Public Action Art and Performative Interventions in the Chinese Public Sphere

1st May 1998

If the expansion of the public sphere in Western history was transformative and essential in the creation of democratic, participatory polities, the character and role of the public sphere under socialism (from the former Soviet Union, to Eastern Europe, to China, North Korea and Cuba) has been radically different. In all these places, the power of the Party-State has long been constituted in part by the effective hegemonic monopoly on expression in the public sphere. In China, performance art in public has also performed several path-breaking functions, injecting questions about the human condition and visual interrogations of the order of things into the everyday life of ordinary people in society, and constituting ad hoc pockets of alternative public space.

In Reform Era China, as a variety of forces erode the State monopoly on the public sphere, the State's weakening ability and/or will to regulate public expression ideas and practices is directly related to the changing relationship between State and society, State and subject, as well as changes in the Party's own identity and modus operandi. For this reason, activities that contribute to the creation of independent "spaces of appearance" and alternative public spaces also contribute to the transmission and diffusion of critical discourse and competing ideas and practices, and play a role in transforming the public sphere. Thus, contemporary art in China has functioned since its inception in the late 1970s as a relatively autonomous, critical and sometimes outright counter-hegemonic site of heterodox cultural production, and the performative interventions of public action art have been at the forefront of this movement.

The State of Contemporary Art and Performance Art in China

Performance art has frequently come under fire as officialdom in China has found cause for offense in the works of independent artists who emerged following Reform and Opening in 1978. This stance can be traced from the crackdown on Xiao Lu’s performance installation in which she shot at her own work during the China Avant/Garde Exhibition in early 1989, leading to the exhibition’s early closure, to the arrests of performance artists Ma Liuming and Zhu Ming, leading to the dispersal of the Beijing East Village in June 1994 after the two were charged with "obscenity" and imprisoned for nudity in their performances, photographs, videos and paintings. Indeed, performance art has been treated by the Chinese State as a dangerous, unknown quantity and potential contaminant of public virtue. This attitude culminated in April 2001 after a slew of carnage-riddled, sometimes cruel performances and artworks that were slavishly reminiscent of Damien Hirst's work came into vogue the previous year. Outraged at the use of bodies—both human and animal, living and dead—under the rubric of art, the official animus towards performance art, tarred with this bloody brush, was formulated into pointed national policy directive.

On 11 April 2001, the Ministry of Culture of the Chinese central government released an official policy statement 通知 ordering local authorities nationwide to "resolutely put a stop to the harmful phenomena of bloody, brutal, obscene spectacles, performed or exhibited in the name of ‘art’." To prevent the damage to "social decency, morals and manners," the MOC explicitly prohibited the exhibition and performance of such "art" in public, as well as the display and mechanical reproduction and dissemination of "video or texts, pictures and other forms" of the works.
This directive represented a major setback for performance art in China, but by no means signaled its disappearance. Today, prohibitions towards nudity in art have largely been overcome in China. Violent art practices have waned and performance art is no longer singled out as a cancer on the corpus of public morality. This change has occurred in part because the art world has lost interest in gratuitously violent works, and this "fall from fashion" is as much due to a lack of originality, substantive, critical and aesthetic content of the work itself as State repression.

Today, overt repression has been largely replaced by the velvet-gloved, near invisible hand of self-censorship, as many galleries and artists—reluctant to jinx their recent truce with the State—have begun to make strategic decisions to omit works that they know will lead to a crackdown. Dai Guangyu has characterized this as the rise of a "neatly arranged freedom 俨然的自由."

Because of the unique character of public space and the growing tenuousness of State control over public expression in China, practices that contribute to this transformation of the public sphere are of critical importance. Three seminal cases of public performance interventions illustrate this dynamic: The Chengdu Public Action Art Movement of the mid-to-late 1990s, lead by Dai Guangyu; The Walking the Cabbage Project by Han Bing; and The Utopia of the Embrace by the Gao Brothers.

Dai Guangyu and the Chengdu Public Performance Art Movement

While the Beijing East Village is now a well-known chapter in Chinese contemporary art history, a set of parallel yet different developments unfolded in China’s Southwest. During the 1990s, the city of Chengdu in Sichuan Province was a vibrant site of avant-garde public art. Its community of artists blazed an alternative path for performance art. Spearheading the Chengdu Public Performance Art Movement was the charismatic, multidisciplinary Sichuanese artist Dai Guangyu.

Through his critical writings, curatorial projects, and, most of all, through his socially engaged art, Dai Guangyu has been an active contributor to the Chinese contemporary art world for more than two decades. As Co-founder of the "Sichuan Youth Red-Yellow-Blue Alliance" of avant-garde artists, Dai Guangyu was a leading figure in the "New Art Movement" in the Southwest from the mid-1980s onward. After 1989, when avant-garde art was driven underground, Dai Guangyu organized a series of path-breaking public art events in Chengdu and elsewhere.

In contrast to the mostly nude, transgressive experimentations of the Beijing East Village that took place largely within the temporary public spaces constituted by artists who converged around performance happenings in the courtyards where they lived, meeting repressive opposition and finally arrest when their performances were witnessed by locals and reported, the Chengdu Public Performance Art Movement introduced performance interventions into the broader public sphere shared by members of mainstream society to warm welcome and public affirmation. Their interventions were focused on societal and environmental woes afflicting the larger community—water pollution and environmental problems, misuse of public resources, protection of historical sites, etc.—rather than individual alienation and repression, identity and experience, and so they had little cause to take off their clothes.

The most noteworthy aspect of the Chengdu Public Performance Art Movement lies in the group’s ingenuous engagement with the mainstream media, which was key to their ability to disseminate their work and its messages across a broad swath of society, and effect change through art. As Dai Guangyu put it, in the course of this movement, contemporary, avant-garde art went from being "strange, unfamiliar, and unreadable, to familiar, then recognized, and finally having an interactive relationship with society. Through the media, and the enactment of art in public, the movement in Chengdu achieved important inroads towards the legalization and legitimization of performance art and its insertion into public space [and in doing so] introduced a new model of power."

The first public performance event in Chengdu opened a broad way for public interventions. American artist Betsy Damon had a grant and was working with American scientists who were investigating water pollution from its Tibetan source. On recommendation of the American Consulate, which had honored Dai Guangyu’s long-term activism by sponsoring his cultural exchange visit to the United States in 1994, Damon sought out Dai Guangyu for collaboration. Recognizing the local government’s potential receptiveness to an environmental awareness project conducted by a foreigner, he helped her organize a State-sanctioned public art project in Chengdu.

Protectors of the Water, the first large-scale public performance art event to take place in the Southwest, was held in downtown Chengdu from 29 July through the first week of August, 1995. Participating artists included Yin Xiuzhen, Wang Tong, Liu Chengying, Zeng Xun, Yin Xiaofeng, Zhu Gang, Li Jixiang, and others.

Among the works presented, several stand out. Yin Xiuzhen froze large quantities of polluted water and then "washed" them clean. Wang Tong bought ceramic water containers, filled them with clean, potable water, and then dangled them from a bridge over the polluted river. Yin Xiaofeng parodied a typical corporate promotional campaign. He filled basins for face or foot-washing with polluted water and invited people to enjoy a soak.

For his performance installation Long Abandoned Water Standards, Dai Guangyu assembled twelve photographs of community members and put the images into developing trays filled with the city’s river water. Over the course of the week, people watched their faces be consumed, as the toxic waste of human industry visibly degraded their portraits. While "developing" the photographic prints in pans of polluted water, Dai Guangyu offered tea to the audience, pretending it was steeped in river water, now purified and safe to drink. He and other artists imbibed tea to reassure them, but no one from the audience dared drink, revealing shared public knowledge of environmental conditions.

Every day over ten thousand people visited the performance installation site in the bustling downtown and engaged with the artists. People from all walks of life—homeless beggars, garbage pickers, retirees, petty merchants, business people, scholars, and local elites—roundly praised the project. The media followed suit with glowing reports. In the past, the media had shown suspicion towards avant-garde art. Indeed, at the outset of Protectors of the Water, they were still cautious; most had never heard of "行为艺术—performance art." But the public response was so overwhelming (even the city leadership attended) that they perhaps concluded it was safe to write positively. After the first positive report, journalists began competing to provide in depth coverage. After major papers began reporting, television followed suit. The experience convinced Dai Guangyu that "the alliance between media and art could play a critical role in the legalization of performance art."

Since a State sanctioned environmental awareness event organized with foreign involvement gave a positive pretext for the introduction of performance art into the public discourse, by embracing openness and reaching out to the media the Chengdu movement was able to accomplish a rare fait accompli that inserted avant-garde art and performance interventions into the public sphere, resulting in a decisive movement towards the legalization of performance art.

After Protectors of the Water, the phrase xingwei yishu was openly and positively invoked in the local media. In fact, there were all sorts of art in their public shows—installation, painting, ink wash—but the media took to calling it all 'performance art.' Perhaps the illocutionary force of art engaging members of society in public was so powerful that even painting and installation works took on a performative valence. Performance art became so popular and well-know in Chengdu that "even tricycle pedicab drivers and newspaper sellers recognized us on streets, we were like famous people and they would ask us when the next show would be so they could be a part of it."

Initially, the artists simply intended to use the environment as a point of entry into the public sphere for their art. But the transformative quality of their performative interventions was not limited to the public consciousness, the media, or the official attitude towards avant-garde art. In fact, the very acts they performed before the eyes of the community, and the dialogical process of engaging with members of the community about environmental problems, transformed the artists’ own thinking, their priorities, and sense of self in the process. "The truth is," said Dai Guangyu, "in the beginning, none of us artists actually cared about the environment, but by the end of the project we had been transformed by it, and came to care about this problem deeply. Before our knowledge was limited, but later we learned about it and realized its importance." The statement further underscores the performative notion of subjectivity as constituted through speech, action, practice, as well as dialogically, before the gaze of others.

Following on this success members of the Chengdu Movement undertook many new public performance projects, among which many are noteworthy.

In 1998, they were called to collective action by the impending demolition of the old city library that dated from the late Qing Dynasty and had extensive archival holdings. Real estate developers planned to tear down the library and replace it with a shoddy "tofu construction project" on the outskirts of town. While waiting for the new library to be built, the developer moved the library’s prized holdings to a damp, moldy, and rat infested storage facility. In response, Dai Guangyu organized the public performance intervention, In Defense of Memory.

In Defense of Memory took place on 15 August 1998 and lasted a single day. The library was cordoned off so they could invite only a few people: newspaper reporters, radio and television reporters, and scholars to witness and record. The artists, including Dai Guangyu, Yin Xiaofeng, Liu Chunying, Zhu Gang, Zhang Hua, Zeng Xun, Zhou Bin and Hu Jian, had to bribe the guard with alcohol in order to gain access into the building and lay their action plan. A few days later, they went again and gave the guard two cartons of expensive cigarettes to go back inside with the media observers and execute their project.

In Dai Guangyu’s performance, Diary, his young son, wearing a young pioneer’s uniform, dipped his ink brush in clear water and wrote his diary. Scrolls of photocopied images of Mao Zedong hung above him. Liu Chunying wrapped himself up like a mummy covered with calligraphy and was suspended from a shelf with books on his body. Zhu Gang read a book that contained no words. Yin Xiaofeng took seven vats and got some magazines from the trash, which he burned inside the vats. He dumped the ashes out from the second floor and then shattered the vats below. The media witnesses recorded everything.

They had just finished when a low level manager made an unexpected visit. He was furious. He cursed the gate man, called the company’s security guards, and locked the artists and their small audience inside, threatening them and demanding their film. One reporter managed to escape undetected, while the artists let a critic negotiate for them. The latter told the manager and his guards that the artists were just having fun, that they liked to make art films, and they wouldn’t make any trouble. Finally, they were all released.

That night, the performance intervention was made public. Word spread across the media, inciting discussion and protestations against the library’s demolition. The deal with the real estate company was rescinded and the library was saved (possibly to cover up any untoward personal profiteering of officials who facilitated the sale). The performance intervention, allied with the media, rallied the community to save their public library, giving the Chengdu Public Performance Art Movement a sense of how the power to effect real change can be constituted by speech and action in concert, particularly when injected into the broader public discourse.

In 1998, a stretch of old Ming Dynasty city wall was discovered when a residential block was razed for real estate development. The artists each did performances at the Ming wall to raise awareness and prevent its demolition. Performances included Dai Guangyu’s, Fossil, in which the artist used polluted river water to paint classical Chinese landscapes on xuan paper 宣纸 on the wall. When the water dried, the image vanished, mimicking the disappearance of history as architectural relics are destroyed to make way for "modern" high-rises. Zhu Gang squatted inside a hole in the wall and read a book with no words—hinting at what a history erased of content might be like. Zhou Bin washed the old city walls and discovered a Guanyin Buddha carving. Later, Dai Guangyu spray-painted some of the old bricks lying around and filled the holes in the wall with gold-painted bricks. Local scholar Cha Changping and Dai Guangyu organized a social discussion panel with the media and residents about the fate of the wall. Numerous citizens called their hotline, eager to help protect the Ming wall. The media storm instigated by their performance interventions helped save a sixty-meter segment of the wall.

From 1995 through 2001, Chengdu enjoyed an era of freedom for avant-garde art. This was challenged, however, when the Ministry of Culture issued its policy directive banning performance art. Although the wording of the statement singled out violence and nudity "in the name of art" as crossing the line, what followed was a backlash against performance art in general.

The artists rallied together again in protest of the ban. Dai Guangyu curated an exhibition in a Chengdu bookstore that featured ten artists (one week each) and still enjoyed the local goodwill to have the event publicized in the media. Artists Liu Chunying, Yin Xiaofeng, Deng Xun, Zhu Gang, Chen Qiulin, Yu Ji, and others participated. Visually reflecting the way in which the Ministry of Culture ban served to hamstring artistic creation, Dai Guangyu’s performance involved being hung upside down and forced to eat an entire meal and drink a beverage while inverted.

Until Dai Guangyu moved to Beijing in 2003, the loose confederation of avant-garde artists in Chengdu continued supporting each other in their public performance interventions. Since then, a number of artists—including Chen Qiulin, Yu Ji, and others—have also moved to the capital, where opportunities for exhibition and access to international opportunities vastly outstrip those in Chengdu. Nevertheless, the vibrant experimentation and collective public engagement there continues and there is still a greater degree of community solidarity there than in Beijing.

Han Bing’s Walking the Cabbage Project

Multidisciplinary artist Han Bing grew up in a small, rural village in Jiangsu province. A childhood of labor in the fields as a bona fide "peasant," as he puts it,—reclaiming the dignity of a word that is often used disparagingly—imbued his work with a sensitivity to the struggles of laboring people whose lives, livelihoods, identities and values have been thrown into flux by the State's juggernaut campaign of urbanized "modernization." In 1998, he moved to Beijing for Advanced Studies at the Central Academy of Fine Art and was struck by the contrast between the plight of working people and the materialist "Chinese Dream" propelling the nation’s development.

Mornings Han Bing attended art classes, and in the afternoons he spread a cloth out on a pedestrian overpass and sold pens and notebooks to passers-by for pennies. Eventually he saved up the money to buy a coal burner and cooking pot. He bought rice and a cabbage—the cheapest vegetable on the market and the staple food of the Chinese poor—and dreamed of his first "real" home-cooked meal while painting at the academy. But when he returned home, he found his room had been robbed, and his pot, coal burner, and seven oil paintings were gone. All that remained was that lonely head of Chinese cabbage and a rusty knife. Without the money to replace these items, he endured a harsh winter, watching his cabbage slowly wither, unable to cook it, and unwilling to throw away good food.

As Han Bing and his cabbage grew thinner and thinner together that first winter in Beijing, he began to contemplate why the Chinese so love their cabbage, which they would store in huge mounds to get them through the winter. He discovered a tenderness toward ordinary objects such as a humble staple food or simple tools of labor, which sustain the subsistence of so many people year in and year out and yet are seen as unglamorous reminders of a recent past of poverty by those better off. The growing gap between rich and poor and the way that the nouveau riche cast aside modest (and monotonous) winters of cabbage in favor of ostentatious gluttony in fancy restaurants where intentional waste is now a symbol of good fortune, was food for thought that stuck in his throat.

If a full stock of cabbage for the winter was once a symbol of material well-being for Chinese, now the newly-monied flaunt their "name brand" pampered pooches, as if to show they no longer need to rely on the lowly cabbage, and now not only fatten themselves to the point of obesity, but also have enough food to spare for a pedigreed pet. Yet, for the poor and struggling, the realities of cabbage as a bottom line have not changed—what's changed is the value structure that dictates what is valuable and what is worthless. Wondering how what we have, or do not have, changes who we are and how we come to know ourselves; how the act of desiring and possessing things can constitute our selves in various ways and change how we understand our lives, Han Bing began exploring the boundary between human beings and the objects that we use to define ourselves, as well as the relationship between our everyday practices and the status quo norms and value structures of the world, which our choices and actions, sometimes unwittingly, constitute.

In his eight-year ongoing Walking the Cabbage Project, Han Bing walks a head of Chinese cabbage on a leash in public spaces. This playful twist on a serious subject inverts an ordinary practice in order to stimulate critical discourse in public. A quintessentially Chinese symbol of home, sustenance, and comfort for poor Chinese, Han Bing’s cabbages provoke questions about contemporary social values.

Walking his cabbage on a leash, Han Bing strolls through populous urban centers and public places—from Tiananmen Square to Beijing’s Wangfujing shopping district, from the trundling public buses and subterranean metro lines to the hip Houhai lakeside strip of old Beijing hutong alleys, swank bars and cafés. But the travels of Han Bing’s cabbage are not limited to Beijing, or sprawling metropolises like Shanghai and Guangzhou, where he has enacted his performance interventions as well. His cabbage has been walked on the Great Wall, on elite resort town beaches at Qinhuangdao, in the picturesque water towns of Suzhou, and even in Hanhucun—the tiny rural village where he grew up. Han Bing walks his cabbage in wildly disparate environments—from the small agricultural plot of his parents in his home village in rural Jiangsu, where he helps them plant a new crop of cabbage, to the million-dollar dwellings and the privatized public spaces of "Euro-style" gated communities of the Chinese nouveau riche; from the idyllic minority village of Dali in the southwestern mountains of Yunnan, to the westernized Bund in Shanghai, and more—juxtaposing, with both pathos and tongue-in-cheek humor, the spaces of everyday life in contemporary China along the way.

Since 2006, Han Bing has globalized his intervention, taking his cabbage to Japan, exploring the cross-cultural significations and consternations produced by his performative interventions in the labyrinth of the Tokyo subway lines and across the mammoth city. In the financial district of Ginza, he embodied a playful spectacle of non-conformity amidst the prim-suited business people. In Harajuku, he was joined by a small legion of alternative young hipsters, self-proclaimed "Lolita girls," Goth teens, punks, and Cosplayers, in a group cabbage-walking bonanza.

In 2007, he toured the United States for three months, walking the cabbage in locales ranging from tourist-choked Hollywood to Santa Monica’s Venice Beach; from snooty Beverly Hills to the hippie-hold-out Berkeley, where homeless people joined the performance; from the aquamarine beaches of Miami to the churning banks of the Mississippi River; from Brooklyn's Polish neighborhood of Greenpoint to San Francisco’s Haight Ashbury; from Time Square and Fifth Avenue to a cattle ranch in the provincial East Bay suburb of Livermore.

During the opening of his solo exhibition at the Columbia Art Museum in South Carolina, over a hundred people gathered to take part in a group cabbage walk throughout the town, including anti-war protestors and Women in Black. When there weren’t enough cabbages to go around, some took turns, while others marched alongside, clutching nothing but green, webbed cabbage leaves.

Later that year, Han Bing walked his cabbage on cobblestone streets in Belgium and chic boulevards in France. He was harassed by security guards in Brussels, but joined by delighted onlookers in Paris.

In 2008, the Chinese cabbage was indigenized and swapped for the local British working class mainstay—the Savoy—in Han Bing’s mass performance of The Walking the Cabbage Movement in Manchester, hosted by the Asia Triennial Manchester. He localized his interrogation of social class and sustenance, possessive individualism and conspicuous consumption with one-hundred and fifty cabbage-walking Manchester folks—homeless people, housewives, grandparents, kids, gay activists, white collars, and immigrants—taking Savoy cabbages on leashes for a three-hour walk across the city, inciting puzzlement, delight, and much debate across society.

The scale of his outreach in China is reflected in discussion board banter, fiery debates, and reports by bloggers who have either seen Han Bing walking his cabbage and posted their own pictures on the Internet, or helped circulate these guerrilla images across the web, along with apocryphal stories about his identity, and their interpretations of the significance of walking a cabbage.

The phrase liu baicai 遛白菜 has now taken on connotations including "totally original," "mentally warped," and "alternative cool," among Chinese chat room "netizens," and a guerrilla photograph snapped at the 2004 Beijing MIDI Music Festival has been available for download to cell phones. There is ample evidence, in fact, that Han Bing’s performance of Walking the Cabbage is arguably the most well-know work of Chinese contemporary art across the broader society in the People's Republic.

Chinese bloggers in particular have engaged in spirited debates about the meaning of this public spectacle. Some have written impassioned diatribes decrying this symbol of the "alienation of the times," while others have responded defending the practice as a sign that people have become more independent and free to express themselves. Others have taken this performance as an animal rights statement, while others still have interpreted it as a comment on the disgracefulness of China’s current culture of wastefulness and exorbitant leisure (especially with regards to food and entertainment among the nouveau riche), and this cacophony of opinion is part of Han Bing’s objective. "By making people think for themselves," he says, "the great variety of ways to be a person and live in the world, become more visible, become more viable choices. Freedom requires having choices about how to live. I want to show that we have alternatives."

The Gao Brothers and their Utopia of the Embrace

The principles and passions animating the oeuvre of multidisciplinary artist brothers Gao Zheng and Gao Qiang for the past twenty years were forged in the crucible of persecution against their family during the Cultural Revolution, when their father, accused of bourgeois sympathies and intellectualism, was killed in 1968. They learned early the power of love as a source of strength and the power of idealism as a talisman to against disillusionment. Likewise, their meditations on love and the generative power constituted by people coming together in recognition and celebration of their mutual humanity is reflected in their ongoing eight-year public performance intervention, Utopia of the Embrace.

On 10 September 2000, the Gao Brothers gathered one-hundred and fifty volunteers together in their hometown of Jinan to realize their first mass public performance art project The Utopia of the 20 Minute Embrace. Using three busses, they ferried volunteers to the site on the south bank of the Yellow River. Most volunteers did not know one another or the Gao Brothers, and there was some anxiousness regarding what they were about to do. In China, platonic hugging is not a common habit, even among friends and family.To assuage nervousness, the Gao Brothers did a demonstration, first hugging each other and then hugging volunteers, in order to break the ice and show that hugs were not something to be embarrassed about. They explained their belief that every human being knows innately how to love and needs love, that everyone has the ability to embrace and the desire to be embraced, at least in the abstract, and that this action could unlock our hearts and enable us to find an agape-like love for humanity inside ourselves.

With this explanation, the participants began to relax. They each sought out and gingerly embraced a stranger. While the Gao Brothers initially expected people to embrace members of the opposite sex, most of the participants seemed more comfortable holding someone of the same gender. They closed their eyes and for the first fifteen minutes the participants held each other like sisters and brothers. For the final five minutes, the entire group came together for one mass embrace. The only human sounds were the rush of breath and the beating of hearts. These twenty minutes of unfamiliar intimacy left many with powerful, complicated feelings afterwards, and this strange experience had become "a gift in their memories."

On 31 January 2001, the Gao Brothers organized a group of friends and took to the streets of Jinan for another public performance intervention. On corners, roadsides, pedestrian overpasses, and public squares they engaged in lingering embraces with one another. Throughout the day and evening, curious strangers—some profoundly moved by the spectacle—joined them. Among these was a patrol officer, who became a spontaneous participant in the performance.

As word of this performance spread, curator Harald Szeemann invited the Gao Brothers to participate in the 49th Venice Biennale in 2001. A mass hug performance was planned for 8 June at the Giardini di Castello in Venice, set to the music of Bach. The brothers posted messages across the web, inviting people to participate and asking them to bring friends, families, and colleagues. When their applications for external passports were denied due to previous blacklisted activities, the Gao Brothers were forced to miss their own Venice Biennale performance. So they used the Internet to stage a worldwide performance to take place in real time alongside the one in Venice.

While the performance was taking place in Venice, the Gao Brothers assembled friends and strangers in the Jinan Liyun Modern Dance Troupe’s theatre to hug in synchronicity, closing their eyes and searching for a partner, while others worldwide participated simultaneously. This became their first worldwide "Global Hug Day."

In August of 2001, they hired twenty migrant laborers to embrace each other for the public performance, 20 People Paid to Hug. Then, in October of 2002, they worked with the Fangshang Middle School in Donghai County, Jiangsu Province, to realize a group hug performance of over two hundred people. The numbers of their participants grew in 2003, when they organized the 10,000 Person Embrace as part of the contemporary art exhibition for the opening celebration of the ritzy Jianwai SOHO real estate development. However, because of cultural inhibitions against the public display of physical affection and lack of understanding by the bourgeois crowd at the opening, only a small number of people were willing to embrace a stranger. In an attempt to breach this divide, 10,000 Person Embrace was recast as Embracing 10,000 People, whereby the Gao Brothers began to hug as many people in attendance as possible, one after another for several hours.

The Gao Brothers took their public intervention to Europe in April 2006, when the BBC invited them to London where they "freely embraced" strangers passing by. Following this performance, the Gao Brothers went to Nottingham to orchestrate a performance of more than a hundred people as well. In June, they were invited to Marseilles and organized another performance with around a hundred people.

Accompanying their solo photography exhibition at the 2007 Rencontres D’Arles, the brothers performed another intervention in the square not far from the pub in Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. I had the honor of translating their message to spontaneous participants. It was my first mass, public hug experience, and I found it profoundly moving to embrace complete strangers without reservation. Many participants openly wept during the twenty-minute hug session, overwhelmed by the simple power of the human touch and the reawakening of our sense of connectedness through the embrace.

Since then, the brothers have organized mass hug interventions in Berlin and Tokyo, Hong Kong and elsewhere. Future plans include mass hug interventions across China, as well as worldwide in public places, war-torn ruins, and zones of conflict.

This ongoing public performance art project is rooted in the belief that love can reclaim our humanity; not the bourgeois love of a significant other, but the love of fellow human being, strangers with whom we share our public spaces, but with whom we almost never share our hearts. In an era when politics and economics in China have served to alienate people from one another, the Gao Brothers have responded with this fundamental human capacity and need—love. By staging mass group hugs interventions in public, the Gao Brothers ask us to use our flesh-and-blood bodies to re-member the bond that we share with our fellow human being, to literally heal the dismembered body politic through love, to hold our fellow human beings close and allow ourselves to confront the distances between us—distances to which we have grown far too inured, distances that allow us to treat each other without compassion or respect. Holding a stranger in your arms, surrounded by people doing the same, may not remedy all the woes of our world, but it can performatively instantiate and remind us of our connection to one another and reawaken us to that strange magical fusion of our indisputable commonality and irreducible differences, and the latent power constituted by our coming together.

Conclusion

While the many public performance art interventions organized by Dai Guangyu and his collaborators in the Chengdu performance art community took place in the days before the Internet had reached a broad swath of the urban public in China, the collaborative role of the mass media was central to the fait accompli of legality and legitimacy that he succeeded in engineering for performance art in China’s Southwest. Likewise, media collaboration provided a vehicle for spreading the causes championed by the artists—environmental protection, cultural preservation, social activism, public accountability—helping turn local, eye-witness events into larger formations of widely shared public discourse about important aspects of the human condition and social responsibility for their community and shared fates.

By the time Han Bing began his Walking the Cabbage Project, the age of the Internet had begun in urban China. While the sort of media collaborations effected by Dai Guangyu in Sichuan, far from the political centre, were less transferable to the highly monitored, tightly regulated mass media of the nation’s capital, the growing realm of the Internet has provided a relatively less restricted vehicle for the viral transmission of critical discourse arising from Han Bing’s Walking the Cabbage Project.

Likewise, the Internet has played a pivotal role in expanding the reach of performance art in the public sphere for the Gao Brothers’ Utopia of the Embrace Project, offering a medium through which people not physically present were nevertheless able to participate in—and even initiate—parallel performative interventions in real time alongside the Gao Brothers’ interventions. Indeed, the Gao Brothers have successfully used the Internet to post invitations soliciting the participation of myriad strangers in their mass hug performances, disseminating knowledge of their project among not only to China’s growing population of "netizens," but also around the globe. Some have speculated that their pioneering performances may have inspired the "Free Hugs Movement" that has spread virally on YouTube in recent years.

Just as the emergence of print media in the West once enabled the emergence of a sense of common national membership in the "homogenous empty time" of a shared set of information consumption practices, in the past decade, Internet technology has enabled the emergence of globalized networks of affinity, affiliation, shared discourse, critical debate, and even coordinated co-actions and performative interventions that transcend national boundaries and reaffirm the sense of common humanity (our shared natality), interdependence and mutual vulnerability (our shared mortality), and the glorious myriad ways of being a human being (our common and irreducible plurality) that Hannah Arendt linked to the constitution of polis: the generation of power through speech and action in concert, and the transformation of the public sphere.

If performance art is but one of many ways in which questions about the human condition can be visually and conceptually posed, performance art in public space—particularly that which critically engages and inspires the participation of ordinary members of society—has the capacity to function as a form of performative politics, creating zones of critical discourse and introspection that challenge the status quo and change the topography of the public sphere.

In China, where State power still feeds on the ability to dominate and manipulate discourse in public and the capacity to act as a gatekeeper of public culture, regulating public expression, performative interventions in public space offer critical optics through which to view the human condition and offer alternative standards by which to judge the order of things.

By Maya Kóvskaya Read more

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default 21 ft x 13 ft 30 ft x 19 ft