In the course of the Cultural Revolution, universities and art academies had been closed, and many professors, students and “privileged” urban youths were sent to provincial factories and rural agricultural communes to be “reeducated” by the people. After the Chairman’s death in 1976, the academies reopened and vanguard art emerged with increasing force throughout the 1980s, aided by the Open Door policy of Deng Xiaoping, who allowed a massive influx of outside information and initiated market-based reforms that swiftly transfigured China. Mounting artistic experimentation, sometimes referred to as the ’85 New Wave [see A.i.A., Apr. ’08], culminated at the National Art Museum in February 1989 with “China/Avant-Garde,” a summa exhibition encompassing 186 artists and 293 works. The show’s subtitle and theme, “No U Turn,” proved ironic. Two hours after the exhibition opened, the artist Xiao Lu fired two pistol shots at her own installation, prompting security forces to close the show. (Xiao was jailed, along with her boyfriend and accomplice, Tang Song, but released three days later thanks to high-level family contacts.)
“China/Avant-Garde” then reopened, only to close again due to bomb threats (probably faked by another artist, Liu Anping). Coming just four months before the Tiananmen Square massacre, the Xiao Lu incident marked a severe rupture between recently invigorated experimental artists and the once relatively tolerant new government. After Deng sent troops into Tiananmen Square on June 4, 1989, many experimental artists scattered and went into seclusion, remaining underground for several years.
They re-emerged gradually in the early 1990s, clustering here and there in “artist villages,” the two most famous of which were in Beijing. Yuanmingyuan, on the west side near the emperor’s Old Summer Palace, was favored by painters such as the now celebrated Fang Lijun, Yang Shaobin and Yue Minjun. The East Village, in contrast, drew radical performance artists. It flourished for only about two years (1992-94), with a core group of roughly 20-30, counting artists and event-participant friends. (Intermittent activity by former residents continued here and there for a few more years; the area itself was razed in 2001 to make way for a park.) Setting the tone, three of the most experimental residents—Zhang Huan [see A.i.A., Dec. ’07], Zhu Ming and Ma Liuming—specialized in nude performance, a fact which in the spring of 1994 caught the unwelcome attention of the police.
At the time, Xing—like Rong Rong, the best-known chronicler of the East Village milieu3—was photographing her artist friends almost daily. She also brought occasional Western visitors to share the events and bohemian ambience. The Village performers welcomed sympathetic observers, especially photographers and video-makers, as potential disseminators of their work. Indeed, it is evident in a number of Xing’s images that artistic actions were undertaken expressly for a few cronies and a multitude of lenses.
Xing, simultaneously one of the gang and a nonresident outsider, was once confronted by the influential art photographer Liu Zheng, who angrily accused her of “lacking seriousness.” Xing protested that she could not spend hours “sitting around with the boys, drinking and talking philosophy”; she was much too busy doing something virtually unprecedented in China—establishing herself as a woman artist in her own right, while concurrently maintaining a freelance photojournalistic career and a stable home life as a foreigner’s wife and social partner.
Just how “serious” that triple undertaking could be soon became evident, when local villagers—and then government authorities—reacted with alarm to a series of nude performances in the spring of 1994. In May, according to at least one illustrated account, Zhu Ming—a frail, fatherless, self-taught 22-year-old artist from Mao’s native province of Hunan—went to a nearby area (Xing was not in attendance), stripped naked and had himself buried alive for two hours, breathing and blowing bubbles through a tube. A few hours later, he lay covered with suds in a shallow “grave” near a cemetery.4
In early June, Zhang Huan—whose fall 1993 performance on the steps of the National Art Museum had caused the preemptive closing of a student exhibition there—stirred the East Village with his now legendary public latrine piece, 12 Square Meters (the size of the sweltering space in which he sat for an hour covered with fish oil and honey). It was followed within days by his 65 Kilograms, in which Zhang—the title refers to the 29-year-old’s body weight at the time—was suspended in chains from the ceiling of a room while three white-robed doctors extracted 250cc of his blood and dribbled it onto a hot steel pan on the floor.
The next day (June 12), a lithesome Ma Liuming, 25 and noted for his occasional appearances in drag as the beautiful Fen-Ma Liuming, invited a score of friends to join him for lunch in the walled courtyard of a farmer’s house, where the artist lived in a single rented room. With the peasant family away, Ma undressed, made himself up and set about cooking a pot of potatoes at an outdoor gas range. (The effect was not nearly as impressive as that of his earlier Fen-Ma Liuming’s Lunch I, in which he had sucked on a tube attached to his own penis.) The performance concluded with Ma boiling his watch and rings, and burying them under a tree. Afterward, eight or nine people were standing around chatting when a police squad—accompanied by a translator—burst through the courtyard door.
Xing, knowing that the film would be pulled from her camera, slipped the exposed rolls into her husband’s pockets—confident that, in keeping with cautious government policy of the moment, a foreigner would not be physically accosted or searched. Everyone was taken to the precinct station and asked repeatedly who had organized the “obscene” events in the East Village. After a few hours, all but Zhu Ming and Ma Liuming were released.
Xing delivered her pictures the next day to the Associated Press, which broke the story internationally. Several East Village artists were rousted from their quarters, and others dispersed out of caution, at least temporarily. Later Xing visited Ma Liuming in Chaoyang District Prison, bringing fruit and cooked food. These gifts turned out to be unacceptable; only cash and cigarettes could be given to the inmates. Ma, unharmed, said that he was being kept in a large common cell under the protection of the block’s lead prisoner, who had taken a liking to him. However, neither Ma nor anyone else in the East Village circle knew where Zhu was being held. (Meanwhile, on June 30, Zhang Huan was set upon and beaten by a pair of unidentified men in a bar.) Later, near the end of the two artists’ two-month detention, the curator-critic Li Xiangting, father figure to the Beijing avant-garde, found Zhu in the much less civilized Changping district lockup.