The term performance art in Chinese (xingwei yishu) translates as ‘conduct or behaviour in art,’ an idea that emphasises the relationship of the individual to the community, which is so fundamental in the history of social and political thought in China. In this ‘behaviour art,’ personal and group commitment exceeds artistic parameters to fully enter the field of ethics and philosophy. Art/Action China presents a look at action art through interviews carried out between 2005 and 2007 with two generations of artists who work with installation, conceptual art, photography, video and performance art. Cang Xin (Heilongjiang, 1967), Zhu Ming (Changsha, 1972) Song Dong (Beijing, 1966), the pair of Sun Yuan (Beijing, 1972) & Peng Yu (Heilongjiang, 1974), Li Wei (Hubei, 1970), He Yunchang (Yunnan, 1967) and Chen Lingyang (Yiwu, 1975) explain the close relationship between their work and the political, social and urban changes that Chinese society has experienced over the last three decades. All the artists are determined to meld art with life and share the desire to have an impact on their social environment using means that are as poetic as they are subversive.
The Cultural Revolution stripped Chinese artists of their creative freedom, since art was considered to be a propaganda tool. In reaction to this situation - after the death of Mao Zedong in 1976 and alongside the reforms introduced by President Deng Xiaoping in 1978 - since the end of the 1970s, a series of movements that provided an alternative to official art began to investigate the artistic avant-gardes in the West, evolving against the strict norms of socialist realism to claim freedom of expression. Artists started to demystify political symbols and experiment with new languages like photography, installations, performance art and video.
Action art was not fully established in China until 1993 with the creation of the Beijing East Village artistic community (a reference to the district in which Zhang Huan (Anyang, 1965), Cang Xin, Zhu Ming and other artists belonging to this group lived), which broke up in 1997. Given its protesting nature, performance art was censored for many years. Since it often takes up banned topics like nudity, sexuality and politics, the artists were seen as agitators. Art/Action China arose from the need to consider the social and political context in which these artists lived in order to fully understand their actions, initiatives that reflect on how the subject faces the transition to a new capitalist society.