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Beijing Scene, Volume 5, Issue 22, August 20 - 26

But Is It Art?
Lobsters die in vain after exhibition closure
by Ben Davidson


July 31, 1999 (Beijing)-Two dozen officials arrive at an underground art studio, after a tip-off from a concerned citizen who believes an illegal religious cult is organizing a meeting. The two dozen men all sport pagers and mobile phones holstered at their belts. Their bellies are all suitably large, and their trousers regulation gray and dark blue. Each man carries a small leather case under one arm.

They descend into the basement of an apartment building and are confronted by broken toasters, photographs of masochistic performance art events, paintings and flickering TV screens. Some of the men visibly recoil as they approach a six-by-four-meter curtain made of living lobsters, snakes and frogs strung together on wires. To get further into the basement, they have to walk right next to the slimy curtain of slowly dying serpents and sea creatures.

Like philosophers through the ages, the men ask: " What does this mean? " A very pertinent question, as Life is the name of this exhibition of unusual art works.

Unfortunately, by the time that the officials work out the meaning of Life, some of the art works are dying and the exhibition, organized without a license, is prohibited from opening.

Despite the comedy of the absurd that exhibition curator Li Zhenhua is treated to, he is not laughing. Several months' work and an investment of several thousand dollars went into planning the event, securing the underground space and printing the catalogues. Since some of the artworks are perishable, the exhibition cannot be moved or postponed, and no one other than the organizers and the cadres get to see any of the works.

Li is a well-built 29-year-old man with a crew cut who would look more at home in a gym than behind the scenes at an exhibition of avant-garde art.
But he has been the motivating force behind a series of exhibitions designed to encourage and promote experimental visual art. Li also organizes rock and folk music concerts, has dabbled in the recording business and run his own bar/art gallery.

Beijing's tight-knit circle of unofficial culture pundits is not always easy to break into. Li hopes that his exhibitions and concerts are giving new, lesser known artists exposure to audiences that they could not get in any other way.

For this reason he was particularly disappointed by the closure of the show. The centerpiece was the curtain of live animals, an installation work entitled Curtain by young sculptress Peng Yu.

Peng is a 27-year-old graduate of the Zhejiang Academy of Art. Although she majored in oil painting, she has been working as a sculptor and installation artist since graduation, participating in a number of small shows, mostly organized by groups of artists rather than galleries. Peng's last work consisted of a group of sculptures of human figures made from rough papier-maché.

Curtain was made from much more expensive materials: the lobsters, grass snakes and bullfrogs cost rmb 8,000 at a seafood market. Although Peng herself doesn't eat lobster, she wanted all the animals she used to be common food items. " The aim of hanging strings of live food was to make the viewer personally feel the problems of existence, " says the artist, denying that the work was intended to disgust or shock.
" The completed work was really beautiful, " she argues.
Peng refers to Damien Hirst, the British artist whose formaldehyde-preserved cows disgusted many art critics in the 1980s.
" The new materials that Hirst used to make art are now accepted and no longer considered shocking, " she says.

Beijing artists have been exploring a range of rather shocking materials in recent months. An exhibition entitled Post Sensibility (open for a day in late 1998) contained several works made with limbs taken from human corpses and even an entire fetus. Some western critics of Chinese art took this use of alternative materials as a rejection of western values, a rebellion by young artists tired of pandering to western tastes. Peng disagrees: " This art is not specifically about being Chinese; I hope it asks questions about life and existence that are common to all people. "

Curtain is a work that would be branded cruel and politically incorrect in many western countries. The work may not be intended as a rebellion against western tastes, but it does raise relevant questions about the different esthetic and ethical environments in which Chinese and foreign artists are working. And asking such questions is surely one of the purposes of art.

The lobsters, however, might not agree.


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