Five years ago a man sat in meditation for a couple of hours in a stinking public latrine outside Beijing, his naked body smeared with honey to attract the flies. Now a photograph of the event hangs in two classy American exhibitions of contemporary Chinese art as the record of a work, 12 Square Metres. That's the size of the toilet. By secluding himself in this way, the young performance artist Zhang Huan has become visible far beyond China. Such is the paradox of withdrawal and self-advancement for its belated avant-garde, and more generally in the late Nineties, for the country's cultural Úlite. In Beijing's dilapidated East Village, where urban bohemians live cheek by jowl with peasant farmers and other marginal groups, a small community of cognoscenti attended Zhang Huan's original performance on 2 June 1994. Locals were concerned that it might be pornographic. In the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, where I saw the work documented this year, there was a warning at the entrance that the exhibit might not be suitable for children, and parents routinely led their youngsters away. Inside, the black and white image was pulling a crowd: the artist's gaze turned inward, his lean torso gilded like a Buddha's, his genitals discreetly obscured. The flies looked like decorative studs.
LRB 10 June 1999 | PDF Download