The Song of the Shirt: Feminist Performance Artist Wu Meng

In her 2013 performance work And They Chat (also called Chat with Women), Wu Meng walked the streets of the old city of Haikou in a wedding dress made of newspaper, tying discarded domestic objects such as pots and pans, a broom, and a large mosquito net onto her body as she went. Her load became heavier and heavier as she dragged herself down the road, followed by small children and curious onlookers. The performance concluded with a reading from Engels on marriage and monogamy. A new collaborative work, Metamorphosis Garden, reveals her consistent interest in exploring aspects of women’s lived experience. “… sweet fairy tales, strange, even bloody little allegories, interwoven with real-life female stories. How should women view themselves and respond to this complex and lonely world?” In asking this question, Wu Meng creates a body of work that explores the contested territory of gender in today’s China.

Wu Meng, 'Chat with Women' Haikou, 2013, documentation of performance work

Wu Meng. Chat with Women, Haikou, 2013; documentation of performance work. Image courtesy of the Artist.

The contemporary Chinese art scene is exciting and dynamic, but at times seems fueled by a heady mixture of testosterone and “baijiu,” the Chinese white spirit that fells unsuspecting foreigners like rocket fuel. In my quest to meet women artists, I had been told by numerous people in Shanghai that I must interview Wu Meng: performance artist, freelance writer, and founding member of Grass Stage experimental theater collective. In addition to her work with Grass Stage, Wu has created solo works in Hong Kong, the German Pavilion at Shanghai EXPO (2010), Hamburg (2011), Leipzig (2012), and throughout China.

Wu Meng with Zhao Chuan, Shanghai 2012, photograph Luise Guest

Wu Meng with Zhao Chuan, Shanghai, 2012. Photograph: Luise Guest.

We exchanged a series of emails working out where to meet, resulting in a scribbled address in my notebook—a street corner in the former French Concession—and a cell-phone number. I pulled up in a taxi, called the number, and Wu Meng herself appeared on the corner and hurried me quickly inside an old stone doorway and up a narrow wooden staircase. Breathlessly, she explained that it could cause problems for her if a foreigner were to be seen entering her house. The awareness of surveillance—or the possibility of surveillance—creates a sense of claustrophobia. I became nervous about bringing a new, young translator with me. Wu Meng’s husband, writer and theater director Zhao Chuan, translated our conversation. Zhao speaks fluent English, having spent some years in Australia after 1989. Together, with occasional laughter and a few disagreements, they told the story of a young woman developing a body of work, grasping for the performative language with which to convey complex ideas and emotions. Zhao Chuan founded Grass Stage Theater in 2005. The name references peasant theatre, raw performances staged by and for farmers at weddings and funerals. They create events, site-specific performances, and installations, often with a specific political intention, encouraging interaction and public discourse. This can be dangerous territory. The actors, writers, and director are at times knowingly and strategically playing a hazardous game of cat and mouse with the authorities.

In 2006, Wu traveled to South Korea for a People’s Theatre workshop that gave her the confidence to explore her own ideas in a performative genre, separately from her work with Grass Stage. In an early video work from 2008, Face, the camera shifts from idealized images of women in glossy magazines to Wu Meng herself, eating orange segments in a slow, deliberate way. I was reminded of Marina Abramovic’s The Onion. The contrast between real and ideal, authentic and fake, is conveyed in an overt yet powerful manner. Other works have explored sensitive themes such as the forced demolition of people’s homes, a controversial issue in China. “As a human being, how should you respond to living in a place of such rapid change?” she asks.

Wu Meng, 'The Clown is Safe' German Pavilion, Shanghai Expo, 2010 image courtesy the artist

Wu Meng. The Clown Is Safe, German Pavilion, Shanghai Expo, 2010. Image courtesy of the Artist.

Her most notorious work to date is The Clown Is Safe (2010), performed at Shanghai Expo in 2010 outside the German Pavilion, defying a ban from the Shanghai government by working in territory demarcated as nominally German rather than Chinese. She walked slowly through the crowds, face painted like a clown, balancing across her shoulders a pole strung with garments. Each piece of clothing was printed with text referencing traumatic events, such as the number of worker suicides in South China electronics factories. The garments are like ghosts, she says, the written texts unhappy memories. Other works draw attention to the forced demolition of traditional lane-way houses in Shanghai, and the resulting public anger.

Wu Meng, The Clown is Safe, documentation of performance outside the German Pavilion, Shanghai Expo 2010, image courtesy the artist

Wu Meng. The Clown Is Safe, outside the German Pavilion, Shanghai Expo, 2010; documentation of performance. Image courtesy of the Artist.

There was police pressure to stop the performance at Expo, although the video documenting the event shows a bemused audience, clearly unsure how they should respond. “Did the audience at Expo understand your intention?” I ask. Wu Meng responds, “It is like a secret knowledge in society that I have brought into the sunlight.” Clothing and textiles recur in Wu Meng’s work. Banal, yet also highly resonant, they evoke the absent body. Secondhand clothes are always suggestive of the tragedies and dramas played out in daily life, the piles of clothes left behind when children grow up, when people die, when something terrible happens. A surprising number of contemporary artists have used clothing as a potent metaphor. From Jin Nu’s poignant Exuviate, in which fragile organza frocks form a meditation on lost childhoods and the lost girls of the One Child Policy; to Louise Bourgeois’ memories of her family of weavers and carpet repairers at the center of her claustrophobic psychological narrative; to Derrick Mellander’s enormous stacks of folded garments; and the suspended shirt installations of Finnish artist Kaarina Kaikkonen, artists have meditated on identity, memory, and universal aspects of human experience through the medium of clothing as found object.

Wu Meng, Gravity 1, 2010, image courtesy the artist and OV Gallery Shanghai

Wu Meng. Gravity 1, 2010. Image courtesy of the Artist and OV Gallery Shanghai.

Gravity (2010), shown at OV Gallery in Shanghai, explored the cover-ups of reports of women raped and murdered in massage parlors. Sexual double standards are as prevalent in China as elsewhere, and sex workers are often dismissed as deserving whatever violence is meted out to them. Wu Meng takes ordinary garments—underwear, T-shirts, cotton dresses—and hangs them in a range of Shanghai public spaces. Shanghai is filled with washed clothing hanging on power lines, on clotheslines slung between trees, and on racks placed on the sidewalk, so Wu Meng’s choice is a deliberately ambiguous intervention in the public sphere. Text printed on the garments is intentionally ambiguous too. One reads, “A rumour spread quickly/Everyone knew it, but it never went public.” In a country in which rumor and innuendo spread like wildfire through micro-blogging, and in which people (often rightly) suspect the worst of officialdom, this is understood to refer to secrecy and a culture of cover-up and corruption.

Wu Meng, Gravity 6

Wu Meng. Gravity 6, 2010. Image courtesy of the Artist and OV Gallery Shanghai.

Exposed is made with clothes belonging to members of the “Educated Youth.” It is estimated that under Mao’s rustication policy, up to a hundred thousand Shanghai teenagers were sent “up to the mountains and down to the villages” to distant, dirt-poor provinces to be reeducated through rural labor and to learn socialism from the peasants. Returned to Shanghai, now elderly, they are engaged in a bitter struggle for benefits in recognition of the education and opportunities that were denied to them, staging noisy demonstrations and risking imprisonment. Wu Meng has created installations of their clothing, a poignant symbol of their long absence from the city of their birth, and of their marginal and forgotten status today. Wire figures representing these people stand at city intersections, mute public gatherings of the kind that for the most part are banned in China. “How do you see your practice developing and changing?” I ask. Wu Meng believes she must keep working on social issues. “In China we need to open up more space for discussion.”

Wu Meng 'Chat with Women' documentation of performance, Haikou, 2013, image courtesy the artist

Wu Meng. Chat with Women, Haikou, 2013; documentation of performance work. Image courtesy of the Artist.