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Asia Art Archive Research Grant

The Heaven is High and the Emperor far away: Re-contectualizing performance art practices in China during the 1990s


​The article aims to give explicit insight into research on performance art practices in Chengdu during the 1990s. The starting point of this research is formed by two articles: “Street Avant-Garde in Chengdu (Jietou Qianwei yu Chengdu xushi)” by Gao Minglu and “Conceptual Art in China’s Southwest Region” by Wang Lin. Gao Minglu’s article was published in the catalogue for the exhibition "Echoes: Chengdu New Visual Art Documentary Exhibition 1989–2007", held at the 1000 Plateau Gallery (Qian gaoyuan yishu kongjian), Chengdu, in 2007. Gao Minglu refers to the characteristics of the performance art scene in Chengdu as jietou yishu (“street art”). He compares it to gongyu yishu (“apartment art”), a phrase he coined in reference to the avant-garde in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou, and Nanjing. The second article by Wang Lin, a professor in the department of art history at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, states that Chengdu was the centre of conceptual art in southwest China during the 1990s. Drawing on these two arguments, the following essay aims to discuss performative art practices in Chengdu during the 1990s through interviews with local artists, curators, and others who were involved, as well as through collected newspaper clippings and video material.


In order to fully understand the subject matter, the first section of this essay gives a brief overview of the art scene in Chengdu during the ’85 New Wave Movement (bawu yundong). It delves further into the development of performance art practices in Chengdu from the early to late 1990s, investigating the collective art project Keepers of the Waters (Shui de baoweizhe) by the American artist Betsy Damon and its influence on the local art scene as well as the subsequently established 719 Artist Studio Alliance (719 Yishujia Gongzuo Lianmeng). These observations will lead to the following questions: How can the works of the artists be historicized in the context of contemporary Chinese art? And why has this specific period of activity in Chengdu been relatively little discussed in the course of the history of contemporary Chinese art?


Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, Volume 19, Number 1, January/February 2020, pp. 43-68. 

The research got supported by an Asia Art Archive Research Grant as well as a short-term-scholarship by the German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD). The research was undertaken in Beijing, Chengdu, Chongqing, and Shanghai and lead to a number of interviews with artists, critics, and other collaborators involved in two major event in the southeast part of China. In the course of the research, newspaper clippings from 1995 to 2005 that feature discussions on performative art practices in Chengdu, as well as photographs and other relevant ephemeras. were collected. The project draws on the Betsy Damon Archive to discuss the context in which these performances were initiated and became a collaboration between artists, activists, and an unexpectedly wide group of the general public. Additional research material for this project is also made available via Asia Art Archive in Hong Kong.

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