of offering and finding love that plays with all forms of dichotomies, Han's corporeal repetition tests the endurance and stamina of the human body, and ultimately asks the provocative question: How would a life-affirming and boundary-opening body, while preserving its own ethics, negotiate with the impersonal violence imposed by China's frantic rush toward urban "modernity"?
A Short Biography of Han Bing
1974 Born in Jiangsu. Now lives and works in Beijing
1996 B.A., Xuzhou Normal University, Department of Art
1999 Advanced studies, Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing
Solo Exhibitions & Selected Performances
China + Japan Dual Solo Exhibition: Han Bing "Quotidian Iconic" and Orimoto Tatsumi "Quotidian Holy Mother," Jing Art, Shanghai
Love in the Age of Big Construction: Han Bing, Center for Chinese Studies and IEAS Gallery, University of California, Berkeley
Other Modernities: Han Bing Solo Exhibition, Bamboo Lane Gallery, Los Angeles
The Other Shore of Desire: Han Bing, UCLA Center for Chinese Studies, Los Angeles
The Fatalistic Language of Things: Han Bing, University of Southern Carolina, Center for Asian Studies
Local Geographic, Site Specific Performance Installation, Echigo Tsumari, Japan and Hanhu Village, Jiangsu
New Culture Movement, Imagined Community Performance, Beijing, Yunnan, Jiangsu
Walking the Cabbage, Social Intervention Performance, Beijing, Yunnan, Shandong, Guangzhou, Jiangsu, Hebei (PRC); Harajuku, Shinjuku, Ginza, Shin Tokurazawa, Ikebukuro (Japan)
Countdown to the Society of Modest Prosperity, Social Intervention Performance, Wangfujing and other Beijing street corners, Taishan, Qufu, Shandong; Donghai, Jiangsu
Strolling Bones II, Social Intervention Performance, Guangzhou Museum of Fine Art, Guangdong, Beijing street corners
Fixed in Place, Beijing Railway Station, Wangfujing, Gulou, China Art Museum, Beijing
Flight of the Brick Kite, Beijing street corners
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Jiayun Zhuang is a third-year PhD student in the Department of Theater. She is interested in both contemporary performance arts of China (including body art, site-specific performance, multimedia performance, and installation performance) and the transfiguration of performance space as new social space in urban China. She is currently writing her dissertation on "postsocialist" performance in urban China. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.