Human / 人 By Alia Lin

2020-08-14 14:32 0

      I am not good at discussing theory, let alone art. I know how to be alive. The form of a work of art, its very existence, is just the manifestation of an inner demand. Depending on your psychology in any given situation, it may be a poem, or the firing of a gun. The word “art” adds nothing. It’s an instinctive survival mechanism. It’s where you’re at in life.

—Xiao Lu, 2003(1)

      On February 5, 1989, two hours after the opening of China Avant-garde Exhibition at National Art Museum of China, Xiao Lu fired two shots at her installation work Dialogue, causing the immediate shut down of the exhibition. After her friend Tang Song was arrested at the scene, she turned herself in, and they were detained for several days. This incident drew attention both nationwide and abroad. When the media surrounded her, only 26 and had recently graduated, she completely lost in silence and let Tang explain the shooting in his version, which misled the art world and the public into believing that he co-created the work. Unable to face the real reason behind the gunshots and fallen madly in love with Tang Song, she let him take the credit. Just four months later, the June 4th Tiananmen Incident occurred, and Xiao Lu’s gunshots were profoundly politicized and labeled “the first gunshots of Tiananmen (2).” Forced by the situation at the time, the couple took refuge in Australia for many years, during which time Xiao did not create a single work.

      Fifteen Shots…From 1989 to 2003 is a sequel of Dialogue, one that took 15 years to make. After splitting up with Tang Song, Xiao Lu took 15 framed photocopies of herself holding the gun, ranging from dark to light, and fired at each one of them. Each gunshot represents a year that she had escaped into the so-called love and her determination to face up to herself. Returning to China, Xiao Lu wrote to Gao Minglu, the principle curator of the China Avant-garde Exhibition, and clarified that not only was she the sole author of the shooting incident, but also firing the shots were entirely for personal reasons, not political ones (3). Her revision angered the art world, as it subverted the grand narratives that Chinese art had always preferred. To say that the work was created merely out of a woman’s troubled emotional life was to undermine its meaning. The collectivism of China paid little attention to individuals, let alone women’s subjectivity. Xiao Lu’s performance art draws inspirations from her personal experience as a Chinese woman, which is quite rebellious against the collective consciousness of Chinese art. Often intuitive, her works are antagonistic and aggressive, sometimes to the self, while other times to the unjust surroundings.

      Owning her aggression, Xiao used violence as an expression of her emotional pain, as shown in her Dialogue and Fifteen Shots. The experience of being sexually assaulted by her guardian, who she was entrusted to by her parents, was so humiliating and traumatic that only through forceful and destructive acts could she address: 

      Nothing was more capable of releasing the depression that weighted on my being than this. When the report of the gun sounded, and the bullet left the barrel, everything dissolved, everything ended. The smell of hell once again approached me, closed in on me. Dread, the dread of suffocating; I couldn’t even gasp for breath. Instinctively I brought out the gun.(4)

      The desire for everything to end is undoubtedly what Freud called the death drive, a drive to restore a prior state (5). Against severe depression, the death drive is deflected into aggression towards objects. Raising her gun and firing again, Fifteen Shots is an act of repetition. Freud regarded repetition as a way of acting out the repressed(6). He also remarked that “the repressed drive never abandons its struggle to achieve full gratification, which would consist in the repetition of a primary gratification experience (7).”Since the previous two shots were so psychically gratifying in “releasing the depression,” when Xiao Lu was badly upset and ultimately despaired, “instinctively she brought out the gun,” again. Furthermore, for both Dialogue and Fifteen Shots, the shots she fired were aimed at her doubles, first at her mirror image and then at photographs of herself. Through repeating the action of shooting, she was able to gain an active role rather than being a passive recipient (8). Reclaiming her work and accepting her aggression that led to the gunshots was crucial to retrieving her creativity. Thus, if the previous two shots fired in 1989 killed her double and took away her ego, then the fifteen shots fired in 2003 were resurrectional.

      Corresponding to the second-wave feminism slogan “the personal is political”, Xiao’s works are based on her personal experience, yet a women’s personal troubles can also reveal larger social and political issues. In May 2006, she was invited to take part in an international art project “Long March Project-Yan’an” along with forty other artists and several dozen experts and scholars. Xiao Lu, then 44, had consulted a doctor that there was still a chance for her to conceive a baby. Having ended a painful 15-year relationship and a strong desire to become a mother, Xiao created Sperm solely in search of a sperm donor. She prepared a CM-M modeled temperature controller, a rack with 12 empty jars, and asked men to donate sperm. Any man, either at the meeting or simply visiting could participate. For three days, from May 21 to May 23, the donor was to take an empty jar from the rack, deposit his sperm samples, and return the jar to the refrigerator. The artist would then undergo artificial insemination during her fertile period each month with the sperm collected. However, till the event had concluded, not one man dared to make a contribution.

      This seemingly desperate act was indeed a rebellion against the prevailing ethical structure. Expecting neither emotional communication nor physical contact, the artist excluded all the heterosexual procedures that the society demanded. As shown in the video documentation, men at the meeting questioned her method by pointing out that she could have sex with anyone to have a baby, and accused her of using them as reproductive tools. In fact, Xiao recalled that many of them were willing to give her sperm after having intercourse with her, yet she opposed by stating that unlike men, women needed emotional connections before they could be intimate with anyone. Failing to acquire any sperm within three days, the artist remarked that men always have to take the initiative—it is unbearable for them to be in a passive position, when they are no longer in dominance over women. This project also addressed the inaccessibility of sperm banks in China. Since it was illegal for unmarried women to receive IVF treatments, Xiao had to go to a private clinic. How ironic is it that patriarchal society expects women to procreate, yet could not cope when an independent single woman wants to have a child on her own.

      Xiao Lu created a series of works based on her emotional experience, such as Wedlock (2009), What is Love? (2009), Drunk (2009), etc. Yet, there was a turn in her performance since 2011, as her works started to concern more social and cultural subject matters. This change happened when she started engaging herself in meditation, either by copying poetries with Chinese herbal medicine, or by fasting in isolation. For seven days, in 2013, she shut herself in a 20 square meters room, constructed with white bast paper. Adopting the Taoist method of “Bigu", she refrained herself from eating and only drank water. During her time in the completely white space, where day and night was a blur, she read, painted with ink and paper, and kept a diary, while the viewers occasionally poked holes and peered inside. When isolated from the outside, one tends to scrutinize one’s inner world. Even though the whiteness of the space made Xiao suffocate and hunger made her fluster, she was thrilled with the uncertainty of the seven days. According to her diary, by making her body verge on death, she aspired for life even more (9). It was the same sense of “only in annihilation could my sprit be reborn”(10) that she felt when she pulled the trigger in 1989.

      The fortuity of performance art and the uncertainty of not knowing how she will react excites Xiao Lu. In her Human (2016), for example, she planned to have the audience filling a tilted acrylic vessel with water and then ink. while she would sustain the vessel with her hands, preventing it from falling and trying to push back. The tilted vessel and her body together formed the shape of “人”, which is the Chinese character for “human”. However, due to the unexpected leaking of the vessel, the ink quickly invaded the gallery floor and formed another “人“. In addition, Polar, performed in the same year, in which Xiao confined herself within four walls of 30 centimeters thick of ice, chiseling violently to break out with a sharp knife. As fortuitous as performance art can be, accidents happen that she cut off multiple nerves and tendon of her right hand. Refusing to give up, she placed her wounded hand on the ice, coloring it with the beautiful yet slightly horrifying red, and continued her performance for 30 minutes until the excessive loss of blood stopped her. Moreover, in Holy Water (2017), she ritually drank moutai liquor at Piazza San Marco. Under the influence of alcohol, she quickly lost control over her body and her consciousness and let her unconsciousness be in charge. Crawling and wailing, the performance was rather a conversation between her and her repressed memories than with god.

      Behind Xiao’s fascination for fortuity is a craving for danger, as her performance works display a strong sense of masochism, rooted in her earlier trauma. Melancholia, as Freud pointed out, is a pathological response to loss(11), featuring a loss of self-regard and a delusional expectation of punishment (12). When the love for a lost object regress to narcissism, the ambivalence towards the object is redirected towards the ego itself, that the mourner blames herself for the loss of the loved object (13). Therefore, the hatred of the external object is transformed inward and becomes self-destructive. Most of Xiao’s performance works are in one way or another dangerous. As she finds the fortuity of performance art a thrill, it is as if she awaits accidents to happen.

      Xiao Lu has always find ways to turn accidents to her advantage. For instance, Polar would not be so fierce and shocking if she did not accidentally injure herself and instinctively place her wounded hand on the ice to relieve the pain. The authenticity of the blood adds to the violence of the knife, provoking profound empathy among the viewers. Perhaps, it is not just danger that excites her so much, but also her immediate reactions to the accidents, the attempt to control the uncontrollable, may be felt as reparations. Even though the accidents may enrich a performance, they could also destroy it, giving rise to ambivalence. Fear of destruction mobilizes guilt that leads to the wish of reparation and restoration (14). Due to the “accidents” happened in her life and some of her own decision making, Xiao constantly feels her life out of balance. Like the tilted vessel of Human, which she originally planned to have left in a vertical position after filling up with water and ink, she struggles to seek balance within the skew, or reparation.

      Similar to Human, in which Xiao strenuously sustained the vessel, knowing perfectly that she could be badly injured at any time if it fell, the masochistic antagonism is evident in many of her performance works. In Polar, for example, instead of stopping at the moment of her injury, she focused on the continuous action of chiseling with an intention to break out. Whereas in Coil (2018), Xiao once again confined herself in an acrylic box with 20 holes. As the audience stuck lit moxibustion sticks into the holes, chocked by the intensifying smoke, she started to cough, cry out, and scream. A terrific demonstration of the helplessness of individuals under the oppressive system, this work brought resonance to the audience that some of them secretly took out the moxibustion sticks for a while before putting them back in. If Polar was an active struggle for freedom, then Coil was a passive resistance to constraints in despair.

      Perhaps, “人“ best describes Xiao Lu’s works. Not only does it call attention to the importance of individuality, but also one’s relations to society. She uses performance as a response to her personal experience, yet they also reflect social and cultural issues. As the antagonism Human embodies, Xiao’s works are usually aggressively antagonistic, not only between her and herself, but to the accepted norms and oppression as well. Expecting fortuity and uncertainty, she seeks reparation and sublimation through controlling the uncontrollable.


(1) Xiao Lu, Dialogue, trans. Archibald Mckanzie ( Hong Kong: Hong Kong University Press, 2010), 2.

(2) Gao Minglu, foreword to Dialogue, trans. Archibald Mckanzie, viii.

(3) Ibid.

(4) Xiao, Dialogue, 82.

(5) Sigmund Freud, Sigmund Freud: Beyond the Pleasure Principle and Other Writings, trans. John Reddick (London:Penguin Books, 2003), 76.

(6) Ibid., 37.

(7) Ibid., 82.

(8) Ibid., 75.

(9) Xiao Lu’s Bast Paper Room diary, page 28.

(10) Xiao, Dialogue, 48.