Next Performance: Interview with Miao Jiaxin
As part of the Station Museum of Contemporary Art's show in(di)visible, internationally renown performance artist Miao Jiaxin performed an installment from his Next Performance series. ExA had the pleasure of seeing Next Performance 2018 and then discussing it with him afterwards via email.
ExA: The performance at the Station Museum in 2018 is part of a multi-year series which began in 2014. What was the impetus for that series? What is the theme(s)? Is it significant that you performed both your Next Performance, 2017 and 2018 in Houston?
Miao: The series of the performance is titled Next Performance, and I would add the year to the title for the major performance I do during that year. Next Performance, 2018 is the latest one.
Before I became an artist, my Chinese old school education usually gave us the writing assignments with specifically or narrowly assigned topics. But I always knew my absent minded writing skill works better if I entitle the assignment after I finish writing. If I am curating my own art career, which I might not be the perfect person for, the connection between all my performances is that one performance is the next performance after the previous performance.
And, if it’s a group show, my performance is the next performance after another artist’s performance. It does make unnecessary sense, but somehow corresponds my performance style, where every step follows and unveils the previous step, and each step presents a different level of un-necessity as performance aesthetics, however you would see humor and helplessness of one’s life that was transformed on the stage. My life so far wouldn’t give me a break. Every year it strikes me with different anxiety, or same anxiety on a different level. In life, people would sum up the year of occurrences, experiences, and reflections, and probably a new year’s resolution in addition. In business, we make a year end report and set up the next goal annually. In art, I tend to make it short and abstract. The lack of specificity develops the ability to relate other people.
Next Performances each year share same type of white cube space with a white table sitting in front a white wall, flat lighting setup and a black suited Asian guy empty handedly coming up to the stage. Next Performance becomes a series, not because of the meaning of the title, but of the time indicating our restless, or maybe repetitive life events in the personal as well as the political.
ExA: The show in(di)visible is in essence about the "implications of assimilation, integration, and invisibility for Asian American." Your work often involves creating and destroying divisions in ritualistic process. Can you speak to the importance of that conflict/tension in your work?
Miao: This is a good question. And this is a very well curated exhibition. The curators not only found such a forgotten topic in all time urgency, but also found great artists who live, breathe and struggle in this context.
In general, I wouldn’t describe myself as an artist who works for identity politics. I am more of an old school artist who lives his life and expresses his emotions that reflect the living conditions via various medium, with honesty, as well as the awareness of art in relation to politics. When Alex Tu, the curator approached me for a live performance in such theme, I immediately knew that I was the right type of artist whose works cannot avoid implications of identity politics as Asian American, especially because the major body of my works were developed in the past 10 years since I migrated to the United States. All my works are the branding marks of each year of my life, with pride and excitement, as well as shame and fear, while living for an American dream as a person, an artist, a Chinese immigrant, an Asian American, an international individual, or an unidentified person among people flow.
The hesitation in my definition is that a small picture projects a large question: What is Asian American? Where are we from? What do we want? Why do we care? I am simply not the type of artist who gives answers and shouts out in slogans. I’d like to be the one who discovers some old questions, and throws some false answers (the aesthetics of the un-necessities) for rediscovering the new issues of these old questions. The creating and destroying, then conflict/tension you perceived from my art is not only the old school art patterns/emotions, but also a strategic struggle for the legit contradictions.
ExA: Legitimate contradiction of life? of art?
Miao: Both life and art.
ExA: In a facebook post about the performance, you describe it thusly, "A hole is drilled on the shield in front of my head. The curator is asked to shoot with a metal bulleted BB gun, and pass the gun to the next persons who he trusts." But that's simply the climax. A majority of the performance involves you literally dividing the space into a shooting range for target practice on you. You delineate the space by creating a substance and then crawling across the floor, spitting-regurgitating-marking the floor with this substance from your mouth. You then create a target on the wall in which you will stand in front of and invite the audience to take aim at you.
Miao: In general, I don’t really see myself as a performance artist. I’d rather see that I sometimes create performance actions to achieve my art in concept. Therefore in tradition, my art was usually already done before I went on the stage. "A hole is drilled on the shield in front of my head. The curator is asked to shoot with a metal bulleted BB gun, and pass the gun to the next persons who he trusts”. This was it. The extension of this art on the scene was the result of these actions. I might get hurt, get seriously hurt, get mysteriously hurt or I survive as I hoped, etc.
That’s not related to the concept. The concept is to deliver the fragile relationships that I see between an artist and his/her curator, an individual and an institution, a performer and the audience. If Institutional Critique is an old school last century art practice, it’s really not over yet. The power of doing art to me is an individual staying in distance from authorities, not only in his/her art practice, but also in his/her mentality. We have too many artists in craft practice refuse to see the larger picture of the art world power structure. It’s kind like some immigrants don’t spend time learning American history, but choose to swear for an American passport. I certainly don't criticize, but there are personal preferences. Yes, speaking of this 5 mins climax versus 45 mins of the majority of the performance, I would say that I created the first 45 mins of honest introduction for the curator and the audiences, and the last 5 mins to reveal the destination.
ExA: During the 45 minute set up of the piece, were you creating a space that both distances you from the authorities/the formal art world, and in the last 5 minutes inviting the curator and then the audience to participate in this new, intimate space?
Miao: You could understand it this way.
ExA: A black liquid (ink, wine, blood, paint, etc.) that you produce or distribute using your body occurs frequently in your performances. What's the larger importance to both the process and the fluid itself to your performances?
Miao: The colored liquids on canvas and bodies are essentially part of typical performance art. As I mentioned previously, I don’t see myself as a performance artist. With such preset, I have reasons to appropriate typical performance art (especially the old school ones) with good intentions to fulfill the curators and audiences’ expectations: making large scale action painting with colored liquids, letting the painting paint back on the naked body, creating a living sculpture and so on.
Living in New York and its performance art community for many years, I learned performance art of black face, white face, bloody face, etc indicates identities, speaking of which, the previous question flashes back: What is an Asian face in performance art? We don’t even have a face, and we are invisible. Just like in the real life, we don’t really have a voice. Am I trying to put all black, white, blood color onto my face to identify Asian? It’s obviously a ridiculous false try. We in fact don’t even have a color to be distinguished, but we are categorized as the colored. Well, if I was shouting out for Asian, I wouldn’t have been the type of artist I am now. Applying colors onto faces has been art history. I would be only celebrating the history of art.
ExA: By drilling / burning a hole in the police shield, you explicitly make yourself an even more vulnerable target. How does that play into the whole and what does that represent?
Miao: The gun, shield, and warning strobe light certainly have visual relations to the urgent American issues, such as gun violence and police brutality. “Wearing” all of these, I ran on an elliptical workout machine, whether exercising, showing or escaping, I went nowhere but was exhausted. I wouldn't judge America in this performance but only would feel being part of it. By drilling a hole in the shield, I created a game of letting others target an imperfectly protected living target.
And I made the bet that no one would really hurt me, but you still get the pleasure/guilt out of this targeting game. In this case, I am a game creator/the controller and a would-be victim/the being controlled, a gambler and a believer. That’s partially how I feel America. Of course, the creation of the performance was more intuitive than my explanation. I just explained it after I went through the documentation images on my mind, as if I was one of my own audiences.
ExA: Can you speak to the act of being shot, being a target in the context of Performance Art history? Chris Burden's 1971 "Shoot" is the one that I'm most familiar with and David Blaine's Bullet catch more recently.
Miao: David Blaine’s Bullet Catch is a classic magician practice. In Blaine’s case, it remained controversial whether or not he did it for real. The stunt action is a heroic gesture in tradition of human versus machine. It is able to cover way larger group of audiences from popular culture on the internet, whereas Chris Burden’s Shoot remained no mystery, but a straight forward shot on the arm began and ended the performance, left the art world in shock since 1971. But few beyond the art world knows about it. I can’t talk much about Burden’s Shoot, but I appreciate he created such a simple, minimal but powerful piece, the shortest staged performance art piece in history, to test the boundary of what was acceptable as art in the 1970s’ art scene where performance art carried its essential missions. Burden’s gun idea came from the time when his generation of young people went to Vietnam war and get shot in the battle field. And he didn’t know decades later in the land of America innocent people would also get shot by guns in their daily lives. Burden knew getting shot was his performance, but he could not just pick up any person, instead he asked his most trustworthy friend to execute it, just to make 100 percent sure that bullet only gets in his arm. So it was a real gun pointed to an undeadly spot by a trusted friend, whereas in my performance a BB gun was passed down to the people I had no way to trust, and they would possibly shoot on my face as I certainly didn’t want but I had no control over it. Another performance with gun came up to my mind was Marina Abramović’s Rhythm 0, where the artist allowed the audiences to freely work on her body with all the props she prepared on the table including a gun and a single bullet. Her performance ended by the museum guard when the gun was eventually pointed at her. If we have to talk about the similarity of the performances, artists are the art game creators but the main part of the game is releasing the power to the audiences. That also became the most exciting part of the performance, and one more example that performance art differentiates from other art forms.
ExA: We as audience members are both active and passive participants in this targeting/assaulting of you. As an audience member I felt uneasy about the assaults, but I also did nothing. I didn't attempt to prevent them. In fact, along with the rest of the audience, I watched and photographed your attackers. This seems like an object lesson in "civil American society" in which we often allow assaults to occur from micro-aggressions to all out assaults on people's liberties. Can you speak to this?
Miao: Audiences are invited and given the power to participate in the dominant part of the art game. It is same ease to be invited to watch a Hollywood movie of violence, play a video game of slaughter, as well as listen to the news of mass shooting in campuses again and again. But it is no longer easy if the tragedy happens right next to you, or for the moment let you hold the gun and point to a living target.
The majority of us have been living as audiences to the tragedies and literally seeing the real world through virtual lens. The mental confrontation from holding the gun and aiming gives you the moment to think of the basic and essential human morality, and how it could fade in what kind of circumstances, and how are we part of it, are we contributing to it?
A video of the full performance is available thanks to the Station Museum.