Friday, May 16, 2008

Street Theatre in Today China ( Part 2): Old days and Performance Art

Note: this is the Part 2 of the post I published on the 3/31/08, Street Theatre in Today China (part 1).

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.

Shanghai Street Theatre. Ergui shuaijiao. (1927)

Acrobatic Spectacle in Shanghai (1927)

Martial Arts spectacle in Shanghai (1927)

Martial Arts Spectacle in Shanghai (1927)

It is said that a big part of the evolution of Peking Opera (Beijing Opera) during the 19th Century was as open air events; some characteristics of its music, movements and stories had much to do with the requirements of performing on open air stages: attracting the public’s attention in the midst of a multitude during special events. This kind of Chinese opera doesn't exist anymore, at least in important Chinese cities where, today, Chinese Opera is a cultural institution performed always in enclosed spaces, full of depth, elegance, and only accessible to the initiated.

The Street Spectacle in China doesn't have a dramatic structure, it is generally a series of isolated acts of singing, acrobatics or dance. So far (April 2008) I have never seen any street spectacle based on any dramatic structure as (we recognize it) outside China, besides some Chinese Opera special performances in the open air.

Mass events (even those organized by the government or by television producers) are strictly controlled, yet offer an example of one aspect of street theatre evolution. Groups and theatre companies, which had been isolated or independent in the past, have been extinguished and absorbed by cultural institutions and big entertainment enterprises; now, they are part of immense choreographies where multitudes of dancers, actors or martial artists participate. Choreographies where 1000 taijiquan practitioners show their skills on television, where hundreds of children dressed like Shaolin monks perform some amazing routines, or where Chinese ballerinas in a river of movements accompany a famous singer (or just being part of a touristic experience at some important sight).

Street acts with political character are non-existent, and I'm sure the reason for their non-existence is the risk everyone in China could run by trying to produce anything outside the law.

Dashanzi 798

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.

Performance Festival in Dashanzi 798:

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.

Ameret performance in Dashanzi:

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.


Streets are fascinating for the scene creator, they are a space where theatre goes to the scenography, where life is surprised by the fictitious act of the theatre. The Chinese government fears it because of its surprising and liberating way of reaching spectators, and it has been looking to at least control it (if not repress it), almost to its extinction. But hope for its permanence lies in all those experiences of Chinese street spectacle from the past, in the essence of it, in imagination as creator; street spectacle opens our imagination where we don't expect it and that shows us another way of getting our priceless freedom.

(1) Only as a point of reference for the reader, this is what Wikipedia says about Performance Art in China: "Performance art in China has been growing since the 1970s as a response to the very traditional nature of Chinese state-run art schools. It is becoming more and more popular in spite of the fact that it is currently outlawed. In 1999 the importance of contemporary ChineseChinese artists in the Venice Biennale. In recent years many of these artists have made performances specifically for photography or film. Interest in Chinese art has never been higher. art was recognized by the inclusion of 19 contemporary.

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.

They acknowledge a debt to older performance artist/ curator Ai Weiwei. Other well known artist are Ma Luming and Zhu Ming.

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."

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