Performance Art in China By Tan, Adele
Performance art events began in China in the 1980s following Deng Xioping’s post-Mao economic reforms in 1979, which exposed Chinese socialist society to foreign investments and influences. In 1985, at a time when China’s mainstream art was mostly defined by official Academic Realism or Socialist Realism, incipient strands of avant-gardist experimentation were surfacing through informal art groups. Robert Rauschenberg, for instance, held a solo exhibition at the National Art Museum of China, Beijing. The exhibition displayed innovative readymade assemblages, installations and collaborations, introducing Chinese audiences and artists to major trends in contemporary Western art, including the breaking of aesthetic and conceptual boundaries, thus motivating artists away from deeply embedded modes of thinking and art-making. Rauschenberg’s exhibition confirmed a rising awareness in China that art could embrace participatory agency, and break down rules of perception and action, while expanding the possibilities of the duration, place, and materials of art. China’s performance art questioned thresholds of visuality and aesthetics, and was widely translated into Chinese asxingwei yishu [behaviour art], while also referred to as xingdong yishu [action art], shenti yishu [body art], and most recently xianchang yishu [live art]. The implication of human behavior and conduct in the translated term reflected performance art’s function in addressing lived experiences under socio-cultural constraints in an authoritarian state, as well as social change and upheaval during China’s transition into a socialist state with capitalist characteristics.