Issue 1: Research Festival

Performance as gentle resistance

This article will analyse performance art as a gentle rebellion and messages of noncooperation from the artworks by artists and non-artists.

The 20th century was an age of progress, with the practice of socialism, the social equality movement of LGBTQ+, feminism, and anti-racism refreshing the world. But as we entered the 21st century, we lost hope for the future, we can only find that consumerism prevailed, the environmental problem and the virtual replaced the real on the internet. The world is about to be destroyed and this is the consensus in many films and games, for example, we can see so many works which are based on post-apocalyptic settings, cyberpunk, etc. We do not have alternative scenarios or imaginations for the future and the greatest mental support we have is to “enjoy the moment” and “YOLO (you only live once!) “.

However, in the time of the pandemic, our last belief, “enjoying the moment”, has been taken away (or were taken away). Having been deprived and returned to normal every day, it is difficult to continue to indulge in self-delusion again, as if you had opened your eyes and could not fall asleep again. The meaninglessness of personal life, the emptiness of human nature has never been more naked, and the despair for the future has never been stronger. In the first year of the COVID-19 pandemic, the global prevalence of anxiety and depression increased by a massive 25%. But there is no solution – only a constant, frightening anxiety about what might happen to us or to our friends and family at any moment, a longing to find a (practically non-existent) wonderland in the world and leave their homeland (the inner imperative to escape), while continuing to endure and serve an irrational but seemingly unassailable structure of the world, becoming a drop in the global wave of capital accumulation ……

At a time when repression, anxiety and emptiness have become the global psychological state of the 21st century, how does performance art, the most direct form of art that uses the body as a medium for its work, respond to this state of mind? This article will first summarise the characteristics of this kind of performance art, then will introduce my work, and thirdly will analyse them with specific artists’ performance artworks and non-artists ‘performance artworks’.


The preface to Mr Lu Xun’s Diary Of A Madman contains the following passage: ”What is the use of copying all this? One night, he flipped through my copy of the ancient stele and sent out a query. ‘There’s no use for it.’ ‘Then what did you mean by copying it?’ ‘It means nothing.'” Although here I have made an erroneous appropriation out of the context of Lu Xun’s original text, I think this passage is perfect for summing up the characteristics of this type of performance art.

It brings up the contrast between sense and nonsense, saying nothing but saying something. The strenuous and dispassionate performance is absurd, and often has a tragic undercurrent and dark humour. It is rebellious, although in a small and silent way.

As Edward MC Gushin writes in his essay ‘Dreams and the Aesthetics of Existence: Foucault’s ethical Imagination’: we are requested to have 24 hours of wakefulness a day, seven days a week, and we are busy at every moment, wrapped up in tasks to produce results that can be evaluated, managed and further improved. Our anxiety and exhaustion are physical sensations brought on by the deprivation of our time. Time spent sleeping, dreaming, daydreaming, or in silent, solidarity contemplation is characterised as time lost or wasted. Therefore, I consider deliberate ‘wasting time’ and doing ‘useless’ things to be resistant.

‘Jokes produce freedom, and freedom produces jokes’ [Sigmund Freud – Jokes and their relation to the unconscious]. Sometimes artists humorously convey their mental state and philosophy of life by making jokes – sometimes about themselves, sometimes about others. Such behaviour often contains an important message: artists (including those who create performance art but do not label themselves as artists) prefer to daydream, to be silent and contemplative, to perform absurd acts that seem insane in the context of social conventions, rather than to be turned into data to measure values and to cooperate with a world that is full of inequalities and irrationalities.

II. Introduce my work and my reason for researching performance

My Final works are two videos, Ladies and gentlemen, we are dreaming & Be back tomorrow, and they are a series. In the first piece, I wanted to be a tree because I was disappointed in the world and in the pain of existence, which is saying “I don’t want to be a standard person”. It helped me relieve my stress, but soon I was anxious because of the pressure of graduating, and I found that I couldn’t be in a state of daydreaming all the time, but I couldn’t fit in well in the real world. In the real world, as a woman and bisexual+, I was discriminated against by the whole structure of society; as a Chinese studying in the UK, I was not liked internationally nor by many Chinese; as someone who could only make art and did it so-so, I was a useless person. Capitalism requires us to enter the system of capitalist production and produce surplus value, otherwise, we are useless people. I feel pained and confused by this, on the one hand, because of all the social problems that capitalism brings, which are evident in China with regard to peasants and migrant workers, with regard to the countless third-world countries that have become foundries, and the environmental problems that cannot be avoided by endless consumerism …… On the other hand, because I am indeed “useless”. But I know logically that it is not reasonable to calculate my value through money, so what I want to do is to be “uncooperative”, at least on some level, so that I do not become part of this unreasonable world; and if I am “useless”, then I can just put a leaf on my eye of and stop being a human being in my imagination. That’s my resistance, and that’s what led me towards the performance art in the city in my second video.

III. Artist’s performance artworks

My love of this type of performance art first began with this work by Andy Goldsworthy. The camera starts by filming a swaying bush and the viewer can hear some sounds coming from the bush. After a while, the artist himself crawls out of the grass and walks away as if he has done something normal, with only one passer-by looking at him.

I thought about why this work struck me, and I think it was because of its absurdity of it. So I searched for the characteristics of absurdity and found that this work fits two things: 1. The incomprehensible becomes reasonable. In his performance, his body language and expressions after climbing out of the grass are as normal as if people were walking on the road. Why did he have to crawl through the grass when there was a road to walk on? Where does he come from and where is he going? The work does not explain these questions, as if taking the implausible for granted. His seriousness and decency create a sense of absurdity. 2. Absurdity is also expressed in the sense of strangeness, loneliness, outside-ness and antagonism between people. The passers-by and the artist demonstrate this relationship, with only one of the people passing by taking a surprising glance back at the artist from the grass and then continuing on their way as indifferently as everyone else. Through his work, the artist conveys the estrangement of humans from humans and the closeness of humans to plants. He also has a more famous work called Hedge Crowl, in which the artist struggles to crawl through the branches of a tree. However, in my opinion, this work is less challenging than the first, the first took place in the city and naturally had audiences, and as other passers-by walked down the road and the artist crossed through the grass, he engaged in a silent provocation that challenged the conventions of being in the city.

On an Island is a 100-short performance video project made in 2020 by artists Daniel & Clara, who state that they are two humans and one artist. They describe the work as a response to the pandemic, to being in the physical confines of a lockdown, and to being deeply connected to their environment. The performance is a meditation in which they stand in a natural landscape. I think their work is more than a response to the pandemic, it expresses the more universal issues of modern humans. They describe their work as staying unknowing, and I can feel the sense of doubt in their performance, and a sense of isolation and incomprehensibility. The incomprehensibility of the world is overwhelming and human life itself is incomprehensible, we are contemplating and confused, the human is small and the whole structure of incomprehensibility is huge, no matter how much one looks outwards or thinks inwards one cannot understand …… They and the scenery are caught in an almost static state, in the stillness, people and people, people and the world stare at each other almost eternally, but also just stare at each other, unable to come closer. People and people, people and the world are deeply divided but come together in a strange tension because we need each other. What I see in their work is that human beings have no way of understanding either themselves or each other; at the same time, we have no way of being truly alone, no way of escaping from a clearly irredeemable world. They express this contradiction and struggle so calmly, so restrainedly, so euphemistically. There is a deep beauty in this calm and restrained expression, as if a person in pain has come to the sea and wants to scream, but cannot do so.

If Daniel & Clara are still trying to understand but can’t, then the Japanese modern dancer Aguyoshi has thought it through. D&C is about making their presence present, while Augoshi is about making them one with their environment. Their work has black humour, and they interact with the world optimistically, but I still feel that there is a deep sense of loneliness, a deep absurdity in their behaviour. A ‘normal’ person who conforms to social norms would not be lying on the pavement and rolling around seriously, nor would they be seriously circling a bridge pier. They take this nonsense so seriously that it is undoubtedly a kind of uncooperative rebellion, a kind of jocular self-liberation, even if this part of the work is not invoked in their statements.

If Augoshi is making jokes about themselves, then the artist Kuang-Yu Tsui is making harmless jokes about others. For example, in his 2018 work, Exercise living: A seer, he walked to passers-by and stood with an umbrella that squirted water. Some passers-by don’t notice and think it’s just raining, while some look at him strangely and walk away or take up their umbrellas too. In another work ‘Exercise living: The beautiful scenery ‘, he uses a hairdryer hidden in his sleeve to blow things around in the street. In ‘Rubbing the city: Beautiful Dirty Bubbles’ he secretly picks up the exhaust of a bus to blow bubbles. These acts are like childish pranks, and it is impossible to logically explain why the artist would want to drench someone with an umbrella that rains, nor are it possible to say that there is a deep social meaning to his blowing up clothes and rubbish from the shops on the roadside, but it is interesting and fun. On the one hand, I would like to draw out our social context, where East Asian culture is about self-restraint, where people are expected to conform to social norms, where they often live a repressed life, where risk-taking is probably discouraged from an early age, and where such ‘mischief’ by a serious adult would be criticised as being at an idle end. On the other hand, as Zygmunt Baumann analyses in his book Retrotopia, today’s society is a return to the time of Hobbes, to the theatre of war of all against all. This war is either waged by individuals or by alliances, and the alliances change from day to day. All of us are each other’s rivals, either already naked and undisguised or will be revealed in our original form soon. We are alone, and struggle to conceal our loneliness. We are in a state of crisis and anxiety, and the artist’s undifferentiated, objectless act of challenge is a perfect metaphor for this state of mind. Interestingly, this challenge in Kuang-Yu Tsuiis’s work is nonsensical, harmless and even somewhat romantic (Urban Massage: Beautiful Dirty Bubbles), with no specific object of resistance in his work. The audience will find his performances absurd and hilarious. This absurd and humorous soft resistance is romantic.

October 2008: Artist Xing Xin dressed in his pyjamas on a wooden bed, drifted in a rive from dusk to night. In an age when everyone is only interested in making money, the artist brings the Taoist philosophy of inaction to life, making the mentally problematic (and every example in this article is mentally problematic) act poetic and spontaneous. The work Pushing My Car and Galloping in the City is made in 2012. In his artist statement, he says he didn’t have time to fix his car three times, and as he was conceiving his next artistic project, then he suddenly laughed as he had an image of “pushing the car alone through the city.” In the last century, performance art, which had just entered China was full of blood and pain. “By draping their bodies, artists used this masochistic-like behaviour to reflect their strong desire to liberate themselves from suppression through social, artistic and political movements. This suggested a feeling of bondage and breakthroughs and implied a healing mentality.” For instance, in Zhang Huan’s work 65kg, he tied himself up and hang from the ceiling, letting blood drip from his injured neck onto a heated plate on an electric stove. However, as the new century came, this type of performance art gradually faded out of the scene. Although there is a certain amount of physical torture in Xing Xin’s work Pushing My Car and Galloping in the City, it is not the kind of torture that causes pain and shock, but rather the kind that makes the audience laugh just like the artist himself. In this performance, there is a kind of self-mockery, a metaphor for reality, a suggestion of the psychological state of people who have become slaves to cars and houses, running without stopping for a moment, and the loneliness, helplessness, hopelessness and purposelessness of life in the city.

This helplessness and optimism are also reflected in artist He Liping’s work ‘As long as there is sand in your heart, you are always in Maldives’, in which he poured a bag of sand and took a drink to sit on the sand in the streets of Chengdu in 2015. His work then became an internet sensation, and the artist was dubbed ‘Beach Bro’ by netizens. This work became a public meme that went beyond the art world, and was not appreciated as a serious work of art, nor was there any particular respect for the artist, which is something that has never been achieved with performance art in China. I think this is because of the grassroots nature of this work. The artist is like the most ordinary citizen on the street, out of shape, with an expression of some misanthropy and some panache, as if he is contemplating something, enjoying the fake ‘Maldives’. It can be described as funny, comical and amusing to the viewer, it is so crude and grounded, even self-deprecating, that when I first saw it I was suspicious that it was a performance art piece by a non-artist. This work has certainly hit a certain psychological state of the public, and has become a collective carnival of self-deprecation – we are all people who cannot go to the Maldives, we can only roam the world in our imagination.

IV. Non-artists’ performance artworks

After the artist has become the ‘beach bro’ and the performance artwork has become a hilarious Internet sensation, a question arises: where is the boundary between the performance artist and the behaviour of ordinary people? Performance art, as an art that is not usually understood, is perhaps the most accessible art to the general public. This is because its medium is the body, which everyone possesses, and people don’t need to spend time acquiring special skills, such as painting, poetry, dance, etc., to express what one is thinking in a simple, direct and most powerful way. It is only due to the lack of documentation and the lack of artist statements or promotion by galleries, they are not taken as artworks. This brings a difficult question of how exactly we define art, but what I want to discuss here is not how to define what is the art and what is not art but to share what is undoubtedly performance art in my opinion, to share how ordinary people use their bodies as weapons to express anxiety and nothingness, to show soft resistance; to present how ordinary people’s performance art has transcended the confines of the art world and become a social phenomenon, even a part of a social movement.

The year 2022 is the third year that China has experienced the pandemic. While in the first two years the zero policy saved countless Chinese lives in the face of the deadly virus, in 2022 the highly transmissible but low lethality Omicron virus has prevented many cities from returning to their daily lives after a prolonged lockdown, with all sorts of chaos arising in the course of the lockdown due to management problems. 2022 has been a difficult year for many people, both physically and mentally.

Once I saw a video on the internet of two men playing badminton through a barricade. I was deeply impressed by this video, which seemed to me to have as much artistry in it as any artist’s work of performance art. In China, whenever there is a positive patient in an area, the block is blocked off until all people in the block test negative. Barricades are used to block off areas with potential positive patients and are an expression of the power to keep people isolated at home. In such a simple, light-hearted and humorous way, the two men in the video turn the barricade that had been holding them back into part of their game, as the isolated people are reconnected by badminton flying through the sky. This is certainly a challenge to power, a defiance of the fence. It was soft and humorous, not like in the later social movements where people actually went to the streets to bring down the barricades. But playing badminton with the barricades was the first step in bringing them down.

By November 2022, a strange recreation and sport had taken Chinese universities by storm: university students who had been barricaded on campus were popularising crawling on the ground, in circles, crawling in races and so on. One participant described, “The students who took part had a great time and occasionally let out a “hahaha” laugh. 10 minutes of crawling down made me feel particularly good and the stress was really released for a short while.” From a psychoanalytic perspective, this has been criticised as a manifestation of the ‘regressive’ defence mechanism at work. “Regression” is a psychological protection mechanism that is weak when anxiety or stressful situations lead to a sense of powerlessness and frustration with the outside world and a choice to regress to childlike behaviour, abandoning adult principles to avoid reality and escape anxiety. On the other hand, when crawling became a popular pastime, it was considered by many universities to be defiant and was therefore banned. This is interesting, first because it is no longer the behaviour of one person or one school, but is widespread among groups of university students who are highly educated so that we can get a glimpse of the mental state of contemporary youth groups and the therapeutic effect of performance art on the mental health. Secondly, when we are not allowed to rebel, this kind of ‘insane,’ self-indulgent, even self-deprecating catharsis is taken as rebellion, so is it rebellion or not? I think the answer is very clear.

Afterwards, on November 24th, a fire broke out in Urumqi, Xinjiang, China, and ten people burned to death in a residential building, partly due to untimely fire-fighting restrictions of lockdown. This event ignited the outrage of the nation as students at the university stood up from their crawling self-entertainment, straightened their spines and held up white papers in defiance. The act quickly went viral on the internet, with more and more students joining in the act of holding up white papers to against the zero policy and in memory of the death of the Urumqi people. The act of holding up the white paper was undoubtedly artistic, as we were “unable to say” because of the lack of freedom of speech, but we had to say, and therefore chose to hold up the white paper in compromise, “saying nothing” but at the same time “saying everything “. This is an act of helplessness and pain, but it certainly contains a spirit of intelligence and humour, a kind of guerrilla warfare resistance. Encouraged by the students, citizens took to the streets in revolt and now, days later, the strict zeroing policy is beginning to loosen.

Let me conclude the whole text with this case, which certainly fits the character of an introductory summary: “‘What’s the use of you copying this?’
–What is the use of holding a white paper?
‘Nothing useful.’
‘Well, what do you mean by copying it?’
–What do you mean by holding a white paper?
‘It means nothing.'”
— resist in black humour and silence.


McGushin, E. (2021). Dream and the aesthetics of existence: Revisiting “Foucault’s ethical imagination.” Philosophy & Social Criticism, 47(8), 987–1000.

Tong, Pui Yin (2012) An Account of Development of Performance Art in China from 1979-2010. PhD thesis, University of the Arts London.

Jennifer Higgie(2007)The Artist’s joke.Whitechapel: Documents of Contemporary Art.

About the author

Fangyuan Li, born in 1999, is from China. She uses video, photography and drawings and performance and poetry to create her work. The subject of her research is to deal with the irreconcilable relationship between herself and the world. Follow her work @FangyuanLi_Meredith and