Body of Sedition: Yang Zhichao and Art that Hurts

In the 1960s, a group of Viennese artists known as the ‘Actionists’ – Günter Brus, Otto Muehl, Rudolf Schwarzkogler, and Hermann Nitsch – became notorious for their shocking and often violent performance pieces: Whitewashed walls daubed in blood, naked bodies writhing in paint, slaughter, urine drinking and public masturbation were but a small portion of a catalogue of confrontational acts undertaken in the name of “direct art”. Iconoclastic to the extreme, Actionism became defined by its use of bodies, their myriad oozings and animals parts as materials to blur the line between life and art, and undermine the consumer-state.

Somewhat unsurprisingly, performances overflowing with human lubricants and rife with the gynaecologically invasive frequently drew the attention of the authorities and artists were fined, arrested and even served jail terms for their art. During one atypically conservative piece, Vienna Walk, in which Günter Brus, soaked in white paint with a vertical black stripe trailed down his body, walked through Vienna’s tourist centre, police intervention was almost immediate; Brus’ was stopped in the street and ordered to pay a fine. The encounter was documented by diligent photographer Ludwig Hoffenreich, and subsequently became an integral component of the piece. Social rebukes seem to have been, in part, what lent these actions their validity; if the artist caused an uproar their purpose had been fulfilled.

Following the official demise of Actionism at the beginning of the 70s, performers across the world, directly influenced by the transgressive exploits of the Austrian quartet, continued in the Actionist tradition. Equally fixated on the body, artists such as Cosey Fanni Tutti and Genesis P-Orridge of COUM Transmissions (who would later found Throbbing Gristle) performed in the U.K., carrying out D.I.Y. surgery in a puddle of their own blood, vomit, urine and semen. Likewise Bob Flanagan in the States indulged in “supermasochistic” performances, hammering nails through his penis while reciting jokes to the audience. The subject of repeated denigration, these pieces had social critics labelling their perpetrators the “wreckers of Western civilisation”.


What may seem to many a list of lunacies committed under the guise of “art” by those who would serve society better locked in padded cells and kept from sharp objects, continue to have a bearing on contemporary artists. Various embodiments of extreme performance are still enacted in the 21st century amid a virtual landscape in which the psyche has become disembodied in a whirlwind of binary. Yet, in what appears an ironic twist, some of the most provocative of these pieces have occurred in one of the most domineering countries; a country whose state apparatus heavily restricts aspects of the everyday that we in the Western world take for granted: China. Here, a new strain of corporeally focussed artists have emerged and taken up the baton of extreme performance and excruciating visuals, leaving the “morally incorruptible” quarters of society feeling a little green at the edges. So shocking is this new wave of Chinese art that British institution Waldemar Januszczak flew to China and filmed the documentary Beijing Swings, investigating the contentious movement.

Many of the uninitiated have probably come into contact with one of China’s most extreme artists without knowing it. Photographs of Eating People, Zhu Yu’s infamous piece in which he cooked and ate a human foetus, circulated the internet in the early 00s causing much controversy (Yu has since admitted that the foetus was not real). This critique, illuminating the coin’s edge between law and morality and bearing an uncanny resemblance to Jonathan Swift’s A Modest Proposal, was quickly repressed by The Ministry of Culture who found the piece unfit for cultural consumption and consequently banned exhibitions involving corpses and overt violence and sexuality. The censorship that many branches of Chinese society are subject to have given Chinese art the volume of a fighter jet – those with the most to rebel against, rebel most forcefully.

That these acts even take place is a testament to the dedication and creativity of several individuals in the face of overwhelming domestic opposition. Determined to bring attention to the social sanctions forced upon the Chinese people by any means necessary, they undergo acts that could potentially have them put away. One such individual who raises his voice for the hard-of-hearing is Yang Zhichao, a multi-disciplinary artist who is somewhat renowned for his agonizingly painful performance pieces. Through ingenious metaphors he comments on the contingent nature of our relationship with the world around us, or more specifically, the relationship between our body and the world around us. And, whilst relatively unknown by Western audiences, he has caused quite a stir in his homeland.

Iron YangHaving moved from a rural province to the bustling city of Beijing in 1998, Yang became acutely aware of globalisation and the power it exerts over the body. Whereas in rural Gansu the body is a tool required to labour and toil, in Beijing the body is a hard-drive embellished with the products of industry. It is amongst the homogenous mass of this neon bathed city that Yang’s ideas took form, fuelled by the effects of an age of information and the attempts of technology and state to control the body.

From among his diverse array of works, four key pieces by Zhichao illustrate this fascinating concept to its fullest. Iron, performed in 2000, saw Zhichao branded like livestock with his personal identification number. Consecutive photos recording the procedure show Yang lying face down on a bench, next, with a heavy brand pressed against his right shoulder and finally, the result – fifteen raw digits seared into his skin. The photographs give no impression of the artist’s pain but we, the audience, imbue it with our own, with recollections from childhood of accidentally touching a hot iron or saucepan. We empathise with him in his stoic feat because we all know the pain of being burnt. Beyond the blistered flesh however, this act evokes not only notions of ownership but also efforts of the state to categorise and monitor their subjects. The branding becomes analogous with reducing a person to a number, just one number in an ever growing list to be scrolled through.

More invasive than Iron, Hide a 2004 piece by Zhichao, elaborates on the already established theme by incorporating the idea of the body as being more compatible with technology than with nature in the globalised era. Taking its cues from the surgical world, where people have parts of their body replaced or repaired with electronics and medical scaffolding, Yang, with the help of fellow artist and surgeon Ai Weiwei, sat in Beijing’s art district for a public operation – the insertion of an unspecified metal object into his leg. The object which remains unidentified, in keeping with the title of the piece, resides to this day in the artist’s leg; his body healed and assimilated the trinket, retaining its ability to function as normal.

Yang ZhichaoZhichao embarked on two pieces that were intimately connected to Hide. They followed the same premise of implanting foreign objects into the body but this time the objects signified the natural, not technological. In both cases Yang had material surgically planted into his flesh: firstly during Planting Grass (2000), in which creek grass was sewn into his shoulder, and secondly during Earth (2004), where the titular substance was imbedded in the roof of his stomach. Each time Zhichao endured the procedures without anesthetic. The pieces proved a triumphant vindication of his idea that the body is more comfortable with technology than nature – an unpleasant infection developed as his body rejected both grass and earth leaving him badly scarred in each area. It seems that through these opposing pieces (Hide and Planting Grass/Earth) Yang hoped to convey to us the violence of nature in the face of oppression and the inertia of technology, and that as we become governed more by technological processes we adopt this inertia, no longer fighting to preserve our independence.

Rather than being accessible only to the artistic elite, Zhichao’s performances tap into more universal issues. His portrayals of pain echo what we can all relate to on varying levels; they show us one universal constant as our day-to-day lives are saturated by technology, and offer forewarning of our decline into the realm of post-humanism. By observing his anguish we become spectators to an evolution of the body increasingly complicated by technological advancement. He raises us to a daunting viewpoint from which we’re forced to confront the effects our environment has upon our biology.

Regardless of what each individual gains from his extraordinary performances, one thing remains true: Yang Zhichao represents the pinnacle of a flourishing art scene that continues to transform the way we look at human anatomy.

What do you think? Leave a comment.

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  1. Alexandra

    I love reading about extreme performances like these, specifically when it is this well written, but I can’t cope watching it live. A colleague invited me to a performance in London for a year ago that had a self-harm “theme”. It was very disturbing and effectful.

  2. James Call

    There are a number of avant-garde artists rising in China at the moment. Have you heard about Zhang Huan and Ai Wei Wei?

    Thank you for the informative and intriguing article.

    • There certainly are. Yeah, I’ve heard of those two – Ai Weiwei is actually mentioned in passing in the article.

      Zhang Huan could easily be grouped with this new wave of body-oriented Chinese artists.

  3. Melanie P.

    Some of these practices are quite barbaric. I wish I was there to watch Planting Grass first hand.

  4. I suppose performance art is the perfect way to critique the negatives of globalisation, consumerism and the art market itself. Especially, because performance art generally refuses to be an object, leaving just its traces on film or tape, and thus can never become a commodity. And I suppose, by heightening one’s own body into artwork, an individual can assert their self-worth and value. Thus attacking conformity and social constraint. Interesting article. Thanks for posting it!

    • The fact that it does leave a trace on film means that like other forms of art it can be commodified. Rights to video, photographs and left over props can all be sold to generate revenue. Theoretically, it is the perfect critique of globalisation etc., but the very thing it attacks also packages and peddles it.

      • Well a lot of performance, land and body art emerged in the 1960s and 1970s as a reaction against an increasingly materialistic world. But you’re right to say they became commodifiable. I imagine land art become tourist locations and you can buy photo albums of performances. They can have their potentially hypocritical cake and eat it to, I guess! 🙂

  5. Jessica Koroll

    Wow. I loved this. It’s only recently that I’ve begun to really catch wind of live performances such as these and I find myself constantly amazed each time I hear of a new work. Each performance offers such endless possibilities for exploring the reactions of society and the endurance of the carnal in ways that other forms of art simply cannot. I found your retelling of Yang Zhichao’s and Zhu Yu’s pieces particularly enlightening.

    • That’s what’s great about performance art, it’s only limited by law (which can be, and is at times, transgressed). Accessibility is the main issue and the disparity this causes between those who have actually seen the piece and those whose only references are photographs and descriptions or video – it would of course be more powerful in person. But anyway, thanks for reading, I’m glad you enjoyed!

  6. Ashleigh Simpson

    Great article, I too find these types of performance art so fascinating, but kind of hard to swallow. The performance artist Mike Parr came to Hobart, Australia and did a work in the museum there years ago [Hobart was a blank canvas for works such as these before David Walsh opened Mona’s doors], and people are still discussing it to this day. Certainly gets people’s attention!

  7. Aliya Gulamani
    Aliya Gulamani

    Fascinating article, I didn’t know that this movement was so prominent in China, but as you describe eloquently, the harsh social restrictions seem to encourage a kind of intense rebellion. Whilst somewhat painful to read, it’s so interesting to hear what these performance artists endure in the name of Art.

  8. Fiona Farnsworth

    I found your article fascinating. This art is often unsettling, but this and the opportunity for societal and self-examination are what make it so intriguing. It’s always interesting to observe the uproar that surrounds works of this controversy: more recently (though admittedly with less focus on pain) Casey Jenkins’ “vaginal knitting” is a standout example of a performance drawing our attention to our preconceptions surrounding the human body.

  9. Alec Johnsson

    Great article. I once had a close friend say that the human body is made to survive all sorts of physical challenges–this on the topic of a ritual my college has in which the freshmen are woken up at 3am to take a swim in a duck pond full of feces–and the examples of Yang Zhichao and the late Ray Flanagan (who had cystic fibrosis) are a testament to that truth. I’d be curious to hear your opinion, though, on performative acts in which life *really* is at risk, such as the fatal self-immolations of Thich Quang Duc and Mohamed Bouazizi. Is performative art something worth dying for, and to what extent do its political dimensions justify the risk to life? The blurring of the line between fiction and reality is also a key question to address, not just with Zhu Du’s work, but also with, for instance, the artificial inseminations that Yale student Aliza Shvarts (allegedly) performed on herself for her senior thesis. A pertinent topic, this is.

  10. People often overlook performance art and only take it for the shocking value especially when the work involves pain. I really enjoyed your article because it carefully explains the deeper ideas behind such controversial works. I think we often forget that bigger ideas and issues are best questioned and reflected through our core, our body.

  11. This was a very interesting article to read. I’ve always been fascinated by art that toes the line between original and obscene; whether or not we find beauty in the dangerous, disturbing, and painful, it undeniably raises questions about why people are moved to make art. Does the final product need to be beautiful, or is the artist’s intention enough?

  12. Gripping article, elegantly written to boot. Aside from the shock factor in the works of these eastern artists, I’m intrigued by their statement to the nation they live in. Quite of a few of these Oriental countries have the tendency to begin dehumanizing their populace very early. I remember watching an excerpt about Korean artist Do Ho Suh, and hearing him talk about his militaristic experiences moving into junior high and being slightly appalled. I understand the pressured felt by these nations due to their massive populations, but I couldn’t understand how a kid in junior high would have to come to terms with losing their identity in school and being addressed as a number. I’m no large supporter of the individualistic trends expressed in many western countries, but I am curious to see how these eastern nations will develop over time as statements like Zhichao’s (or less aggressive versions) proliferate.

  13. O.A. & C.S.

    I found the article very interesting. Personally, I think that subjects that experiment using their bodies in unconventional ways contribute to make us aware of the fact that there is more to the human body than machinery used for work. At the same time it is noticeable that this type of performatic art appears to be more extreme in countries that do not show a consistent democratic history such as Marina Abramovic from ex-Yugoslavia or Zhichao in China.

  14. Fascinating. “Performance art” was always a largely meaningless term to me, since the west seems to care so little for it, and have so little appreciation. While I’m a cringing and disgusted by these performances, I also can understand and appreciate how they developed from the swing of Chinese development in recent decades, and perhaps even a little of the good they do for observers and critics alike. They certainly start conversations! Great article, thank you!

  15. moonyuet

    Performance art is the most controversial art form , but it is also the most “liberated” and direct one I have ever seen. Some of the performance artists take themselves to more extreme level in order to arouse the audiences’ awarenesses to certain kind of issues such as human rights. In my definition, the performance art is experimental and conceptual. It is more about the experience of an artist (such as pain) to interact a concept(like rights) with the audience.

  16. Fascinating! These artists are ones that I’ve never heard of before and conceptually are really intriguing. I can see how for the public eye, being confronted with such shocking and violent images threatens “social order,” or supposed civility, but the objective of art in my opinion, in many cases, is to push boundaries. I think the final portion you discussed about the insertions of metal or foreign objects into the skin that were then rejection is a fascinating sacrificial way to really demonstrate nature’s organic rejection of technology.

  17. It’s always hard to critique this kind of work without coming across as hyper conservative and being read as the exact oppressor these pieces are addressing in the first place. That being said, I think body/pain performances can get really tricky… I question whether the violent nature of painful performance actually stirs upset because of the culture its being performed within or the simple fact that it triggers very innate, evolutionary reactions to witnessing pain (the fetus piece may be an exception since that’s a blatantly socially controversial topic). Like, it’s obvious these things will disturb viewers. Does that reaction actually come from what the art is trying to say outside its own violence? I’m not so sure…

    ANYWAY, great, well written article. I’m super intrigued by the connection between very conservative social orders like China and how it produces this large number of artists who focus on pain.

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