Performing the Self

Performing the Self

The works in this section reflect a conscious search for new forms of individual identity in a society subject to rapid change. Arising in a culture traditionally characterised by the subordination of the individual to the community, these works express the emergence of flexible conceptions of the Self and of one’s own identity. They evince the effects of a global (consumer) culture whose horizons have been greatly extended by cross-border communication and enlarged opportunities for international travel. In turn, these developments have diminished the authority of once powerful institutions such as the family and the Party. Such factors have also created an unprecedented environment for people to explore individually the opportunities for developing their personal autonomy. In China, experimental artists conspicuously show a great interest in their identity, and it is no coincidence that they are a very fond of choosing themselves as the subjects of their own pictures. These works are not limited to simple self-portraits, however, but also involve artists turning themselves into fictional characters and symbolic pictures. A typical example of this is Zhaung Huan, who covers his face with calligraphic characters until his skin is completely covered. Another is Cao Fei, who picks up on the trend adopted by young people in Guangzhou, who transform themselves into Japanese cartoon characters.

Quotes from the catalogue, accompanying the exhibition: Wu Hung, Christopher Phillips, Between Past and Future. New Photography and Video from China, Steidl et al. 2004

Bryony Roberts about Cao Feis Video 'COSPlayers'

“COSPlayers” is an exhibition of photographs and a video that Cao Fei shot in her native city of Guangzhou (formerly Canton). At the southeastern tip of China, just north of Hong Kong, Guangzhou is the capital of the Guangdong province, where private capital is fuelling rapid urban development. Her subjects are teenagers obsessed with Japanese anime who dress up as their favourite characters and act out dramatic battles atop grey skyscrapers.These role-playing games are called Cosplay (short for costume play) and they take place all over the world, from Dallas to Singapore. Unlike the badly shot photographs on Cosplay websites, and there are millions of them, Cao Fei’s images are meticulously constructed – the costumes elaborate the urban backgrounds carefully chosen and the characters rigidly posed. She captures these characters as they confront one another in front of banal cityscapes, and at rest, still colorfully spandexed, in their homes. In A Ming at Home, a sexy S&M-styled warrior lounges in a chair, her uninterested father reads the paper beside her. The strength of this project is in the combination of the highly theatrical battle tableaux and the ‘candid’, often hilarious, home shots.

Christopher Phillips about Zhang Huan's work 'Family Tree'

Family Tree springs from the artist’s intuition that society’s claims are somehow directly inscribed upon each individual’s body. In a remarkable sequence of nine color photographs, Zhang’s face is slowly covered with black-ink calligraphy. Some characters refer to family relationships such as those of uncle and aunt; others refer to the titles of famous Chinese stories; yet others stand for the primal elements of earth, fire and water. As the artist’s visage slowly disappears beneath the ink, we come to feel how this elaborate web of familial, social, and cultural relations can obliterate any sense of individual identity. Yet the artist’s stubborn, unyielding expression signals his refusal to passively accept any preordained destiny. Among the many inscriptions on his face, in fact, is the title of a celebrated Chinese tale called “The Foolish Old Man Who Moved the Mountain”, which he prizes for its lesson that one person’s determination can overcome seemingly insurmountable forces.

The artists:

An Hong, Cao Fei, Hong Lei, Song Dong, Sun Yuan, Wang Jin, Wang Qingsong, Yang Fudong, Yin Xiuzhen, Zhang Huan, Zhao Liang, Zhu Ming.