Article categories: Issue 57
March 15th, 2010

In March this year with ANAT’s assistance I travelled to China for the first Dashanzi International Art Festival in Beijing. Initially the invitation to the festival was to show my work Close in the Transborder Language 2004 – Volume Control component of the festival. With ANAT’s support I extended the scope of the trip to include preliminary research for a sound art project in China. This report describes festival events and installations that I witnessed during my two-week visit.

Factory in Dashinzi district. Image: Iain Mott

The month-long festival commenced 24 April and included film screenings, installation, performance art, music performance, photography, theatre and open artist’s studios. The district in which the festival is based, Dashanzi in the North-East of Beijing, is something of a model for cross-disciplinary collaboration between practitioners. Built in the Bauhaus style as a military factory for electronic components in the 1950s, the factory complex is now home for various heavy, light and high-tech industries. More recently design houses, foundries, architects, painters, art book publishers, sculptors, advertising agencies, arts organisations and alternative venues have established themselves in Dashanzi. This concentrated approach to arts practice seems to be fairly widespread with various often-fragile artistic communities springing up and disappearing throughout Beijing. Such communities often share resources and frequently hold exhibitions onsite, an approach borne of necessity. Organisers within Dashanzi are working hard to raise the profile of the district both within local Government circles and with the Beijing population at large. While operating as a successful creative locale, the district, like other parts of Beijing, is in grave danger of coming under the developer’s hammer. Recent high-quality book publications on the district and the festival itself have been developed in part to counter such pressures, raising awareness of the district’s legitimacy as a pre-eminent arts precinct. Beijing is bound in the west by mountains and development is pushing rapidly eastward. Dashanzi could well find itself occupying a central location in the new mega-Beijing. With a current city population of 20 million and an estimated 4 or 5 million “unofficial” resident (free movement of individuals is restricted in China), the pressures on the district are enormous.

In this climate, it is not surprising that a new festival should encounter some difficulties. There were many people with an interest in the festival – Government groups, police, artists, factory owners, funding bodies – all wanting a say on proceedings and with motives ranging from benevolent support to bloody-minded obstruction. The director of the festival Huang Rui and his team stood firm, weathering endless meetings with stakeholders and ultimately the festival realised most of its goals. There were many concessions however, none the least the forced removal of the word “festival” from publications two days prior to the opening. A large public notice to that affect was erected by authorities at the entrance to the exhibitions and hundreds of posters were modified, the tops removed to obliterate the term. The “festival” was thus run as “a series of events”. At the press conference at the opening of the festival when questioned about the ban, Huang Rui gave the terse one-sentence response “We are not yet developed enough to call ourselves a festival”, a tacit allusion to the machinations beneath the surface. Perhaps the most besieged component of the festival was performance art. Performance art has long been viewed with suspicion by Chinese authorities due to its radical approach to politics and social mores. A number of performances were cancelled, only to reappear at less-publicised times and with a good deal of self-censorship.

Installation by Yuko Fujimoto. Image: Iain Mott

My main exposure to art at the festival was in the large and magnificent 798 Space where Close was installed – the component of the festival entitled Transborder Language 2004 – Volume Control. Performance works included those by Chinese artists Dai Guangyu, Wang Peng, Xiao Lu, Zhou Bin, Huan Qing, Song Yongxing, Shao Yanxing, Liu Xiang, and Yu Ji. There was also a performance by Japanese artist Seiji Shimoda. Installations were by Huang Rui (China), Xiao Lu (China), Yukio Fujimoto (Japan), Guillaume Paris (France), Jean -Francois Lacalmontie (France), Jean-Malo du Bouetiez de Keroguan (France), and Marco Nereo Rotelli and Filippo Centenari (Italy). Australian works were by Adam Geczy and Mike Parr and me. The curators for Transborder Language were Huang Rui, Dai Guangyu, and Thomas J. Berghuis, with Dai Guangyu directly managing the performances and Thomas Berghuis, the installations. Another notable performance and installation piece was by He Yungchang in the nearby Beijing Tokyo Art Project (BTAP) space.

Many works included a significant sound component. Wang Peng’s Models and Speakers piece consisted of two models clad in semi-transparent nylon into which dozens of small loudspeakers were stitched. A microphone on each of their wrists provided feedback – comic squeaks and honks with sexual innuendo – as they passed their hands over their bodies and each other. Press photographers in the audience went wild. The sound in Xiao Lu’s conceptually dense installation and performance was implied or rather it was like the memory of a sound still resonating. My understanding of this piece is a little sketchy due to language barriers, however it was largely self-referential. Her piece at Dashanzi was on the 20th anniversary of a performance where she fired a pistol into an art work, an event that caused a near-hysterical reaction, attracting riot police and no small amount of continued attention from authorities. The Dashanzi installation consisted of a series of photographs of the artist mounted behind glass, each shot with a bullet. There were also press clippings on a poster board about the event 20 years prior. At one end of the photographs stood a pair of faux-telephone boxes, the receiver of the red phones left hanging. The visible internal space of each box was an illusion, achieved through a clever use of mirrors and a telephone positioned between the two “boxes”. The doors to the boxes were sealed shut and the structure was simply an angular façade giving an impression of volume. The boxes lent a sense of alarm to the piece. Xiao Lu’s performance, which was initially cancelled, consisted of her cutting off chunks of her hair with scissors and handing pieces to the large audience along with text. I understand the performance and installation were made in response to a deteriorated personal and professional relationship between Xiao Lu and her collaborator on the earlier performance. No shots were fired. Other performances with a strong sound component had a Fluxus flavour and included Song Yongxing’s performance involving an amplified chef’s knife. Seated, he systematically used the knife to cut his own hair, most of his clothes and to shave across the skin of his body. Yu Ji’s performance involved coughing into his morning newspaper, a process that continued till his face emerged, reddened though triumphant on the other side.

He Yungchang’s Ar Chang’s Persistence show at BTAP consisted of photographs and video of his earlier performances and a new performance and installation entitled Casting. His work explores a quixotic heroism of mythic proportions. Moving a Mountain involved the artist pulling on 4 long ropes attached to a mountain-top for 30 minutes. The mountain moved over 800Km during the period aided by the earth’s rotation. One and One Hundred had the artist wrestling 100 men from his home village in Kunming, who apparently eagerly lined up to give the city boy his comeuppance. This process lasted over 60 minutes and He Yungchang endured 18 wins and 82 defeats. Other pieces included staring into bright lights, cutting a river in half with a knife, fighting water cannon and losing badly in a Korean drinking game. In Casting at Dashanzi, the artist was caste into a large concrete monolith for 24 hours. His only comfort was a bottle of rice liquor, which in a panic during the initial stages of his entombment, he drank in 10 minutes.

Installation by Xiao Lu. Image: Iain Mott

798 Space was large enough, both physically and in terms of acoustics, to accommodate many sounding artworks. Huang Rui’s ironic take on the nation’s passion for table tennis, involved a table with traditional percussion instruments installed flush with the surface. The provision of bats and balls and an enthusiastic audience ensured that 798 was a lively and active space if at times a noisy one. Yukio Fujimoto created an exquisitely simple piece consisting of prepared clockwork music box mechanisms placed on resonators sourced locally. The mechanisms, originally playing music from romantic and classical repertoires, were each altered to play but one note, the artists making these alterations to a meticulous score. The work was in two parts, one using dining plate resonators on a circular stone table, the other on the floor with mechanisms resting on what appeared to be steel gas meter covers arranged in a line. Guillaume Paris’ elegant We Are the World involved motionless consumables such as soap boxes and shampoo bottles shown on monitors scattered throughout the space. The faces of the models on each of these “portrait-products” told intimate details of their lives, their lips moving against the static background of their face Captain Pugwash style. The characters would periodically pause their speech to again appear as inanimate objects. There was a strange quality to these pauses, the lives of the individuals temporarily frozen in their consumer universe.

Jean-Francois Lacalmontie’s monitor work was an exploration in acoustic phrenology, a rotating skull and the accompanying sound of a stylus tracing the grooves of the surface. Jean-Malo du Bouetiez de Keroguan created a whimsical kinetic sound work with a design inspired by a children’s toy. The anthropomorphic piece consisted of a loudspeaker mounted on a metal stalk and a hemispherical concrete ballast at its base. This self-righting, teetering form was swung into motion by visitors or at times by the artist himself. The loudspeaker played a recording of the artist vocalising a kind of Doppler Effect to the rhythm of the pendulum motion. Marco Nereo Rotelli and Filippo Centenari’s sound and video work was isolated in white cube within the space and was a piece dealing with time and memory. Internal video projections were of manufacturing played forward and in reverse, abstract linear shapes and of a musical instrument (a violin or cello) in close-up. A sensor in the room provided public interactivity, allowing visitors to modulate spectral and temporal aspects of music played within the box. The outside of the box was also open to audience participation with marker pens handed out on opening night. The resulting graffiti had to be removed however the following day due to some anti-Japanese sentiments.

Adam Geczy & Mike Parr’s piece Mass Psychology of Fascism, Zip-a-dee-doo-dah, Zip-a-dee-ay held a precarious position at 798 Space. Curator Thomas Berghuis took a softly-softly approach to the display of confronting material showing it in modified form. The piece involves video footage by Geczy of Parr’s Aussie Aussie Aussie Oi Oi Oi performance. Made in response the detention of asylum seekers, their protests, political cynicism and blind indifference of the Australian public, Parr had his lips and face stitched while seated, an Australian flag in the crook of one arm. Australian sports pages were pasted on one wall and a deliberately irritating soundtrack played a hammy version of the title tune along with other jarring commercial sounds. Originally the work was intended to have two projections, one of Parr seated in the chair post (or was it prior?) to the stitching and projected upside-down with moving camera work. The other screen would show the act of stitching. Only one screen was used in Dashanzi and for the bulk of the exhibition it showed the former footage. The latter footage was shown only on rare occasions when the space was occupied largely by artists and in-between regular police visits. All projections were in black-and-white and not the original colour. No text panels explaining the context were provided, Berghuis, no doubt prudently, preferring to discuss the content with viewers verbally. As an Australian, the work was very easy to read. Unfortunately, this was not the case for many at the festival including many of the Europeans. My own piece Close posed some challenges during the installation masking light sources and mounting screens and projectors in the vast space. These were overcome and the work was received well by visitors and oddly, by the visiting brigades of police! For information on Close please visit

Another engaging aspect of the festival was the open studios of resident artists and design houses. Artists including Cang Xin, Chen Qingqing, Fu Lei, Chen Wenbo, Ma Shuqing, Chen Linyang and Bai Yiluo all opened their studios to the public. In total and including a number of bars and restaurants, there were 75 listed venues at the festival, making the visitors experience a rich and varied one.

Despite the difficulties experienced by the organisers, their commitment and the sheer strength of the artistic community based at Dashanzi leads me to believe the festival will be an ongoing concern, with or without the word “festival” in its title. My sincere thanks to festival staff and volunteers, particularly Thomas Berghuis, Luke, Jenny Berghuis-Wong, Huang Rui and Berenice Angremy, for their assistance, knowledge and warm hospitality during my stay.

Iain Mott

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