Turning Heads vs. Rolling Eyes

Three weekends ago, I checked out the Intrude: Art & Life 366 exhibit at the Zendai Museum in Pudong. I was always a little fuzzy about the exact parameters of this project, but it seems to have been a yearlong initiative in which different artists would do pieces to take art beyond the museum walls, and this show collects some of the highlights.

My pal Chen Hangfeng 陈航峰, with whom I’m currently collaborating on an installation for the Today Art Museum in Beijing for next April, was one of the participating artists. His piece involved chronicling the year by taking a picture of himself every day with a sign counting down the number of days remaining. Only about forty of the resultant photos were on display at the museum, though I thought there was room for a lot more, especially the one I’m in, an egregious curatorial oversight.

Most of the pieces were public performances of some kind, so they were represented in the museum by their documentary evidence, mostly videos and photographs. Lao Yang 老羊, proprietor of the Sugar Jar shop in Beijing’s 798 complex (the best place in the country to pick up experimental and underground Chinese music) had a piece on display, which involved riding around on a bike carrying one of those looping bullhorns; Lu Chen 陆晨 and Mei Er 梅二 of Shanghai punk band Top Floor Circus 顶楼的马戏团 could be seen in the background recording. Hangfeng’s friend Zeng Yu 曾郁, who we bumped into at the show, did a piece that involved walking around town wearing a blank white mask, handing out manifestos about the metaphorical masks we all wear in the public sphere. Yan Jun 颜峻 was represented by a piece that unfortunately looked suspiciously like an empty Windows XP desktop when we encountered it. One of the most entertaining pieces was by Australian Michael Yuen, who paid 40 people to follow him around People’s Square for a day without knowing why; it was fun to see how other people started to follow along and take pictures out of curiosity, goaded, I assume, by the prospect of a celebrity sighting.

Watching these videos, I couldn’t help thinking about how the act of documentation alters the performance itself. Without a documentary crew, I think some of these pieces could really shake people up and cause them to re-evaluate their surroundings, their habits, their assumptions, maybe even their safety. But when the videotape’s rolling, I expect people automatically prepare themselves for some kind of stunt or prank, if not an artwork, especially in a country where every Bi Feng Tang restaurant and intercity bus rolls those endless candid camera videos for cheap distraction. As I Twittered at the time, “A guy on a bus in a mask turns heads, but a guy on a bus in a mask being videotaped just rolls eyes.”

The only piece of these that I experienced live, other than Hangfeng’s, was a performance by German sound artist Daniel Wessolek on a rainy spring day last year up at Lu Xun park, way up in Hongkou district. He was doing a bit of circuit bending with cheap electronic toys and loudspeakers, controlled by a simple hardware sequencer he had built. Only about five people showed up for the show, but curious park-goers kept popping into our little pavilion to see what was going on. Eventually we were booted, so folks could play cards, and Daniel gave a brief encore on a boat in the lake under an umbrella. One reason I found the performance so beautiful was its ephemerality, the faint electronic sounds blending in with all the other Sunday morning noise, like drizzle on water.

But of course, if they hadn’t been videotaped, Hangfeng and I would have missed out on a fun afternoon of exploring and discussing these pieces. Documentation expands the audience for these works and gives the museum a greater roll in their promotion, analysis, and dissemination. Nonetheless, I had a strong sense that videotaping a performance does justice to neither medium. You don’t have the full sensory bandwidth, the intrusion into daily life, of a live performance, but neither, in the vast majority of cases, is the full communicative power of the video medium being exploited.

Guo Li Jun 郭立军’s “Ouch 岂不痛哉” was represented not by a video, but by an artifact. His piece involved setting up punching bags labeled “Trust me I can prove your existence 请相信我能证明你的存在” in public places, with a sign indicating that the bag may be used for hitting, kicking, hugging, kissing, or any other purpose. The same invitation held in the museum as well, so I went two rounds with one of his bags. To me it seemed the only piece in the show that even in its museum context still held the power to intrude.