There was a moment during Sunday night’s performance by Miao Jiaxin at Grace Exhibition Space when some of us in the audience thought he might burn the place down. The fear may have been irrational, but it persisted, partly because Miao is an artist who goes there; by which I mean, he embraces moments that are jarring, unexpected, and on the verge of pushing his performance to the point of disaster.
In previous works — to name a few — he invited people to be jailed in his makeshift prison (I did that one), he shaved his hair to freak out his parents (admittedly that’s not the whole story, but did I mention he ate his own eyebrows on a sandwich?), he convinced his mom to drag a suitcase with him inside it around Shanghai (his hometown), he hid $1,000 in an art venue (the money reappeared in a subsequent performance by Myk Henry), he sponsored brandless sneakers for five street performance artists (yes, Matthew Silver got a pair), he created work about the hyper-capitalization of China (a topic that’s hard to avoid nowadays), and he covered a parked car with parking tickets, invited people could make out in it, and livestreamed it into a gallery, putting exhibitionists on exhibit.
A ubiquitous figure in Brooklyn’s performance art scene, Miao has developed a reputation as a serious independent performer focused on the rituals of contemporary life and a penchant for going viral. For Sunday’s piece, generically titled “Next Performance” (2017), he returned to the same site at Grace Exhibition Space where he has performed again and again. Location matters for the artist’s work, particularly in the pieces that focus on his birthplace, but it is a looser notion of geography — one rooted in a sense of place but more akin to a sense of home and belonging rather than ownership or permanence.
Miao plans how he is going to perform in a particular site, often using geometric forms to organize the space visually. A previous work at this venue included a large, round balloon that filled the area until it popped and dispersed a cloud of twirling dollar bills. This time, he set his performance atop a square he created by sprinkling flour on the floor.
His performance choreography was thoughtful but reserved. He tossed books (including tomes on Thailand, jihad, and the Maltese language) onto the white square. He then circled the book with his hand, covered his face with the white powder, and adjusted his position atop the books, using them like cobblestones in a zen garden. He picked up each book one by one, opened it, read a page aloud, tore it out, and chewed it, slowly accumulating a growing wad of paper in his mouth.
While carrying two fire extinguishers, a bottle of cheap vodka, and what looked like a portable blowtorch, he piled the books after each reading until they formed pedestals for him to stand on. He invited two people from the audience to help him and they held a glass plane while he removed each of the 14 torn pages from his mouth and read from them again. After he finished retrieving the last page, he invited two audience members to help him by hoisting the glass plane in front of him, then he stapled all the pages together, set them on fire, and held them over his heard under a grid of 20 smoke detectors installed on the ceiling until they started to squeal.
The artist stages visual spectacles but they resonate because they can feel communal, something like staring at someone in a spiritual trance. In this piece, the artist included a strobe light that seemed to impose a curious rhythm and sense of time onto a piece that mostly felt dreamlike in its absurdity. Like a visual metronome, the strobe had a particularly poignant impact coupled with the buzz of subway trains on the elevated J/Z tracks directly outside Grace Exhibition Space’s second-story windows.
At the core of Miao’s work is the notion of alchemy, which is the ability to transform the banal into something more perfect and desirable. Yet his process is transparent, not guarded, and it’s even a little hokey through its earnest use of materials and structural simplicity, as he doesn’t want the illusion to persist, returning our attention to his role as the artist or the lead magician of sorts.
As he stood almost triumphal atop his books, with a strobe inserted into his mouth, the audience couldn’t clearly see his face and white smoke from a smoke machine gently wafted towards him. He stood strong like a telamon, between elemental forces above and below, but seemingly embracing his role as an alchemist of modern life through the use of archetypes and symbolic gestures that generate new meanings.
It reminded me that Telamon — the ancient Greek figure the architectural feature is named for — accompanied Jason as one the Argonauts, that group of heroes who set off on a quest for the coveted golden fleece. Yet Miao’s artistic journey is solitary, and increasingly it is looking like the fleece he seeks is as elusive as the original, best represented by the final scene in this piece, which forced viewers to avert their eyes even as the artist was left vulnerable, shouldering a burning pile of pages that will never be read again.