Art imitating life, and vice versa

Updated: 2014-08-30 07:22

By Liu Zhihua(China Daily)

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Hang Chunxiao, a well-known curator who helped plan Zhou Jie's exhibition 36 Days, spends a lot of time explaining to visitors why the artist is wearing clothes, and why she doesn't always lie on a wire bed.

Zhou and her exhibition attracted widespread attention after photos of her lying naked on a partially completed wire bed appeared on the Internet, leading to unfounded rumors that she would lie in the nude for the full 36 days, and resulting in skepticism about her motives.

"We never said Zhou would lie naked on the bed for 36 days. I don't know how the rumors started," Hang says. "I was worried Zhou would collapse under the pressure, but she is strong enough to bear the pressure, and her family is very supportive."

Zhou is not alone in experiencing distorted public perceptions about her art.

"Since the 1990s, there have been many public misunderstandings about contemporary art and artists," Hang says. "Many people only see sensational things in art works, or incorrectly simplify the ideas the artists are trying to express."

Yue Minjun, a Beijing-based artist best known for oil paintings that show him frozen in laughter in various settings, is one of the most savage critics of contemporary society, but the social criticism implicit in his work is often ignored and his symbolic smiley faces have been copied everywhere, according to Hang.

In one of the most gruesome gestures, the artist Zhang Shengquan committed suicide on Jan 1, 2000 - the first day of the new millennium - as the ultimate act of performance art. Zhang sacrificed himself for art, but the public simply considered him to be a lunatic, and nowadays he is almost unknown, according to Hang.

Frustratingly, people tend to label behavior they don't understand as "performance art". In 2013, a 28-year-old man appeared naked on the streets of Beijing a number of times late at night, either running or riding a motorbike, and carrying an inflatable sex doll or a crucifix.

Although the man, Li Binyuan, is a graduate of the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, he later explained that he had been under great pressure at the time the acts were committed, and his weird behavior was just a way of venting his confusion and desperation. He emphasized that his actions had nothing to do with art, but many Internet commentators still believe that Li's action were a form of performance art, and call him "the naked running guy".

Misunderstandings of this nature occur because traditionally there have been few channels to help Chinese people gain exposure to contemporary art, so their knowledge and appreciation are limited, according to Hang.

So far, the visitors to Zhou's exhibition have tended to be art students, the media, and middle-aged men.

A 20-year-old art student surnamed Wang, who decided to visit when he found himself near the gallery, said he found the setting - a girl's bedroom filled with objects that are traditionally soft and fluffy, but are in this case hard and unyielding - interesting. He admitted he didn't understand what the artist is trying to say, because he knows little about her background or that of the exhibition, and he feels that context is essential to understanding.

A 40-something man said he'd visited the exhibition out of curiosity after reading about it online. The man, who declined to disclose his name or occupation, said he thought the exhibition was good, even though he couldn't explain why. Then, looking embarrassed, he left in a hurry.