This piece is included in Ran Dian’s print magazine, issue 4 (Winter 2016–2017)
From aggrieved naked actions to crowd-pleasing sideshows and carnivals, is all performance art just an art world product to be taken for granted? The loading of it with symbolism—be it far-fetched justifications furnished by “post-production” (everyone’s a DJ), or the abnormal popularity of new religious cults as material—is not what we are concerned about; using commercial elements—in the manner of Jeff Koons, the Whitney Biennale, and DIS’s 9th Berlin Biennial—is not what we are concerned about, either. The only thing we care about is the relationship between artists and capital. When “rebellion” legitimates contemporary art, yet can’t find a way out of it, re-examining life and collaborating with capital in good faith appear to be the only escape. But will this lead us back to what we had objected to in the first place?
When performance art is set free from traditional frameworks or artistic regimes (the languages of painting and sculpture), is this where it will end up? Will performance simply join in with theater, vaudeville, and cinema? The freedom of performance art to touch our routine, our bodies, our relationships with mundane gestures—is this all there is?
There is a Szechuanese dish called Chicken with Chilies, and when it’s placed in front of foreign guests (with the exception of Mexican guests), they hesitate to lift their chopsticks. At a glance, Chicken with Chilies looks dangerously spicy. The sheer sight of the peppers can make a person’s hair stand on end. But gourmands with more experience rush forward, dispelling such worries—“Come, everyone, try it. Chicken with Chilies isn’t spicy!” They plunge in, probing for pieces of chicken amidst the “little hills” of chili peppers, peanuts, Szechuan peppercorns, and other ingredients. And with that first bite, it becomes clear that there is in fact little difference between this dish and an order of KFC. One Saturday night, on the ground floor of Shanghai’s K11 store, artist Chen Tianzhuo’s performance of “Trayastrimsa” was, in my view, the Chicken with Chilies of sight and sound: imposing, but ultimately audiovisual junk food.
To be honest, I saw no more than a tenth of this performance. The show took place in a low, narrow, underground hall with a stage running through its center and very little space on either side for audience members to stand. K11 being a popular venue, once the performance began it was nearly impossible to squeeze through the crowd to get closer to the stage. The tenth that I did see was mostly through the screens of the phones of the people standing in front of me, shooting “live broadcasts.” Meanwhile, the sound coming from the speakers was at an especially low frequency; intensified by the already-low ceilings, it produced a tremor in the walls and floor and a shudder in my body. I was afraid the effect might be bad for my heart, so I left early. The fact that I caught such a small glimpse had no adverse impact, however, on my ability to understand the central theme of the piece, because there was no narrative structure to the performance. It was, essentially, a mélange of various recognizable symbols, and I will mention just a few of them here. There was a man wearing a golden elephant mask, his entire body painted white, who assumed several familiar dance postures and waved wands around in his hands, accompanied by medieval-sounding music—like a pagan imagining of medieval Europe. More precisely, it was like an imitation of the signature works of Matthew Barney, Bill Viola, and others (similar, in this regard, to Huang Ran’s video work). Another performer, dressed in a kimono and wearing a sinister mask, held up a paper umbrella with a tai chi pattern on it and writhed his fat body slowly forward. All of this, set to highly dramatic lighting and music, was reminiscent of the charm of the “Emperor’s New Clothes”—only this time, the audience members (consumers?) were themselves the emperors.
Dissecting the piece as a whole, I found no link between these images, which constituted an anything-goes pile-up of various symbols: Tantric Buddhism, Taoism, body politics, the larger narrative of human civilization, reincarnation, redemption, self-examination, revelation, purgatory, Hieronymus Bosch’s “Ship of Fools” and “The Seven Deadly Sins”. . . . And I think this was precisely the artist’s strategy: to speciously and casually glom together a bunch of disparate references in the name of “pop-cultural critique.” The result was a disordered collision in the imagination of the audience—a crowd composed of the partiers, the young creatives, the employed elite, and both the legitimate and phony culturati of the city. What appeared before their eyes was the “mythological world” of their own wishful thinking. The artist threw all these elements, already outdated in the West, back into the pot, and added a few Chinese symbols too.
It might be argued that the “old” here had been given new life because the majority of the audience was probably witnessing these images for the first time, although many seemed more interested in being on the scene than in what they are seeing. From the artist’s point of view, it doesn’t matter whether the audience includes actual devotees or merely dilettantes of Tantra, Taoism, or Buddhism. What’s more—and setting aside individual attachment and focusing on the perspective of culture and the logic of commodification—religious belief was not the main point of the performance. What everyone trusts most completely—what everyone is most exposed to—is pop culture and its endlessly cyclical game of criticism and incorporation, absorption and ejection.
As it has evolved, mainstream culture today is no longer subject to value judgment. Any ridicule or criticism of it is tantamount to the failure of trying to fight fire with fire; any attempt to glorify it will remain inseparable from the vortex of consumer society. This, of course, also applies to any serious reflection on the form at hand. And yet, if we simply take this as a commercial performance, the only thing wrong with “Trayastrimsa” is its negative impact on the audience’s eardrums. Other than that, let’s eat it up! But just remember, the next time you have Chicken with Chilies, don’t be intimidated by the peppers on top. It’s really not that spicy. It’s just good old chicken.