Autonomous Action

Xu Bing

Li Yongbin, Lin Yilin, Ma Liuming, Xu Bing, Zhan Wang, Zhang Huan

3 September - 3 October 1998

Curated by Richard Dale, with support from Asia 2000


One man, a civilian, stands in solitude on a broad highway in Beijing for what seems an eternity, but, in fact, is only a brief moment during the fifth day of June 1989. He wears a white shirt, is carrying a small bag, and wears what looks like a white glove on his left hand. It is hard for us to tell precisely what we are seeing, because we can only see him from a distance through a video camera's telescopic lens. A convoy of four tanks are halted by his protest. He speaks with increasing animation to the crew of the lead tank, and then is pulled away to safety. Both his identity and his fate are unknown. We are left with his image only, frozen in time. The incident, a key moment in the Tiananmen Square protests, is now part of the twentieth century's visual lexicon, as familiar to the Western imagination as it is pertinent to the Chinese. I think of this man's intervention as an autonomous action—a potent signifier of the vulnerability of the body, a performance played out on the global stage using the body as a direct means of communication and as a powerful metaphor for experience and consciousness—amplified through the medium of video.


The Tiananmen Square massacre halted China's democratic movement, and with it non-official art activity. Contemporary art exhibitions were completely banned for a full year. But by 1991 non-conformist artists were again exhibiting, both underground and internationally. A younger generation became involved, encouraged by the visit of Gilbert and George in 1992. The work of these artists inevitably has an underground quality, occurring in untenanted rooms, abandoned buildings or on the street; using cheap materials. Video technology is crucial, particularly for documenting actions. Despite considerable overseas success, the artists lack the infrastructure Western artists take for granted: they do not have studios or grants; access to overseas art publications is restricted; their applications for exit visas can be obstructed. Many of the problems encountered by an earlier generation are still felt today.


Chinese performance art frequently exploits the elision between the private and the public: the space between artist and viewer. For instance the viewer is located as a voyeur to the naked Ma Liuming in Fish Child, witnessing his enduring a cold shower surrounded by gasping fish hung from hooks. Incongruity—with a knowing stance—is another key feature of the work, as in Xu Bing's piece where the audience view pigs mating furiously in a gallery; in Zhan Wang's restoration of a half demolished building; and in the arbitrary, absurd, pseudo-functional character of Zhang Huan's group activity, To Add One Metre to an Anonymous Mountain.


— Richard Dale