Exhibition Tour |Wen Pulin: Seven Sins: Seven Performance Works at the 1989 China/Avant-Garde Exhibition

Wen Pulin: Seven Sins: Seven Performance Works at the 1989 China/Avant-Garde Exhibition

Essay | Wen Pulin

Xiao Lu, Dialogue, 1989, Courtesy of the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art
Seven Sins: Seven Performances from the '89 Exhibition, 1989, Courtesy of the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art
Outside of the '89 Exhibition, 1989, Courtesy of the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art
Inside of the '89 Exhibition, 1989, Courtesy of the Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-Garde Art

China/Avant-Garde, also known as the ’89 Exhibition, held at the National Art Museum of China on the eve of the Chinese New Year in 1989, marked one of the most significant turning points in the history of contemporary art in China.   


Prior to the exhibition, the context for art was undoubtedly heavily influenced by the atmosphere surrounding the “’85 New Wave” and a desire for “ideological emancipation”; whereas, subsequently, we were in the  “post-1989” era, in which Chinese art made its first appearance at the Venice Biennale and became a truly global phenomenon.   


That day art heroes from across the country gathered together as if they were paying dues at the Imperial Ancestral Temple, as if, furthermore, they were to give a performance of The Legend of Deification, letting off the heroic air of the uprising farmers. Previously they had seen a “world of universal harmony” as the ultimate goal, but later they would have to change their dreams and strive for a well-off moneyed life and, importantly, allow some artists to become rich before others.     


Kang Mu, a member of the Concept 21 group, once wrote a memoir titled Pretending Not To Turn Around. He wrote to the organizing committee of the ’89 Exhibition, saying that on the day of the opening ceremony, he would walk, naked, from the Central Institute of Arts and Crafts at Guanghua Road to the National Art Museum. He was reported to  the police, who on the eve of the exhibition took him into custody.


The organizing committee’s pre-show notice stated that performance art was not allowed at the exhibition; therefore, the performances that did occur were destined to be less like incidental events and more like major interventions.


I used to joke that the seven performance art works at the exhibition could be compared to the seven deadly sins:  


The First Sin: Mourning, Zhang Shengquan, Zhu Yanguang, and Ren Xiaoying came together and highlighted the somber mood of the ceremony, mourning for art’s new exalted position.   


The Second Sin: Big Business, Wu Shanzhuan commented on the future economization of art by recreating the market and carrying out unlicensed business activities.    


The Third Sin: Prodigal Son, Wang Lang dressed as an ancient warrior and playfully intervened by walking around the exhibition and spooking the audience.


The Fourth Sin: Washing Feet, Li Shan’s act confronted the solemnity of the exhibition, referenced international relations, and commented on the holy nature of art.


The Fifth Sin: Hatching, Zhang Nian questioned the morale of artists, doubted Western truths and defied authority in art.           


The Sixth Sin: To the Sun God?, Wang Deren transgressed the ideals of ethics in art and aimed to corrupt public morals by exhibiting tools of promiscuity.


The Seventh Sin: Dialogue, Xiao Lu started a frenzy in the art space by shooting her installation work with a weapon that she illegally possessed.


The exhibition was immediately shut down after Xiao Lu’s two shots, but exactly at this time Chinese contemporary art was pushed into the international spotlight.   


These incredible performance art works were totally misinterpreted. Take Time magazine’s coverage as an example, its report on the exhibition was titled,“Shootings, Hatchings and Condoms”. The title succinctly hinted at politics, violence and sex, three major focuses in China, then a country in the throes of dramatic transformations. However, these topics were not exclusive to China, and avant-garde artists from across the world were concerned with similar issues, although of course with varied methods and languages of expressions.   

As Zuoxiao Zuzhou sang in Injustice:   


You’ve taken actions, for your ease, as ease is freedom.  

Freedom means human rights, but human rights are politics,  

Oh, dear friend, you’ve blindly stepped

Onto the political stage


Once the dust had settled, the complex contexts and histories surrounding the Seven Sins were discussed as part of Art History, from an academic perspective. We are therefore justified in taking these events as an important starting point in Chinese contemporary art. Ultimately we can say that these events were integral to the move to more intellectual and free artistic expressions, rather than the pursuit of specific artistic styles.   


Crimes of passion can be pardoned and so looking back to that exhibition, we can only be impressed by the varied aesthetic beauty of these performances.  


Looking back at those carefree and unforgettable youthful years is always a magical experience.