The Unfinished Road to Modernity: Han Bing’s New China
Evan J. Garza
Han Bing is beautiful. Nearly every part of his being is built around some attribute of beauty. Each is bred from an authenticity and subtlety that permeates the artist’s work. His features are incredibly soft, offset by the hard lines of his cheeks and jaw, making his face both outwardly masculine and simultaneously feminine. His body is extremely thin and petite, composed of tall, hard lines that follow his long, dark hair, down to his feet. His features are easily confused with those of a woman, and the ensuing ambiguity is a tool, used not only to represent the ‘male’ or the ‘female’, but the human relationship to divisions like gender. This androgyny contributes to the eloquent and often complicated beauty of his work.
Born in a poor rural village in the Eastern province of Jiangsu, Han Bing’s works document the struggles and cruel realities of everyday Chinese citizens left behind in the country’s mad dash to modernity. His approach to art-making is multidisciplinary, engaging his audience with the same body of work across several media. Live performances of the artist amidst elaborate installations (featuring an array of industrial and other found materials) are photographed and documented to create video and photography pieces as well.
Love in the Age of Big Construction (2006-2008) is a visually stunning and seminal body of work in the artist’s varied oeuvre. A series of multimedia performance installations (and corresponding documentary video and performance photography) generate seductive and unusual environments that explore the human inclination to create and destroy. In each, Han Bing is stretched across a large steel claw from an industrial construction vehicle, dressed only in a skin-colored stocking that makes him appear nude and genderless. He slowly caresses the steel nape of the cold, hard machine, folding his legs across its shaft, crawling into its toothed shovel, gently seducing it. His movements are vaguely erotic, suggesting a kind of lovemaking with the device, with emotional penetration despite physical incapability. The claw appears to float on a giant cloud of cotton, as if it were as light and warm as the artist makes it seem. Behind him, video art footage of Chinese migrant workers in the midst of labor is projected onto an adjacent wall.
In July of 2007, Han Bing performed work from this series for the first time in the United States at Deborah Colton Gallery in Houston, Texas. Instead of a large industrial machine at the performance’s helm, for Love in the Age of Big Construction IV: Stars and Stripes, Han Bing wraps himself around a tall flagpole atop a pile of 800 red bricks. With video footage of bricklayers and road workers projected behind him, a smattering of yellow hardhats and red neon lights decorate the jagged heap, surrounded by a small collection of traffic cones. A makeshift flag with red, white, and blue stripes flies above him, with the American stars in the upper left corner replaced by those of the Chinese flag. The hybrid flag is less a statement on the United States itself, than the increasing Westernization of Chinese culture and the architectural influence of the West on New China’s modern cityscape. Han Bing presses his face to the cold surface of the pole, climbing up the shaft, which stands erect between his legs.
In these works, Han Bing focuses on the simultaneous creative and destructive impulses that drive the Chinese’s desire to demolish traditional architecture in favor of modern and Western constructions. Han Bing evokes man’s fondness for destroying landscapes to suit his own desire in the moments he warms the steel with the skin of his face, stroking the stalwart panels with careful and tender manipulation, seducing the machine. Through the act of destruction, however, something new is created. The cycle suggests the resilience and constancy of life and a universal nature with which much of the artist’s work is imbued.
Love in the Age of Big Construction is chronologically preceded by Mating Season, a collection of works which feature the artist in a number of romanticized erotic sessions with various tools of manual labor and everyday objects. For A Dream Between Cotton and Stone (2005), Han Bing lays nude on the ground outdoors in a public area, bathed in the sun and the shadows of leaves, surrounded by fluffy clumps of white and cream-colored cotton. In his arms, a large gray crag of stone is held close to his body, as seemingly soft and harmless as a pillow. His face is relaxed and serene, his eyes closed, spooning the sharp rock in a near-fetal position. This pairing of the hard and soft, the mundane and the sacred, is thematic of the Mating Season series, evident as far back as its formative works. Sleeping Together (2001), one of the earliest photos in the series, features the artist lying on a modest wooden bed, wrapped in a sheet that covers him and the cluster of bricks he gently embraces as he sleeps.
One of the most remarkable pieces in the Mating Season investigation, and possibly the most confrontational, is the artist’s 2001 performance installation Making Love to Thirteen Shovels. In a dark Beijing roller-rink/rock club, under a sheer pink canopy lit sparsely by a small spotlight, Han Bing kisses and caresses the used assortment of shovels as he lies on top of them. Their metal heads clink together as he fumbles to assemble them into a single group, gently pecking at their necks with his lips, creating a loud clamor that might resemble a more abrasive version of the sound of rustling skin. In a thin tank top and lace underwear, he stands, rumpling the pink fabric, placing the loosely grouped shovels between his legs and tossing his sweat-drenched head back as if in the violent throws of passion. His movements slowly become more elaborate, moving the performance off the mattress and onto the floor as he rolls around with the shovels passionately. Here, as with the warm and affecting performances that followed, Han Bing succeeds in the eroticization of everyday industrial items, using them as tools of social discourse rather than tools of construction. Here, the artist uses them to expose the sometimes-blind eagerness to selfishly manipulate the Earth. His pairing of sensuality and eroticism with industrialization and labor highlights China’s seduction into a quickie modernization—which has complicated results for the migrants constructing the new China.
The filmed documentation and performance photography of his multimedia installations provides for additional works, but Han Bing is a skilled photographer in his own right and his photographic work embodies an equally sincere investigation of Chinese labor and industrialism. During the first New Cultural Movement, commercial calendar artists and poster-makers of the 1920s and 1930s often depicted Chinese citizens holding a book, a symbol of their eagerness for knowledge. Those books were replaced by Chairman Mao's Little Red Book on propaganda posters and in mass demonstrations during the Cultural Revolution from 1966-1976. Images of smiling citizens, with Mao’s crimson tome in hand, sought to perpetuate the people’s affinity for Red China. In his New Culture Movement series, which documents the lives of Chinese migrant workers with a witty approach that recalls and inverts the iconography of Chinese propaganda, Han Bing has replaced the book with a brick—symbolizing the country’s new values of cheap labor and its impoverished laborers.
As Han Bing was photographing rural Chinese workers for New Culture Movement, a trembling old man approached him. He explained that he learned of Han Bing's project from some of the other men participating in the performance, and that he eagerly wanted to participate. He held a brick and trowel as he posed for the artist atop a muddy sewage pipe. In the resulting work, Dali Road Worker II (2006), the red brick is virtually the only source of color in the dirt-tinted photo, a vivid representation of the elderly man’s only source of income. Another photo from the series, Hanhu Village Schoolgirl 1 (2006), features a young red-cheeked girl, no older than six, holding a large brick to her chest on a hay-covered road in Han Bing's desolate home village. The look on her face is undeniably stern, evident of the difficult lifestyle she has endured. In the distance, behind the poorly built homes along the road, a Chinese flag billows in the wind, obscured by several naked trees. The tiny girl embodies the resilience of Chinese laborers and their struggle to endure the country’s severely imbalanced distribution of wealth.
Han Bing’s newest project, Theater of Modernization, is a more carefully choreographed body of work. He remains tightly focused on China’s uneven system of wealth and poverty, and each of the photographs feature a varied cast of characters positioned atop the sand-filled claw of the artist’s trademark industrial bulldozer. Lifted high above the ground like the platform of a stage, proud men in suits are flanked by seemingly indigent counterparts holding hammers or sickles, and sometimes even an alms bowl. The notion of Beijing on the world stage is remarkably relevant to the work, and as with New Culture Movement, Han Bing relies on the nostalgic associations of the poses of propaganda, but with smiles belonging only to well-dressed men and Red Guard military characters. Many of these image features a migrant worker with a brick against his chest and a Chinese peasant woman carrying a cabbage—a cheaply grown staple of the Chinese diet. They look into the distance with simultaneous trepidation and curiosity.
In each of his works, Han Bing accentuates aspects of New China’s economic, cultural and political shifts in a manner that is often abrasively direct, and yet bears a genuine and careful grace. His work explores the relationship of man to nature, and the audience begins to see that the machine straddled in his performance installations is as much a part of the world as the dirt it was designed to move. It should be said that Han Bing’s work is unapologetically confrontational, not only in China, but also internationally, especially at a time when anything the powers that be consider offensive to the well-being of the country can be readily censored. He reveals subverted issues of the human condition, seducing the viewer with the same careful attention paid to the tools of labor he so often embraces.