Venice, Aug. 2011 - As an artist, I constantly feel lost and I feel I am facing horror! I’m lost in the Chinese contemporary art world, which only seems to be dealing with the whole instead of treasuring individuals to light the world. I believe: I am human. In my eyes, the flourishing of contemporary art is nothing more than a mixture between the curiosity of the Westerners and the speculations of the New Rich in the East!
Thus reads part of Xing Xin’s statement on the occasion of his second participation in the Venice Biennale. The 53rd Biennale saw him locked into an iron box for forty-nine days – or as long as it took for him to count every character in the 150 books that constitute China's compulsory education program -- in protest of the one child policy. This year, his performance was markedly more "comfortable." As part of the Personal Structures exhibition organised by Global Art Affairs in Palazzo Bembo, Xing was imprisoned daily during exhibition opening hours in a small cell within the palazzo; naked to the waist, he wore only a pair of white tailored trousers - his shirt and jacket hung on the wall. Happy to talk through the crisscrossed iron bars, Xing here describes his art practice and the socio-political concerns of which this work was born and tries to articulate through the medium of performance.
Xing Xin, I Exhibit Myself in a Western Exhibition, 2011; Courtesy of the artist
Iona Whittaker: How did you begin your art practice; where did you study, for example?
Xing Xin: When I was five I began to learn to sketch, and when I went to high school at sixteen I studied in the high school affiliated with Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts. Later, I went to Chengdu for university and majored in sculpture.
IW: When did you first have the idea of imprisoning yourself?
XX: In 2007. Since then, I have done a series of these works.
IW: But where did the inspiration come from?
XX: I think it accumulated gradually during my life; this idea seems to have been rooted in my head for a long time.
IW: So there was no particular trigger?
IW: You decided to imprison yourself at the previous Biennale too (The Black Box, 2009, wherein Xing Xin stayed for forty-nine days inside an iron box on the island of Murano). What kind of relationship is there between this year’s work and the last one? For example, what developments do you think have occurred in your work since then?
Xing Xin, The Black Box, at the 53rd Biennale di Venezia, Venice, Italy, 2009; Courtesy of the artist
XX: In the former work it was more about expressing my personal feelings and personal growth to show the growth in feelings of my peers. This time it’s more about showing the situation I perceive of the Chinese nation.
IW: So the focus is broader in this case, whereas before it was more personal? In that sense, would you call this piece a protest? How would you define it?
XX: This is not about protest because to my mind, protest is not very effective. It is like when you point out one person’s flaws in front of a third person; he might be aware of this flaw, but he won’t admit it. And this will make him very unhappy. With this prison, when everyone comes they see it as a prison, and then they think it might be political or a form of protest. This is indeed an iron door, and it is about endurance -- closing yourself in. But in fact, there is nothing here to indicate a protest. This iron door, it is just like me and this outfit, these clothes. It’s just a barrier, a component. All together, they form the work. In my mind I hope that this work is able to demonstrate the situation of contemporary China.
IW: In what sense does it demonstrate contemporary China? Is it in the sense of a barrier to understanding?
XX: In this work there are such elements as a Chinese person, and there is this luxury outfit. But the Chinese person wearing these luxury outfits is still primitive and somewhat rude, and the luxury outfits themselves are actually all fake.
IW: So this work is effectively trying to exhibit the state of contemporary China, to personify it?
XX: …And then all these visitors from the West who come to this Western exhibition, they come and see me, and see also this iron door. There is a conflict here that relates to what I wrote in the text ("…I exhibit myself...I’m locked in a small, empty room, behind iron 'prison' bars... Every day from 10am to 7pm... I stay here, doing nothing. People are free to look at me, a Chinese artist, a Chinese") and this has to do with curiosity -
IW: But surely to do this is to feed or encourage the curiosity of Westerners? Is that deliberate?
Xing Xin, Kids of the Workers, 2007, Performance Photography, 66 x 100cm; Courtesy of the artist
XX: This is part of my point, because after one Westerner comes here and stares at me with curiosity, there might come another Westerner who can see this relationship as a whole. This is something like the contemporary situation in China because China is relatively closed; foreigners can enter but we cannot leave as easily. So, when Westerners come to China they have, in a sense, higher status. This is something like the situation when you see the Chinese state don all these luxury goods and the brands are actually Western brands and, as I mentioned before, they are actually a little bit rude - they attend formal occasions and it is incongruous. In this work, I want to offer a metaphor for this idea and culture. I also want others to perceive the situation of the work in order to change something.
IW: How do you think the economic changes in China are affecting art?
XX: The whole global economy and the Chinese economy are having a very big impact on Chinese art and culture, and are leading them along a path that is not good for art itself. I think people should have linear reasoning, and with this they can focus on one field and have many thoughts, deep thoughts on a certain field. I think this linear reasoning needs a good atmosphere and takes time. Amid the circumstances in China now we do not have the fundamental basis for this reflection and thought. For example, even if we think about a really easy question, we have to prepare ourselves and make our minds go in this direction. But suddenly, the phone rings and we are distracted; when you continue to think about the question again, something else comes up.
IW: So we are always interrupted?
XX: This is exactly how the contemporary Chinese economy is affecting culture and art -- it is always distracted by benefits and gains.
Xing Xin, Me and Ice for One Night, 2010, Performance Photography, 80 x 120cm; Courtesy of the artist
IW: And how do you feel about the situation of performance art in China?
XX: We can say that most Chinese artists, and most performance artists, create their art driven by speculation and benefits. I have done a lot of performances over the years, and in the beginning I was also in this speculative state of mind. There are so many people in China and in every field - a lack of chances for everyone. My parents always taught me how to stand out. Five years ago I wasn’t sure about my career - my performances - and I was simply doing something to make myself outstanding or to stand out. Later, I discovered that I’m really enthusiastic and passionate about this form of art. I spent more and more time within this field because I feel happy in it.
IW: Finally: what is your greatest hope?
XX: To realise more works and to do what I’m passionate about. And to complete them.
Interview conducted between Xing Xin and Iona Whittaker in situ during his performance in Palazzo Bembo for the group exhibition Personal Structures at the 54th Venice Biennale, June 2011.
ArtSlant would like to thank Xing Xin for his assistance in making this interview possible.