Exhibition Tour | Wen Pulin: 1990s - from Action to Performance

1990s - from Action to Performance

Essay | Wen Pulin

Return from Venice, 1993, Stills from video

The 1990s saw a mix of intense excitement and acute anxiety. It was hard to tell a moneymaking opportunity from a hidden danger. Our unparalleled desire was unleashed by the “absolute” truth (which grew out of Deng Xiaoping’s models for rapid development) like the opening of Pandora’s box. The wave of those seeking to go into business impinged on the last bit of dignity that the intellectuals hung onto, while cities were bustling, beliefs were dying and extremist moods were spreading.   

New History Group, Sun 100 , 1993, Stills from video

Not until Zhang Huan, an artist from the Beijing East Village, gave an accurate account of these unbearable but inescapable physical and psychological limits, did his peers in the East Village begin to make their own voices heard, instead of acting in a group. This movement was the beginning of this arts transmutation from action to performance.  

Zhang Huan + East Village Artists , 1994+1995, Stills from video

Action means something done, usually carrying the sense of a sudden burst of strength, while performance suggests something done for acknowledgment. Performance art started in reaction to the capitalist art system, but of course the capitalists were so voracious in their open-minded search for profit that it did not take them long to find a way to conquer it, and so action became performance. We might say that a ladder has two sides, so when one side is too crowded we may climb up from the other side. Now a photograph of a performance was enough to create a new myth.  

The Defenders of Water (Second Edition) , 1996, Stills from video

Postmodernism arrived in a timely fashion, liberating Modernism. With restrictive spiritual burdens removed, these artists could abandon themselves to entertainment with unscrupulous ease: a new subversive game was available as a means of artistic expression.   

Traces of Existence: A Private Show of Contemporary Chinese Art , 1998, Stills from video

Zhang Shengquan, an artist from Datong in Shanxi, once said that art is the result of subjective intentions and knows nothing about truth. There was a more facetious period within our artistic chronology, which though sincere was characterized by genuine and childlike innocence. At that time those involved could be impressed and shocked by each other’s earnest engagement in seemingly absurd activities. There were times when we were overwhelmingly touched by their devotion, even though we knew perfectly well that what we were seeing was not dissimilar to the group of tailors who made new dresses for the emperor. Later it would become totally different, art would come to have nothing to do with salvation or spirituality.  

Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion , 1999, Stills from video

When thinking is reduced to tricks, lovemaking to show-making, and concepts to performance, can we have a future?   


There must always be someone who, as stubborn as it sounds, keeps asking this question.