Let’s Get Back to the Language of Performance Art

By Zhou Bin

When a butcher works, he only needs to be ‘steady, accurate and relentless’, whereas an artwork has to be context-based and the artist needs to take into account the necessity of being ‘steady, accurate and relentless’ and the uniqueness of the process.

Once when I was chatting with a foreign artist, he stated outright that Chinese performance art is not good enough. After the conversation, I wanted to figure out why he thought that way. I assumed that it was the difference of context that made him, while analyzing Chinese artists’ works, ignore the signified of the work and focus on the language itself. And this somehow reveals the problem of a lot of artworks. To some extent, this artist’s words remind me of these problems. Objectively speaking, many Chinese performance artworks are indeed merely emotion releasing; artists apply the performing method in a primal way of mechanical diversion and they do not constantly ponder over nor practice the performance art from the perspective of art medium. Art does not serve as the most effective tool to intervene into reality. For artists, it is important to realize the drawbacks of their working methods and they should not extol art neither depreciate it.

For me, in the process of creating performance art, at a spiritual level, no solemn themes would be more appealing than a drop of water. We often find that only because apiece of performance artwork concerns some vast political and social issues, its artistic quality would be so highly praised that the value it embodies would not be challenged. This is absurd. Suspecting and questioning is the nature of contemporary art. But this nature should not degenerate into a sentimental moral impulse, which turns the artwork into a mere propagation of values and a statement of political stand. Moreover, we should be wary of an excessive pursuit of a widespread recognition and understanding, which derives from a need to peach and makes art flattering and grandstanding. Art does not have to convey an explicit meaning. A good piece of artwork should not only concern a life experience and social reality, it should also be engaged in exploring and experimenting on the language of art. The ultimate judgment of an artwork’s value falls into the level of art itself and its language. The issue of language has always been a fundamental one, which all artists confront while creating their work. Art, as a way of expressing, has an independent value of existence. Imaging if artists’ creation and practice are short of a repeated scrutiny into the language of art, how void the work would be. In my opinion, as long as the artistic creation originates from one’s own life experience, it will, without any doubt, be linked to the vein of the social reality and it will also, if combined with a thorough deliberation of the method of language of performance art, develop artworks that are both authentic and powerful.

The emphasis on the importance of language does not urge artists to have an attitude of ‘language centralism’ or become addicted to creating a unique language of art. It also does not push them to merely invent a novel visual experience, to diligently construct an aesthetic style so different from that of other culture, or to simply subvert prior languages. What it really concerns is the renovation of language and also a proper use of it. Artists think about the language of performance art with a skeptical and critical attitude and their ultimate goal is to find an effective way to observe and express. This is based on our demand to ponder over and speak of the reality and it is a reflection of problems surrounding us.

Underlining the significance of language also does not mean to stick to the formalism, to remove the attention from problems in reality or to lead the spirit towards a kind of ‘escapism philosophy’ of ancient Chinese scholar-bureaucrats. The emphasis on the creativity and uniqueness of art language is meant for allowing an artwork to sate out all it wants to express and penetrate into beholders’ inner world. In terms of communicating artworks, this requirement for the language of performance art is appropriate, even unique and irreplaceable. We often find that when some artists respond to an issue through their works, their performance turns out to be too ‘artistic’ that the method and the concept cannot blend well. As a result, beholders would feel confused and reject the work distastefully. However, if an artwork is expressed in a proper language, the language would be authentic and unique while the artist’s thought and the concept behind the artwork would be precisely conveyed.

While making a performance artwork, the method can be flexible and variable according to the context. Artists should create wisely and confidently and use every useful way of expression. Language evolves in speaking and it is always in an ‘uncertain’ status. Here what’s essential is that artists integrate their emotion and thought into the creation. They need to forget the stylized module of visual vocabularies and even to abandon their desire to produce ‘an excellent work’. At this moment, the language has diverted from the dimension of creation to that of selecting, judging, observing and contemplating objects. The technique of performance art renders characteristics such as diversity and openness. It seems that there is no obstacle, but there will be no making without breaking. Much practice has to be done in order to reach this and here is where difficulties lie.

Theodor Adorno once said that “to write a poem after Auschwitz is barbaric.” This sharply points out that the temptation to set apart language is shameful and an evasion from the reality. Adorno’s warning is not an excuse to give up the experiment on language; on the contrary, it let us understand that we need to respect the real feeling and experience, to keep observing and questioning the realistic context and to convey our attitude and thinking via an accurate, concise and sharp language.

Revised in Chengdu, China

June 9th 2012