1/15/20

&: Minor Novels of the 1990s Reading Club: City Tank (5)

(Gilbert and George, dead flies and honey, propositioned in a park, the Wandering Hunter)

Back to Qiu Huadong’s City Tank, the story of Zhu Wen, an unsuccessful artist, living in Beijing's East Village in the mid-1990s.

In the first chapter, he met a prostitute from the Northeast and couldn’t get it up, then chased her off as soon as she was nice to him, then planned an exhibition with some art world friends. In the second chapter, he hangs out with his friend Zhou Sese, who gets shouted down by teenagers who are supposed to be listening to his lecture on poetry, and then they hang out by the river where Ge Mai killed himself and reminisce about other literary suicides. In the third chapter, Zhu Wen gets eight hundred yuan in the mail from his ex-girlfriend, goes for pizza, gets invited by Qin Song out to an embassy party, and, on the way there, meets a sweet American girl with a boyfriend. In the fourth chapter, Zhu Wen meets yet another foreign woman, argues with her about art, goes in for a kiss, then gets blackout drunk because he thinks he's not good enough for her.

This chapter makes reference to a handful of real world events, but it begins with something more mysterious… What do we do with the first half of this chapter, which starts with Qin Song and Zhu Wen standing on the roof of a luxury hotel, looking out on the countryside around Beijing, and then quickly slides into the story of a Native American Vietnam veteran coming to visit? Is it meant to be a dream? Maybe. But it starts with Zhu Wen waking up from a dream of fields of wildflowers on the outskirts of the city.

The Native American—the “Wandering Hunter”—is welcomed into their village, drinks with them (who’s there? Zhu Wen and Qin Song, Qin Song’s girlfriend, An Mo, and also Feng Yue 冯月, the photographer Yan He 严河, and the painter He Xiangcao 何香草), and shows them a bullet wound. After the “Wandering Hunter” burned down a village in Vietnam, the lone survivor—a young boy—shot him in the ribs. He sings them the history of his people and how they were wiped out by Europeans. Zhu Wen weeps, imagining the destruction of the noble clan, while looking around at the filth and depravity of his artists’ colony on the edge of the Fourth Ring Road. Finally, the “Wandering Hunter” grabs He Xiangcao and carries her off.

The next morning, the “Wandering Hunter” emerges from He Xiangcao’s room, and he wanders off into the sunrise.

What does it all mean? Maybe there’s some point about consumption of global culture, recycling this Western literary trope into a Chinese urban novel (the scene of the Native American Vietnam vet consumed like a slice of pizza by Zhu Wen?), something about the commodification of culture, or maybe it’s meant to connect back to the post-kiss daydream about the cycle of humanity and the disappearance of the Mayans… I couldn’t tell you. That’s why I like it.

We quickly return to the reality of life in the East Village:
"Come and eat!" It was the voice of the woman that ran a kitchen on the east side of the village. A dozen or so of paid her a bit of money every month to cook lunch. I was standing behind Qin Song in line to get my food. He turned around when he noticed me.
"Hey," he said, "you've heard of Gilbert and George, right? They do a bunch of photography and performance work. They put on a show in Beijing last year. It was a way bigger deal than Jörg Immendorff or Miró or whoever. These two are living masters! They're actually going to see my performance today!"
Qin Song was like an excited little dog.
I put out my plate to get served: one scoop of vegetables and then two mantou. "What the hell is this? Cabbage and tofu? You didn't even use any oil. Might as well give me a bone to gnaw on, like a damn dog." Qin Song, Feng Yue and I all started bitching about the food at the same time. The fat, freckle-faced Miss Liu stared back at us.
"Where the hell did all the money go?" someone else shouted from the line. "Did you cram it up your box and lose track of it? We wanna eat meat! Where's the goddamn meat?" Miss Liu frowned and said, "What you give me would be barely enough to a couple chickens. I might as well, too. At least a hen lays eggs. What do I get out of you? If you want to eat meat, pay for meat."
We all walked off, still grumbling about the food, concluding that there was nothing we could do. I had just put the three hundred yuan I had left in the bank and vowed not to touch it. I had treated Yan Tong badly enough. I couldn't bring myself to blow the money she had sent me. I figured, if she ever visited me in Beijing again, I could buy her a skirt or something. I followed Qin Song and Feng Yue through the village and went into my room and ate.
I decided to lay down for a while. I couldn't stop thinking about Yan Tong. I was remembering her bristly little bush, the warmth and softness of her body... What is it like to be loved by a crazy bitch? Suffering. I didn't know how that situation could possibly turn out well. One fate would be to turn into her little husband, a typical Chinese husband, carrying out my filial duties, working myself to death for my wife and kids... I couldn't decide if I had it in me.
Zhu Wen is roused from his reverie by a disturbance outside:
I figured I'd better go out to have a look. Everyone in the village was crowding around to see what was going on. I saw a bunch of kids running behind Feng Yue. His bald head was still gleaming, but his body seemed to be covered in something. When I looked closer, I saw that he was covered in flies. I figured he must have smeared himself with something—maybe honey, maybe fish guts? Something had to have attracted the flies. I guessed it must've been some kind of performance art, but I couldn't figure out what the hell he was trying to do.
Zhu Wen's befuddlement is certainly played for laughs, since we are about to witness Qiu Huadong reenacting in City Tank one of the most important works of contemporary performance art in history. This is a Zhang Huan 张洹 performance piece, "12 Square Meters” 《12㎡》in which he covered his body in honey and fish oil on a hot day in the summer of 1994 (it might have been at the end May, and it might have been at the start of June, right ahead of the big anniversary), rolled around in a public bathroom, then submerged himself in a nearby pond (once again, see: Robin Visser's "Spaces of Disappearance: 1990s Beijing art, film, and fiction in dialogue with urbanization" in the Jie Lu-edited China’s Literary and Cultural Scenes at the Turn of the 21st Century).

In a photo by Rong Rong 荣荣 (is Qin Song playing the Rong Rong role in this chapter?), Zhang Huan waits for the flies to gather. It seems unlikely that Qiu Huadong was there to see it himself, so the photos by Rong Rong are probably how he experienced it, too.

In an interview (this is quoted in Katie Hill's "Why the Manic Grin? Hysterical Bodies: Contemporary Art as (Male) Trauma in Post-Cultural Revolution China," which is a chapter in Burden Or Legacy: From the Chinese Cultural Revolution to Contemporary Art, edited by Jiehong Jiang), Zhang says: "I could feel [the flies] eating the liquid in my body. Some were stuck but did not stop eating. I could even tell that they were more interested in the fish liquid than the honey because there were more flies on the left part of my body, where that liquid was."

Visser suggests the performance was about "the intentional cheapening of the body (the human, the city) by sweetening its appeal to the craven flies hovering about (real estate developers, profiteers)," and I suppose that's as good an explanation as any. I've been trying not to record my own confusion and vague hostility toward these performance artists. My first thought, though: everyone in the village should've thanked him for clearing the flies out of the bathroom.

And we return to Qiu Huadong's reenactment .
Behind Feng Yue and the kids came Qin Song, snapping pictures. An old man standing beside me said, "It's a crime against heaven!" A few women that were walking up the road spotted Feng Yue and dashed out of his path. Feng Yue kept walking, as if marching to the gallows to martyr himself. Nobody could stop him—except the police, and there weren't any cops around. Feng Yue came to a pond at the edge of the village and walked into the water. As he got deeper, flies started to fall into the water, until there was a layer of them across the surface of the pond.
He'd been preparing for the performance for a month, according to the police report. They arrived shortly after he finished, tracking him down at the room he rented. They ripped down everything he had tacked up on the walls and dragged him off. None of us had been around when they'd come, but we stopped by the next morning and found a note on the door that said: "I will return."
Zhu Wen remembers Feng Yue and his disturbing presence in the village. His philosophy of destroying the old to bring about the new was developed in a small, rainy town in Hunan. He had been raised beside a cemetery in Hunan, always in the shadow of death. He recalls a story about Feng Yue at the Central Academy of Fine Arts: he was painting a model, a beautiful woman, and produced a canvas that reduced her perfect form to a pile of meat scraps. His professors were furious and vowed to get him kicked out. He held his head high and left by himself.

Feng Yue never returned to the village.

And back to the story of Gilbert and George. This is certainly the reenactment of a real life event, as well, although Qiu Huadong plays with the chronology a bit (the Zhang Huan performance was in the summer of 1994 but Gilbert and George visited the East Village several months earlier, in September or October of 1993).

The arrival of foreign artists in Beijing was a big deal at the time, and Qin Song recounts a few other notable visits, including one by a German painter, Jörg Immendorff (see: Nine Lives: The Birth of Avant-garde Art in New China by Kate Smith for more on those Western artists visiting, although she doesn't have much to say about Gilbert and George). Two two British performance and photo artists were in town for their own exhibition and received an invitation to see what was going on in the East Village.

In this photograph, Ma Liuming 马六明, resident of the East Village and a frequent collaborator with Zhang Huan, is flanked by the two British artists (Qiu Huadong has Zhu Wen describe them as upright gentlemen of a kind never seen before in the East Village, wearing fine Italian suits, and I guess, again, that he is going by these photographs, too, not having been there to see the performance), still dripping blood.
The artists showed them their studios, hoping for a response to their work... Ma Liuming recalls how he, along with East Village artists, felt "frustrated when they could not get a response from Gilbert and George on their works: perhaps they did not appreciate it, or were unable to understand its artistic context." In reaction to this lack of response, Ma Liuming took off his shirt and started a performance that he titled Dialogue with Gilbert and George, in which he staged a series of poses using red paint to cover his body, as though it were blood coming out of a transfusion. Throughout the performance, which lasted for approximately 20 minutes, Gilbert and George remained highly composed, but not completely in character. Perhaps, they were not ready to become the audience of a work by another performance artist. (This is from Performance Art in China by Thomas J. Berghuis, which also contains the picture below, and several more of their visit, as well as Ma Liuming's performance.
Considering their reaction, it’s interesting that Qiu Huadong has Zhu Wen musing on how depending on the approval of foreign artists kills local talent

In City Tank, it’s Qin Song who performs for them.

Qin Song puts on Pink Floyd’s The Wall and starts his performance, which involves him groping around in a trance, and ends with Zhu Wen giving him a kiss. Gilbert or George pronounce it the finest performance art they’ve seen in the country so far, and Qin Song starts a lecture about how sexuality is the way that people connect. When Gilbert and George leave, Zhu Wen and Qin Song bullshit about what they fear the most (Qin Song is scared of the cops).

Alright, and now the chapter’s fourth act, the arrival of Xu Yi 徐义, a painter from Sichuan with sad, pretty eyes:
He told us he'd been living over by Yuanmingyuan for a while, but the group of artists over there hadn't all been to his liking. Someone sent him our way. Our little village was becoming more lively by the day. When Xu Yi had first arrived in Beijing, he'd been completely broke, so he slept in a bus station. During the day, he set himself up in a park and sold portraits for ten yuan each. When another painter set up at another corner in the park, he dropped his price to five yuan. That broke his heart, though, so he figured he'd forget about art for a while. He tried to make a living washing cars. The city grinds people down. He went out each day with a plastic bucket and a rag, making five yuan a car. After a while, he was washing cars in his dreams. He decided he'd go crazy if he kept at it. Eventually he got chased out of the bus stop by an old night watchman and started crashing in the space between parked buses. Eventually, the night watchman caught him sleeping there, too. He skulked off and didn't return.
Xu Yi decided he might as well just sleep in the park. He went over to Dongdan Park and bedded down in a thicket. Just as he was falling asleep, a man started shaking his shoulder. The man told Xu Yi that he'd been following him all day, from Beihai to Dongdan, and he wanted him to know that he was in love with him. This man was a homosexual. Xu Yi was a bit frightened because he had never met a homosexual before. I'd heard before that gay guys used to cruise in Dongdan Park. They did the same thing in a couple of the subway bathrooms. Xu Yi told the guy he understood, but he wasn't interested. The man wouldn't take no for an answer, and Xu Yi had to run for it, eventually spending the night outside a hospital morgue.
Zhu Wen has some thoughts on itinerant artists that hope to free themselves of society’s constraints and become great artists. But, fuck it, Zhu Wen decides, he was the same once, too, and Xu Yi had a rough life. His father died when he was five, his mother remarried, and his stepfather beat the shit out of him. When it looked like things might get better, he got passed over by the art school he wanted to attend, so he decided to go a different direction and pursue “non-mainstream art.”

Xu Yi got together the money to put on a piece of performance art, which sounds just as absurd as all of the other pieces of performance art in this book, and involved him writhing around and writing things on his face.

The chapter shifts abruptly to an anecdote about an artist named Zhong Xing 钟星, who came back to the village claiming he had met a prostitute, who fucked him for free, all because he was an artist! Zhu Wen concedes that the story might be true, but he finds it more likely that Zhong Xing simply ran out when she took off her skirt. But this is to set up the conclusion, which is something like: Xu Yi and Zhong Xing are both alike, both full of shit...
We are all specks, pitifully scraping by in life. What we take as bizarre or rude in others is essentially meaningless, a fraction of an instant in the planet's cycle of birth of destruction. What does it mean to dream of becoming a great master of your artform? It means as much as smear of dog shit on the bottom of a shoe. It's a joke. We are all beetles, flipped onto our backs by the hand of the universe, struggling in vain to flip ourselves back over. I take pity on the people that share this planet with me. They fight so hard, but the whole while, they're nothing but specks on a speck floating through the darkness of the universe.
Chapter 6: Zhu Wen gets a gig teaching art to a wealthy woman that needs art lessons, and we meet Gai Di, a rock n’ roll singer with a dead girlfriend.

Chapter 7: Zhu Wen is at a low point in his life as he gets rejected by various woman at a party held by Old K, and I discuss how I can't write about how I identify with him.

Chapter 8: Zhu Wen attempts to sell out, and I discuss Jie Lu's academic work on the novel and how all the artists mentioned in this book are millionaires now.

Chapter 9: as an STD panic grips the city, Zhu Wen finally busts.

Chapter 10: Zhu Wen's experiences creamy discharge and pain during urination, then heads off to the mountains, and I discuss whether Chinese novels really are under-edited.