Hong Kong Chinese art exhibition examines tension between ideology and the individual

Dancing dissected frogs, neon-lit face and body piercings, stiff formal dancers and abandoned nightclubs feature in ‘After Party: Collective Dance and Individual Gymnastics’ at Blindspot Gallery

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 January, 2017, 1:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 January, 2017, 5:35pm

Roland Barthes, the French cultural theorist, spent three weeks in China in 1974 as part of propaganda tour organised by Beijing, and he appeared to have sulked through most of it.

Reacting to the cliché-spouting guide’s comment that “Chinese gymnastics” (which probably meant tai chi) had benefits “for body and mind”, Barthes entertained himself by jotting down in his notebook mens fada in corpore salop (a dull mind in a slutty body), misquoting the Latin phrase for “a sound mind in a sound body”.

That entry in his book Travels in China wasn’t directed at the formulaic collective dancing that he witnessed with great distress in the country’s schools, factories and public squares, but it somehow goes with his observation of how the dancers moved with hysterical passion while being the frigid, passive instruments of ideology.

Inking differently: the Chinese artists breaking new ground in one of the most traditional of art forms

Barthes’ notes are the starting point for an intriguing exhibition about the tension between ideological control and the individual will.

Some of the video images featured in “After Party: Collective Dance and Individual Gymnastics”, appear to mock, as Barthes did, the deadening effect that politics had on dance. Reanimation!Underwater Zombie frog ballet! by Lu Yang shows a row of dissected frogs performing a morbid dance as their dead muscles are stimulated by electric currents.

In a section of Hao Jingban’s Off Takes, a middle-aged couple show off their ballroom dancing skills with the precision and dispassion of automatons. In another scene, the narrator explains how collective formal dancing – or “social dancing”, as it is referred to in Chinese – was encouraged by the Chinese Communist party at specific moments to project an image of an optimistic, energetic and forward-looking country, such as after the party came to power in 1949 and in 1979, when the economy welcomed international investment again.

Curator Leo Chen Li has picked works by four young Chinese artists from the mainland and one from the US. The artists are urbane and cosmopolitan, and probably wouldn’t be caught dead at the collective dances still common in Chinese public squares. But the exhibition is more than just a historical critique. It is also about the infinite possibilities of interpreting historical material and how dance has evolved as a cultural symbol in today’s China.

As Hao’s couple dance in an empty hall, the narrator tells the story of a young ballet dancer whose promising career was curtailed by the Cultural Revolution. Suddenly, the dancers’ formal stiffness no longer looks ridiculous. Instead, it becomes a symbol of unbending artistic conviction.

In The Pink Detachment, New York-based video artist Jen Liu presents a surreal reinterpretation of the Cultural Revolution model ballet The Red Detachment of Women. The young peasant girl who fled an evil landowner to join the Communist revolution in the original is now a worker in a hot dog factory, trapped again by the capitalist system. Meanwhile, a dancer moves with an unstoppable exuberance despite bearing, literally, the weight of progress on her back: a set of steps filled with the crushed bones of either dead pigs or exhausted workers.

Chen Wei’s photographs present scenes from abandoned nightclubs: the entrance to a venue called Night Paris with nobody left inside, two unused pole-dancing platforms in a room that looks completely silent. They are very convincing, but they are in fact meticulously constructed models in the artist’s studio.

“I recreate scenes to pay tribute to places I have been to or heard about, dance halls that friends used to hang out in. China is developing so fast that nothing ever stays,” Chen says. To him, China today is exactly how Ackbar Abbas described pre-1997 Hong Kong. New experiences are déjà disparu that have been relegated to clichés even before they are experienced, he says.

Finally, we have Flirt, a series of photos by Hu Weiyi which are not directly about dance. They are theatrical close-ups of body parts penetrated by lit, neon lines. It takes a while before the viewer realises that the images are not photoshopped. “I hired models with piercings or asked models to get pierced so that I can put the lines through lips, tongues, and so on,” Hu says. (The only fakes are the penis and vulva.)

“The light running through is romantic in a way, but also represents pain. That’s what intimacy is. The light also represents a rhythm – like the rhythm in a dance – that brings us all together,” says Hu.

If only Barthes could see this.

“After Party: Collective Dance and Individual Gymnastics”, Blindspot Gallery, 15/F Po Chai Industrial Building, 28 Wong Chuk Hang Road. Tue to Sat, 10am-6pm. Ends Mar 4