Ma Liuming

Fen Ma Liuming


In Tate Britain

Prints and Drawings Room

View by appointment
Ma Liuming born 1969
Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
Image: 610 × 508 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee 2016


This is one of a group of gelatin silver prints in the Tate collection documenting performances by the Chinese artist Ma Liuming. Many of the performances took place in the Dongcun artists’ colony of Beijing East Village in the early 1990s. Ma joined the colony in 1993 having been active as one of the originators of modern performance art in China since the late 1980s. This photograph, taken in 1993 by the artist Xu Zhiwei, shows Ma Liuming turning into Fen-Ma Liuming, his feminine alter-ego and the character he would adopt in a number of subsequent performances. He is shown in the process of being made up as a woman applies lipstick, eyeliner and rouge to his face. Other photographs (see Tate P81261 and P81264) also show Ma being assisted with his transformation into Fen-Ma. In 1999 Ma described his alternative artistic persona: ‘Fen-Ma Liuming is the character that I have been constantly enacting in my performances for the past few years and whose characteristics are an effeminate face and a body of a man’ (quoted in Marella Gallery 2007, p.9).

Other photographs document the performance Fen-Ma Liuming’s Lunch, which the artist carried out in a private home in Beijing East Village in 1994 (see Tate P81263). The photographs were taken by the artist Xin Danwen, who was also part of the East Village community. For this performance the artist was again made up as Fen-Ma Liuming, however this time his slender body was completely naked. He silently cooked fish in a steaming pot, serving it to an audience of artists and critics. After putting the remains of the fish back into the pot, he attached a large laundry tube to his penis and began sucking and breathing at the other end of the hose. This large phallic extension contrasted with Ma’s made-up face, bringing exaggerated tropes of masculinity and femininity together on one body. The artist has stated that by taking the tube as an extension of his penis in his mouth, he allowed ‘the Qi of Ying and Yang to circulate in the body’ (Marella Gallery 2007, p.30). In this way, he embodied the feminine and the masculine simultaneously.

Another photograph titled Fen-Ma + Liuming’s Lunch II (Tate P81266), also taken by Xin Danwen, documents Ma’s repetition of the performance a year later, this time out of doors in the courtyard of a house. The image depicts him sitting naked and quiet behind the steaming pot. In other images he is photographed naked in the rural landscape of Beijing East Village, each move beyond the private sphere enacting the desire for freedom of movement and expression.

Although there are ideals of androgyny and gender-ambiguity in traditional Chinese religious imagery and theatre culture, in the strict social system of the People’s Republic of China in the 1990s, gender was understood as a rigid binary opposition of male or female. Ma’s performances as Fen-Ma Liuming investigate ambiguities of sexual difference and gender identity, while critically confronting social restrictions and political authority. His performances were recorded in photographs and on video, exposing the lack of exhibition spaces that were available to artists working outside official and state-sponsored circles, while also highlighting the creative energy that characterised the underground art scene. Appearing naked in many of his performances and challenging accepted norms of gender and socially acceptable behaviour, Ma became the repeated target of Chinese government censorship. In 1995 police forced the artists to move out of Beijing’s East Village and Ma increasingly began to work outside China. Since 2000 he has shifted to painting, while continuing to investigate questions of embodiment, gender and national identity.

Further reading
Meg Maggio, Ma Liuming: Performance Artist, Montreuil 2003.
Ma Liuming: Performances, Paintings, Sculptures, exhibition catalogue, Marella Gallery, Beijing 2007.
Ma Liuming, Ma Liuming: Paintings, Performances, Sculptures, Beijing 2012.

Lena Fritsch
March 2015

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