Last week, a girl appeared in public in downtown Chengdu wearing only underwear and a short skirt made of leaves, in order to advocate environmental protection. In the same week, a practically naked girl lay in front of a shop that sold hairy crabs in Changsha to protest against the corrupt custom of sending crabs as gifts during Mid-Autumn Festival.
Some have praised these displays as performance art and for the public's good, while others take offense to the nudity element, thinking good causes have been hijacked by people with less good intentions.
The divergence to some extent reflects the unclear situation of performance art in China, controversial both in its definition, content and form.
Provoking a reaction
Performance art originated in the West around the 1960s. It is an art form in which artists use their body to convey artistic expression. It has been a controversial topic worldwide, reputed for its weirdness and avant-garde nature.
This is no exception in China, where performance art has largely become synonymous with sex, nudity and violence, and performance artists are regarded as either freaks liking nudity or lunatics loving to torture their bodies.
Zhu Yu's Eating People in 2000 is a typical example, in which the artist appears to be eating a cooked stillborn baby. Some thought the performance reflected the "dog eats dog" society, but some took offense, too.
Last year, Cheng Li, a performance artist, was sent to a reeducation center after an explicit public performance in which he and a female engaged in sexual acts before a small audience in a gallery in Beijing.
This provoked much talk about the morality of performance art. While some criticized it as vulgar, ridiculous and unacceptable, others interpreted it as a meaningful message against over-commercialized art today.
Xu Qiaosi, a researcher in this field, said a work cannot be judged by whether it contains nudity, sex or violence, which is common in various kinds of art, but the necessity of using them should be considered first. "It is twisted to get nude for nudity's sake and be violent for fame," she said.
Similarly, Victoria Lu, an art critic from Taiwan who was a performance artist in the 1970s, strongly disapproves of using violence and cruelty to shock people and attract their attention.
She admitted that it is hard to set a standard for performance art as it is about individual expression.
"But in terms of sex and nudity, there is a difference between merely expressing a message compared to actually satisfying some people's demand for sex or desire to peep into other's private lives," she said.
Not well defined
Performance art first appeared in China in the 1980s and developed rapidly since then. However, the understanding of this form of art among the public lags behind. Li Xianting, a famed critic, once said that Chinese people's understanding of art is as far behind as being stuck in the pre-1970s.
Early this year, Kang Yi, a young artist in Guangzhou, organized a performance in Wuhan, Hubei Province, in which a woman led three chained men, who all crawled on the floor. Kang explained that it was an attempt to raise awareness about respect for women and the protection of women's rights.
Many audiences, particularly aged ones, said they couldn't understand it. Some even said it was repulsive. Kang told Global Times that this performance was the least pure one among his works, but got a lot of attention. "Good works usually gain little attention," he said, "The work would have looked better if we took off our clothes, but we were already criticized a lot by spectators."
Performance art in China seems to be an art form without boundaries, with the participation of anyone interested. This not only worsens the blurred definition of performance art, but also provides opportunities for people to use art for other purposes.
"Unlike other art forms such as painting and sculpture that have clear technical demands, the core of performance art is to 'use the body', which provides a basis for amateur and fake art," Xu Qiaosi told Global Times.
"The environment is not optimistic. 'Art' becomes a cover to hide many actions driven by the eagerness for publicity and profit," she noted.
According to Kang, in the stage of development, "There is a mingling of good and bad. Everyone can tell the media what he is doing is performance art, which makes people mistake performance art as a symbol of sex and violence."
Zhu Qi, an art critic, is worried about this misunderstanding. He told Dongfang Daily that people misinterpret performance art because all they see are performances of blood, violence and sex, and a lot of conceptual and rational art works are unknown to the public.
The rapid social development of China has provided rich material for contemporary art and allows artists to express themselves in various ways.
But Zhu Qi points out that the creativity of artists is declining in the current, fickle society and some artists are becoming overly commercialized.
Victoria Lu has also noticed how this change in the environment is affecting art. "Times have changed and there is nothing new for the public anymore," she said.
Kang has a more optimistic outlook though. For him, young artists have an edge over older artists because they can use the Internet to spread their work. "I mainly rely on the Internet on top of gallery exhibitions."
"Even though the environment for performance art has not really changed for the better, and despite people misinterpreting it, there is no reduction in the number of people engaged in this field," Xu Qiaosi said. "And there have been breakthroughs and enrichment in both the language and style of the art."
She does concede though that creating something truly excellent is a larger challenge. "Twenty years ago, simply taking off clothes was performance art," she told Global Times. "Now you need to consider the necessity of using nudity in the work and how to use details to enrich your work."
She added, "It is important to build a healthy attitude toward art. For artists, it matters whether they like it or just want to use it. And the attitude of the audience, including the media, should be improved as well."
Xu noted that the media should be careful when using the term 'performance art', because rampant use of it has caused much misunderstanding.