Peng Feng:Plastic Body--A Critique of Han Xiao'sPerformance

On May 12,Han Xiao performed his performance art”Operation” at Jinan Han’s Plastic and Cosmetic Operation Hospital. The event was organized by the famous curator WangChunchen. The famous critics ,Yi Ying,Wang Chunchen and Duan Jun wrote critiques for the event.12 senior critics and curators attended the seminar,including Wu Hong,Wang Chunchen,Liu Libin,Hang Chunxiao,Duan jun,Zhu xiaojun,Hu Bin,Han Qingsong,Xia Yanguo,Li Guohua,Wang Dongdong and Cui Cancan.Through Internet live broadcasting,micro-blog interaction and reports by the key art media and mass media, “Operation” has become an attractive artistic event.It’s heard that critics attended the discussion heatedly debated on whether “Operation” is an art. Even experts cannot reach the consensus. We can imagine how diverse the opinions will be among the general public. The contemporary art is to raise the question rather than to solve it. To this extent, “Operation” is a successful artistic event.
Let’s temporarily shelve the question whether “Operation” is an artistic event or not.instead, we firstly review the concept of art. As all people engaging in art know, since the 20th century, the concept of art has been greatly expanded or encountered great challenges. Fostered by contemporary artistic practices, the concept of art experiences a great change as extension more and more expands while connotation more and more shrinks. So, everyone could be called an artist and any works could be called an artwork. Of course, if the concept of art is defined as such, we can also say no one is an artist and no work is an artwork. Although these propositions are true in theory, we still can distinguish the artists from the ordinary people, artworks from general works in reality.
The direct result of the challenge encountered by the concept of art since 20th century is that art is no longer divine. As G.Dickie proposed, the understanding of art is no based on the evaluative sense,but a classificatory sense. To understand art based on the evaluative sense, artworks are normally considered as good works while artists are regarded as good people. From the perspective of classificatory sense, artworks are a kind of goods while artists are a kind of people who may be either moral or evil. To understand art from the classificatory sense is an important contribution to correct the art concept in the art philosophy in the 20th century.
If art is only a classificatory concept but not an evaluative one, no one can prevent a person from becoming an artist, nor prevent a work from being considered as an artwork.To this sense, art becomes a lifestyle we can choose freely and the way to observe the world. People can freely choose to live in an artistic manner or observe the world in an artistic way. People can make their own decision. In the contemporary art circle, we can find many artists switched from different backgrounds. Of course, there are both successful and failure examples.However, whatever they success or fail, they could be considered as an artist. We can accept both successful an failure businessmen, scientists, politicians,scholars,farmers and so on. Why not accept both successful failure artists? Why must artists be successful? Removing the vocational hierarchy is an important of a civilized society.
Han Xiao decides to be an artist. He decides to make operation as an artwork. I think no one can prevent his decisions. Han Xiao told me that he firstly rescued himself from mental dissociation and solved his psychological troubles after he engaged in art and decided to be an artist. To this sense,his role transformation is successful if we interpret “success” as a thing becomes better and better.
We cannot prevent Han Xiao from being an artist. However, we can debate whether Han Xiao’s performance art “Operation” is an art or not, because we cannot call artists’s any action as an artwork. It is also the case to understand “art” based on the classificatory sense. Now, let’s testify whether Han Xiao’s “operation” action is an art or not by comparing the contemporary art theories.
Give as the blur boundary between art and non-art, the contemporary art theorists believe that the intention of creators could be used to measure artworks.If a creator has an artistic intention, his work is an artwork.We call this theory as the intentional theory. It’s heard that Robert Rauschenberg had created a work by using tins as a souvenir for the local people in Anhui.If this is true, this tin work is an artwork,while other tins he used or not are not artworks.This is because the former represents Rauschenberg’s artistic intention while the latter doesn’t, Of course, this artistic tin may be already disposed a long time ago like other rubbish cans. However,if someone can find it from the rubbish, it is still an artwork.This theory can explain this confusing: why these artworks are an art while similar works are nor.
Now, let’s compare Han Xiao’s operation with Rauschenberg’s tin. A certain kind of Han Xiao’s operation is an art when he performed it with an artistic intention. This doesn’t mean all operations by Han Xia are an art as a tin used by Rauschenberg to express his artistic intention is an art while other tins are not .of course, if each Han Xiao’s operation has an artistic intention,that’s another matter. If so, Han Xiao could claim that all his operations are an art.However,the issues involved here are more complex. We don’t elaborate them here in details.
Maybe, someone would feel that art intentional theory is too subjective and arbitrary, which grants too large power to artists and is even hegemonic. However,I would like to explain one thing. Actually, artistic intention is very important.For most conceptual art, artistic intention outshines the actual execution. Artistic intention is an important factor for the artistic lifestyle.
The artwork theory is more objective comparing to art intentional theory. It has different versions: such as artworld theory represented by Danto,art intentional theory represented by Dickie and history by Levinson. Of course,such classification is only for facilitating narration. Actually, there are many overlaps among them.
According to Danto’s artworld theory, whether a thing is an art is to see whether it can enter the artworld, whether it has a position in the artworld or is mentioned in the artworld. Here, artworld refers to a theoretical atmosphere consisting of various explanations. If a thing emerging arouses controversy in the artworld and leads to many explanations about it,the thing can be considered as an art no matter such explanations are positive or negative, Han Xiao’s action has considered attention in the art circle. There are both key critics who support him and negate his action as art. Han Xiao’s action has already involved in the art theory atmosphere.To this sense, his action is an artwork.
Maybe,artworld theories are extrinsic because they are related to various art propositions and discourses, rather than related to the art itself. Or, these theories are proposed by theories to out stand themseelves . These theories are not convincing.
Now,let’s check the intentional theory. According to Dickie, whether a thing is an art is see whether it can be accepted by art institutions. Here, art institutions can be widely interpreted as all things related to art, such as artists,theorists,critics,collectors, public,media,galleries,art school and art associations.These institutions consist of an art society, which can be also narrowly interpreted as art organizations, such as galleries,artist associations and art schools.Those accepted by the art institutions are an art, otherwise are not.Han Xiao was educated in Shangdong University of Arts and Chinese National Academy of arts.He has also held exhibitions in galleries. His works are acknowledged by art school and galleries. To this extent,his works are passed the inspection of art institutions so that can be considered as an art.
Maybe,someone would say that the art institutional theory is more extrinsic, which is not only unrelated to art but also related to power that is opposed by art, It is easy to pass the inspection by the art institutions in china,where the education industry are booming and the administrative power is inflated. As long as one user money to build the relationship,his works would be accepted by the art institutions.
Finally, let’s check the art history theory,which also called art context theory.According to Levinson, an artwork is also related to works preciously considered as an art. As Carroll said, a thing is an art as long as we can find the connections between it and a precedent art. We can narrate their stories . Is Han Xiao’s action related to precedent artworks? Can we tell its stories related to art? My answer is affirmative.
egarding Han Xiao's action, I firstly think about the actions of French performance artist——Orlan.As an important representation of French contemporary art,Orlan is both well-known and notorious in the international art circle .The two exhibitions I participated both have Orlan’s works. She needed to attend other exhibitions. Since the 1990s,she began her reincarnation of Saint-Orlan. Through a series of plastic operations, Orlan has the chin of Botticelli’s Venus, the nose of Jean-Leon Gerome’s Psyche, the lips of Francois Boucher’s Europa, the eyes of Diana(as depicted in a 16th-century French School of Fontainebleau Painting),and the forehead of Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa. The photos and videos of these operations were exhibited in the world’s large galleries and museums,which stirred up in the international art circle in the 1990s,The influence lasts to now. Superficially, beauty is the purpose of Orlan’s series of actions, because the figures she imitates are actually. She tries to challenge any inherent unchanged nature, including our natural characters, genetic genes and the God. Through plastic operations, Orlan would like to express that everything is changeable,including our inherent face,an important personal identity.Orlan's actions not only challenge the deep-rooted philosophy concepts,but also touch some controversial sociological issues,such as the reliability of face as an identity to identify a person.However, I would like to point out that,apart from philosophical concepts and sociological effects, Orlan’s actions have obvious contextual relationships in the art history theories. Why didn’t Orlan select the real women to imitate but the figures in paintings? I believe that one of the most important reasons is that she wishes her actions stay in the art cycle. Through connecting with the classical works in the art history,the scholarly nature of her actions is ensured. So, we can call the body in Orlan’s action as a scholarly body.
Regarding experimenting upon one’s own body, Australian artist Stelarc is more radical than Orlan . Since the 1970s, Stelarc has begun his suspension pieces. He hung his entire body from hooks piercing his skin. In this March, Stelarc still performed such action. Dozens of performances in the world make Stelarc known to the world. Apart from this a little bit cruel performance art, Stelarc has conducted other body performance arts. For example, he made a robotic third hand linking to his body to write. He had a cell-cultivated ear surgically attached to his left arm . He placed a small sculpture in his stomach. He connected his body to the Internet... The slogan of Stelarc is: the body is obsolere. Through technologies, our body can be extended beyond the skin or we can implant devices into our body to hang the body. In a word, Stedarc makes fully use of the plastic and material body. For Stelarc, the body’s evolution is slow and disproportionate with the fast progress of the society. He uses new technology to redesign body to change the body’s natural evolution so as to better fir in with today’s new environment. Because Stelarc’s actions use new high technologies, we could call the body in Stelarc’s actions as the technological body.
Both Orlan and Stelarc’s actions are related to body and based on the plastic body. Actually, humans never stop to reshape their own body. Before the emergences of modern medical science,life science and information technology, human’s body changes were limited. Orlan and Stelarc’s actions prove that our body can be totally changed so that body is no longer an evidence to verify our identity. Although both Orlan and Stelarc don’t realize such goal , they demonstrate that the possibility to destroy the body’s identity. Body is no longer hardware.
Independent of man’s will, but shapeable software. The results of Orlan and Stelarc’s actions may be more serious than we think. When body is no longer an evidence to verify our identity, our various rewards and punishments related to body would be invalid. However, Orlan and Stelarc’s actions don’t touch this issue so we don’t discuss here.
Art is not only a science but also a technique. We normally criticize art from these two aspects. A good work shows its relations with important works in history. It also shows the broad knowledge of the artist in the artworld. Or, the artist has unique skills which are difficult to be imitated by his peers . Orlan’s body actions actually illustrate her wide knowledge and her systematic understanding of European art history. Stelarc’s actions show his techniques, in particular his command and application of new technology. Apart from these, are there any other possibilities? I believe it has other alternatives. Namely, beauty ignored by the contemporary art is gradually coming back. Given as Han Xiao’s body performance art is related to the beauty, we can call it the beauty of body.
Han Xiao is a plastic surgeon. The purpose of plastic operation is to change ugly-looking to beautiful looking Beauty is the only reason to explain Han Xiao’s performance art. Although Orlan’s actions are somewhat related to beauty, beauty is neither the only purpose nor the main purpose for Orlan. The main purpose of Orlan is to link her actions with the art history. Orlan selected beauties in the famous paintings more or less due to her over narcissism. So, many feminist art criticize Orlan. The beauties in the famous paintings represent ladies imagined by men or ladies shaped by men, a kind of male chauvinism. Stelarc’s actions are not related to beauty at all. It was impossible to set beauties as the contemporary art’s object 20 years ago. However, as time goes by, beauty quietly returns to the contemporary art field after out of doors for a long time. 20 years ago, Hickey predicted that beauty would become the main theme of contemporary art. Later, Kuspit found that aesthetics returned to the contemporary art. Beauty is no longer the ugly duck in the contemporary art. But transforms to the beautiful swan. Under the new times, Han Xxiao could claim that the plastic operation aiming at beauty is an art.
Comparing to Orlan and Stelarc’s actions,there is another distinctive difference with Han Xiao’s action. Both Orlan and Stelarc use their own body to experiment, while Han Xiao uses other’s body. In an interview, Stelarc was asked whether he wanted to use his own body to do the experiment. The answer was definitely No. He admitted that he wanted to find someone else, but no one wanted to endure such pain. So, had to do by himself. For this question, Orlan didn’t give a clear answer because it involves the sensitive narcissism of artist. However, Han Xiao could say that his operation objects are an artwork. Han Xian makes others to artworks through operations. To this sense, he can claim he is an artist.
It’s heard that Socrates was dissatisfied with his father because his father was a sculptor busy with making stones to beautify sculptures while ignored his own body. Socrates believed that it’s too ridiculous. Socrates’ questions were why not made body to beautify sculptures. Were stones and woods more important than body? Of course,there were no modern medical science, life science and information technology at Socrate’ times. To change body to sculptures proposed by Socrates can only be realized through fitness excises. The difference between Han Xiao and Socrates is not purpose but means. In another word, through operations, Han Xiao realizes the purpose that Socrates wanted to achieve through excises.
Maybe, someone would say Socrates’ action is an art while Han Xiao’s isn’t due to different means. This involves whether operations is an art or not .In terms of history, operation had been an art for a long time. Not only operations were an art, but all human activities were. The opposite art was nature. Such art concept had prevailed in the western countries for a long time. Hugh of Saint Victor distinguished the liberal art form handicraft art in the 12th century, which laid a foundation for today’s art concept. Today’s art is classified under the handicraft art, while today’ science is classified under the liberal art. Medical skill is one of Hugo’s seven handicrafts. Why medical skill is not under art is because the concept of art had fundamental changes in the 18th century. Art is regarded as the thing related to aesthetics not related to utility. Medical skills heal patients and cure illness with clear utility function. So, medical skill is not viewed as an art but a technology.
However, with the progress of human society and advanced productivity, medical resources expand vastly. Medical skills can not cure illness but also satisfy people’s aesthetic pursuit. The purpose of plastic operation is not medical treatment but to satisfy people’s aesthetic desire. So, plastic operation is an art rather than a medical skill.
If we put Orlan’s scholarly body, Stelarc’s technological body and Han Xiao’s aesthetic body together, we can find the position of Han Xiao’s actions in such context, If Orlan and Stelarc’s actions are an art, Han Xiao’s action can also be an art due to the relationship with them. So, it can be inferred that Han Xiao’s actions pass the inspection of art history theories.
Han Xiao’s actions can be supported by many contemporary art theories. However, whether Han Xiao’s actions are an art is not important. Instead, the concerns, questions and discussions arising from Han Xiao’s actions as well as further issues are more important. For example, is medical skill without curing illness still medical skill? Is it worth to make operations just for beauty? Can operations really create beautiful women and men? Is it legal to change a person’s face through operations? Is it ethical to transfer gender through operations? Han Xiao claiming his operations as an art would inevitably give the people food for thought. Is it more important than the question whether Han Xiao’s operations are an art, isn’t it?