BEIJING — Whenever I find myself strolling in the hutongs near Gulou and see the entrance of Bed Bar, images of Liang Tao‘s 2005 cross-gender performance come to mind. I met her that same year in the 798 art district, just after her performance “Madhouse in Paradise” at Marella Gallery. For that piece she built a replica of a room from a Western mental institution, in which she spent two days as a “perfectly happy” schizophrenic patient. Her point was that, after having spent a period of time in a Chinese mental institution, a Western one would be quite a nice place to live.
More than the topic or message, I was struck by the formal and conceptual precision of the work. Liang Tao has a hieratic, sphinx-like presence and emanates a rare kind of energy, complex and powerful. She speaks slowly, with a low voice, and often she looks away and smiles — the smile of mental illness and medications.
When she is well, she likes to talk about art and life. She was trained as a classical musician and composer, but her research in experimental classical music led her to a mental institution. Since then she has given up music, even if she still has “those movements,” as she used to call them, stored in a corner of her brain.
On October 22, 2005, in the old courtyard house turned into the then-trendy Bed Bar, she staged “Hermaphroditism I — The big leap forward.” She chose the courtyard house because it embodies traditional socio-philosophical order expressed through symbolism; it is a representation of the Chinese square universe. There were two Qing dynasty chairs, one on either side of the door of the main pavilion, and a few garments laid over them.
Liang Tao appeared, naked, wearing only tall mistress boots, and slowly put on the garments: a belt with a fake penis and a pair of fake boobs from a sex shop. Once dressed, she held a traditional Chinese spear in her hand and sat for a minute on each of the two chairs. She had two black tape stripes on her mouth in the shape of an X. Her moves reminded me of both a warrior and a priestess.
A set of balloons, pale blue, white and pink, was positioned nearby. She moved to a third, long chair on the left side of the yard, where she sat and blew soap bubbles. Then she stood up and started to pierce and explode the balloons methodically with the spear, each time emitting a martial-arts cry. After a second pause with more soap bubbles, she swapped the spear for an electric drill and continued to explode the balloons one by one, until none was left. She removed all the garments with the same controlled movements. The show ended.
The whole performance was orchestrated with constant tension. Liang Tao was able to put together a strange ritual in which a number of contradictory elements combined to create a powerful and subversive network of correspondences and meanings. A codified set of movements, reminiscent of Tai Chi, mixed kitsch and fetish with an old pavilion, plastic and leather with old, lacquered wood and bricks. China’s nostalgic past, echoes of Maoism and a frightening possible future, collapsed in the disturbing efficiency of this repetitive action. Sexual tension and ambiguity were transposed into political and evocative content.
Being an advocate of spontaneity and participation, I was struck by the force of this work that rejected both of them. The severity of the mechanism and its imperturbability were, at the same time, a reflection of the violence of the Chinese system and a form of resistance. The performance used the idea of transgenderism to expose and criticize Chinese history. It was a Chinese performance with Chinese content, but capable of reaching out to a broader audience — structurally different from other works of the time, challenging and demanding.
Only 15 people saw this work, and it went largely unnoticed. Liang Tao remained in Beijing for a few more months, but her mental condition deteriorated quickly. The last time I saw her was when she stayed at my house one night and slept on the sofa. Early in the morning I found a window open. She had left.
Since then I’ve spoken to her only once; she told me she went back to her hometown near Guangzhou and quit making art. She was worried that art could make her totally mad and lonely. She is currently teaching piano and dance to kids, and she wants to find a husband. To my knowledge she staged few performance pieces between 2004 and 2006, three of them documented. These lines are a homage to her talent and courage and a way to remember the radicalness and subtleness of her work, which I had the rare chance to experience in person.