Exploring shared conceptual space between two generations of Chinese performance artists, MoMA PS1’s Land: Zhang Huan and Li Binyuan is a highlight of its summer calendar. The exhibition, which draws on each artist’s unique approach to the body, particularly bodies exposed to physical or mental extremes, as well as the forces applied to it, from urbanization to culture to the natural world, presents itself as a documentation of sorts, relying heavily on each artist’s history of performance and video.
Bringing together a selection of performance works by two Chinese artists of different generations, both of whom address the changing relationship between the body and the land in contemporary China, the show is explicit in its interests towards how each of the artists on view allows space and form to take on very concrete signifiers, and equally resonant sets of abstractions. Comprising works that mirror shifts from collectivism to individualism in the modern nation of China, as well as tensions between the natural, the cultivated, and the urbanized, the exhibition juxtaposes videos and photographs of early performances alongside documentation of more recent performance works by Li Binyuan to reflect on evolving ideas of ownership, belonging, and alienation.
The works are clearly linked by Huan’s initial practice, using the body as both a measuring stick and active agent in the world around it. For instance, one work in the show depicts the artist and a group of fellow performers submerging themselves one by one in a small body of water, so as to raise the water level of the pond through mass participation. The literal and figurative weight of humankind is here turned towards a more poetic end, and draws a connection between the body as a mass element, as a collaborative practice as the nation of China, as well as a series of individuals unified by this rhetorical body. Huan’s participants are suspended within a network of broader referents and interactions, always, marked by their presence and participation in the world around them. By contrast, Binyuan’s work stresses the individual, perhaps best posed here as both the singular component in Huan’s broader systems, yet equally as the participatory agent that makes such assemblages possible. His works often consist of sustained physical efforts, such as setting his body against rushing water from a burst roadside dam or repeatedly scaling a bamboo cane only to fall back to the ground. In one of his better known performances, the artist spent two hours leaping through air and falling into a muddy patch of soil that he inherited following his father’s death. Both a work of mourning and a way of marking the legal and generational transfer of property, Li’s act of endurance points to the changing value and significance of land in China during recent decades.
In each, the artist’s work seeks to explore just where, and how, the individual can appear or disappear, what sort of interactions and prompts cause the perception of the body to change, or present it within broader frames. For both artists, the mixture of superhuman feats, collective and individual dynamics, and spiritual resonances, makes their work particularly arresting.
The show closes September 3rd.
— D. Creahan
Land: Zhang Huan and Li Binyuan [MoMA PS1]