Eroticizing the Everyday: Possession, Desire, and Everyday Dramas in China's Theater of Modernization
A dissonant hum of cello and discordant industrial static accompanies the caresses and kisses Han Bing bestows upon the jumbled mound of yellow hardhats, neon lights, and red bricks—the most basic and common material used in the massive rural construction accompanying China's frenzy of "modernization." This multimedia performance installation, Love in the Age of Big Construction IV: Stars and Stripes, is both visual construction and deconstruction of the ethos of China's juggernaut campaign of industrialized, urbanized nation-building.
The body of the artist engaged in this strange mating ritual, is not so much androgynous, as pandrogynous, in the sense that he exudes a heady cocktail of "gender trouble." His bare chest is dewy with perspiration, and his nude-silk stockings are ripped from the rough brick. In the midst of the mound of bricks flies a flag. This flag is a new incarnation of stars and stripes, born of the new era in China. Five yellow stars have traditionally adorned the PRC flag and stand for the peasants, the workers, the soldiers, the intellectuals and the leaders who put the "people" in the People's Republic of China—a China now more socially diverse and stratified than at any time since 1949. The stripes—red, white and blue—are not so much symbols of America as China's new Capitalism, for the cloth of the flag is the cheap woven plastic, the ubiquitous material used in China's myriad construction sites, to obscure the gritty, unpretty realities of the work zones out of which the "New China" is emerging—towering sky-rises of steel and glass and concrete—from out of the rubble of the Old. In the background, Han Bing's documentary art video, Age of Big Construction transmits flickering images of China's relentless demolition, construction and the bitter human toil that is driving the country's nation-building campaign of unprecedented velocity and its pursuit of modernity with "Chinese characteristics."
More than merely a carnival of bizarre desires, Han Bing's multimedia performance installation, Love in the Age of Big Construction, is the embodiment of the social criticism and conceptual meditations that underlie many of the artist's visual and performative interventions. His passionate engagement with fundamental questions of the relationship between art and the human condition, is reminiscent of the creative ethos of Joseph Beuys, Marina Abramovic, and others for whom the necessary relationship between life and art, and the role of public intellectual offering pointed provocations for our troubled times, are the non-negotiable sin qua non of being an artist. Love in the Age of Big Construction interrogates the human costs of China's frantic rush to build a "modern" nation, like so many other nations undergoing profound transformations in the present and the past. This series shares with the body of Han Bing's work, a commitment to social justice and a special regard for the humanity of the downtrodden and the struggling masses of people who have been marginalized by the campaign of modernization.
Han Bing spent his impoverished childhood laboring in the fields as what he proudly calls "a peasant"—reclaiming this word, which has become an epithet in contemporary China, as something dignified and respectable. He grew up in a politically stigmatized rural family, and his experiences offer insights into the origins and nature of his empathy for those struggling and his sensitivity to the paradoxes of "modernization." Born in late 1974, it was only two years before the Great Proletarian Cultural Revolution was officially over, following the death of Chairman Mao and the overthrow of the Gang of Four, four years before Deng Xiaoping initiated the first steps towards "Reform and Opening," but it would be many more years before the tides of reform reached Han Bing's little village in rural Jiangsu province. One of those rare "homegrown" village intellectuals, avid reader and political idealist, Han Bing's father, rural teacher Han Shanxi, caught wind of the reforms taking place at the apex of China's political hierarchy much earlier than the majority of village cadres, most of whom had not completed primary school and who saw the man's love of reading and writing as a wasteful distraction from the heavy manual labor that all rural people must perform every day to eke out subsistence. When Han Shanxiu, faithfully following Chairmen Deng's exhortation to open small businesses and make money to help develop the nation, opened a small convenience store and starting making money, the Old Guard in the village arrested him as a Capitalist Roader.
While their father languished in prison, his mother Zang Shulan was forced to shoulder the full burden of raising a family of five children in a village that shunned them as politically tainted. No one was willing to co-op their work animals with this stigmatized family, so the children hitched their bodies up to ropes and pulled the plow together to sew their fields and keep themselves alive.
Han Bing was the oldest son, but his two big sisters and iron-willed mother, taught him early that women could do anything men could, and that it was essential to follow one's vision and be true to oneself. In the unyielding spirit of the grandfather who had sold all the family's material possessions–even the wooden doors off their home, in a place where temperatures go below zero in the winter—so that his son could go to school, Han Bing's mother insisted that he stay in school in spite the family's severe economic hardships. Like most rural Chinese, the family lived in a house made of mud and straw bricks, with dirt floors and a thatched roof that leaked when it rained. And while they were too poor to afford pencils and paper for drawing when he was a small child, Han Bing made do by drawing with sticks and pieces of broken glass in the dirt. Until he was nineteen, and his talents won him a place in university art program, Han Bing never took an art class, or even used a telephone, for that matter. As the only high school student in his entire county to gain college admission, he felt enormously privileged. But as difficult as life growing up in the countryside had been, it had not prepared him for the careless cruelty of the city.
Moving to the capital to study at the Central Academy of Fine Art—China's top art school—Han Bing witnessed the brutality of China's transformation from the bottom up and was moved by the fragile dreams, so often crushed by the daily grind, of those struggling to survive the tumultuous transformations unleashed by China's massive reforms of the late 1990s. The huge project of urbanization and the increasing difficulty of subsisting off the land, drove over 200 million of rural migrants to the cities, searching for new ways to survive and full of hopes, that would mostly be betrayed, for the future and a better life.
He first lived in a ramshackle room in one of the countless shantytowns that had sprung up around the city as Old Beijing was systematically demolished and the boundaries of the city enlarged to encompass the villages on the outskirts of town. His neighbors in the communal courtyard were a gang of 12 young petty thieves in one room, a older thief couple who took in "apprentices," in another, and a coterie of so-called "wild chickens," street corner prostitutes who were too poor even to have a private room out of which to work. After paying his first installment of rent, Han Bing had only 300 yuan (about $40 USD) left. Mornings he attended art classes, and in the afternoons he spread a cloth out on a pedestrian overpass and sold pens and notebooks to passersby for pennies. He subsisted on steamed buns and counted himself as lucky for having a whole room to himself. Eventually he saved up the money to buy a small coal burner and a pot for cooking. He bought rice and was ecstatic to make his first home-cooked meal. He bought a cabbage—the cheapest vegetable on the market and the staple food of the Chinese poor—and dreamed of his first real meal while painting at the academy. But when he returned home, his room had been robbed, his cooking pot, coal burner and seven oil paintings were gone. All that remained was that lonely head of Chinese cabbage and a rusty butcher knife. Without the money to replace these items, he endured a harsh winter, eating cheap steamed buns and watching his cabbage slowly wither, unable to cook it, and unwilling to throw away good food.
That first winter in Beijing, as Han Bing and his cabbage grew thinner and thinner together, and Han Bing began to consciously think about why the Chinese so love their cabbage, which they would store up in huge mounds to get them through the winter. He felt a sort of tenderness toward these ordinary objects that sustain the subsistence of so many people year in and year out and are seen as increasingly unglamorous reminders of a recent past of poverty by those better off. He witnessed the growing gap between rich and poor and the way that the nouveau riche cast aside modest (and monotonous) winters of cabbage in favor of ostentatious gluttony in fancy restaurants where intentional waste became a symbol of good fortune.
If a full stock of cabbage for the winter was once a symbol of material well-being for Chinese, now the newly monied flaunt their "name brand" pampered pooches, as if to show they no longer need to rely on the lowly cabbage, and can now not only fatten themselves to the point of obesity, but also have enough food to spare for a pedigreed pet. Yet, for the poor and struggling, the realities of cabbage as a bottom line have not changed—what's changed is the value structure that indicates what is valuable and what is worthless. Wondering how what we have, or do not have, changes who we are and how we come to know ourselves; how the act of desiring and possessing things can constitute our selves in various ways and change how we understand our lives, Han Bing began exploring the boundary between human beings and the objects we use to define ourselves, as well as the relationship between our everyday practices and the status quo norms and value structures of the world which our choices and actions, sometimes unwittingly, constitute. The seeds of many of this ongoing performance, video and photography series, were fertilized by these fundamental meditations, each branching off in quite different directions: Everyday Precious, New Culture Movement, Walking the Cabbage, Mating Season and Love in the Age of Big Construction.
In his performance photography series, Everyday Precious, Han Bing reflects on public and private, and what he calls the "fatalistic language of things"—things that bear witness to the social change, and especially social stratification taking place. "Whole segments of society are marginalized, designated backwards, worthless," he explains. "They exist in full view, but no one wants to acknowledge seeing them, or grant them their rightful place in society, perhaps because people fear that if they look too closely, they may find themselves looking back. Migrant peasant laborers are breaking their backs building the 'New Beijing'…Without them, there would be no 'New Beijing,' but 'Old Beijing' casts them off, calls them dirty, uncultured, dangerous, low-quality."
In this series, Han Bing brings marginalized people into the performance and uses photography to constitute a fixed moment in time/space where the essence of such people's concerns is conceptually crystallized. In these works, the participants carry the most mundane objects from their ordinary lives, objects looked on by the "respectable society" as signs of backwardness or poverty—bricks, cabbages, simple farm tools such as shovels, chickens, etc.—and reminding us that these objects, to the vast majority of Chinese, are life-sustaining treasures. In Comfort: Everyday Precious No. 2, the cabbages, lovingly embraced by Han Bing and a family of local peasants, who used to be able to rely on their labor in the fields to fill their bellies, but now face uncertain futures. The glamour of the cabbages clutched in their arms can certainly not compare with the ostentatious gluttony of expensive and profligate dining in fine restaurants and the concomitant status-conscious intentional waste enjoyed by China's monied classes. But they sustain, and nurture, they fill the belly and are as salt of the earth as those who rely on the cabbage for staple nutrition.
Likewise, bricks are another important signifier in Han Bing's work. In Superfluous Remnants of an Already Backward Modernity: Everyday Precious No. 2, the bricks clutched in the hands of the migrant construction workers are an ironic symbol of an ephemeral modernity, promised and then snatched away before coming to fruition. During the 80s, brick constructions were a national symbol of modernity, a promise of a new life, and a society of modest prosperity (xiaokang shehui). But just as rural China was beginning to move from homes of straw, mud and stone, into homes of brick, bricks were declared outdated, and backward. The new standard became the steel, concrete and glass high-rise, unreachably expensive for the rural poor, and a reminder of their increasing marginalization. Since the late 90s, brick structures have been demolished en mass, and the bricks, hauled away on mule-carts by peasants whose fortunes have yet to arrive. This bifurcated signification emblematizes powerfully the ethos of China's modernization. Han Bing and the peasant construction workers, who worked red-faced and gloveless through the bitter Beijing winter of 2003-2004 without adequate clothing, and eventually without pay, raise these bricks in grim tribute. And for the rural poor who haul brick rubble away, this so-called "refuse" is nevertheless, precious indeed.
In Han Bing's New Culture Movement series, laborer, families, and even school children, stand in front of half-constructed homes, construction sites, and schoolyards, bricks hefted in hand like little red books. In one image, the elderly village school gateman, himself illiterate as many of his generation are, proudly guards the gates of the primary school where the children in the village who are lucky enough to have the resources are educated. Behind him is the familiar slogan written on the wall: "Education is the foundation of the greatest of plans." In another image, the Hanhu village schoolgirl, from Han Bing's hometown stares straight ahead with wrenching intensity. She clutches her red brick tightly and her stance is almost aggressive. She attends primary school but may have to quit soon to help her family make money to build a modest incarnation of their dream home. And the daughter of the father from Zhao Village in Yunnan, who is helping her parents mix cement, will likely never see the inside of a classroom at all. Her family is too poor to afford to school her and her labor is needed in the building of their home. Like all the others in New Culture Movement—fathers and sons, mothers and sisters engaging in backbreaking manual labor in urban and rural construction sites alike, whole families work side by side to build, brick by brick, a private space to call their own—she is already struggling to make her life and fulfill her dreams in a society that has yet to see her worth or potential to be a contributing member of society. The hopes of these working people with bricks in hand, whom Han Bing documents, are fragile and small, and they bear a poignant irony of which these people are keenly aware. Although repudiated by the "upwardly mobile" urban society as "backward," the lowly brick is still the best most rural families can expect. With their painfully limited means, rural families must often decide between a marriage home or higher education for their son (daughters rarely get either)—signaling the rise of a new culture of construction at the expense of education, a fixation on private possession, and the perhaps illusory dream of becoming part of the propertied class in a "society of modest prosperity" that denies their claims of membership—betraying the distance between the hegemonic fantasies of China's modernity and the majority's experience of it. New Culture Movement signals a shift in the value structure of the dominant culture, wherein the book has been replaced by the brick, and education, knowledge and "book-learning," as a source of self-worth has been replaced by property-ownership and an ethos of possession.
By involving marginalized people in his performance art and documenting the works with conceptual photography, Han Bing takes a step towards bringing the excluded into the public sphere. In this new regime of modernization, labor, hunger, and the necessities of the body, obscured from the public eye and symbolically relegated by global capital to the private sphere. They are designated as individual, private, personal problems, rather than public and social problems that concern us all. Han Bing's social performance art and conceptual performance photography engage public space in novel ways to challenge the glossy myths of a rosy modernity, breaking down the institutionalized binary divisions between public and private, asking us to question what the right order of things should be and how we choose to position ourselves in this ever-changing new world order.
Many Han Bing's works involve the novel use of ordinary, everyday objects—so close to the daily lives of China's masses that their value is often rendered invisible—to stimulate a reconsideration of our relationship to the material world around us, and the meaning of our everyday practices. Like the Russian Futurists of the early 20th century, who used spontaneous performance art in public places to deliver "a slap in the face of the public taste" and force people in society to question their assumptions, Han Bing's ongoing performance Walking the Cabbage (2000-present) has become urban legend, reaching millions of people who might never set foot in an art gallery.
In the Walking the Cabbage series of performance, video and photography, the artist walks a head of Chinese cabbage on a leash in public spaces as a part of everyday life, inverting an ordinary practice to force us to think. Walking the Cabbage is a playful twist on a serious subject—the way our everyday practices serve to constitute "normalcy" and the way, increasingly our identities are constituted by the act of claiming objects as our possessions. A quintessentially Chinese symbol of home, sustenance, comfort and nurture for poor Chinese, Han Bing's cabbages provoke questions about contemporary social values and comment on the ways in which our treatment and use of the objects in our world invests them with their particular, historically situated, socially constructed meanings.
Walking his cabbage on a leash, Han Bing strolls through populous urban centers and public places—from Tian'anmen Square to Beijing's Wangfujing shopping district, from the trundling public buses and subterranean metro lines to the hip Houhai lakeside strip of old Beijing hutong alleys, swank bars and cafés, the travels of Han Bing's cabbage are not limited to Beijing, or sprawling metropolises like Shanghai and Guangzhou, where he has enacted his performance interventions as well. His cabbage has been walked on the Great Wall, on elite resort town beach at Qinhuangdao, in the picturesque water towns of Suzhou, and even in Hanhucun—the tiny rural village where he grew up (population under 1000). Han Bing walks his cabbage in wildly disparate environments—from the small agricultural plot of his parents in his home village in rural Jiangsu, where he helps them plant a new crop of cabbage, to the million-dollar dwellings and the privatized public spaces of "Euro-style" gated communities of the Chinese nouveau riche; from in the idyllic minority village of Dali in the Southwestern mountains of Yunnan, to the westernized Bund in Shanghai, and more—juxtaposing, with both pathos and tongue-in-cheek humor, the spaces of everyday life in contemporary China along the way.
In 2006, Han Bing took his cabbage to Japan, exploring the cross-cultural significations and consternations produced by his performative interventions in the labyrinth of the Tokyo subway lines and across the mammoth city. In the financial district of Ginza, he embodied a playful spectacle of non-conformity amidst the prim-suited business people. In Harajuku, he was joined by a small legion of alternative young hipsters, self-proclaimed "Lolita girls," Goth teens, punks and Cosplayers, in a group cabbage-walking bonanza.
In 2007, he toured the US for three months, walking the cabbage in locales ranging from tourist-choked Hollywood to the funky mellowness of Santa Monica's Venice Beach; from the hippy-lefty-activist hold-out of Berkeley, where homeless people joined the performance, to New Orleans; from the aquamarine beaches of Miami to the churning banks of the Mississippi River; from Brooklyn's polish neighborhood of Green Point to San Francisco's Haight Ashbury; from Time Square and 5th Avenue to a cattle ranch in the provincial Easy Bay suburb of Livermore. During the opening of his solo show at the Columbia Art Museum, over a hundred people gathered to take part in a group cabbage walk throughout the town, including a small band of anti-war protestors and Women in Black, and when there weren't enough cabbages to go around, some took turns, while others marched alongside, clutching nothing but green, webbed cabbage leaves. Following his US tour, Han Bing continued his cabbage-walk in Brussels and Paris, before returning to Beijing.
"My performance of Walking the Cabbage is conducted like a normal part of my regular life," Han Bing has remarked. "I want people to question the definition of 'normal practice,' and to reflect on how much of our daily lives are routines we've blindly absorbed. We have choices about how to live. Performance art can cause us to stop and think about what we do, to ask ourselves how we should live. I don't believe that the mission of performance art is to supply answers to life's big questions, but it can certainly raise questions in public, provoking people to think."
The scale of his outreach can be measured in part by the discussion board banter, fiery debates and the thousands of reports by bloggers (especially Chinese) who have either seen Han Bing walking his cabbage, and posted their own pictures on the Internet, or helped circulate these guerilla images across the web, along with apocryphal stories about his identity and their interpretations of the purpose and meaning of walking a cabbage. A guerrilla photo snapped at the Beijing MIDI Music Festival is available for download to mobile phones via www.sohu.com. There is ample evidence, in fact, that Han Bing's performance of Walking the Cabbage is arguably the most well-know work of Chinese contemporary art across the broader society in the People's Republic.
Chinese bloggers in particular have engaged in spirited debates about the meaning of this spectacle. Some have written impassioned diatribes decrying this symbol of the "alienation of the times," others have responded defending the practice as a sign that people have become more independent and free to express themselves. Others have taken this performance as an animal rights statement, while others still have interpreted it to be a comment on the disgracefulness of China's current culture of wastefulness and exorbitant leisure (especially with regards to food and entertainment among the nouveau riche), and this cacophony of opinion is part of Han Bing's objective. "By making people think for themselves," he says, "the great variety of ways to be a person and live in the world, become more visible, become more viable choices. Freedom requires having choices about how to live. I want to show that we have alternatives."
While Everyday Precious explores how the fate of the common objects in people's everyday lives reflects the changing hierarchy of desires and persistent realities of basic necessity, New Culture Movement reflects the major shift from a culture that counted knowledge and book-learning as an index of status and value, to a culture that now places the possession and ownership of private property at the forefront, and Walking the Cabbage shows the ways in which everyday practice constitutes standards of normalcy and value, Mating Season, and later Love in the Age of Big Construction, are embodied explorations of the power of desire in its manifold incarnations.
In these works, the artist appears in a pronounced gender-blurring persona. Rejecting the sorts of either-or binaries that serve to delimit and divide us, Han Bing uses gender as a metonym for divisions that arbitrarily define us. Through the visually powerful icon of his transgender body (not in the sense of surgically altered, but rather in the sense of a body that yearns to span both genders and encompass the beauty and power of both possibilities of being human into one pandrogynous mortal frame), he seeks to transcend, metaphorically, the various invidious boundaries that separate us: Male/Female, East/West, Chinese/American (or any other such ethnic and or national identity), Human/Animal, Human/Nature, and so on. In addition to breaking down boundaries, Han Bing also explores the boundaries between objects and bodies themselves, between living flesh and inanimate matter, asking us to contemplate how our bodies and our desires breathe life into objects and transforms them from being mere things into being something.
Han Bing's visual interventions also raise questions about the paradoxes of desire. Desire for Han Bing is an irreducibly bifurcated modality, that is, it has powerful manifestations and effects that can be both beautiful and poisonous. In his conceptual photography series of single-exposure images, Urban Amber, this paradox takes on a different form. The spectre of glamorous high-rises, those icons of middle-class China's dreams of home and a better life, are juxtaposed to the rundown, temporary dwellings of the urban poor living in their shadows. These fantasy high-rises appear resplendent and dream-like until you realize that their inverted images are reflected in Beijing's ubiquitous, industrial-waste and garbage-infested "stinky rivers." Like amber, these rivers capture the sediment of the times, showing us through a mirror darkly, the underbelly of China's fantasy of modernity.
Desire is paradoxical in that it can empower us and it can also make us slaves. It can become a bloated, grasping hideous drive to consume, dominate, posture and possess. Desire feeds the engines of human ambition, endangering the planet and its myriad species aside from humans, as well as the other people with whom we share this globe. Desire can be an expression of love, but it can also become the ignoble impetus for war.
Desire can also invest the world we have made with sacred meaning that enables and empowers us with what poet and activist Audrey Lorde called "the Erotic as Power." Han Bing's performance art, video and photography in the Mating Season series, aims to animate the ordinary objects from our everyday lives with passion—objects such as tools of manual labor—investing them with sacred meaning, as he reminds us of the power of the everyday, the ordinary, the quotidian and the mundane things that structure our relationships to the lived world. Like philosopher Hannah Arendt, with her invocation of amor mundi—to love the world, our world, that we have remade with our own hands–he reminds us that meaning is humanly created and that a reverence for the world that we have made is the first step in taking responsibility for it.
While Mating Season largely reflects on the positive side of desire and the extraordinary possibilities for rekindling our love of the world, bringing us back to the ways that the ordinary objects in our lives sustain us, Love in the Age of Big Construction turns the equation on its head and asks us to consider how ever-burgeoning, insatiable desire has created the motive force behind the juggernaut of "capitalism with Chinese characteristics" that is literally tearing down the "old China" in order to build the nation anew. While many positive changes result from this triumvirate campaign of urbanization, industrialization and "modernization," an entire way of life is lost, and millions upon millions—mostly rural people without the educational opportunities or start-up resources to have a fair chance in the race—who cannot keep up, are left behind or trampled underfoot in this mad stampede. And the constructors of this new "modern" nation, those beleaguered rural migrant laborers who work obscene hours in unsafe conditions, for unreliable pay, who use their bodies as the altar upon which to offer the nation its fantasy of urbanized modernity, are building a gleaming, brave new world that has nothing but contempt for them and their sacrifices. In the name of these so-called "dirty, low-class, uncivilized" masses of laboring people who make the cities that have no place for them, Han Bing's Love in the Age of Big Construction offers up a sort of secular prayer.
In Love in the Age of Big Construction II, Han Bing's erotic affections are directed at an enormous machine of demolition and construction. His hands glide down the muscular metal arm of the enormous earthmover and as he caresses the sweat-slick surface like a lover. Lush lips brush across the paint and rust flecked surface of the machine, lingering, then pulling back before moving on to anoint the metal with more languid kisses that accompany the seduction of this hulking steel claw of a machine. His skin is slick with sweat, and his nude-silk stockings are ripped and smeared with machine oil from his exertions. Under a canopy of gauzy white, on a "wedding bed" of fluffy cotton like billowing clouds, for three hours, during this performance, Han Bing seduces the claw of the earthmover.
In his performance of Love it the Age of Big Construction III, the wedding canopy from the performance of II has been replaced by iron girders, the sort used in the construction of simple brick dwellings. They form the four posters around the cement platform that is both bed and the frame of a home. Again cotton, ripped from bedding, is strewn across the platform, creating a nest for the enormous steel claw of the earthmover. While Han Bing uses his erotic wiles to tame this machine that smashes homes and tears up fields, expressing the duality of desire as a motive force, a crew of migrant laborers in their hardhats and work clothes lie dreaming near the site. Each is curled around a mound of bricks. Iridescent bubbles waft through the air, floating and full of beautiful promises, before bursting into nothing as they come down to earth. The never-ending labor of building a new world plays on the screen behind the site.
Like Love in the Age of Big Construction II, Han Bing employs a "dialectic of antinomies" to create space for overcoming. Using his vulnerable flesh and blood body, he warms the metal claw; using the lightness of cottony clouds, he holds up a ton of cold steel. Using passion, he tries to animate the unresponsive machine, perhaps hoping that the will of the sensual body can overcome the numbed philistine quality of the contemporary age, if only briefly; seeking succor for the wounds of the world and the mortal body that sustains a love of the world in spite of everything, Han Bing uses Eros to tame the Death drive, seduction to overcome violation, and feminine generativity to overcome masculine destructivity, in a perhaps futile attempt to ameliorate the violence of China's modernization.