Xiao Lu: The Confluence of Life and Art / By Jonathan Goodman

2022-11-18 08:42 0

Although she belongs to the avant-garde generation that has done so well, internationally as well as within China, Xiao Lu nonetheless presents an alternative to the recognized artist. Contradictions abound in regard to her career: for one, she is considered a major artist on the basis of a very small body of work. Also, despite shunning publicity for many years, she is nonetheless a famous art personality. In her installations, performances, and photographs, she insists on art connection to life and emphasizes the ambiguous circumstances of women in China ? Circumstances that have made her vulnerable as a person despite her heroic actions as an artist. Xiao is famous for firing two shots into her large sculpture entitled Dialogue in 1989, a work that presented the public with undeniable rebellion. Yet at the same time she was hesitant for a long period to speak out on the meaning of her actions; now, as she has matured (and after a long stay in Australia), she has become less diffident, even providing the details of her historic 1989 performance for a Chinese women’s magazine. Yet it cannot be said that Xiao is purely an outsider. She comes from an influential art family. Her father Xiao Feng, a well-known painter who had studied in Russia in the early 1950s, was first a professor and then president of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts from 1983 to 1996 (now the China Academy of Fine Arts). Her mother Song Ren was a professor at the same academy. Xiao was not interested in art when she was young; in a written interview, she commented that is a child I liked ballet, and if I hadn’t broken my foot at the age of twelve, I might never have started drawing and painting? Xiao goes on to say, “My career started in the passive mode.” Despite her slow beginnings, she would go on to study at excellent schools: from 1979 to 1984 she attended the Middle School of the Central Academy of Fine Arts, one of China’s best art schools; and then from 1984 to 1988 she was enrolled in the department of oil painting at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, graduating with a B.A.. Like many artists who belong to the avant-garde, Xiao Lu is devoted to blurring the gap between art and life. Asked why she makes art, Xiao is characteristically blunt: I don’t even know what art is, but I know why I do it. When your heart reacts to some person or emotion, regardless of whether it is good or bad, if you put something intense into it, the experience that you get back will also be intense. The link between me and my work is not a concept but a true experience of life? Xiao reiterates what has been a truth for the avant-garde since the early years of the twentieth century, namely, art cannot be separated from experience. In fact, most of her work corresponds to events in her life, from the famous Dialogue to her most recent, unfinished installation piece, which results from a failed love affair. According to Xiao, Dialogue has to do with “certain vexations and perplexities I had to deal with in puberty?” another reference to her personal life. For this installation, the artist had two telephone booths made; the one on the left shows a life-size, black-and-white photograph of a woman talking into a telephone, with her back to the viewer, while the booth on the right presents a man doing the same thing. Linking the two booths is a mirror, before which a telephone with a fallen receiver sits on a pedestal.

In 1988, Xiao, in a conversation with Song Jiaming, a teacher at the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, had come to the conclusion that the piece, created as her graduation work at the academy, needed something to offset its careful construction. She writes that Song’s “first impression was that it was too clean, that it needed to be broken somehow. We talked about how to break the mirror and discussed using the gun.” Subsequently, Xiao approached a friend, Sha Yong of the Zhejiang Shooting Team, to borrow a gun. He agreed to help her, but he didn’t get to the graduate school’s art opening in time for her to shoot the work. As a result, Xiao writes, “no gunfire was heard in 1988.” But then, a year later, Dialogue was accepted for the show of avant-garde art at the National Art Museum in Beijing. As Xiao writes, “this time I got the gun [from her friend Li Song-song] and fired it.” Tellingly, this work that began by documenting what the artist calls a “personal emotional clash,” took on epic and public significance because of the political events of the time. Xiao comments: “for me personally, the gunfire of 1989 was no different from that intended in 1988? But because the gun was fired in 1989 ?a critical moment in Chinese history and in the history of art in China ? the effect of the gunfire would spread beyond the original work.” In other words, “a deeply individual cause produced an effect which took on social and political dimensions. This was due to an accident in history.”

As curator of theshow “China/Avant Garde” at the National Art Museum, Gao Ming-Lu has pointed out that the action was a symbolic suicide: Xiao fired twice in rapid succession at the mirror, which reflected her image. According to Xiao Lu, her eventual lover Tang Song was merely an acquaintance and fellow student at Zhejiang at the time, and the original decision to fire the gun ?even in 1989 -- had nothing to do with him, although he was fascinated by the idea and was by her side at the shooting incident urging her to do it. Tang Song had also been invited to submit a work of his own to the China exhibition, but instead he limited his participation to suggesting a red cloth backdrop to Xiao Lu's installation (Xiao Lu rejected the suggestion), and standing by during the shooting. It was in the aftermath of these events, when Xiao Lu and Tang Song were released from detention together, that their troubled love affair started, and Tang Song began his promotion of the political interpretation of Dialogue. Seemingly oblivious to the consequences, Tang Song was arrested, and Xiao later turned herself in to authorities. The exhibition closed for five days, ostensibly for the Spring Festival. Then, on February 14th, the museum and the police department received phone calls, threatening to cause an explosion in the gallery if the show went public again. On February 17th, the show opened again, only to close two days later. Shortly thereafter, beginning on April 15th, the demonstrations for democracy at Tiananmen Square took place. While Xiao Lu claims that for her, “the gunfire of 1989 was no different from that intended in 1988,?her extravagant rebellion was taken up as a blow for democracy, a claim that was grafted onto the installation and action by others rather than coming from the artist herself.

Taken aback by the international response to her action, Xiao decided to go to Australia in December 1989 (she returned to Beijing in 1997). She was eventually accompanied by Tang, who was by then her boyfriend. After the Tiananmen Square Incident, political activists were arrested in a number of Chinese cities. Tang Song had been active as an orator and organizer in Hangzhou. He went into hiding in Hangzhou, Guangzhou, and Shanghai. Xiao Lu sought ways to get him out of the country, and managed to get herself a temporary visa to Australia with a view to helping Tang Song get to Australia as well. Shortly after that, he succeeded in making a clandestine passage to Hong Kong, and, impatient with the process of attaining refugee status, eventually stowed away and arrived in Australia (in mid-1991). He then spent some months as an illegal entrant in Villawood Detention Centre before being released around Christmas. Meanwhile, Xiao Lu was getting by somehow in Sydney.

The relationship declined, in large part because Tang Song would neither marry her nor father her child. The couple stayed together in Australia, but when Xiao returned to China and settled in Beijing she ended the relationship, facing a life without prospects as an artist. This was due in part to Xiao’s extreme hesitance about making work again. All the attention had the effect of disorienting the author, who would not make work for more than a decade. Asked about her lapse into inactivity, Xiao replies “it is very hard to explain briefly why I stopped producing artworks, just as it is very hard for me to explain in a word why I didn’t speak out after firing the gun in 1989.” Yet, in keeping with her habit of ascribing personal motivation to public actions, she sees her stay in Australia as essentially a private struggle, fostered by what she calls “the demon in my heart.” Her conflict is rooted in the integrity of her character, which derived meaningfulness from her willingness to take on her “demon.” As she wrote, “my actions were controlled by an intangible force. The truth of life and the truth of art formed a whole which was impossible to separate? When I couldn’t face myself, I made art, and when I couldn’t face society, I fell silent. When I could neither face myself nor society, I did nothing at all.” It is quite easy to see Xiao’s silence as a fault, but her statements support that she did what she has always done ?proceed according to the feelings that led her. As for Dialogue, the installation languished until the fall of 2006. On 22 November of that year, the China Guardian Auction Company held a special auction entitled “Twenty Years of Chinese Contemporary Art,” which included Xiao’s installation Dialogue. In honor of the piece, curator Gao, Xiao’s friend and supporter, wrote an article entitled “The Sound of Gunshots-Half a Lifetime of Dialogue.” Dialogue sold for 2,310,000 yuan, or more than $300,000 American. The lawyer of Guardian Auction Company had checked all the documents on the website and publication about Xiao Lu’s case, and regarded the Dialogue as exclusively Xiao Lu’s work, despite Tang Song’s claims that he was a co-author of the installation.

For all her autonomy and independence, Xiao sees her emotional life as the determining factor in her work as an artist. She believes in the truth of a female identity, relying on intuition as the source of her creativity. The scenario outlined above could easily sound like a soap opera, but the implications of Xiao’s act may be most powerful when they are considered in light of feminism: Xiao’s refusal to be “rice,” as we can tell from the aggression embodied by the two shots at Dialogue, may be categorized as a period of willfulness on the part of the artist. It would be easy to cast her in a feminist role, yet Xiao denies feminism’s effect, either on her in particular or society in general. She comments, “feminist art has not yet formed a movement in China; it is still in a marginal condition. The situation of female artists in China is, speaking about my personal case, a major factor in the misreading of works. This is because the right to speak about art in China is mainly controlled by men, and judgment about the value of art created by women, and the explanation of art created by women, is still largely in the hands of men.?This sounds considerably like a feminist statement, but such an interpretation denies the personal element, which is central to Xiao’s artistic practice. Xiao Lu’s art always originates in private experience rather than in public events.

The artist has little good to say about either the general situation for women in art or her own position. “if,” she writes, “we look at work created by women as a whole, it is often in a state of having lost its voice. Add to this the characteristic cultural upbringing of women in China-‘Be gentle, good, respectful, restrained, and submissive’-with the household as your foundation and your husband as your glory, and you find that you have to support a ‘good’ family and maintain a low profile in public and in private.” Xiao finishes her point, however, with a statement that is true biographically as well as being true politically: “when strong women show a little independent awareness, they mostly end up single.” Given the fact that the artist herself is single, it proves hard to accept the comment as a social statement alone. Interestingly, Xiao argues for a gendered imagination, believing that women are to address female concerns: “the sensitivity and intuition characteristic of women are lacking in men. Any artistic or literary talent characteristic of women must rely on female consciousness to come to fruition.” Asserting that “in China, there is as yet no feminist movement in any true sense,” Xiao goes on to delineate her position vis-a-vis the struggle between the sexes: “in my opinion, relations between men and women are not based in mutual submission, but in mutual understanding. Antagonism is for the sake of dialogue, and a true liberation of women in China… should be founded in mutual respect between men and women.”

So, despite her act of violence, which tellingly only hurt her ability to continue working, Xiao chooses to emphasize “mutual understanding” as central to improving relations between the sexes. At the same time, however, she contributes to the notion that she is a victim by continuing to make work involving her troubled personal life. Her photographic series, entitled 15 Shots…from 1989 to 2003. consists of sixteen photographic life-size self-portraits, in which the artist points a gun at the viewer. Each images is covered by a sheet of Plexiglas that Xiao has fired at, leaving a small hole in the material (Xiao went to a military base to shoot the individual images, and in a later solo show at Ethan Cohen Fine Arts, she shot her works in a basement shooting range in lower Manhattan. As the title suggests, Xiao has remained involved with not only the meaning, but also the materials of Dialogue. Once again we see the artist recapitulate her decisive action, although she makes it clear that the new piece is both about firing the gun and the sterility of Xiao’s relationship with Tang Song. Describing “15 Shots,” Xiao states, “fifteen years ago, I fired the gun in the National Art Museum of China. When I walked out of the detention center in Dong Cheng District, Beijing, I was drawn to him [Tang Song] by an invisible power that pulled us through for 15 years. Today, I aimed the crosshair again, only this time at myself. One shot for each year, 15 shots in a row. We are over.”

The 1960s saying that “the personal is political?has had a long and rather controversial life in the actions of artists in the West -- even most recently, when they have concentrated on the attributes of their identity. Now, with Xiao’s aesthetic and public repudiation of her former lover, it seems that the artist herself is making good on the statement, working outward from her experience toward a striking public action. Unfortunately, the shots are once again self-directed, demonstrating Xiao’s struggle to remain true to herself despite the consequences of a failed relationship. Her assertions prove that she is driven by emotions rather than by ideas: “I’m not good at theoretical explanations, let alone making art critique. I just want to live up to my feelings. The means of art is only to satisfy my inner desire, no matter whether it demands a painting, a poem, or a gun. All in all, it boils down to my mood at that particular moment.” Both Dialogue and 15 Shots, like Xiao’s art generally, “cannot be interpreted by the term ‘art’.” Given Xiao’s highly personal, idiosyncratic outlook, art is made as “a survival instinct.” She ends her paragraph with a comment not on what art can do but rather what experience means to her; she writes that creation “is what life is all about.”

All this rhetoric might strike some as burdensome, but Xiao also possesses a sense of humor, which saves her from an excessively dour or grim attitude. Sperm, the installation/performance that took place at the Kangde Hotel in Yan’an in May 2006, addressed the more than forty artists and several dozen experts and scholars who came together to study, debate, and create exhibition proposals in a project that examined the Long March of Mao and his followers (Lu Jie, founder of the Long March Foundation, was the curator of the project). Xiao came along for the three-day forum with the specific goal of getting pregnant. Armed with a temperature-control machine, twelve bottles in which to place sperm, and a rack to hold the bottles, the artist took seriously Mao’s dictum that “the Long March is a sower of seeds.” Xiao sees pregnancy as biological, resulting in what she calls the “essence,” which is engendered when a male sperm and female egg meet; as emotional, when a male and female mind meet and create “spirit;” and as a way of life, when essence, energy, and spirit come together in harmony. In her commentary she describes herself as seeking all three, but sadly there were obstacles: “no time, too old, no luck.”

Faced with an inharmonious situation, Xiao retreated, choosing only essence, which required sperm. Her performance consisted of setting up the machine and the deposit jars in a lounge adjacent to the meeting. All male visitors, symposium participants and visitors alike (there was no age limit) were asked to participate in the project, which required that the sperm be deposited in the collection jars and then returned to the refrigerator (to keep the sperm from degrading they must be frozen). For her part, Xiao would undergo artificial insemination during her fertile period each month, using the sperm that had been collected. As for the results, the first attempt to collect sperm failed: no one volunteered to deposit sperm. Yet Xiao clearly intends to repeat her performance again. She recorded her effort with a wonderful photograph, taken during the meeting, in which she stands demurely surrounded by the paraphernalia necessitated by her request. Asked to describe the event, Xiao produces a number of insights regarding love: “there are myriad different kinds of love between people. For me, love is the affirmation and appreciation by one person of the value of the existence of a certain other person. It is premised on desire but goes beyond desire itself.” Feeling, however, that her time, age, and luck were “insufficient” to achieve the differing categories of pregnancy, she chose one: essence. 

Without a child, Xiao sees her life as unfulfilled. Yet she continues in her artistic pursuit of meaningful encounters. In her most recent piece, begun in New York in 2006, unfinished and not yet titled, she addresses the emotional consequences of a brief love affair with a Westerner. The partial progress of the installation indicates that the artist is taking a step forward. Its complexity and its verve and anguish show that the artist, now in her mid-forties, continues to develop in her work. The piece’s large elements may be seen in Xiao’s studio; they consist of a very large metal construction in the form of an X; in its crux are apples that have been allowed to rot. Beside the giant letter (which according to Xiao stands for the X, or male, chromosome) are paintings made with Chinese medicinal herbs; these paintings include writings taken from Xiao and her friend’s email correspondence. Beautifully painted, the English words and Chinese characters encompass a brief relationship that nonetheless has been highly meaningful to the artist. In some ways the most important part of the work is its aural element. The Westerner, a musician, when asked to demonstrate his own feelings, poured his emotion into a composition recorded on a CD, in which he played variations on Beethoven: the piano part of the scherzo of the A-major Sonata for Cello and Piano, opus 69. Accompanying the classical music are electronically generated heartbeats and gasps or, possibly moans and cries. As he passionately expresses himself on the piano, the gasps, indicative to Xiao’s audience of love-making, slowly grow louder in the background of the music. The feelings indicated by the sound sculpture demonstrate an equality that supported the complex relationship - a very different kind of relationship than that which she had with her previous boyfriend Tang.

Like most independently minded artists, Xiao is a creature of contradictions; she cannot be categorized. Upon study, her seeming inconsistencies stand out as evidence of a unified sensibility. It is even possible for her art to be described as logically coherent, despite its embrace of emotional, as opposed to intellectual, truths. Now that she is beginning to work again, in a large studio in the outskirts of Beijing, she holds dinner meetings best described as salons, in which her friends - writers and artists and curators - sit and eat and drink tea as they discuss the fate of contemporary art in China. Within her studio, Xiao is a redoubtable presence, presiding over the groups that gather at her home and speaking her mind freely. Her incisive remarks concerning such topics as the art world, the general value of men, and her own career demonstrate a sharp tongue. Yet beneath the mask of irony, it is also clear that she cares deeply about the role of women in Chinese culture and life.

Indeed, Dialogue, so central to the public’s perception of her as an artist, shows that she has always been concerned with the boundaries containing women artists. By breaking the law with a handgun she struck a blow for psychic freedom that was more than rhetorical. Her subsequent stay in prison, lasting three days, also made it clear that the price to be paid for so violent a gesture was genuine - just as the shots were genuine. But Dialogue occurred a long time ago; the installation Xiao fired upon was work done for her graduate degree. In her most recent, unfinished piece, we see Xiao searching for a way to make sense of the vagaries of life as well as art. She has the following to say about art and experience: “when I get an idea, I may think of many different results, but I don’t hypothesize in definite terms about those results. As happened with the work Dialogue, the true significance of my work Sperm continued on, beyond the time during which it was displayed. The continued existence of one’s life in itself is the best work of art.”

Xiao’s romantic assertion about life being “the best work of art” summarizes an attitude, by now a tradition, of seeing life not only as equivalent but even superior to her vocation as an artist. Many contemporary artists share this claim, but they do not substantiate it with art that lives up to their high rhetoric. Xiao is different because her art respects the theoretical equivalence of experience and images, which results in an unusually balanced sensibility despite the sometimes outrageous nature of her acts. Dialogue began as a psychological tableau, until a political interpretation of the shots placed her in a public position that she did not want. Notoriety seems to have courted her career, but in this writer’s opinion, the supposed willfulness of Xiao’s aesthetic, distances her from her public’s approval or adulation or criticism. Xiao is an artist whose ability to find the right symbolic tableau for a complex array of emotions raises her work to a high level. Her achievement, at once naive and jaded, innocent and culpable, is central to the furious outpouring of Chinese art in the last twenty years. Because of her determination to be herself, she has easily swung into a position of mastery and independence. We are lucky to have so talented and autonomous an artist.

December 2008 in New York

The article published in the magazine of “Yishu”, on March/April, 2009, Volume 8, Number 2