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1989
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The Sound of Gunshots, Half a Life’s Dialogue: On Xiao Lu’s “Dialogue”

On February 5, 1989, Xiao Lu fired two bullets into her installation “Dialogue” approximately two hours after the opening of the China Avant-Garde exhibition. That exhibition was a full presentation and manifestation of the art movement that had unfolded since 1985, displaying 297 works by 186 artists from all around China, including Tibet and Inner Mongolia, and taking up six exhibition halls on all three floors of what is now known as the National Art Museum of China. Xiao Lu’s work was situated in the east gallery on the first floor, to the right as one entered the room, in perhaps the most visible location of all. Her two gunshots instantaneously shook up the Chinese art world and the National Art Museum, as well as the larger world. The world’s four major news agencies—Associated Press, Reuters, Agence France Presse, and United Press International—immediately reported this news. The New York Times, Time Magazine, The Christian Science Monitor, The Bangkok Post, Hong Kong’s Shen Pao Daily and most of the major European newspapers reported on Xiao Lu’s gun performance.  All of the major domestic newspapers and media also followed this story, reporting the gunshot performance of “Dialogue” as the main event of the China/Avant-Garde exhibition. In terms of media attention, there has not since been a work of Chinese contemporary art to provoke such a strong reaction; this work dwarfs all that followed. As the chairman of the preparatory committee for this exhibition, I experienced the full range of this work’s impact. Nearly two decades later, I return to this work with the aim of research and interpretation. In this process, I feel deeply the creative and challenging nature of Xiao Lu’s work. Many things that we did not know at the time, now seen in retrospect, add to the work’s logic and rationality. It can be seen as the most influential combination of installation and performance in Chinese contemporary art history, and as one of the most important emblematic works in that history. Because of its importance, it is mentioned in nearly every book on Chinese contemporary art history, Chinese and foreign. The photographs documenting this performance have been included in many important international exhibitions, including Global Conceptualism: Points of Origin 1950s-1980s (Queens Museum and traveling, 1999-2000) and Inside Out: New Chinese Art (Asia Society and P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center and traveling, 1998-2000). The former was the most important retrospective of global conceptual art history ; the latter was the most important exhibition of Chinese contemporary art held in the West, including art of the preceding three decades by the most important artists from Mainland China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong.    

Xiao Lu’s work “Dialogue” appeared in the late 1980s, as her graduation project from the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts in 1988. At that time, young Chinese artists were experimenting with different media to express their feelings and new artistic concepts. Xiao Lu’s installation boldly used forms from life, as telephone booths were her major material. The work comprised two telephone booths with a red telephone between them. In the 1980s, telephone booths had just begun to appear in major cities, and functioned as a symbol of modernization as well as China’s emergence from family space toward public space. A pair of figures dressed in student clothes, one male one female, sat in the telephone booths talking on the phone. The telephone booths were placed on a layer of cement bricks that covered the ground, suggesting that the installation was actually set on the street or in some other public space such as a square. Looking at the crisply executed aluminum telephone booths and the energetic youths inside, viewers instantly came to feel a strong sense of modernity and currency. However, this work was not an attempt to simplify and narrate a scene its creator had observed on some street or to present a fragment of secret dialogue between the boy and the girl, but rather, the artist was trying to use this realistic, pop method to reveal the contradictions inherent in conversation and exchange. The work speaks not only to the problems and contradictions that arise in a dialogue between individuals, but at the same time hints at the contradiction between public and private space.

This is because we see in these two telephone booths a red telephone placed on a table, but the telephone’s mouthpiece is not atop the telephone, but rather dangles there, unanswered, suggesting that the “dialogue” has been cut off. The missing-person announcements pasted to the phone booth exteriors also represent loss and lack. Therefore, Xiao Lu’s “Dialogue” used the direct visual forms of daily life to express the considerations and problems of the young generation of the 1980s in confronting rapid modernization. In the artistic trends of the 1980s, these sorts of materials which expressed urban people and urban landscapes were still very few. Most artists were working either in realistic styles portraying rural landscapes and figures, or expressing a kind of mysterious and unpredictable sense of the universe. This type of work borrowed at once on rustic nature, primitive wilderness, and landscapes of the universe to convey the yearnings of a new generation for modernity. We can see these materials and forms in many of the most popular works of the 1980s. But at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, works narrating urban modernization appeared in the mid-1980s, for example a group of such works expressing the modern city, industrialized scenes, and modern intellectual dilemmas was part of the 85 New Space exhibition. In this way an independent avant-garde artistic trend and concept was formed. Xiao Lu’s “Dialogue” also represented this tendency, but different from other works in this vein, “Dialogue” was the first work of the 1980s to use the form of an installation (or rather, the forms of Pop Art) to directly express themes of urban modernity.

Because this work was named outstanding among the works in the graduation exhibition at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts that year, it was immediately published on the back cover of the tenth issue of Meishu (Fine Art) magazine in 1988, and for this reason was quickly selected for the China/Avant-Garde show. However, like many other works on display in the 1989 exhibition, “Dialogue” was not thoroughly discussed in terms of its inherent artistic concept or multiple meanings. As soon as Xiao Lu shattered all expectations by firing two gunshots into her installation in this, the highest national temple of fine arts, people’s attention immediately shifted to the “political” nature of this “gunshot incident,” and away from the internal logic of the work itself.

As a work of art, Xiao Lu’s gunshot performance is an inseparable part of the work “Dialogue.” The gunshots mark a supplement and a completion to the installation part of “Dialogue.” Without the gun damage it ultimately suffered, “Dialogue” would not have come to an end. Even so, the major incident provoked by Xiao Lu’s gunshots has caused people to forget her and her creative aims. And yet it was precisely this sensational incident that would mark an insurpassable gulf between Xiao Lu and the spirit of the times.

 Just after completing the installation “Dialogue,” Xiao Lu already had the idea to use a gun to “damage” the bright, clean face of her work. When the shots were fired that day in the museum everyone immediately suspected that it was performative violence and a challenge to the law. Chinese citizens are not permitted to carry guns, and even less so to fire them in public settings, even for the sake of art or game. Very naturally, the media, and particularly the foreign media, thought immediately of politics and national ideology. But in truth, Xiao Lu’s gunshots came first and foremost from her own doubtful attitude toward modernity, which is to say that she used the violence of the gun to damage the technological nature and material texture of modernization (in concrete terms, the bright, clean surface of the telephone booths and the beautiful formal presence of the aluminum alloy.) Another principle was her roar against the tragedy of human existence. As a young lady she had been harmed, and this virginal harm decided the tragedy of her life as it followed. Her happiness and her misery were all bound up under this original shadow. This shadow hid in the recesses of Xiao Lu’s heart for nearly 20 years, and made her, after taking those shots at her own work in the National Art Museum, unable to speak about the original meaning of her work throughout the media uproar that followed. She remained silent for fifteen more years before exploding again.

For this reason, one might say that “Dialogue” was not only a destruction of the form of modern art, but a major explosion of sentiment. This explosion ties into the emotions of intellectuals in that era; without this explosion of Xiao Lu’s personal sentiment, there would have been no way of linking the incident to the “sentiments of the times.” Conversely speaking, without the stimulus of the times, Xiao Lu’s personal emotions would never have exploded. The dialogue between these two kinds of sentiments is perhaps the meaning conveyed by Xiao Lu’s gunshot performance of attacking “Dialogue,” even if this was not consciously felt by Xiao Lu at the time.

And yet the importance of Xiao Lu’s work lies not only in the incident it created, but in the challenge it presented to contemporary art. It made art, artists, and critics seem shallow and ignorant in comparison. Any possible interpretation or judgment seemed oversimplified and powerless. The questions it touched on far transcended debates of artistic form and concept, and could not be absorbed by any simplified sociological interpretation. The consequences of this work far surpassed the initial judgments and imaginings of everyone, including the artists.

This was a truly random work, because its creator did not openly declare her plans before it happened. The original author of this work was Xiao Lu, but the interpretations which followed were not hers. In the moment before she fired her shots, Xiao Lu still had the power to control the order and process of her work, as well as its formal structure. However, after the gunshots, the interpretation of “Dialogue” no longer belonged to her, but to society. What happened after the gunshot incident was also no longer accidental. The meaning of this incident was not determined by Xiao Lu, but by the community of artists, critics, and social media (including international news organizations), and even by departments of the Chinese government (including the police). Although it was not the result of social planning, it is undeniable that the aforementioned factors formed an “interpretive system” which enabled Xiao Lu’s gunshot “Dialogue” to be thoroughly incorporated into a social and political reading. For example, after the China/Avant-Garde exhibition, people said that the exhibition and the museum were a miniature Tian’anmen Square, and that Xiao Lu’s shots were the first fired in the political upheavals of 1989. Although this explanation has a simple and shallow side, from the perspective of fate, Xiao Lu’s “Dialogue” was indeed one of the most important artistic and political events of 1989, connected in many ways to the Tian’anmen incident.

Of course, Xiao Lu’s works carry a heavy social element, growing out of vivid Chinese reality. This work also provides a vivid representation of how an artist from a family of traditional artists grows up and sets on the path of subversive contemporary art. In this process, Xiao Lu felt the contradictions and contrasts between being a socially committed artist and a sentient human. This story is itself unsettled, full of extremely individualized narratives. At the same time, she is the basis for a tragic social narrative. And yet, when people unfamiliar with Xiao Lu’s personal experiences and the full reasoning behind her gunshot performance hear the story, they often give simple social interpretations of her action that suffer from interpretive fallacy. Xiao Lu’s contradictions, conundrums, pain, and anger were expressed in those two shots she fired at her installation “Dialogue.” Both shots were aimed at the mirror between the two telephone booths, and in this mirror, Xiao Lu saw herself. This is to say, Xiao Lu fired upon herself, committing symbolic suicide. This is the tragedy of a woman, and of a society. Somewhere between society and individual, there exist obstacles to dialogue, and between society and art these gaps exist as well. After seeing this work through from beginning to end and coming to understand deeply Xiao Lu and her life experiences over the last ten-plus years, I feel that she was not creating a work of art in the standard sense of an installation or a performance, but that she was using “Dialogue” to talk about her life and fate itself. It was precisely this kind of sincere attitude toward her life and sentiments that drove her to create the work “Dialogue” in the first place. Eighteen years have passed since that work appeared in 1988. On the fifteenth anniversary of those gunshots, she fired another fifteen gunshots, because the fifteen years she spent with her boyfriend—from the earliest beginnings to their ultimate breakup—all had some connection to that “gunshot incident,” and particularly to its earliest conception. Thus, “Dialogue” is a portrait of the entire first half of Xiao Lu’s life. Nonetheless, I feel that it remains incomplete. Perhaps Xiao Lu will find some other way to develop the work, as people will no doubt continue to find new perspectives from which to interpret it.

“China Guardian Press” published on November 2006

Translated from the Chinese by Philip Tinari.