Performance in Waiting


- Dr. Jiang Jiehong

Before the appearance of the home theatre, television, and computers with Internet connections, the stage was one of the few places to watch a performance. Today, with these handy and seductive instruments, it seems that any performance can be easily reproduced, disseminated and consumed, by many at the same time. The instant accessibility of these media though is an addiction power that has the potential to change our daily lives. Despite countless channels and DVDs running endlessly on our screens, and interactive media dominating office and home, do we really have a choice? In a sense, the theatrical stage is more democratic. It is always ‘there’ inviting audiences to participate. On one hand a stage can bridge the viewers and that being viewed; on the other, its geographical existence refuses the possibility of immediate connection, but creates a distance that requires an effort of travel. In other words, if provides a space for collective imagination and anticipation for the show.

Traditionally, types of stages include in-the-round stage, thrust stage, and, most commonly since the Italian Renaissance, the proscenium stage, featuring a large arch as a picture frame, through which the audience views the performance. The proscenium stage is perhaps the most conservative one of all, but also, the most mysterious and ‘dramatic’. The audience directly faces the stage, which is typically raised several feet above the level of the front row of the audience, and views only one side of the scene. This one side is commonly known as the invisible fourth wall of the scene, behind which actors can be temporally ‘away’ from reality and live in ‘another’ space. Because of the limitation of the possible, advantage of painting, Xu Xiaoguo’s works offer us a kind of proscenum stage, which has been understood as a “medium for personal reflections”1 . 

In his early works, Xu Xiaoguo expressed his interest in depicting non-realistic scenes. Through either specially designed visual perspectives or dramatic narratives, he was able to establish and control non-realistic spaces on his canvas. For example, in Working Day: Tiananmen, and in the series Them, the artist focuses on the detail of a gaudy high heel, which looks almost abstract, and which is juxtaposed with the Tiananmen Tower on the horizon to challenge the dignity of the political symbol. The work titled Do You Have a Ticket for the Party finds a group of parachutists in a blood-red sky with their ambiguous agenda. Are they going to a meeting, or strangely to a party? Xu’s invention of dramatic scenery does not follow the principle of Chinese traditional landscape design, which seeks the naturalness of  scenery2 , to build an earthly paradise for idealistic lives. However, he obviously inherits the methodology of ‘recreation’, or ‘recontextualisation’, of the natural order, to imagine dream-like environments and narrate the absurdity, such as the deadly solemnity presented by an iced watchtower of the Great Wall, and three tigers in a modern bath centred in a literati garden. The identity of Xu’s works could not be fully established until the artist simply moved his lens backwards slightly to include the frame of the stage. What Xu now offers the audiences is not merely the fictitious stories, but the proscenium stage itself as a whole; in other words, his painting is not any more a graphic medium, parallel like the stage, to present the performance, but rather a visual reflection on the notion of the theatrical stage.

Qin Qiang, a popular regional opera in northwestern China, provides Xu Xiaoguo with an early impression of the stage. He did not necessarily understand or appreciate the performance, but was amazed by the stage settings and the costumes, which to him, were dazzling beautiful. Later, ‘open-cinema’ [lutian dianying] became a collective memory for an entire generation. As Xu Xiaoguo recalls: “an ‘open-cinama’ would be set up on the small square of my father’s factory, particularly for festivals and celebratory events. It would be very croweded every time, so I always brought my own stool, to occupy with my friends, a good seat in front of the screen, which was normally suspended between two large trees. If I got there late, I had to sit behind the screen and watch the film from its back. On a windy day, corners of the screen would sometimes be lifted, while the images then swung in the breeze.” 3 In that ‘open-cinema’, the square, the trees and the factory buildings were always there, as an empty stage expecting the show. Similarly, in a theatre, the stage physically remains the same, irrespective of whatever is shown.

Born in Xi’an in 1977, a year after the Cultural Revolution, Xu Xiaoguo should not have any visual experience of that turbulent era. However, he said he loves the Revolution Model Operas [yangban xi], which had been the key visual product of the stage during that decade, and in particular, the “exaggerated scenography, poses and expressions” 4. The ‘stage’ of Xu’s ‘open-cinema’, comprises nothing more than a suspended screen in the wind, sustains the power that adapts the aesthetic system of folk operas, adjusts the traditional ideology of good and evil, and builds up a new standard of morality for its audience – ‘the mass people’. The ‘mass ideology [dazhong yishi]’ had been brewing since the May Fourth Movement of the 1930s, and then formalised and finally realised during the Yan’an art movement5 . As a typical form of mass art in doctrinated paternalistically during the Cultural Revolution, Model Operas helped shape a new political aesthetic, where the characters manipulate the exaggerated expressions of body language in order to introduce the desired political preferences and social standards.6  In the Model Operas, ‘comrade’ or ‘enemy’, ‘hero’ or ‘betrayer’, ‘righteousness’ or ‘immorality’ can be easily recognised. For example, in The Story of Red Lamp [hongdeng ji], Li Yuhe, Tie Mei and her grandmother clearly seem to have the same excessive poses to conform themselves towards the revolutionary spirit that is symbolised by the red lamp. The same applies to Huang Shiren in White-haired Girl [Baimao nü], who must have offended the divine ethics, prior to his role as a political enemy. All of these can be achieved on the stage.

Equipped with childhood memories and strong colourful technique, Xu has reflected consciously and rationally on the notion of the stage. In the Stage series, he attemps to apply two approaches to search and describe a non-realistic world. Firstly, he appropriates the features of the proscenium stage, such as the stage curtain and backdrop, to confirm a pictorial framework for illusionary scenes. Thus, in Breaking Through, the back of a soldier on the ‘stage’ merges into the battlefield in the background – is he a participant in the marching team, or rather, a mocker of this dramatically intensive atmosphere? And in Sunset, does the overflowing water indicate the cruelty of war and the heaviness of death, or rather, question the truth of the ‘stage’ and its historical narrative? In the second approach, Xu reassesses the authoritative language of the stage by reshaping the heroic appearance of the actors. For instance, anyone can strike a heroic pose on the stage, even a ghost-like creature. In another example, while the tiger fighter Wu Song is veiled by a mask ironically modified from a plastic shopping bag, his glorious halo disappears; at the same time, the tiger-monster, originally the representation of evil power, usurps the heroic position in the centre of the stage, and subverts the traditional aesthetics and moral principles conveyed in the opera.

Xu Xiaoguo appears more confident and devoted in depicting his Grand Stage series. The proscenium, often extremly decorative with trees in full bloom, frames a prospective picture, where a crystal stream is murmuring a fairytale to the snowy mountains in the distance and a spotlight projects on broken glass. This is attempt to capture the fleeting illusion of beauty. Similarly, in Grand Stage - Conspiracy, the flowery space stretching towards infinity revolves around the signs of life and death. Even before the show begins, the imagination of heaven and hell, the destinations of life and eternity, have been echoing constantly around the stage. Are these trees the same ones that enfolded the screen of the ‘open-cinema’ in Xu’s hometown? Is the illusionary scenery the phantom swaying in the dusk? Let’s remain seated quietly with Xu Xiaoguo, and wait  for the next performance to begin.

1 Artist statement, unpublished text, 2007, provided by 
 Xu Xiaoguo.
2 See Ji Cheng, Yuan Ye, 1631, a Chinese authoritative work 
     on garden design.
  3 Interview with Xu Xiaoguo, 16 July 2007, Shanghai.
  4 Ibid.
  5 Tang Xiaohe, ‘Women zenyang xiangxiang lishi (How Do We  
     Imagine the History)’, in Tang Xiaohe (ed.),
  6 Wang Molin, ‘Meiyou shenti de xiju – mantan yangban xi 
     (Model Opera: The Bodiless Drama)’, in Liu Qingfeng (ed.). 
     Wenhua da geming: shishi yu yanjiu (The Cultural 
     Revolution: Facts and Analysis). Hong Kong: The Chinese 

University Press.p.397. Dr. Jiang Jiehong
Director of the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts at Birmingham
Institure of Art and Design in England, art critic and curator