Acrobatics and Street Theatre in 1927 Shanghai
I invite you to observe some spectacles offered on Shanghai streets in 1927. Thanks to the preservation of a German documentary made specifically to show Shanghai’s common daily life in 1927, we can observe scenes of street comic theatre 二贵摔绞 (ergui shuaijiao), acrobatics and martial arts (all of which have been linked to each other throughout the history of Chinese spectacle), and we can also experience one kind of Chinese Opera performed in the open air. We can not forget that Chinese Opera had two lines of performance, one thought for interiors (Tea houses, saloons, theatres and palaces) and another one for exterior spaces (streets, fairs, temporary stages and squares).
These scenes are an example of the life Chinese streets had in last Century’s 1920’s, life completely lost now except on those exceptional moments the government allows.
Acrobatic Spectacle in Shanghai (1927)
Martial Arts spectacle in Shanghai (1927)
Martial Arts Spectacle in Shanghai (1927)
Spectacles have become a "Performance Art"; this artistic manifestation, a cousin of theatre and visual art, has given Beijing a singular way of expressing feelings or some ideas not dangerous to Chinese law views. There is only one place allowed to do "Performance Art", the Cultural Center Complex of Dashanzi 798, the main venue dedicated to Avant-guard culture in China.
A huge space with some useless communist factories (some of them still working), it has been converted into the new Chinese Soho. Dozens of galleries, handcrafts shops, cafés, restaurants and two or three special spaces have become the point of reference in the new artistic wave of the powerful economic China. The special characteristics of those former factory spaces, their squares and alleys, give place to creative events which try to give them new life and try to transform them.
In Dashanzi we don't see street theatre, instead we see "performance art events"; there is no dramatic structure but they do keep some aspects of similar street artistic manifestations from the 1960’s, "the happening": improvisation, the idea of a unique act (every performance is different because of many factors, including the public and space), and of course an artistic conceptuality.
Performance Art has become the most serious way of constructing a street spectacle in a Chinese city, even though we are not strictly speaking of a theatrical manifestation. More linked to Visual Arts (painting, sculpture and video) than to Stage Theatre these, they border on it; as a postmodern way of expressing artistic ideas, it shares public and surprise with happenings from the 1960’s, but it doesn't care about dramatic structure, characters or stories. Doing performance art doesn't mean doing theatre. The Gao Brothers are one of the best examples of visual artists doing "performance art" without any knowledge of theatre (or at least it seems to me so); their importance lies in their powerful way of reaching their public with out-of-normal acts or through contexts different from which those acts are usually seen. Aside from some famous Chinese names, most of these performances are created jointly with foreign artists.
Even though we can say that Performance Art is the new choice which substitutes street theatre (if that is possible), it also faces a big challenge. Performance art in China reached its peak between the 1990’s and 2000, and little by little it has become less strong and powerful (1). Since 2005 the number of new style "rebel events" has decreased, and only some not very publicized festivals have had place. No more explosions of fire along the Great Wall or people hanging for hours from their own sculpture as we can saw some years ago. Dashanzi has then become a refuge of all of them.
Some of the more extreme examples of Chinese performance art have become notorious in the West. In 2000, Zhu Yu, a painter and performance artist from Cheng Du, created a scandal by taking a number of photographs of himself, supposedly, eating a foetus as a protest against state abortions as a means of population control. Peng Yu and Sun Yuan have also worked with human body parts as well as with live animals and are equally notorious. Some younger performance artists who have exhibited widely in the west in 2005-6 are Shu Yang organiser of the Dadao performance art festival in Beijing, Yang Zhichao, famous for having his identity card number branded on his back and Wang Chuyu who went on hunger strike as part of an exhibition called Fuck Off that took place in Shanghai in 2000 in opposition to the Shanghai Biennale.
The 1996 film Frozen (Chinese title: Jidu Hanleng; 极度寒冷) by Chinese director Wang Xiaoshuai, made under the pseudonym Wu Ming, has as its protagonists a group of Chinese performance artists, who are shown engaging in several street performances in the film."