Going back to the benjamin essay after some time, it reminded me of a piece I read in TDR about performance art in China (“Violent Capital: Zhu Yu on File,” TDR, 49.3, 2005). In the article, Meiling Cheng describes a still photograph from a performance called “Eating People” by Beijing artist Zhu Yu. The image appears to show Yu eating a fetus, and Cheng describes how its circulation via the internet sparked a sort of urban legend involving baby-eating and its practice among the Taiwanese (no one seems clear how the move from Beijing to Taiwan came about). Eventually the concern “made it to the news when the Taiwanese congresswoman Qing Huí-Zhu held a press conference . . . to critique a report about baby-eating in Taiwan, which she had found in Malaysia’s Perdan Weekly” (Cheng 58).
Cheng’s piece is less about the process by which a single image constitutes the identification of an entire ethnic group as baby-eaters, and more about an interesting take on Benjamin’s theme. Cheng writes,
Because of its largely clandestine nature, xingwei yishu [which Cheng translates as “behavior art” rather than performance art] in China, especially in its extreme vein, has used photography as its primary means of display. These photographic documents, along with their often sketchy, even cryptic captions, become an important catalyst, if not the sole basis, for further discourse in the media and critical circles. Since the 1990s, the internet has emerged alongside photography as the latest technological means of dissemination for Chinese xingwei yishu” (59).
She goes on to note that increasingly, transgressive performance art in China (which often includes is developed with an eye towards the still pictures that can be produced from it, as these are what can be sold and circulated when the acts of the art–the performance that constitutes it–are dangerous enough that they can’t be accomplished publicly. The combo-plate of photography and the internet not only provides an increased audience/market for this work, but allows it, in a general sense, to be visible at all. The tension between evanescent performance and durable documentation or artifact has always been of interest to performance scholars, but in this case the artifact isn’t just the means by which the art enters the economy of reproduction (though it is that, too) but also potentially the only broadly meaningful form of witnessing the event that can occur. Cheng considers the “technology of virtual display” necessary means of survival in an atmosphere where the threat of censorship or punishment can drive performance art so far into seclusion that only the only public life it can feasibly have is through the circulation or sale (clandestinely or otherwise) of the images it produces.
I guess I find this interesting because when Benjamin declares politics to be the function of art once authenticity is off the table, the most often rehearsed dilemma in my own area of study is about the relative value of “the work itself” versus the objects it creates that can be sold, circulated, appended to a grant application, etc. Performers often weigh the value and seeming necessity of documenting their work in order to prove that it existed (and to make it available for future study, so as not to write ourselves out tomorrow’s textbooks by omission) against an idea, most famously articulated by Peggy Phelan, that performance’s “unique ontology” allows it to be resistant to and to some measure outside of that economy of reproduction; that documentation may even reduce performance in some way, may pollute–and having been partially raised by hippies, I love this word because–its aura.
And then Cheng closes the circle by suggesting that
If virtual display responds to the combined violence of postcolonialism and
domestic political repression, I would argue that its mechanism of selection also instigates the production of violence. The discursive environment resulting from this confluence of violence at different levels has arguably encouraged many Chinese performance artists to resort to extreme live actions, which, to say the least, make for striking and often startling pictures.
In fact, she suggests that artists whose works have little life in the moment of performance begin to design and assemble performances with a purposeful eye toward the performances’ afterlives, explicitly designing them for the images that can be made from them–performance art designed to exist not as itself but as representational artifact, even more so than the usual pressures of the economy of reproduction dictates. We all may feel the need to have stills or video or other documentation of our work, but here, the representation is the performance.
(I’ll upload the Cheng in case any of you are interested. You can also find it on Project Muse.)