CHENGDU, China — In a series of eight-hour-long actions titled Puzzling Tracks, Zhou Bin placed an ant on a piece of rice paper. The ant was free to move around the paper, but it was penned in by four walls along the edges. As it explored the space, Zhou Bin followed it with a pencil, creating a durational drawing. At a recent forum, an audience member commented that most of the lines were gathered on the boundaries of the space. “The ants are quite focused on the reality of their predicament,” the Chengdu-based artist responded. “They don’t waste much time in the middle. They walk around the edge looking for a way out.”
Like many of Zhou Bin’s works, Puzzling Tracks began as a simple observation — the behavior of insects in his house — and moved into a metaphorical realm to examine the forces governing his life. Completed in 2014, Puzzling Tracks was also a set of actions that resulted in physical artworks (the pencil-on-paper drawings), making it an important precursor to a major series that Zhou Bin executed this year, Mind in a Box.
Curated by Lan Qingwei, acting director of the Chengdu Museum of Contemporary Art, Mind in a Box consists of 12 works completed over the course of 2015. All of the works were made in collaboration with artisans or audience members. In “Diaries, 1986-2015,” Zhou Bin asked a centuries-old papermaking studio to pulp 30 years of his diaries and recycle them into blank notebooks. “Entrusted” involved three participants — Zhou Bin, a construction worker, and a waitress — who stood on pedestals holding bags of wet cement until they were unable to do so any longer (the waitress was the last to set hers down, after 20 minutes).
Mind in a Box continues two decades of Zhou Bin’s experimentation with performance art. Born in 1970, he was trained as an oil painter but gave up painting when he encountered performance art in 1997. “After that, I felt it would be silly to spend spend my days spreading paint on a canvas,” he said. He has since become one of the most active performance artists in China and frequently participates in international festivals. His work addresses topics ranging from daily minutiae to geopolitics. “It seems many artists select a topic or a field and then just make work about it,” he said. “But I see no reason to set out in advance what I’m going to say.”
Since the late 1980s and early ’90s, when Chinese artists began experimenting with performance art (the most widely used term is xingwei yishu, which translates to “action art”), there has been a strong tradition of addressing political and social issues with the form. Many of these works have drawn attention domestically and abroad for their extreme boundary pushing. Zhu Yu famously gnawed on what was reported to be a baby’s corpse (“Eating People,” 2000). Artist He Yunchang carried out a series of performances that permanently damaged his body, including the recent “One Meter Democracy” (2010), in which he made a one-meter-long incision in his body after a vote from the audience.
Zhou Bin has never carried out anything nearly as extreme, but he has completed many politically themed works that have pushed his body to the point of breakdown. Referring to government censorship, he repeated the Chinese term for “sensitive word” until he was physically unable to continue (“Sensitive Word,” 2000). In “One RMB Coin” (2006), he held a coin in his mouth until he began drooling and crying uncontrollably. He draws a distinction, however, between these works and those of some of his contemporaries. “Many performance artists make works that compare [their] limits,” he said. “Their actions are violent, sometimes to the point that feels like the limit in question is the audience’s ability to deal with it … I prefer to design a method that puts me in a state in which I am no longer in control.”
During our conversations, Zhou Bin sometimes downplayed the political content of his art. When I asked him and curator Lan Qingwei about the decision to use concrete in the work “Entrusted,” the artist said concrete simply had the most suitable physical properties for the work. Lan Qingwei disagreed, however, saying that Zhou Bin is not oblivious to the social connotations of concrete, a material which signals the urban development that has transformed modern China.
To understand Zhou Bin’s reluctance to embrace political art, it’s helpful to examine the internal dynamics of the Chinese art world. Following the tremendous international success of Ai Weiwei, some in the Chinese art community have come to see political artwork as a ploy to garner attention from foreign curators and collectors. They believe that Ai Weiwei’s success overseas derives not from his work, but from a foreign, largely Western audience’s ideology-driven fascination with art that opposes Communism. Zhou Bin told me that when he travels abroad, “even old folks living in rural towns ask me about Ai Weiwei. At that point it can’t possibly be related to his work, because art simply isn’t that powerful.
“Making art about an important topic is not the same as making important art,” he continued, emphasizing that no matter what topic the work addresses, it must contribute to the larger contemporary art discourse. Zhou Bin engages deeply with the international history of performance art and the philosophies behind it, and his work has evolved as he’s incorporated new ideas. The series Mind in a Box was a major departure from much of his previous work because the actions resulted in the creation of three-dimensional objects. Zhou Bin exhibited these objects at the Macao Museum of Art’s fourth annual Inward Gazes: Documentaries of Chinese Performance Art exhibition in November. The paper from “Diaries, 1986-2015” was on view, as were the hardened concrete blobs that had been shaped during “Entrusted.” These objects — physical records of ephemeral actions — allow a secondary audience to have a more direct connection with Zhou Bin’s performances.
Zhou Bin’s ongoing engagement with the methodology of performance art is also evident in the expanding range of poetic gestures he uses to comment on aspects of daily life and relationships. In “Walker” (2010), he hiked along the ridges of a mountainous pile of coal until he had leveled it into a smooth parabola. In a live action this year titled “Darker and Darker,” he lowered a light bulb into a bucket of cow blood repeatedly, letting the layers of dried blood slowly blot out the light. And in a seven-hour performance completed in 2014, he threw 7,316 pearls — one for each day he had been married — against a gallery wall and then gathered them.
In recent years, Zhou Bin has allowed this nuanced complexity to help shape his politically oriented works. Among his most poignant pieces is 2009’s “Following,” for which he went to Tiananmen Square and began following an ant making its way across the ground. As he did, plain-clothes and uniformed police officers noticed his strange behavior and began following him. By focusing on a single insect, Zhou Bin had swiftly and effectively replicated the power dynamic between himself and the state.