The Other Shore of Desire: Han Bing on Modernization and Marginalization
By ZHUANG JIA
Multidisciplinary Chinese artist Han Bing employs various artistic languages and media such as performance, multimedia installations, and photography to investigate and problematize modernization in China today. His memories of the poor rural village where he grew up, and of his early days as an artist in Beijing, interweave with his anxieties about the rapid changes in China's cities as they undergo the wrenching processes of modernization, urbanization, and globalization. His works capture the most poignant and paradoxical moments of the Chinese common people, both rural migrants and urbanites alike, as they are inextricably involved in the "Chinese dream" and the dramatic, if not devastating, urban transformation of the nation.
Han Bing examines problems unresolved in the early stages of "modernization," such as the conflict between individual autonomy and ideological constraints. He also grapples with various types of new "capitalistic" problems that have befallen China, such as soaring social inequalities, increasing materialism and consumerism, a collective nihilism, and a lack of human care. Based on his own experience and understanding of the national project of modernization, Han Bing creates works that critically capture what seem like the thorny contradictions of Chinese modernity--the juxtaposition of the marginalized rural population and the urban nouveaux riches, and the overlap of "the developing" and "the developed" within a single spatial-temporal dimension.
A group cabbage-walking "happening" with several professors and a group of students on the UCLA campus in December, 2006, launched the beginning of Han Bing's Walking the Cabbage US tour, which lasted for 3 months. Walking the Cabbage began in 2000, and has since been conducted in public spaces across China—from Han Bing's home village in rural Jiangsu to Tiananmen Square, from the Yunnanese minority village in China's Southwest to the Westernized Bund in Shanghai—across the US—from Hollywood to Manhattan, Miami to Mississippi, Houston to San Francisco—and in March, 2007, onward to Brussels and Paris. This cross-continental ongoing "social intervention" performance piece, challenges conventional notions of "performance" and everyday practice, drawing artist, participants and spectators into an interactive encounter that produces multiple significations, that not only expand restrictive scenarios of representation, but also provoke cogitation over the performative subject(s) and act(s). The performative function of Han Bing's Walking the Cabbage is to render visible what is often invisible—the underlying norms and values that structure human relationships to each other and the material world. Cabbage has long been the quintessential comfort food of China—one that "ordinary" people rely on as a basic staple. In this era of economic change, this value has been both rejected (by the nouveau riche "haves") and reconfirmed (by the struggling poor), drawing out the growing social stratification and moral polarization of the nation. Against the varied backgrounds of this mundane vegetable's particular social contexts, and through his inversion of ordinary practice, Han Bing elicits the articulation of a range of questions, accusations, and challenges from spectators about the gap between past and present values, the nature of "normal" practice, and the ways in which objects in our lives define us and our places in the order of things.
Unlike many artists who were also born in the 70s, Han Bing does not celebrate ambivalent attitudes toward ethics and moral values. On the contrary, he repeatedly emphasizes the significance of human love and care, which seem to constitute the basic utopian vision embedded in his art. His performance photography series Everyday Precious (2001-2006) depicts the interchange between ordinary people and the ordinary objects from their daily lives. In Superfluous Remnants of an Already Backward Modernity: Everyday Precious, No. 2, Han Bing and a row of migrant peasant construction workers stand in front of a halfway demolished building in a snow-covered field; each holds a piece of the quintessential building material used in China's earlier era of industrialization and urbanization: the humble and simple red brick. Behind the ruins of the building, in the hazy and freezing air, stand new high-rises build of concrete, steel and glass. In the image, the rigid bodies of the workers are turned into "living monuments" and uncomfortably placed at the very front of both a past that has been forcefully smashed to pieces, and a rising yet uncertain future. Han Bing clearly draws attention to the bodies of the construction workers, which are positioned in a space where they simultaneously engage in construction and destruction, and yet to which they do not belong. Through a simple visual and bodily structure, the piece illustrates the meaning of existence of marginalized and underprivileged subjects, as well as the existential conditions of those who tenaciously struggle and dream about a legitimated space in the city. By both visually and discursively addressing the awkward attachment between human subjects and their objects which signify a supposed modernity, Han Bing moves beyond pure self-presentation to emphasize a critical aesthetic revolving around how to make visible the ordinary Chinese, who have been left behind in China's pursuit of "being modern."
Body and Boundaries
Both in his ongoing performance series Mating Season, and his multimedia performance installation series Love in the Age of Big Construction, Han Bing effectively capitalizes on the flexibility and vulnerability of his almost nude and gender-blurring body, aiming to find ways to play with the boundaries that shape the "modern" body. In Mating Season, he eroticizes and caresses different types of objects, such as shoes, shovels, stone, and cotton bedding. Likewise, in his early performance photography, Sexual Fantasies of the Knife: Mating Season, No. 2 (2001), he uses his naked body to animate a rusty kitchen knife, one of the few objects that he owned when he migrated to Beijing. His performance displays a form of fetishism stuck somewhere between pain and pleasure, as the fragile body passionately tames and consoles the cold object, yearning for reciprocation, allegorizing his solitude and alienation, from a world afflicted with a deficiency of love, through physical contact between the living body and lifeless things, thus traversing the boundary between body and object.
In his performance Love in the Age of Big Construction II (2006), Han Bing continues to explore the "other shore of desire" in this paradoxical process of "modernization. Constructing a site in the ruins of an abandoned building, he decorates a brick wedding "bed" with white cotton from Chinese bedding, fluffy like clouds. Under the canopy of the bed, for three hours, he repeatedly and almost ritualistically "strokes, kisses and caresses,¬ and sleeps with" the enormous steel claw of a backhoe—a quintessential machine of both destruction and construction. He juxtaposes his performance with his video Age of Big Construction, featuring ghostly images projected onto and behind his body that show the uncertain and fast-changing realities of China. He employs, as art critic Maya Kóvskaya has described it, "a dialectic of antinomies to create a space for overcoming." The "softness of the bed of cotton," for instance, "is used to overcome the hardness of the machine, weightless clouds to hold up tons of steel, sensuality to overcome the numbed mechanization of contemporary times, Eros to tame the Death drive, seduction to overcome violation, and feminine generativity to overcome masculine destructivity."
In his performative ceremonies of offering and finding love, which play with on forms of dichotomies, Han Bing's corporeal repetition tests the endurance and stamina of the human body, and ultimately asks the provocative question: How can a life-affirming and boundary-opening body, while preserving its own ethics, negotiate the impersonal violence imposed by China's frantic rush toward urban "modernity"?