Crayfish, Red Herring and Art

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The Longxia (or crayfish) Festival held in Nanjing in June had nothing to do with those blighted crustaceans that hang onto life as they await their garlic-heavy fate. In fact, this small scale festival of performance art packed a punch and had me mulling that age old question, what is art?

Performance art in China has had a tricky time. After its introduction from the West in the 1980s, much of it was highly controversial and today the art form still errs on the side of underground. Let’s just say it’s not quite the authorities’ cup of tea, and at times, it may not be yours or mine either.

Performance artworks, particularly in China, are often intrinsically linked to the human body, directly addressing issues of corporality. In the 1990s, artists took this at times to wince-inducing extremes, pushing the human body to its limits and provoking fierce emotion and curiosity among viewers.

In Zhang Huan’s “12 Square Metres” from 1994, the artist lathered his body in fish oil and honey then sat in a rural public toilet for one hour allowing flies to swarm and gorge on his immobile body. Elsewhere, Sheng Qi chopped off his finger as a protest, burying it in a plant pot before emmigrating to the UK in 1989, his “proudest moment”.

Most gruelling of all was Zhu Yu’s work from the year 2000, “Dinner: Eating Man I”, where he obtained an aborted foetus, cooked it and ate it. The sickening “artwork” was Zhu Yu’s way of questioning human ethical standards.

Performance artwork often has an immense power to evoke response in its viewers or participants and even more so when focused on the body, because each and every one of us can relate. The most moving performance at the Longxia Festival was certainly Gao Shuyi’s “My Body”, in which she invited the audience to tie plastic bottles onto her body with course string, as she stood blindfolded in a swimsuit at the edge of Xuanwu Lake.

A crowd of sixty or so quickly gathered, watching in varying states of confusion, intrigue and aversion, as she violently tore the bottles from her body stumbling and tangling herself in the strings. Once free of the burden of bottles she dunked into the lake, falling into the flower bank dramatically and for a moment, submerged.

Not able to see clearly for the hoard of people, I began to panic. Yet I, unlike most of the audience, at least knew what was going on. Or at least I thought I did. More and more, I started to question if this was art or what it was I was in fact witnessing.

Gao later told me of the inspiration for her work, which spurs from a meditation on her own body. Growing up close to nature, she had an acute awareness of her body, which subsequently disappeared upon moving to the city. She sees the rubbish around the Nanjing as a parallel to herself and hopes through performance to remind young people not to get lost amidst hectic city life.

Performance art however need not be radical to have a profound impression. Bill Aitcheson kicked of the festival by having us blindfolded and plunged into Xuanwu Lake’s thriving marriage market. My perspective was distorted and expectations transfigured. Reliant on hearing, I could sense the crowd around me, but only once in 30 minutes did someone ask me why I was blindfolded to which another onlooker quickly jumped in; “Leave her alone, she’s here because she’s looking for someone”.

An article on performance art in some ways defeats the very essence of the art form which thrives on its live nature and great anticipation. Like the poor straggling crayfish, I had no idea what I was in for, but in the end, it was cooked up into something rather tasty.