On July 11th, the Art Newspaper reported that scores of Chinese police in riot gear had descended on Roma Lake, a budding art district near the Beijing airport, and forced artists out of their studios. Several days earlier, the police had also removed hundreds of people from Huantie, a more established creative community in a former factory complex. According to the hastily posted eviction notices, which named artists as “security problems” and “unstable factors,” the official reason for these raids is the government’s ongoing crusade against organized crime. This mafia-crackdown angle is new, but the harassment of China’s artists—evictions, arrests, studio demolitions—is a dispiritingly familiar story. Even the country’s most famous cultural figure isn’t immune. Last summer, the government bulldozed Ai Weiwei’s studio in Caochangdi, the thriving Beijing art sector that he pioneered.
“1994 No. 1,” 1994.
“1994 No. 95,” 1994.
Zhang Huan, “Metal Case,” 1995.
Among the spaces that remain in Caochangdi (at least for the time being) is Three Shadows Photography Art Centre, an exhibition space, archive, and public darkroom co-founded, in 2007, by RongRong, one of China’s leading photographers. It’s housed in a building designed by Ai Weiwei, who has been friends with RongRong since 1994, when the photographer was a twenty-four-year-old newcomer to the city, from the southeastern province of Fujian. The men met around the radically experimental scene of the short-lived and now legendary Beijing East Village, which took root in 1992, in the wake of the Tiananmen Square massacre, when young men and women found cheap lodging and artistic freedom in a suburban village favored by “garbage collectors, construction workers, and the unemployed,” as RongRong wrote in his diary at the time. Ai, roughly a decade older than the photographer—more a mentor than a peer—had just returned to China after a decade in New York’s East Village, and it’s likely that he nicknamed the new scene. But it was RongRong who insured its place in art history, documenting the courageous, outlandish performance artists, notably the celebrated Zhang Huan, whose renegade actions drew the attention of the global art world, thanks to the underground distribution of his pictures in a trio of publications co-edited by Ai Weiwei.
“1994 No. 20” (Zhang Huan,“12 Square Meters”), 1994.
“1996 No. 21” (Ma Liuming,“Fish Child”), 1996.
“1995 No. 3” (Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, “The Third Contact”), 1995.
“1994 No. 0.2” (Self-portrait, Fujian), 1994.
The new book “RongRong’s Diary: Beijing East Village” (co-published by the Walther Collection and Steidl) and a related show at the Walther Collection’s intimate gallery space in Manhattan revisit this meteoric moment in candid black-and-white images, shot with a 35-mm. camera that the photographer bought with money he earned working for three years in his father’s store in Fujian, after he was rejected from art school. At the time that he moved to Beijing, a person with a camera most likely worked for a state-run newspaper or magazine, but photography wasn’t sanctioned as an art form. RongRong was there in the East Village, in 1993, when Zhang Huan, whose training in social-realist painting began at the age of fourteen, made his first piece of performance art, inserting a mannequin leg retrieved from the trash in between his legs while sprawled out on a scrap of canvas on his studio floor—a living version of a Hans Bellmer doll. According to an undated diary entry (accompanying the image in the book), the action was RongRong’s idea. Zhang had been making sculptures from salvaged doll parts; when RongRong asked him to sit for a portrait, he suggested that the artist disrobe and transform himself into one of his works. Within months, RongRong was shooting what is arguably Zhang’s most famous work, an incendiary performance for which he covered himself in honey and fish sauce and sat for hours in a public latrine as flies covered his body. As the photographer wrote on June 3rd, “The worst was watching the flies trying to get into his ears. Still Zhang Huan didn’t flinch a bit, sitting as still as a statue. Holding my camera, I felt that I couldn’t breathe; it felt like it was the end of my life.” The piece concluded with the artist solemnly walking into a pond behind the latrine, until he disappeared. Titled “12 Square Meters,” the piece was dedicated to Ai Weiwei, whose father, once a famous poet, was relegated to cleaning toilets after the Cultural Revolution.
“1997 No. 29” (Zhu Ming, “Performances No. 6 and 7”), 1997.
“1993 No. 17” (Zhang Huan), 1993.
“1994 No. 46” (Ma Liuming, “Fen-Ma Liuming’s Lunch”), 1994.
“1994 No. 81” (Zhu Ming), 1994.
“Ai Weiwei,” 1995.
The East Village was gaining notoriety. A little more than a week after Zhang Huan walked underwater, the police raided a performance by the artist Ma Liuming in which he prepared food in a public courtyard. Steaming potatoes in itself didn’t constitute criminal activity; it was the fact that the artist did so in the nude. RongRong, who photographed the piece, evaded arrest. In a letter to his sister, he quotes his landlord, who was sympathetic to his bohemian tenants, informing him that the police had confiscated videotapes they found in Ma’s studio. “They turned in the videos to a professor at some university and asked if it was art. The answer was no. Right now, they have Ma in a detention center with thieves and criminals.” By June 23rd, the East Village artists had been evicted, and, shortly after that, the buildings in which they and other marginalized Chinese citizens lived were reduced to rubble, fuelling a cycle of creative liberation and despotic destruction that seems unlikely to end anytime soon. The book concludes on an elegiac note, with several tranquil pictures taken in 2002, when RongRong revisited the formative site, now part of Chaoyang Park. The first image is a self-portrait of the artist as a shadow, holding his camera on an empty road. In another, taken inside the park, he clutches a fistful of snow above the grooves that his fingers left in the snowdrift beneath him, leaving a mark destined to vanish.
“1997 No. 16” (Zhang Huan, “To Raise the Water Level in a Fish Pond”), 1997.
“1995 No. 43” (Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, “The Third Contact”), 1995.
“1994 No. 70” (Cang Xin, “Tramping on Faces”), 1994.
“1994 No. 2.3” (Zhang Huan, “12 Square Meters”), 1994.
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