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Han Bing: Chinese Performance Art Engaging Life on the Margins

Maya K�vskaya

Han Bing, Walking the Cabbage in the Beijing Subway, 2004

In recent years, the Chinese State has positioned itself as a relatively more tolerant gatekeeper of public culture. Allowing the legitimate proliferation of contemporary art galleries and exhibitions, and protecting the 798 Art Factory space from being razed to make way for commercial real estate development by designating 798 as a cultural zone, this tolerance is parlayed into international cultural capital and underlies a strategy of cooptation and neutralization via inclusion. The new governance of contemporary art involves the astute use of space, seeking to domesticate contemporary art within the confines of privately owned galleries that often self-censor, hewing to less "sensitive" materials for exhibition. This strategy of governments seeks to harness the power effects of global capital as the Chinese art market disciplines and delineates the parameters of authorized expression, determining who has a place within these designated spaces, just as market reform is determining who in Chinese society has a legitimate presence in the State-dominated public sphere. In this context, the meaning and significance of art that takes place outside these spaces becomes a critical question.

If Chinese contemporary art is to maintain at least a quasi-autonomous existence, the importance of art that challenges the domesticating effects of global capital and creates "alternative public spaces," is seminal. A few performance pieces are noteworthy for their attempts to engage members of society in the production of the artwork and use public space to insert performance art into the larger social field.

The work of Chinese performance and visual artist Han Bing, 31, does just this with his "spontaneous interventions in public places""street corner" performance art that takes place at random intervals in Chinese society. A departure from the overtly political overtones and cynical manipulation of the foreign market's yen for anything that smacks of dissent which cynical realism and political pop exploited, the new critical contemporary art focuses on more on social engagement and inclusion of the excluded than on overt criticism.

Han Bing's public performances 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, in order to stimulate a reconsideration of our relationship to the material world around us, and the meaning of our everyday practices. Evocative of Hannah Arendt's amor mundi–love of the world–his ongoing performance Walking the Cabbage (2000-2005) has become urban legend nationwide, reaching millions of ordinary Chinese who might never set foot in an art gallery. Like the Russian Futurists of the teens and twenties, 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 uses a quintessentially Chinese symbol of home, sustenance, comfort and nurture for poor Chinese–a Chinese boy chok cabbage–to 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 in Beijing–Tian'anmen Square, Wangfujing Shopping district, the Beijing subway, the hip Houhai lakeside strip of old Beijing hutong alleys and swank bars and cafés. But the travels of Han Bing's cabbage are not limited to Beijing, or big cities like Shanghai and Guangzhou, where he has appeared for performance interventions as well. His cabbage has been walked on the Great Wall, on the 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).

"My performance of walking the cabbage is conducted like a normal part of my regular life," comments Han Bing. "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. But 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 and the thousands of reports by Chinese bloggers 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 MIDI Music Festival is available for download to mobile phones via

Reactions vary, ranging from mirthful exclamations of "Totally original!" to "It made me smile all week just thinking that not everyone in this society is a completely numb," to "Sick in the head!," to angry "how dare you waste food, dragging it around on the ground when people go hungry!?!", to "Inspiring!" (such as recent reports on the internet of a Beijing teenager dragging a big white daikon radish around on a string),–but 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."

In his latest performance photography works, Han Bing walks his cabbage in wildly disparate environments–in the small agricultural plot of his elderly parents in his home village in rural Jiangsu, where he helps them plant a new crop of cabbage, or alongside million-dollar dwellings and the privatized public spaces of "Euro-style" gated communities of the Chinese nouveau riche, and more–juxtaposing, with both pathos and tongue-in-cheek humor, the spaces of everyday life in contemporary China, and exposing the yawning gap between rich and poor.

In his performance photography series, Everyday Precious, Han Bing reflects on public and private in a different, yet related way. "Whole segments of society are marginalized, designated backwards, worthless. 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. They 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, are the quintessential, simple "comfort food," of poor Chinese. Their glamour 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. 6, " 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.

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 brave new world.
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