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  Beijing Scene

Mondo Bizzaro
Byline: Katja Gaskell

Powerful, provocative, and downright odd - the impromptu performance art of Beijing-based Luo Zidan is coming to a dumpster near you.

A young man emerges from a bar in the center of town dressed in nothing but a simple pair of blue cotton boxer shorts. His chest is bound with thick rope, and his hands are tied tightly behind his back. It is the coldest day of the year in Chengdu, capital of western China's Sichuan province.

The man shivers slightly as he kneels down on a low black platform.

Standing next to him are two columns, one red and one white. On top of the six-foot red column sit two microphones. Peering down from the white column, which measures about 10-feet tall, is a bust of Beethoven. Music starts to float out of a loudspeaker almost immediately as a small crowd, bundled up in thick coats, hats and scarves, gathers around to watch the spectacle. For the next hour and 45 minutes, a selection of Beethoven's most popular works serenades the crowd while the man in the boxer shorts kneels on the platform, his body convulsing from the cold, all for the sake of art.

The young man is 28-year-old Luo Zidan, a seasoned performance artist from Sichuan, currently living with his wife in the "artists ghetto" Tongxian, a suburb on the outskirts of Beijing. Luo is already renowned in his hometown as the creator of over 40 different performances in the past five years.

Early this year Luo came to Beijing to seek new stimulus and further develop his art. In the short time he has been here, Luo has already made a name for himself as one of the most prolific and in-your-face performers on the capital's contemporary art scene.

Luo was born November 1, 1971, in the small Sichuan town of Luzhou. There is nothing specific about his childhood that caused him to grow up, parade the streets in his boxers in the dead of winter and call it a job. After graduating from high school in 1989 Luo entered the Chongqing Fine Art University, although he left after a year disillusioned with the education system which he considers too restrictive. In 1991 he began to experiment with various art mediums but it was not until 1995 that he staged what he calls his first "proper" show entitled Behavior of a White Collar.

As I talk to him, Luo looks more like a banker than an artist. Dressed neatly in a navy-blue turtleneck and pressed trousers, he perches upright on his stool, his hand gingerly cupping a glass of tea that he never drinks. He stares at me intently from behind his wire-rimmed glasses, as if he still can't quite work out what I'm doing in his apartment. Yet at the same time he seems eager to please, listening attentively and answering every question with care. For all his wariness, however, he assumes a different character altogether when performing.

"When you see my art, it is not me," he explains. "I lose myself in my work."

In a recent, unadvertised event at Beijing's premier weekend playground, Club Vogue, Luo performed a piece entitled Satire of the Intellectual Hoodlum. Throughout the half-hour act, Luo lounges on a sofa wearing a white lacey veil over his face. Throwing his legs in the air, he flaunts his large, partially exposed belly and commands a waitress to pour him glass after glass of whiskey. At one point, Luo violently smashes his glass on the stage floor.

Meanwhile, projected on a screen behind him is a video of an earlier performance. The video, shot in shaky hand-held documentary style, shows Luo dressed in a suit and tie using long wooden tongs to pick through a garbage dumpster for flimsy, red RMB1 notes - much like workers sift through rubbish looking for recyclables. One by one, he tosses the notes into a bamboo basket strapped to his back.

The artist's exploration of the role of the "new intellectual" in modern-day Chinese society is a common theme in Luo's works. In particular, he seeks to remind all Chinese to never forget their humble peasant roots.

As Luo explains, "Chinese society has moved forward so quickly, but no matter how much money Chinese people earn, we will always have a peasant heart."

In one of his more well-known series, Half White Collar, Half Peasant, Luo examines in detail the dichotomy between the peasant and the intellectual in today's society. For this, Luo creates a special costume, deftly sewing together half of a drab blue outfit, typical of a Chinese laborer, with half of an ensemble of a white-collar worker.

Performing in streets across Sichuan, Luo explores the different responses of the two classes to everyday situations. A videotape of one act shows Luo the laborer cleaning a shiny Mercedes Benz with his sleeve while another shows Luo the white-collar worker having his shoes shined. There is nothing abstract or complicated about Half White Collar, Half Peasant, but the upshot is powerful and thought-provoking.

Luo says he tries to make his messages instantly accessible to his audience members, whether it's a passerby outside a Sichuan bar, a father on his way to take out the family garbage, or a young Spanish painter in a dimly-lit nightclub.

His boxer-clad performance of Dead and Living speaks volumes about the status of artists when dead (revered) and alive (scorned). It also hints at how Luo himself sees the status of artists in China. Bound in rope and shaking with cold, Luo demonstrates that the artist's spirit never gives up. But the disparity in height between the white pillar and the low black platform upon which Luo is kneeling suggests that in China, perhaps, this may be a futile struggle.

Sometimes, his work is just plain odd.

In a piece entitled Impulsive Hair, a 75 kilogram pile of rainbow-hued human hair is placed upon a large loudspeaker in a disco. Traditional Chinese music, which initially drifts out of the speaker, is suddenly replaced by violent techno tunes which causes the mass of hair to shake and vibrate as if it has a life of its own. At this point, Luo invites members of the audience to join the hair for a dance.

Although some of his pieces are better known than others, Luo rarely performs an act more than once, preferring to expand on existing themes or improvise upon new ones. At the same time he is always drawing inspiration from ordinary events that surround him. "I make use from uselessness," he explains.

In a rare moment of self-praise, Luo goes out of his way to explain how he considers himself more than just another artist, but a necessary voice in China's rapidly-changing society.

"For me, the duty of an artist is to awaken the collective conscience," he says, before pausing and growing cautious again. "But my art certainly does not contain any criticism of the government. I am simply recording history."

When I toss him my last question, "When and where will you be performing next?" Luo, despite his best intentions to help a struggling writer, is at a loss for an answer.

"I don't know" he laughs. "I'm not God. I don't know when it will happen, it just will."

Keep your eyes and ears open for future Luo Zidan performances in Beijing.

For more information, see Luo's English-language website at: www.zi-art.com.



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