The Artist Body in China

“After Angel” by Cui Xiuwen

In a society where artists are strictly censored by the communist government and can be jailed for years with no trial and no recourse (like Ai Weiwei), artists have to find seemingly ambiguous ways to make protest.

As the resounding, ever-adaptable beacons of hope that artists prove to be everywhere, many Chinese artists have adopted the use of human bodies as an innocuous way of protesting an oppressive system.  

Nudity (also infamously used in the feminist art movement in the United States) seems to have an ingrained understanding in our hearts that if all else fails — if we can’t use our voice, if we can’t use our actions — then at least our bodies are still our own.

For, in essence, globalisation is a collective movement on the largest scale possible—it signals the uniting of the entire world into a single interconnected society. Thus, globalisation poses to the Chinese a refashioning of the very collectivism whose failure they had just witnessed. In reaction, artists have turned to the most individual and personal means in which to reflect on these large-scale global processes. What is more individual and personal than the body and flesh itself?

(From “Branded and Planted: The Globalised Chinese Body” by Mikala Tai, originally published in Intersections: Gender and Sexuality in Asia and the Pacific Issue 23, January 2010)

From Huang Yan’s series, “Chinese Landscapes”, which presents a visual relationship between man and nature through an expert application of paint on skin.

Beijing-based artist Huang Yan re-imagines traditional landscape paintings from the Song Dynasty by having his wife delicately paint them on his body.  While this style of landscape painting is quite traditional, the choice to use skin as a canvas adds new meaning and reinforces Taoist concepts of harmony between man and his environment.

Liu Bolin merges into rubble after an earthquake in Sichuan, Central China.

Liu Bolin, who painstakingly paints himself to blend into his surroundings, says he wants to show how city surroundings affect the people living in them, as well stand in silent protest against the persecution of Chinese artists by the Chinese government.

He said: ‘Some people call me the invisible man, but for me it’s what is not seen in a picture which is really what tells the story.  After graduating from school I couldn’t find suitable work and I felt there was no place for me in society.  I experienced the dark side of society, without social relations, and had a feeling that no one cared about me.  I felt myself unnecessary in this world.  From that time, my attitude turned from dependence into revolting against the system.’

(From Daily Mail article: Liu Bolin: The Chinese artist who turns himself into the Invisible Man“)

Hiding in the City No. 91 — Great Wall, 2010. Photo: courtesy of Eli Klein Fine Art, © Liu Bolin

Liu said he was further pushed on with his work when the Chinese authorities shut down his art studio in Beijing in 2005.

‘My work is a kind of reminder, to remind people what the community we live in really looks like, and what kind of problems exist.’

Liu Bolin was just featured at TED2013.  Watch his talk here.

Yang Zhichao, Planting Grass, Photography of Performance, 130 x 88 cm, 2000. Image courtesy of Eastlink Gallery.

Another artist, Yang Zhichao, is also concerned with the relationships between our body and the world around us.  Rather than blending into the background, he uses his body as a site for an extremely physical exploration of contemporary concerns.  His work involves violence against the body and acutely transmits pain onto the viewer.

Yang is always in immense pain for each performance; Planting Grass shows him after having a surgical incision on his shoulder was planted with creek grass.  While his body rejected this natural product, his body continues to exist unencumbered with a metal object in his leg that was implanted by Ai Weiwei in a collaborative piece called Hide.

In the age of globalization, Yang’s works suggest that Chinese artists’ bodies are not only branded by the state but have also adapted to the point where they are more comfortable being cybernetically engineered than connected to the natural world.

"Existential Emptiness No 1" by Cui Xiuwen

“Existential Emptiness No 1” by Cui Xiuwen

Cui Xiuwen has engaged with the image of the young school girl, an alter ego in her work, for nearly a decade.  In 2006, she began working with a pregnant teenager to address sexual awakening, gender awareness, and social conformity.  China now values youth and beauty but provides little protection for young women after their “assets” are “used up”.  In the wake of the sexual revolution (that followed the restrictive society of the Cultural Revolution), girls were avidly desired — the younger the better.  However, pregnant teenagers are discarded by family and society.

In a series of works entitled Existential Emptiness, she contrasted the abstract bleak winter landscape of Northern China, where she spent her early years, with photos of her alter ego (now twenty-something) who was accompanied by a life size and flexible doll that was fabricated in Japan.  The two engage in a number of duets – facing each other in a boat casting about in a lonely lake; separated by a distance with their feet facing each other; the girl dragging the doll across the snow- filled landscape; and more.  The dual persona suggests the dichotomy of body and soul, yin and yang, live and inanimate, real and artificial. 

In the end, no matter how any religious or social infrastructure tries to implement moral and legal restrictions, we are all in control of our own bodies.  This small bastion of control can lead some people to destructive decisions, such as self-mutilation or suicide, when other options are few.  

However, artists in China are not hopelessly despairing about an unjust system.  The representations of bodies in art radiate with their hearts’ screams about censorship, freedom, individuality, poverty, creativity, and critical thinking.  

When violence looms, these artists face that system head on and say, “Even though you can touch my body, so can I.”  


3 responses to “The Artist Body in China

  1. Pingback: Musings on Solidarity in a Gazebo | 13/13/13 Sketchbook Project·

  2. Huang Yan is the body and/or the photographer. His wife is the miniaturist landscape painter. I love their work, but they are a team.

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