Focus and Freeze- Revisiting Dialogue - By Hu Xiaolan

2020-07-31 22:51 0


Dialogue  National Art Museum of China  1989.2.5

      On 5 February 1989, on the traditional Chinese New Year’s Eve, about two hours after the China/Avantgarde Exhibition at the National Art Museum of China Beijing opened, the female artist Xiao Lu, who was 26 at the time, fired two shots in quick succession at her own installation work Dialogue. The sound of these two gunshots immediately became a focus of attention for media in and outside of China, and Dialogue from then on became the symbol of the China/Avantgarde Exhibition of ’89.

      The subject of the installation work Dialogue was two aluminium alloy telephone booths. The materials for these and their assembly was provided free of charge by the Hangzhou Telecommunications Bureau. The front glass panels of the telephone booths was covered by two large photographs representing a man and a woman engaged separately in speaking on the telephone, as seen from behind. The two telephone booths were connected by a mirror. On a white table in front of the mirror was placed a red telephone with the receiver dangling. The two sides of the telephone booths facing each other were divided into two, and were inlaid, half with mirrors, half with photographs. The mirrors and the photographs were staggered and faced each other. The mirror part of the work was quartered by a thick red line. On the outside of the telephone booths there were three small posters. According to Xiao Lu in her “Explanation of the work Dialogue attacked with gunfire at the 1989 China/Avantgarde Exhibition at the National Art Museum of China Beijing”, the work Dialogue was born of her 1988 graduation work in the Oil Painting Department of the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, created under the guidance of her teachers Zheng Shengtian and Hu Zhenyu. Later, the suggestion from Teacher Song Jianming that she “break” the work a little produced the idea of using a gun, although it could not be put into practice at the time, so that the work Dialogue only achieved completion after the two gunshots at the 1989 China/Avantgarde Exhibition.

      This account appears rather too dispassionate. Let us attempt to return to the flagrant scene of the China/Avantgarde Exhibition at that time. On the day of the opening ceremony, there were various incidents including those involving incubating eggs, washing feet, selling prawns and scattering condoms in rapid and chaotic succession: “At this time the scene of the Exhibition was already one chaotic mess, the four members of the organizing committee were already fire-fighting in all directions, and Zhu Yanguang of the WR Group was being ejected from the Exhibition area. Zhu Yanguang shouted loudly: “I know how to walk on my own!” Various bizarre emergency situations were rearing their heads all around. When three white-clad people of the WR Group were led into the office, Gao Minglu rushed to the rescue. The security people were also very jumpy, and it was rather terrifying that those people were concealed in white garments. Who knew what was inside those garments, and when they were ordered to remove the white material. When Zhu Yanguang had half-pulled off the clothes, and a policeman asked: “Who are you? Where are you from?” he bellowed “Datong guerillas! Bang…bang…” So the sound of gunfire started at this moment, and China’s first big exhibition of modernist art descended completely into chaos.

      The gunshot incident resulted in Tang Song and Xiao Lu being arrested by the Public Security organization, and led to the first temporary closure of the National Art Musem of China. The four great international news agencies, Associate Press, Reuters, Agence France-Presse and Kyodo News all immediately reported this piece of news. The New York Times, Times Magazine, Christian Science Monitor, the Bangkok Post, the Hong Kong Shun Pao (Shen Bao) and the major European newspapers all reported on Xiao Lu’s gunshot performance. All newspapers and media in China pursued and reported this piece of news, and even described “Dialogue and the gun performance art as the top story of the China/Avantgarde Exhibition From the angle of news dissemination, until today there has never been a Chinese contemporary artwork like this work of Xiao Lu’s for generating such a startling news media assault.

      Initially, some of the organizers of the Exhibition expressed great indignation at the gunshot performance, and some organizers told the media that the shooting incident was a serious damage to the Exhibition, and stated that they took no responsibility for it. Later, however, the Principal Curator of the Exhibition Gao Minglu, and the Preparatory Organizer Li Xianting both rated the shooting of Dialogue very highly. Li Xianting considered this an example of Happening Art: “Following the artistic intellect of Duchamp’s use of a urinal to ridicule the aesthetic sensibilities of society, marks an expansion of the artistic conceptions of Chinese avantgarde art in an intellectual direction.” Gao Minglu on the other hand thought that: “There were many things that were unknown at first, but which, when we look at them today, all increase the logical and reasonable character of Xiao Lu’s shooting of Dialogue. This work can be considered the most influential combination of installation and performance art in the history of Chinese contemporary art, and is also one of its most important emblematic works. Because of its importance, almost every Chinese and foreign-language book on the history of Chinese contemporary art has introduced it. After the Exhibition, the video and the photographs of the shooting of Dialogue took part in the “GLOBAL CONCEPTUALISM: POINT OF ORIGIN, 1950s-1980s” Exhibition held in New York in 1999 and in “Inside Out: New Chinese Art” held 1998, and in other important exhibitions. From the focused target shooting of the gunshot performance with its focus aimed at the work Dialogue, to the focus of the media reports of the Incident, finally Dialogue has been frozen as the emblem of 1989 China/Avantgarde Exhibition.

      The pursuit of modernism in Chinese art appeared already in the first half of the twentieth century, in groups such as the Juelan Society, or Lin Fengmian, Pang Xunqin and other artists who promoted Western modern art and pursued artistic experiments. By the end of the 1970s and the beginning of the 1980s, from the Twelve Artists Exhibition in Shanghai to the Stars Group exhibitions in Beijing, there was continued reference to modern art. The latter refuted the Revolutionary Realism of the Cultural Revolution period in a format that was different from that of Scar Art. As for the ’85 New Wave in art, it strove to pursue the dream of modernity. The revolutionary model was extended in the 1980s, which were “the formative and most vigorous period in Chinese modern art criticism”. Critics often took their standpoint in the Enlightenment and produced big-picture judgments. Before 1985, the discussion of alienation, humanism and human nature in Marx’s Economic and Philosophical Manuscripts of 1844 played a considerable role. In the years from 1985 to 1989, the question of the “Cultural Revolution” gradually faded, as people began to reflect on how it could have happened. The question of modernity and tradition arose. In 1985 there was a craze for culture, expressed in a tendency towards whole-sale westernization, and represented finally in the collective view of the documentary Heshang (《河殇》, usually translated as "River Elegy", 1988). The media and the publishing world played important roles. Many kinds of modern Western philosophical and cultural/artistic books were published in translation, from Nietzsche, Sartre and Heidegger’s writings to the theories of Clive Bell and Gombrich. The discussion models became more complex for a time, various theories mingling in the culture craze, from existentialism, modernism and analytical philosophy to China’s own Laozi, Zhuangzi and Chan (Zen) Buddhism.

      This restless culture craze was exactly the rebellious cultural background of the early art of the New Wave artists. Many old photographs have recorded the spectacular events of that time, these young people with their black-framed glasses, their old cotton-padded jackets, Sun Yat-Sen suits, vests, shorts and army sneakers, huddling together to discuss Nietzsche, Freud, Munch and Picasso, in shared appreciation of art books and slides of works. Art collectives in various places, such as Xiamen Dada, Zhejiang Pond Society, Northern Group, Southwest Art Group and so on sprang up like mushrooms after rain, each finding its own style and method, like the Eight Immortals crossing the sea. The ’85 New Wave art used Western methods and visual language to answer the questions posed by Western culture, and ultimately developed into a modern Modernism. Like a devil, modernity whipped the artists to create something new. As well as being constantly on the run, they also had to copy things mechanically and rapidly refurbish them. The artists worked hard to use visual formats to express philosophical thinking, and carried out various explorations using the language of art, Fauvist, Cubist, Expressionist or Abstract or Dadaist, and using the form of installation art or performance art and so on, they put Western modern art as a whole through its paces from scratch.

      The art of the ’85 New Wave as an art movement was in fact a part of a cultural trend in the whole of society. Various avantgarde practices and experiments with artistic language did not only appear in the world of art, but were also expressed in various respects by avantgarde literature, poetry and lyrics in the world of letters, experimental films in the world of the cinema and, in the world of music, by avantgarde music, and so on. “The 1980s were a vacant era, politically tending towards opening, while the pressure of the commercial markets had not yet arrived. This period provided a most ideal hotbed for the gestation of idealistic enthusiasm and the stimulation of various utopian illusions.” That “brief, fragile, but rather characteristic and moving era” was full of dreams and passions, anxiety and restlessness. In the madness, people were seeking hope. It was pure but lacked direction. Xiao Lu once wrote in a letter to Gao Minglu: “Passion was the most precious memory left me by that era.”

      The New Wave art began to decline in 1987 until its curtain call in the 1989 China/Avantgarde Exhibition. The earliest proposal to hold the China/Avantgarde Exhibition was mooted at the Zhuhai Conference of 1986. The Huangshan Conference followed after that, and three years passed before the opening of the Exhibition. Avantgarde art for the first time entered the National Art Museum of China to be exhibited on a large scalein a collective public appearance. In the eyes of Li Xianting, who prepared the Exhibition, because the Exhibition had turned out to be a retrospective exhibition that “lacked a guiding avantgarde ideology” and was “in the grip of predictability”, he placed the significance of the Exhibition in its social character, and aimed to produce something different from the usual “freshness and stimulation”. The strong effect produced by the two gunshots immediately caused the transgressive performance works of other artists to appear dull and colourless. The gunshots precisely captured the mental state of the era, one that longed for catharsis after overlong suppression, and became an explosive outlet for the collective feeling of anxiety.

      1989 was foreordained not to be an ordinary year. Some people connected the shooting with the political events of 1989. In fact, the ’89 Exhibition did attract the attention of the world media. On the day after the shooting, the frontpage headlines of Time Magazine read: “Eggs, Gunshots and Condoms”. Politics and sex have always been touchy subjects in the media. “Political power grows out of the barrel of a gun”, and the natural connection between guns and violence and the political power of the state makes them a political metaphor in themselves, let alone when the shooting occurs in a national art museum that represents the ideology of the state, in a socialist country that expressly prohibits the circulation of firearms. Avantgarde and mainstream, transgression and taboo. The international media naturally produced a political interpretation of the Shooting Incident.

      The shooting left tiny bullet holes and cracks in the installation work "Dialogue", but the sensation and news value caused the work “Dialogue” to be frozen into an emblem and sign, and also reflected the specific political, social and cultural discourse of a period of transformation and sensitivity, and became historical evidence and remains.

      Although there may appear problems of this or that kind in the process of the birth and development of New Wave art, which may receive the critical assessment by the critics of that period, if we reflect on the developmental progress of Chinese contemporary art from the standpoint of the present, the rebellious attitude of New Wave art and its pursuit of freedom and ideals still preserves a dazzling spiritual force. The position and value in art history of New Wave art and the ’89 China/Avantgarde Exhibition are unavoidable. As an iconic work, then, Dialogue is also unavoidable in the process of writing the history of contemporary art.

      History often weaves together necessity with randomicity. From Xiao Lu’s own recollection of the circumstances of the work Dialogue, we can discover that from the inception of Dialogue until after the shooting, there must ultimately exist many elements of chance in the whole process. When Xiao Lu was completing her graduation work in 1988, the idea of shooting the work occurred to her, and of borrowing a gun from Sha Yong of the Zhejiang Shooting Team. It was only because Sha Yong could not contact her at the time that this was not carried out. If the shooting had been carried out then, it would never have had the sensational effect. If Xiao Lu were not of high cadre background, and had not had her social connections in Beijing, then she would not even have been able to obtain the firearm. If the ’89 Exhibition had, in the preparatory process, been able to reach a consensus regarding the exhibition space with the Agricultural Exhibition Hall, the shooting would not have occurred in the National Art Museum of China, and the newsworthiness of the incident would have been correspondingly diminished. Besides, from Xiao Lu’s narrative, we can see that, from the angle of the subjective intention of the creator, Xiao Lu’s purpose in shooting her work had to do with her personal emotions. It was her farewell to emotional shadows and troubles. She had given no thought whatsoever to the legal consequences, the social impact and the significance of the individual incident as such. However, although the purpose of shooting the work came, according to Xiao Lu’s personal narrative, out of her individual emotions, it was exactly the troubles of these emotions that corresponded to the pressured state of having no-one to tell them to, and the state of collective psychological pressure of that particular era. By means of the shooting performance, Xiao Lu’s fulfilment of her destiny of emotional catharsis linked up precisely with her explosively urgent state of anxious emotion in the society of the time, and accordingly the necessary quality of the work was naturally highlighted. This was an exact fit between the individual state of mind and the state of mind of society, and produced the collective and social character of the gunshots.

      Looking closely at the work Dialogue we discover a further series of contradictions. There seem to have existed contradictions in it from the beginning. As for the motive in creating it, the work Dialogue is a pure expression of individual emotion and an ineffable releaser of private emotions, but looking at it in terms of the results it produced it has an intense newsworthiness and social character. In the very long term, perhaps exactly because of the masking of its social character, people are not at all that intent upon the reasons for creating a work in itself.

      The installation work Dialogue draws upon a ready-made object, a telephone booth. Telephone booths were a characteristic public facility of the urban environment of the 1980s. In themselves they should be transparent, despite their being a relatively independent spatial existence. Yet in Dialogue, two telephone booths have been transformed into sealed black rooms. Although the two telephone booths have the rear view of, respectively, a man and a woman telephoning, yet the rear view of the rear view itself is black. Dialogue is usually most effective when both parties are frank and open, and maybe the dialogue in the dark is precisely a hint of the severing of communication. Besides, the two telephone booths are connected by a mirror, but at the same time, the surface of the mirror features a thick red line that divides it up. The unrealistic connection and the actual segregation co-exist at the same time.

      Viewed superficially, the installation Dialogue shows a man and a woman making a phone call, it seems that they are on the telephone to each other. The old explanations generally considered that the dangling receiver between he two telephone booths suggested that the dialogue between men and women was in vain, yet, from the realist point of view, it seems people rarely ring each other from one public telephone booth to another. If we look at it like this, can we explain the work as two people who originally have no wish for mutual dialogue, but separately have someone to talk to? If so, perhaps the handset in the middle with the receiver off the hook could be further interpreted as the absence of someone with whom to have a dialogue, or at least a temporary absence.

      Besides this, the gun as a martial weapon signifies destructive and murderous force, and the shooting is direct and effective. Whether it is “Political authority grows out of the barrel of a gun” or “the Party controls firearms”, the gun symbolizes the machinery of the State, or national politics. “The first shot has been fired against the reactionaries!” The sound of a gunshot often becomes a breakthrough against a state of servitude or oppression. Judges from the state reflected by the installation work Dialogue, for a dialogue to take place, it primarily relies on a telephone. It does not employ a direct face-to-face format. If so, can the creator’s attack on her own work itself be interpreted as a longing for direct dialogue? Or, taking it a step further, can we take Xiao Lu’s gunshots as a provocation of the political authority of the State? At a specific time in history, can the sound of gunfire stll be interpreted as an unlimited yearning for free dialogue?

      After so many years, Dialogue still has room for further interpretation, purely on the strength of the series of contradictions that are contained in the work in itself. As soon as a work is born, it is endowed with limitless possibilities of interpretation. As Oscar Wilde says in his Preface to The Picture of Dorian Gray, “It is the spectator, and not life, that art really mirrors.” Whether it is a dialogue between the work and the spectators, or between the sexes, or between tradition and modernity, although there often appear dislocations and separations, the yearning and striving for dialogue will exist at all stages. The dialogue carried on between us as spectators and Dialogue as a work that has already been focused and frozen into an icon, at the same time contains the possibility of multiple dialogues between the two sexes, between tradition and modernity, and between the work itself and art history.

Hu Xiaolan, Wangjing, 15 May 2011

1. Xiao Lu: ““Explanation of the work “Dialogue” attacked with gunfire at the 1989 China/Avantgarde Exhibition at the National Art Museum of China Beijing (revised edition)” ] at the arts website:, first draft: 2 February 2004 at Lower Manjuelong, Hangzhou, published on the Meishu Tongmeng [Arts Alliance] website on 23 April 2004; revised at Hujialou, Beijing 30 June 2004 (published in Yishujia Chazuo [the Artist Gallery] Second general series in October 2004, Shandong People’s Press); revised again 25 July 2004 [????] at Hujialou, Beijing (published in May 2005 in Tianya (Horizon) Magazine, Hainan Province Newspapers and Publications Bureau); revised again 19 October 2005 in Hujialou, Beijing (published on the Meishu Tongmeng website 21 October 2005); again revised 2 August 2007 in Dongying Arts Precinct, Beijing. 

2. Kuai Yuehao(蒯乐昊): "Seven Deadly Sins of Modern Art, Twenty Years Ago”, Southern People Weekly, 2009, No. 11, pp62-6.:

3. Gao Minglu: "One Gunshot – Half a Life of Dialogue. Interpreting Xiao Lu’s Work “Dialogue”, Guardian Communications, No. 3, 2006, p. 98-101. 

4. Tang Song (唐宋), “Brief Statement on the Shooting Incident on 5 February 1989, Art Data Net 27 February 1989 (

5. Li Xianting (栗宪庭): “Two Gunshots: the Curtain Call of the New Wave in Art – with a Review of Tang Song and Xiao Lu’s Work” in It Is Not Art That Matters, Jiangsu Art Press, 1st edition, August 2000, p255. 

6. "The ‘Archaeology’ of the '85 New Wave of Chinese Contemporary Art " the Chinese Avant-garde Artists Alliance, 4 July 2008 年 7 4, source: "Bund" 

7. For specific details see Huang Liaoyuan黄燎原: “Dialogue on the ‘seven performance works’ of the 1989 Exhibition.” 

8. Yin Ji’nan (尹吉男): “Modern Modern” and “Knocking at the Door Alone”《独自叩门》, Life ▪ Reading ▪ New Knowledge, Joint Publishing, Beijing, August 2002 (1st edition), p253.

9. Fei Dawei费大为: “The ’85 New Wave – a Moment of Going Off the Rails” in The ’85 New Wave – China’s First Contemporary Art Movement, Shanghai People’s Press, 2007.

10. Zha Jianying查建英: “Foreword《写在前面》, in The 1980s, 《八十年代》, Life ▪ Reading ▪ New Knowledge, Joint Publishing, 1st edition May 2006, p3

11. Xiao Lu肖鲁: the fourth letter in Letters to Gao Minglu about the Shooting of “Dialogue” at the 1989 China/Avantgarde Exhibition, Art Data Net) Written in Lower Manjuelong, Hangzhou, on 23 March 2004.

12. For specific circumstances, see the 3rd issue of Contemporary Art & Investment (2009), which includes “Twenty Years of Chinese Contemporary Art” a commemorative review special that presents the main points in the form of oral history interviews of the main organizers of the Exhibition and some of the participating artists.

13. For more specific detail, see Li Xianting: “Interviews about the Shooting Incident with Some of the Persons Involved – and a Reinterpretation.” Art Data Net First draft spring 2004, final revision 3 October 2005. Source: Featured article, TOM Online.

14. Regarding the specific content please see Xiao Lu’s correspondence with Li Xianting and Gao Minglu on the explanation, the supplementary explanation, and Li Xianting’s interview with Xiao Lu on the shooting incident.

Translated by Archibald McKenzie