The Rise of Critical Art, Chapter three: Trans-Feminist Art

Wang Nanming

Pain in Soul: Performance Art and Video Works by He Chengyao was an exhibition organized by Shanghai Zendai Museum of Modern Art and curated by this author. The exhibition opened on September 2nd, 2007 and was divided into three parts. The first part was a retrospective of six of He Chengyao’s past performance and photographs. The second part consisted of her new works, including documentary films and photographs. The goal of this exhibition was to defend He’s performance art and support her new works. The third part was the artist’s two year rural-education aid program which was announced at the opening of the exhibition. He Chengyao’s works speak from personal experience and extend the scope of the content to bring attention to those from similar social groups. By applying for teaching positions in poverty-stricken peripheral areas, the artist is able to use actual teaching to resume her original identity as a teacher and make her education experience part of her next artistic creation.

 

Part One: Nightmare of the Body: Retrospective of He Chengyao’s Performance Art

Homage to Mother is a performance He Chengyao did in 2001, a year in which she made several performance art pieces. In Homage to Mother, the artist poses topless and stares ahead of her while holding a photograph of her mother, who is also topless. This performance is very strong and could be straightforwardly interpreted as He’s declaration of her identity, as well as her accusations. Furthermore, Homage to Mother is a key piece to the understanding of He’s other performance pieces. The artist makes performance pieces by utilizing her own life story. The mother she holds in the photograph is not just any mother either. He Chengyao was born in 1964 in Rongchang County, Chongqing. Her mother was pregnant outside of wedlock. After prolonged discussion over whether to keep the child or not, He’s parents decided to have it. Consequently, this decision resulted in dismissal from their public jobs, and He’s mother suffered a nervous breakdown due to stress. Of course, to those unfamiliar with the social and political backgrounds during that particular time, the political pressure He’s parents confronted, and the unbearable environment in which the artist lived since childhood, would seem incomprehensible. In a society where pregnancy before marriage represented an act of moral degeneration, one could imagine the kind of life He and her parents had to tolerate in an era when dishonorable acts brought on blatant but conceded abuse. Even today, children born outside or proscribed relationships continue to be treated unjustly. Interpretation requires communicative contexts, especially with regard to artworks that are more deeply embedded in specific contexts. Otherwise, distinguishing the conceptual differences between artworks would be impossible to achieve. In comparison to other performances that portray the naked body, the nakedness of He Chengyao’s mother is the origin of her performance art. After He’s mother became mentally deranged, she was always running around naked on the streets of her hometown, with her hair disheveled, no matter day or night. Such was artist He Chengyao’s childhood memory which haunts her even today, though later the artist had left her hometown in Rongchang for Chongqing, and then moved from Chongqing to Beijing to become a freelance artist. From the start, nakedness had always been a symbol of He Chengyao’s performance art.

 

Opening the Great Wall (2001) was her first performance. At the time, German artist H.A. Schult created an installation named Trash People out of industrial waste, which was then arrayed on the Great Wall in a formation like the terra-cotta warriors. He Chengyao took off her shirt and walked all the way to the Beacon Tower, followed by the audience. Indeed, this work marks the beginning of the close alliance between He’s art and her mother. After Opening the Great Wall, He Chengyao went back to her hometown to visit her mother. She found her sitting alone quietly, naked from the waist above and playing with a rotten apple. Such a scene still struck He as painful, so she took off her own shirt and stood behind her mother to have a photograph taken, which was titled Mother and Me. According to her, that was the first time the artist and her mother ever had their picture taken together. The photo allows her to squarely face her family’s history with a mental disorder, which she had always carefully hidden and avoided for so long. She wanted to reaffirm the family line relations with her mother by touching her.

 

The misinterpretation of He Chengyao’s work also begins with Opening the Great Wall. Such misinterpretations exist even after some post-modern critics adopted the term body politics to interpret He’s performance involving nudity. If body politics becomes a grand narrative as often appeared in critical essays, the act of taking off one’s clothes becomes the whole of body politics. Should this be the case, then criticisms on He’s performance art must end there. The only conclusion from such a critical point of view would equate He’s work with the act of taking one’s clothes off. In fact, such grand narratives cannot provide effective and profound criticism on the meanings that a piece of performance art attempts to construct. Up to the present, He Chengyao still faces the accusation from both ordinary audiences and art professionals that she takes her clothes off for the sake of taking her clothes off. All of these are due to the misinterpretation of He’s artworks that comes as the result of simplistic explanations of the theory of body politics. In other words, in order to go beyond this kind of viewpoint, one must read the nakedness in He Chengyao’s performance from what is behind body politics. In fact, this does not merely apply to He Chengyao, but to all performance art that uses the body.

 

Images of Mother and Me could not only be regarded as an extension of her oeuvre, but also as her own reinterpretation of Opening the Great Wall. For Mother and Me, He re-created the performance of Opening the Great Wall. The key to this re-creation is that the work does not belong only to the artist, but to her mother as well, for the whole process was completed by both the artist and her mother. The series consists of photographs of He and her mother taken from different angles. Even in works where the mother is not present, we can still sense her presence in He Chengyao’s performance. Mother and Me provides such a context. 99 Needles is a performance piece He did in 2002. The artist stuck 99 needles on her own body and face until she passed out. She claimed that this piece is ”an homage to my suffering mother”. When she was a child, her family used all kinds of unorthodox methods to treat her mother’s mental illness, one of which was acupuncture. Several people held her mother’s hands and feet and forced her to lie on a board to undergo acupuncture. He Chengyao heard and saw her mother scream and struggle, but the illness was never cured. This is He Chengyao’s “nightmare of the body”. The above works are all related to the nightmare He had. In 2004, she condensed the themes of body and identity in Broadcast Exercise. This controversial piece can be considered a conclusion of her earlier performance art. For this piece, He wrapped her naked body in transparent packing tape and performed a set of broadcast exercises, exercises she had to do on a regular basis as a student. As the tapes were wrapped sticky side out, she had to pull her stuck limbs apart while doing the exercise. In the exhibition venue, the audience could hear the ripping sound of the tape almost as if the body is being ripped open. This work is therefore a combination of He Chengyao’s early painful memories of social prejudice and collectivism’s suppression of humanity. He Chengyao’s performances are body politics, not body is politics; the body is in the fore with politics in the background. We have to read from the background to the foreground in order to fully understand He’s work.

 

Part Two: Anxiety Towards Younger Generation: Video Expressions of He Chengyao

 

Among He Chengyao’s works, the 2001-2002 work Testimony is the starting point of her recent art creation. In addition to the photographs the artist took with her mother, the photo series also includes a photo of her son. The entire series consists of three pictures. In the first picture, He stands behind her mother, with her mother looking back at her. Both of them are naked from the waist up. The second picture shows the artist seated, with her son standing behind her. In the last picture, her son sits against a blank background, which implies He’s memory of her youth and her anxiety towards the younger generation. Although the work projects He’s own story on the life of her son, it demonstrates the publicity of art. Although, as presented in her performance art concerning “the nightmare of the body”, He Chengyao’s artworks often speak from her personal experience, they also concern political topics of public society and individual freedom. She uses her individual case to criticize the unfairness of the past’s social structure and ideology.

 

Through Testimony He Chengyao expresses her concern and respect for the disadvantaged and the marginalized. Their lives are no different from any others in the world. The transformation from personal declaration to social field research reflects the development of He’s art, manifesting a shift from using her own story as the context of her work to the concern to those who share the same experience of hers. This is no longer the story of her youth, but today’s life condition in general. In recent years, she started to make documentary films of families with mental patients in her hometown, Rongchang. This is a resonance of an artist who grew up in such a family to others who are faced with the same situation. This objective inclination makes her video recording a kind of support in a real sense. The social and individual problems of these families are always neglected by society, especially when it comes to remote areas and homeless people who are mentally ill. From towns to villages, she made the documentary Families with Mental Illness, recording lives of three families whose members suffer from mental problems, as well as another documentary entitled Homeless Mental Patients. Here, documentary is no longer an alternative to He’s performance art, but a way to truly reflect the living conditions of the disadvantaged. Thus, if her earlier performance art is connected to her memories, her documentary works are more immediate. She takes up the camera and asks, with documentaries and photographs, I have suffered all the way, shall they go on suffering the same as I did? The anxiety towards the younger generation makes He Chengyao’s art more and more embedded in society. Evident in her objective of making her son the subject of her work and forefront of public discussion, the socializing process of art marks exactly the transformation of contemporary art. Instead of being satisfied with a vision of a personal utopia, this kind of art interferes into social issues. Thus, cultural politics is the avant-garde of contemporary art. Artworks created by those who kept a distance from society are either nonsense or kitsch. He Chengyao returned to her hometown in rural village, and recorded the children of disadvantaged families with her video camera. She interviewed about 30 kids from poverty-stricken families and took a series of photos with each of them. Among these children, there are adolescents from single-parent families, abandoned kids, orphans, as well as sick children. They are not able to live a normal life due to poor living conditions and the negative social attitudes they encountered. Not only are they deprived of the chance for schooling, but also for love and concern from others. When combined together and presented with the children’s personal files, He’s photos bring the lives of these marginalized children into public attention, just as she publicizes her own life experience. They make art part of the public opinion, so that the public may no longer feel easy when faced with these photos. Of course, she has another intention, that is, to involve public support into the performance art projects, because at least the kids in these pictures are real people. “Is this art? some may ask, especially some of the nonsense artists or kitsch artists. My answer is: this is art. Isn’t it something that journalists do? My answer is: journalists are also artists. Politics should be left to politicians, why should it have anything to do with artists? My answer to this longstanding dispute is: because art is the most political field”.

Charity Foundation

The exhibition Pain in Soul: Performance Art and Video Works by He Chengyao at Shanghai Zendai MoMA included a fund-raising event in relation to 15 photo series taken by He Chengyao in her hometown, Rongcang. Each group of photos documented a child from an impoverished family, his/her living conditions and family members, which were then verified by their teachers or people from the neighborhood. The information was listed as follows:

 

1) Long Jidong – 12 years old

Class 3, Grade 4 at Tonggu Town Central Primary School

Family Address: 2nd Community of Longjiachong Village, Tonggu Town, Rongchang

County, Chongqing.

Family Status: his mother died when he was young and he now lives with his father who has suffered from mental illness for years. The family is mainly supported by the local government, friends and relatives.

Liao Weihua, Principal of Tonggu Town Central Primary School

2007.06.30

 

Zhou Zeming, Tonggu Town Government

2) Li Xiangqiu – 9 years old

Grade 3 at local primary school,

Family Address: 5th Community of Xuyou Village, Guansheng Town, Rongchang County,

Chongqing.

Family Status: her mother died of illness in 2001. The family now has two members, with the father aged 58, blind.

 

Liao Weihu, member of the Xuyou Villagers Committee

2007.07.10

3) Lai Dawen – 10 years old

Grade 3 at Guansheng Town Central School

Family Address: 8th Community of Shuifo Village, Guansheng Town, Rongchang County,

Chongqing

Family Status: The family has two members. The father, who suffers from bad eyesight, is 56 years old. His mother left the family and never returned. He now lives with the father.

2007.07.15

 

4) Deng Zhongxia -14 years old

Grade 2 at Tonggu Town Junior Middle School

Family Address: Dengjiagou of Gaoshan Village, Tonggu Town, Rongchang County, Chongqing

Family Status: her father died and her mother remarried. She now lives with her grandparents.

2007.07.16

All of the above is verified by Deng Tianlong, Tonggu Town Middle School

 

5) Zhong Wanqiang – 14 years old

Grade 2 at Tonggu Town Junior Middle School

Family Address: Dengjiagou of Gaoshan Village, Tonggu Town, Rongchang County, Chongqing.

Family Status: his father left the county years ago and never returned. He now lives with his younger sister and his mother who is a peasant.

Zhong Wanqing

2007.07.16

All of the above is verified by Deng Tianlong, teacher of the Tonggu Town Middle School

2007.07.16

 

6) Pan Dongqiong – 7 years old

Grade 1 at Tonggu Town Central Primary School

103

Family Address: 4th Community of Wanfuqiao Village, Tonggu Town, Rongchang County,

Chongqing.

Family Status: her parents were both killed in a car accident in May, 2001 when they were working as migrant workers in Guangzhou. She now lives with her grandparents.

Zhou Zeming, Tonggu Town Government

Liao Weihua, Principal of Tonggu Town Central Primary School

 

7) Xu Xianqiong – 9 years old

Grade 1 at Tonggu Town Central Primary School

Family Address: 4th Community of Wanfuqiao Village, Tonggu Town Rongchang County,

Chongqing.

Family Status: her mother left the family to work in 1999 but never returned. Her father was seriously injured when working in Guangdong and has been disabled ever since. She is now supported by her grandparents who are both peasants.

Liao Weihua, Principal of Tonggu Town Central Primary School

Zhou Zeming, Tonggu Town Government

 

8) Long Jiqiong – 13 years old

Grade 4 at Tonggu Town Central Primary School

Family Address: 2nd Community of Longjiachong Village, Tonggu Town Rongchang

County, Chongqing.

Family Status: she was abandoned since birth and adopted by a sick, mentally-handicapped father who is unable to work. She has no foster mother.

Liao Weihua, Principal of Tonggu Town Central Primary School

Zhou Zeming, Tonggu Town Government

 

9) Teng Hong – 13 years old

Grade 1 at Tonggu Town Junior Middle School

Family Address: 8th Community of Longjiachong Village, Tonggu Town Rongchang

County, Chongqing.

Family Status: she was adopted as an orphan. The foster father was killed in a car accident in June, 2007

Deng Wanhu, Chairman of Wanfu Villagers Committee

Zhou Zeming, Tonggu Town Government 2007.6.30

 

10) Lu Fengming – 12 years old

Grade 4 at the Primary School of Jinniu Village

Family Address: 4th Community of Jinniu Village, Hebao Town, Rongchang County, Chongqing.

Family Status: his father is a peasant. Both his mother and his first sister suffer from congenital dementia. His second sister is now a third grader at the same school.

Lv Fengming

2007.07.09

All of the above is verified by Zhou Zeming, Tonggu Town Government

 

11) Zhu Wanjun – 7 years old and Zhu Wanming – 5 years old (younger brother)

Grade 1 at the Tonggu Town Central Primary School

Family Address: Wanfuqiao Village of Tonggu Town, Rongchang County, Chongqing.

Family Status: their parents left the family and never returned. They now live with their 72-year-old grandmother.

This information was submitted by the local residents of Tonggu Town, Rongchang County.

2007.07.20

 

12) Lei Fang – 11 year old

Grade 4 at Jinma Primary School of Guansheng Town

105

Family Address: 9th Community of Yunfeng Village, Guansheng Town, Rongchang County,

Chongqing.

Family Status: her birth mother is psychotic and she now lives with her foster parents.

Submitted by the ninth community of Yunfeng Village, Guansheng Town, Rongchang County

2007.07.20.

Duan Jianan, member of the Yunfeng Villagers Committee, Guansheng Town, Rongchang

County 2007.07.20

 

13) Wan Xiaomin – 14 years old

Grade 2 at Guansheng Town Middle School

Family Address: 4th Community of Yinhe Village, Guansheng Town, Rongchang County,

Chongqing.

 

Family Status: the family consists of 4 people, with the grandma aged 89, the deaf-mute father aged 49, and an 18-year-old sister who quit school to work. “When I was two years old, my mother left the family. My father worked as a motor tricycle driver to support the family. The roof of our house leaked whenever it rained, and sometimes even mud dropped from the roof. My grandma is 89 years old, and my elder sister quit school after she finished her first year of middle school and went off for work as we are too poor to support her. My mother left us when my sister and I were very young and we have no mother to care for us.”

“Our house is built with mud, so when it rains the roof would leak and the fence would fall down. My grandma is old and sick. My father is deaf and mute. Business is hard for him as he has difficulty in communicating with his customers. I am too young to work for the family, and the whole family depends on father. He is very tired.”

Wan Xiaomin

2007.07.18

Zhang Furong, Party branch secretary of Yinhe Village of Guansheng Town

2007.07.18

 

14) Ning Zhongmu – 10 years old

Grade 2 at Liangping Primary School of Guansheng Town

Family Status: he lives with his father, Ning Lianggan, aged 54, at the seventh community of Shuifo Village, Guansheng Town. His father is paralyzed. The family is supported entirely by the local government. His mother left the family 8 years ago and has never been seen since.

Zhou Lin, member of the Shuifo Villagers Committee of Guansheng Town, Rongchang County

2007.07.10

 

15) Tang Chengfeng – 14 years old

Grade 2 at Liangping Middle School of Guansheng Town

Family Address: 3rd Community of Xuyou Village, Guansheng Town, Rongchang County,

Chongqing.

Family Status: her father died in 2006, and she now lives with her mother and her younger sister.

Liao Weikuan, member of the Xuyou Villagers Committee of Guansheng Town, Rongchang

County, Chongqing.

2007.07.10

 

The purpose of these photographs is not to showcase the artist’s photographic skill, but to use camera lenses to document the society. Yet, they do not fit into the category of traditional photo-documentary in which each shot frames a scene. In fact, He’s work uses a group of interrelated photographic images to point to a similar theme, and the very act of exhibiting these still photos constitutes the content of He Chengyao’s performance art. Thus, the static photographs transform into a dynamic process of denotation, which develops according to a variety of combinational factors, while photographs act as a lead-in to the process of denotation. After all, the methods by which the exhibition was organized in the art gallery aimed at triggering discussions about how to establish a broader linkage between art and society. When the photo series displayed in the lobby of Zendai MoMA corresponded to the retrospective of He Chengyao’s six performance and two documentary videos – The Psychotic Family and The Psychotic Tramp – exhibited in the #3 exhibition hall upstairs, the meaning of the “Children of the Poor” resounded between the present and the historical. It is hard for us to imagine how He Chengyao grew up. All her performances in this exhibition were associated with her own background. Her naked body stood side-by-side with her naked mother, a victim of mental illness. Similarly, it is also hard for us to imagine the life of those children of the poor, who not only have to deal with poverty but also with mentally ill or disabled family members.

 

There are many ways in which contemporary art museums could intrude into society, and one of them is to organize exhibitions for fund-raising charity events. The charity program is an essential part of the exhibition of Pain in Soul: Performance Art and Video Works by He Chengyao, and is an attempt to connect public museums to charity activities and to further expand the role of art galleries. As illustrated before, art museums are not only places for aesthetics, but also venues in which discussion of social issues can take place. These social issues arise from the artworks created by artists, exhibitions organized by art museums, and critiques written by critics. Contemporary art’s shifting relationship from one method to another changes the identity of the artists.

 

Zendai MoMA is inclined to cooperate with charity foundations sponsored by the government, which they hoped would manage the fund-raising event during this exhibition. However, after seeing that He Chengyao exposed her body in her performances, the official in charge of the Pudong Branch of Shanghai Charity Foundation refused to participate in the program due to fear of political repercussion. The charity foundation official chose to turn a blind eye towards these poor children and unbearable living conditions. The charity organization is essentially a managerial platform established by the government for charity donors. It is their duty to provide the service whenever there is a fund-raising event, no matter how small the donation is. Otherwise, why do we need them? The Shanghai Charity Foundation’s reaction not only showed disrespect for the artist’s work and the academic responses to the piece, but also exemplified the government-assigned charity official’s inability to act in a society in which the existence of civilian charity foundations is not allowed. It also tells us that Pain in Soul: Performance Art and Video Works by He Chengyao was not only an exhibition that could change the public’s bias towards performance art, it could also reveal how the social organizational mechanisms of fundraising might result in a lack of benevolence in a society where art museums and the public are trying hard to do so.

 

Trans-Feminist art constitutes an important theme of my art criticism. A distinctive feature of trans-Feminist art is that, although the artists are women, their works are no longer restricted to female subject matters – as the current status of feminist art tends to be limited to subjects of female physicality and mentality – and transgress the simple line of gender. Instead, it sheds its light on the public sphere of a liberal society. Although He Chengyao uses her own body to create the performance art, her performance goes beyond the body itself. With the body, He is revealing a social oppression that is faced by both sexes, as illustrated in her recent work, which turns attention to children from families with mental illness and underprivileged families. This is the main theme of the exhibition Pain in Soul. If we continue to focus on the artist’s female body in the discussion of her feminist art, we might risk overlooking a more important dimension in He’s work, the political dimension. Bullet Shot Through the Young Heart by Lei Yan was originally displayed in 2002 at the Artist Commune, Hong Kong. The series is composed of five photographic images. The red one on the left and the green one on the right both consist of numerous images of scenes taken at the cemetery of revolutionary martyrs. In the middle, the grey photo is constructed through the overlapping of countless pictures of tombstones of the revolutionary martyrs, with two accompanying images that display written documents of an outline history from the establishment of diplomatic relations between China and Vietnam in 1950, to the outbreak of Sino-Vietnamese War in 1979, and finally to the normalization of Sino-Vietnam relations.

 

During February and March of 1979, the border security forces of the CPLA launched a counterattack against the Vietnamese Army in self-defense at the Sino-Vietnamese border. In this battle, the Chinese casualties numbered more than 10,000 and the Vietnamese numbered 80,000. Vietnam and China established diplomatic relations in January 18th, 1950. In 1962, Ho Chi Minh and Nguyen Chí Thanh visited Beijing to request Chinese military assistance for the South Vietnamese Army. In 1971, Zhou En-lai and Ye Jianying paid a trip to Vietnam.

 

In 1978, the 4th Central Committee Conference of the Communist Party of Vietnam affirmed China as the “most direct, dangerous enemy”. In 1979, China mounted a counterattack against Vietnam. In 1980, anti-Chinese legislation was written into the Vietnamese Constitution. In 1988, the fourth Conference of the eighth Vietnamese Communist Party Central Committee passed to remove the anti-Chinese passage from the Constitution. In 1991, the Minister for Foreign Affairs of Vietnam, Nguyen Manh Cam, visited China. Same year, Đo Muoi, the General Secretary of the Communist Party of Vietnam, and Võ Văn Kiet, the Deputy Secretary of the Party Committee, made an official visit to China. A joint communiqué was released to announce the normalization of Sino-Vietnamese relations. In 1993, former president of Vietnam, Lê Đuc Anh, paid a visit to China. In 1994, Chairman Jiang Zeming paid a friendly visit to Vietnam, leading to the release of Sino-Vietnamese joint communiques.

 

In 1999, Premier Zhu Rongji made an official visit to Vietnam. China and Vietnam reached a consensus in their land border demarcation. In the same year, Chinese Foreign Minister Tang Jiaxuan went to Vietnam. The land border treaty was officially signed by Tang Jiaxuan and Vietnamese Deputy Prime Minister and Foreign Minister Nguyen Manh Cam on behalf of their countries. In 2000, both sides exchanged instruments of ratification. With respect to this photo, the exhibition also includes a short note written by the artist herself: In May of 2002, I once again climbed up to the Sino-Vietnamese border- Laoshan – as a normal tourist. The old Laoshan had already become a hot destination for border tourism. When looking at the newly renovated Laoshan, I could hardly recognize that the place was the frontline of the Sino-Vietnamese Border War. I could still remember the year when I first arrived with the army on a mission. On the way from Xinjie to Laoshan, there were camps, battlefields and trucks everywhere, though now the road is lined with Laoshan Restaurant, Laoshan Tea, Laoshan Barbershop, Laoshan Resort and Laoshan… etc. The name Laoshan became a brand capable of attracting investigations to the border town Malipo. I traveled in my friend’s car along the road where the old battle took place and arrived at the border checkpoint of Tianbao. The thatch-roofed huts and frontier troops had long since disappeared. The Customs at the border crossing is very well renovated, and the old Tianbao Farm is now transformed into a beautiful and prosperous small town. Ten meters away from the checkpoint into the Vietnamese territory located a commercial district. Browsing through the stalls, one could find Vietnamese coffee, rubber slippers, mountain goods, groceries and all sorts of products made in China, including most household articles. People of the frontier areas moved through the prosperous market and dealt friendly. It is even hard to differentiate who is Chinese and who are Vietnamese. In view of the prosperity and change laid out before us, my memory went back to the war that occurred here in the past.

 

Upon my second visit to the cemetery of revolutionary martyrs, I no longer felt heavy-hearted as twenty years ago. The 959 heroes buried here remained the same. They would never know that the war had been long over and that China had re-launched diplomatic relation and friendly exchanges with Vietnam. The gravestones recorded their young lives, sixteen, seventeen, eighteen, nineteen, twenty… I whispered their names while walking down the rows of gravestones. Most of them had only been enlisted for three months, half a year, or one year.

 

They were too young. Their lives had just begun. Maybe the uniforms had not even been washed when they were buried here. Maybe they had not even had the chance to meet their colonel. Those young faces…Will they regret? I asked myself. As a soldier, obedience is the first duty. War was something beyond their control, though they were sent to execute it. Standing in front of these tombs, my heart was full of respect for those young lives and doubt over the war. Is the war righteous or merely a political game? For those martyrs lying under the ground, was the sacrifice of their lives meaningful?

 

I tramped on up to the top of the cemetery. In the backlight the gravestones appeared like a group of soldiers kitted out in uniform. As a puff of wind swept across, a chill struck through me, like a bullet shot through the gravestones and the spirits underneath. It shot through my young heart, through time and space, through memory, and serenity ……

 

That battle fought twenty years ago, how many people are still remembering? Bullet Shot Through the Young Heart uses the appropriation of words and collage of images to reflect on the meaning of war and individual life. It is also a recollection of artist Lei Yan’s personal experience. Although created by a female artist, the thematic concern of this work on public politics and rights extends beyond the domain of feminist art, and thus could be seen as an example of trans-feminist art.

 

A major problem Lei Yan’s work and similar works y others faced with the current theories of art criticism is, how ought we interpret them? Here, liberal society theory provides an effective method for interpreting trans-feminist art, for critical art derives essentially from the art of liberal society theory. Moreover, Lei Yan’s work also rejects some critics’ argument of introducing a concept of “Chinese modernity” in reviewing feminist art. In my view, feminist art in China is different from a Western conceptualization of modernity, which focuses primarily on works and concerns traditionally considered important to women. Under the framework of Chinese modernity, Chinese female artists are forced to adopt their oriental female identity and to use materials that are generally associated with women. My critique is that such a theory of Chinese modernity not only eliminates the involvement of feminist art in the universality of feminist politics, but also fails to facilitate the transition among Chinese female artists from feminist politics to public debate. I have to point out further that in trans-feminist art, women constitute a vital political power in the public sphere and are capable of discussing all sorts of issues of civic politics. Lei’s photograph series, Bullet Shot Through the Young Heart, fights against the female identity superimposed upon female artists by Chinese modernity. To me, even if modernity does happen in China after all, it is largely a failed project.

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