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In dialogue with China's avant-garde

  • 06 February 2019


In Beijing 30 years ago, on 5 February 1989, performance artist Xiao Lu fired a pistol at Dialogue, her installation in China/Avant-Garde, the first ever such exhibition in China. This massive undertaking displayed almost 300 works by more than 180 Chinese artists. Due to political sensitivity the exhibition was translated 'an exhibition of Chinese modern art', given that avant-garde was seen to be a movement often critical of formal institutions. Stunning though her act was, these were shots that were not then heard around the world.

Yet just four months later tanks rolled into Tiananmen Square and Chinese history changed forever. Both occurrences were acts of power with dramatic effects. The impacts of the enforcement of martial law in Beijing were deadly, and the government has spent the last 30 years seeking to dismiss the consequences of the party leaders' decision to turn on its nation's youth, as described magisterially in Louisa Lim's Republic of Amnesia: Tiananmen Revisited.

In contrast, it is only in hindsight that the reverberations of Xiao Lu's discharges have come to be understood in a broader context. They encompass such important issues as the emergence of Chinese avant-garde and performance art and, more broadly, the long-recognised role in China of artists as harbingers of political opposition.

This is not to say that the artists of China form a utopian choir chanting the same prophesies. For instance, Xiao Lu's career and life also reflect the difficulties to express agency that Chinese female artists have experienced both within that world and in society at large. In 2006 fellow female artist and critic Xu Hong — who also featured in China/Avant Garde and is a curator of the present exhibition — wrote about these challenges in a major essay about Dialogue in the magazine Huakan.

For instance, as an emphatic illustration of the gendered nature of celebrity in the (Chinese) art world, many know of the imprisonment of Ai Weiwei by government authorities in 2011, which inspired his work S.A.C.R.E.D., but the three days Xiao Lu spent under interrogation after 'the shooting incident' in 1989 has been little remarked upon.

It is important then that Sydney's 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art has brought together selections of Xiao Lu's creations in Xiao Lu: Impossible Dialogue to showcase the enduring influence of her work, and the continued and even increased relevance of the themes she embodies so passionately in her performances.

The exhibition includes C-type prints and contemporaneous