the naked gaze

politics, theory, and cultural critique

carlos rojas

Thursday, April 27, 2006

Eyes Wide Shut

During a briefing near the end of President Hu Jintao’s recent visit to the US (his first), Cheney was caught napping (though the vice president himself insists that he was simply studying his notes at the time ). Whether or not he was actually asleep is, of course, not as important as the appearance he projected, especially given that this sort of diplomatic trip is frequently all about ritual and symbolism (a fact which General Macartney, for instance, understood all too well more than two centuries ago when he lead the first official British embassy to China in 1793…and adamantly refused to accede to accepted protocol by kowtowing to the Qianlong Emperor [see James Hevia’s discussion of this incident in Cherishing Men From Afar]).

To the extent that ritual and protocol were crucial components of President Hu’s trip, it is safe to say that the visit was hardly an unqualified success, given that it was “plagued by gaffes that upended months of painstaking diplomacy over protocol and staging.” In addition to Cheney’s surreptitious powernap, President Hu also had to deal with pro-Falungong hecklers, a prominent reference to China as the ROC (the official name of Taiwan), the omission of an official State dinner, together with an unceremonious grab of his sleeve by his chummy US counterpart.

Cheney’s powernap suggests an ironic inversion of the old Napoleonic chestnut about China being a sleeping lion—only that now China is without question wide-awake (and poised to “shake the world”), while it is arguably the US which, like its current Vice President, has been caught napping. At the same time, however, even in awakening, the Chinese government has frequently found it useful to play possum. For instance, a few days ago the Guardian announced that the Chinese government had, over the past several months, begun to crack down on select artworks displayed in select galleries in the Dashanzi art community (developed three years ago out of a reconstructed arms factory in the northern section of the city). Targeted works included,
an oil painting by Gao Qiang depicting a sickly yellow Mao Zedong bathing in a Yangtze river the colour of blood… a child-like depiction of the 1989 Beijing massacre by Wu Wenjian, who uses stick figures to illustrate tanks and soldiers shooting at people…. [and ]the centrepiece of the celebrated artist Huang Rui's first solo exhibition on the Chinese mainland: a cultural revolution slogan made up of banknotes bearing Mao's portrait.
Although government censorship of privately-displayed art is certainly not a good thing, what is interesting about this report is not so much the censorship itself, but rather that it was so long in coming and so specific. After all, calling for the quiet withdrawal of a painting showing the Great Helmsman bathing in a river of blood seems relatively mild for a government which previously sentenced two of the three protesters who defaced the Tiananmen Mao portrait with paint to a cumulative 36 years in prison, and a third was sentenced to life (all three have now been released, after spending a collective 40 years behind bars).

Although the Chinese government currently turns a blind eye (generally speaking) to all but the most provocative of these sorts of avant garde art works, this has not always been the case. One of the predecessors of the current Dashanzi art community, for instance, can be found in the so-called Beijing East Village artist commune, informally founded near a garbage dump North of Beijing around 1993. which are often explicitly critical of the government, Mao Zedong, etc. While the government has, in the past, been rather repressive of these sorts of artists, more recently it has more or less turned a blind eye to their work. Among the young performance and visual artists who lived and worked there was Zhang Huan 张洹 currently best known a series of startlingly graphic and masochistic performance works. In the early and mid-1990s, Zhang Huan and his colleagues basically lived the ideal of the avant-garde artist—living on society’s margins, constantly risking arrest, arranging impromptu performances primarily for other artists, and generally not giving much thought to how their performances would be recorded for posterity or how they would be marketed.

Now, a decade later, many of these same artists are in a very different situation. Several of them (including Zhang Huan) have emigrated, but even those who have remained in China find that the government is generally tolerant of all but the most transgressive works, while the artists themselves have become much more attentive to the status of their works as marketable commodities (and, indeed, a vicious struggle has emerged between Zhang Huan and other performance artists, and the photographer Rong Rong 荣荣 who took many of the photos which subsequently helped make the artists famous.

One of the artists most emblematic of this general transformation in contemporary Chinese avant-garde art is Ma Liuming 马六明. Part of the original East Village community, Ma Liuming’s early works revolve around his transgendered performances as his alter-ego, Fen-Ma Liuming 芬·马六明, in which he would pose, frequently nude, and underscore the contrast between his decidedly effeminate facial features (accentuated with make-up), and his slight yet undeniably masculine physique. (Since, like several of the other East Village artists, Ma Liuming frequently performed nude, he was perpetually threatened by China's anti-obscenity statutes, and at one point was even arrested and imprisoned for two months).

The tension, in these transgendered performances, between visual appearance and a sense of “interior” identity was further accentuated when Ma Liuming subsequently began using taking sleeping pills while performing on stage—a practice which he quickly proceeded to combine with allowing members of the audience (particularly when he was performing abroad) come up on stage and pose with his slumbering, transgendered form).

These images of Ma Liuming’s unconscious form on stage being manipulated by (foreign) audience members is strikingly apt, insofar as the dimension of his work which is most frequently stressed in foreign discussions (namely, that of gender identity, and its national, racial, and ethnic implications) is one which he appears to disavow. As the title of an interview proclaims, “My performance has nothing to do with gender,” and although this particular line does not appear in the published text of the interview, the interview more than corroborates its sentiment (for instance, when what he thought of his first transgendered performances, Ma replies simply that he thinks he looked pretty). Instead, Ma seems most interested in the pure aesthetics of his works, combined with their marketability (for instance, he notes with satisfaction that gay men are particularly interested in purchasing his works).

[One partial result of this emphasis on pure aesthetics is that, given his aging body, Ma Liuming has, over the past couple of years, stopped performing nude altogether, and has instead shifted to a series of performances and videos of himself simply sleeping. As uninteresting as this sort of performance might perhaps sound, it is worth remembering that Andy Warhol’s first film, Sleep (1963), consisted of nothing more than his friend John Giorno asleep….for more than five hours (partially looped to allow it to run for a full 8 hours, thus replicating a normal sleep session].

The series of splits between Ma Liuming and his transgendered alter-ego, Fen-Ma Liuming; between his early emphasis on embodied performance and his subsequent emphasis on the photographic representations of those performances; and between his transgender work and his more recent “sleep” series, in turn, bring us back to the image of Cheney’s dozing through Hu Jintao’s briefing. For instance, the disassociation between form and content in the Ma Liuming/Fen-Ma Liuming dichotomy suggests the way in which Bush himself is often seen as a pure figure-head (a performative construct who, as Jodi Dean has recently suggested, “has no interiority to speak of), while the true intelligence and power behind his decisions are provided by Cheney and some of Bush’s other trusted advisors.

More generally, the presidency (currently occupied by a man who famously makes a point of going to sleep before 10:00 PM and sleeping a full 8 hours every night) may actually be capitalizing (like Beijing) on this perception of a somnambulancy as disavowal of responsibility (the same way, to draw a rather imperfect comparison, the sleeping pill Ambien is now being accused of having the potential to make some users sleep-walk and sleep-eat with abandon).

This perspective on presidential slumber, in turn, returns us to Cheney's catnaps, and specifically the monsters produced by this dream of reason, the historical nightmare from which we are
we are desperately trying to awake.

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