- RongRong born 1968
- Photograph, gelatin silver print on paper
- Support: 605 × 505 mm
image: 544 × 373 mm
- Purchased with funds provided by the Asia-Pacific Acquisitions Committee 2021
This photograph is from a portfolio of forty-four individual original black and white photographs, taken, printed and sequenced by the Chinese photographer RongRong (see Tate P82585–P82628). RongRong was an integral member of the group of artists who lived and worked in the Beijing East Village – an artist’s commune that was informally established between 1993 and 1994 in Dashan Zhuang, an area near the Third Ring Road of Beijing. The images record performances carried out by members of Beijing East Village and are characterised by a snapshot aesthetic which alludes to the intimacy and spontaneity with which the photographs were made on an analogue 35mm film SLR camera. The title of each of the prints refers to the year in which the performance was staged. The collective’s most concentrated period of activity lasted for just over two years, from early 1993 until May 1995. Its membership comprised around fifteen individual artists who went on to receive international attention and acclaim – some of the most notable amongst them being Zhang Huan (born 1965), Ma Liuming (born 1969), Zhu Ming (born 1972), Duan Yingmei (born 1969), Cang Xin (born 1967) and RongRong.
In contrast to the numerous press photographers who can be observed within several of the images, RongRong was fully embedded within the group of artists, often participating in the conception and realisation of their performances. The images are accordingly a diaristic and subjective record of life in the Beijing East Village. The commune was named after the East Village of New York, from which fellow artist Ai Weiwei (born 1957) had recently returned after having moved there in 1980, and which was a place of inspiration due to its concentration of artists and as a site of liberal values. Despite coming from disparate regions of China, in the East Village artists found a community of like-minded individuals, almost all of whom were born during the Cultural Revolution (1966–76) and who all upheld the importance of freedom of creative expression.
The central ethos for the Beijing East Village was the blurring between art and life. This was partly inspired by stories of artistic experimentation overseas, in societies where such activities were not penalised, but also out of reverence for the Zhuangzi, an ancient Chinese text from the fifth century. The Zhuangzi contains numerous parables and fables, and calls upon its readers to question the man-made binaries of good and evil, life and death, man and nature. Reading this as an encouragement for the blurring between art and life, RongRong’s photographs capture not only performances but also scenes of everyday activities, giving an impression of the meagre and even abject circumstances in which these artists were living, in amidst crumbling hutong buildings, but more importantly showing the intimate bonds between artists who are sometimes shown in repose or sharing meals.
One of the performances represented in the portfolio is one of the best-known images of Chinese contemporary art – Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Metres 1994 (Tate P82596). A protest against the local government’s disinterest in improving the sanitary conditions of public toilets, Zhang Huan coated his naked body in honey and fish oil, and allowed flies and mosquitoes to feast on him for one hour as he sat completely still. Also depicted is Zhang Huan’s 65 Kilograms 1994 (Tate P82602), the title of which refers to the weight of the artist’s body, which was suspended by chains from the ceiling of his dwelling. In order to create a live, durational performance that was also immersive, Zhang Huan asked surgeons to withdraw 250 millilitres of blood from his body. This was burnt on a miniature cooker, and disinfectant sprayed around to create a multisensory experience. In the following days police came to the village to investigate the unauthorised artistic activity, leading to the arrest and incarceration of Zhang Huan, Zhu Ming and Ma Liuming for several months on charges of creating and distributing pornography.
Other performative works documented in the portfolio include Ma Liuming’s Fen-Ma + Liuming’s Lunch 1994 (of which prints by the Beijing East Village photographer Xing Danwen are also in Tate’s collection, Tate P81263–P81266), Cang Xin’s Trampling Faces 1994 and Zhu Ming’s 30 April 1994, in which the artist filled a room with foam from his own mouth. The form of the bubble would be a hallmark of Zhu Ming’s subsequent practice. A collaborative work, Third Contact 1995, enacted by Ma Liuming and Zhang Huan, is also represented. The performance, in which the two artists submerge themselves in a bathtub covered in shorn hair, represents an ambiguous moment between two people who are neither lovers nor family members. It has been described by Zhang Huan as a contact that transcends ‘common social contact between two friends, or the physical contact between two human bodies’ (quoted in Xu Xiaoyu, Talking is the Road, Henan 1999; cited in Thomas Berghuis, Performance Art in China, Hong Kong 2006, p.10).
Aside from the performances in and of themselves, RongRong’s photographs reveal how body art and especially nudity were considered transgressive in China in the early 1990s, to the degree that they were deemed grounds for legal prosecution on the charge of creating pornography. At a time when the state-run academies were training artists in figurative painting – not unlike that of socialist realist propaganda – the Beijing East Village is exemplary of how performance art was a key form of creative expression in the People’s Republic of China, a society that demanded conformity amongst its citizens. As such, the art of the Beijing East Village can be situated within a longer trajectory of bodily-based performance art in China, not only complementing the earlier practices of the M Art Group in Shanghai and the Concept 21st Century Group in Beijing, but anticipating the forms of body art that would traverse the boundaries of social acceptability, as seen in the provocative actions performed in November 2000 at the FUCK OFF exhibition in Shanghai by artists such as Sun Yuan (born 1972) and Zhu Yu (born 1970), in a presentation curated by Ai Weiwei and other former members of the Stars Group (1979–83).
The portfolio Beijing East Village is part of an edition of twelve sets of prints, but the only one in existence that has been kept together in its entirety. There also exist two artist’s proof sets. Individual prints from the set reside in the collections of M+ in Hong Kong; The Guy & Myrian Ullens Foundation Collection, Switzerland; The Museum of Modern Art, New York; and the Walther Collection, Neu-Ulm and New York.
Wu Hung, RongRong’s East Village, New York 2003.
Joan Kee, ‘The Property of Contemporary Chinese Art’, Law and Humanities, vol.12, no.2, 2018, pp.251–77.
RongRong, RongRong’s Diary, Göttingen 2019.
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