Ma Liuming Discusses Fen-Ma Liuming
Mr. Wei Guangqing’s performance work “A Simulation Experience on the Suicide Scheme about ‘1’” led me to a realization.
In 1988, when I was studying in the Oil Painting Department at the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts (HIFA), I had the opportunity to participate in Mr. Wei’s performances,which is how I first discovered performance art.
After experiencing the student movement of passion and confusion in 1989, I created a work titled “States”. I posed for a series of photographs in three different states: my body was wrapped in transparent film, wrapped in torn strips of newspaper, and naked while climbing to the studio skylight and suspended under it while looking up at the sky. Performance art in China began with the ’85 New Wave’. Since then, artists’ awareness of spiritual confinement is often presented through modes of wrapping and philosophical exploration.”
After graduating from HIFA, I moved to Beijing, my “center of art”.
On June 9, 1993, I relocated from Wuhan to Dashanzhuang in Beijing, which later became known as the “East Village”. It was there that I met and befriended a fellow student from the Central Academy of Fine Arts.”
Gilbert and George’s Visit
On September 3, 1993, Gilbert and George held a solo exhibition at the National Art Museum of China. At the opening ceremony, the two artists posed for the cameras with flowers. I turned to my friend Zhang Huan and said, ‘Let’s go!’ Zhang replied, ‘Yes, why not!’ So we joined them and took a photo together. Gilbert and George were curious about what we did. When we told them we were a group of young artists in Beijing, they expressed interest in visiting the East Village. I left my pager number and arranged for them to visit the next day. Coincidentally, Mr. Li Xianting had also recommended us to them when introducing the artists in Beijing. The next day, I waited for them at the Great Wall Hotel. Accompanied by a journalist and an interpreter, Gilbert, and George arrived by two taxis from Peninsula Beijing. I left my bike and got into one of the taxis with them, and we went on a tour of other artists’ studios, ending up in my studio. Nobody knew I was going to perform, except Zhang Huan, whose help I would need at the end.
While Gilbert and George were looking at my paintings, I quietly turned on the music and moved a small wooden table into the middle of the room. I then took off my jacket, stood on the table, and gazed up at the ceiling, which was covered in papier-mache. When I found a crack in the ceiling and reached up to touch it, blood suddenly flowed down my fingers, arm, face, and body. Feeling faint, I leaned back, and Zhang Huan helped me down. Gilbert and George applauded and congratulated me, and we took photo together. This performance had a profound impact on my subconscious sense of behavior.
” The personalization, sadness, and expressiveness of the body itself moved Gilbert and George and the East Village artists who were present. This also paved the way for the language of ‘bodily expressiveness’ in the subsequent performance art in the East Village.” Excerpted from Li Xianting’s “Looking Back: A Memoir of Beijing’s East Village”.
Fen-Ma Liuming Was Born
One day in October 1993, at a party, Tan Yeguang, a Hong Kong student, was taking pictures of everyone. An idea suddenly hit me: I would swap clothes with the girls present and pose for photos. After seeing my photos, I decided to present them as a piece of work named Fen-Ma Liuming (芬·马六明). Fen was the name of my first love. At that time, I was an unsettled individual because of my pursuit of art, while her parents hoped for her to lead a stable life, which eventually led to our breakup.In Chinese, “fen” (芬) is a homophone of “fen” (分) which means “to separate”; the dot in the name mimics the Chinese transliteration of a Western name.
“The common identity that lovers acquire through love is metaphorically reproduced in the hermaphrodite character created in Fen-Ma Liuming (1993). The most straightforward meaning of love is not unveiled until this exact moment, questioning the social identity that is constantly being defined while mirroring a previously repressed desire for love.” This is an excerpt from Xu Xiaofan’s exhibition review: “Moving” in Community of Feeling: Clues to”Emotions,” in the History of Modern and Contemporary Chinese Art. Source: The Paper, February 13, 2020.
After that, I performed in “Fen-Ma Liuming” II, III, IV, and V. These series featured Fen-Ma Liuming dressed in women’s clothing or naked in front of blank, black backgrounds, nature, or ancient architecture. Since then, Fen-Ma Liuming has been characterized by an effeminate face and a male body. These works cannot be simply classified as performance art or traditional photography, as I intentionally hired a photographer to document my staged actions, and then selected and presented the resulting photos according to my artistic vision. The theme and concept of the works are of greater importance than the decisive moment captured in traditional photography.
In 2010, “Fen-Ma Liuming III” was exhibited next to Cindy Sherman’s images at the “Great Performances” exhibition of Pace Beijing, in the 798 Art Zone.
Acted as Fen-Ma Liuming in the Performance Art
On November 13, 1993, I did the performance “Fen-Ma Liuming Speaks” in which Fen-Ma Liuming lay on a couch, masturbated, and drank his own semen mixed with water. Experience extreme repression and loneliness of human nature.
On April 19, 1994, I performed “Fen-Ma Liuming’s Lunch I” in Cang Xin’s studio. In the early morning, I borrowed a cooker and a sheet of glass from a friend as props for the performance art. At the time, there were several people invited to observe, including Mr. Li Xianting, Mr. Wei Guangqing, and several artists from the East Village. Additionally, a group of Film Academy students was present to record the performance and create a documentary. After Fen-Ma Liuming had his makeup done, he cooked a live fish from a fish tank in a pot. He then placed the cooked fish on a glass table and sat beside it. Using a tube, one end attached to his penis and the other end held in his mouth, Fen-Ma Liuming looked ahead silently. At this point, an audience came over and ate the fish with their hands. The performance ended with Fen-Ma Liuming using chopsticks to separate the fish meat from the bones, removing the tube, and placing the fish bones back into the fish tank.
On June 12th of the same year, I performed “Fen-Ma Liuming’s Lunch II” in the yard I rented while the landlord was away. Fen-Ma Liuming placed potatoes, paper with drawings of potatoes, pens, watches, jewelry, and other items in a pot next to the gas stove in the yard and waited… Afterward, he buried the cooked potatoes in the soil of the yard, and finally placed the boiled earrings, pens, watches, and other items on a plate and brought them into the room, ending the performance. After completing this performance, I asked the assistants to eat at a nearby restaurant and then returned to the yard to pack up. While I was doing so, the police arrived, and they took me, Zhu Ming, and some students from the Film Academy to the police station for not having temporary residence permits. The student from the Film Academy returned to school that evening after the teacher provided a guarantee. I was then sent to the Chaoyang Detention Center on the grounds of “obscene performance”, where I was incarcerated in a room with 30 other detainees. The police took my works to the professor at the Academy of Fine Arts for appraisal, and the letter of explanation from Mr.Li and the signature of Liu Xiaochun was also provided. The police also investigated Xu Zhiwei, who took my photos, and finally concluded that it was just a case of extreme artistic expression.Two months later, I was released and taken back to Huangshi by the local public security. Zhu Ming was detained in a shelter for homeless drifters in Changping for three months before being sent back home. The “Fen-Ma Liuming Lunch” series I and II show the absurdity of everyday life.
On March 18, 1995, I carried out the performance of “Fen-Ma Liuming and the Fish” in a small courtyard I rented in Anjialou. In this performance, Fen-Ma Liuming put a live fish into a frying pan. Water kept flowing from the tap next to the pan, and thick smoke rose up from the burning pan…while Fen-Ma Liuming shivered in the cold weather… This was my first performance after being released from the detention center, and it expressed the extreme fragility and insecurity of life.
In 1996, I moved into a courtyard in Liulitun. On May 18th of that year, I performed the “Fish Child” in the bathroom. Fen-Ma Liuming hung live fish, the most common ones we ate in daily life, by nylon threads in the shabby bathroom. The fish painfully opened and closed their mouths as they swayed in mid-air. Fen-Ma Liuming took a shower normally and left without any contact with the fish as if there were no fish in the bathroom. This performance presented a surreal scene of human, water, and fish, alone in absurd cruelty, evoking themes of sexuality and death.
Performing in an Environment of Chinese Symbolism
On June 12, 1998, I performed “Fen-Ma Liuming Walks the Great Wall” at Simatai. After applying makeup, I removed my clothes and hid them in a secret spot, retrieving them later. During the performance, I walked along the Great Wall from Simatai to Jinshanling, a quiet stretch with few tourists. I encountered only one shepherd on the way, and eventually stopped due to foot pain caused by the rough gravel.
The first time I saw the Great Wall, I was awed by its grandeur and had the idea to perform there. However, I realized that any complex performance would seem redundant and pretentious compared to the majestic architecture and mountains. A video of my performance was exhibited at the 1999 Venice Biennale.
“In the film, “Fen-Ma Liuming Walks the Great Wall” (1998), the artist utilized the symbol of Chinese civilization. As Maranatha Ivanova writes, there is a qualitative difference between those within boundaries (like citizens of the ancient Roman Empire) and those outside them. Thus, “diversity” is usually synonymous with “inferiority.” Struggling to walk on the steep and dilapidated wall, Fen-Ma Liuming challenged those who had established their own rules in history and defined who had the ‘papers on order’. Those who were not regulated by the rules were deemed to be unclassifiable and thus lacking in credibility, and posing a threat to the maintenance of a stable and secure status. ” Excerpt from Monica Dematte’s article in the Catalogue of the 48th Venice Biennale, 1999.
First Time Performing Outside China in 1996
In 1996, “Fen-Ma Liuming in Tokyo I” was performed at the Nippon International Performance Art Festival (NIPAF) in Tokyo, Japan. I was the first Chinese performance artist to be invited to perform outside China, and it was also my first show outside of China. The performance took place at the theater of the Japan International Art Exchange Center and was open to the public.
On March 1st, in a dark theater, Fen-Ma Liuming stood on a table on the stage, lighting matches and shining them on different parts of his body. After about 5 minutes, a faint light appeared in the background of the stage, and Fen-Ma Liuming continued to light matches, illuminating his body like a silhouette. About another 5 minutes later, all the spotlights on the stage shone on Fen-Ma Liuming, bright and dazzling, but he continued to light matches and illuminate his body.The performance ended after about 5 minutes when all the lights suddenly went out, and Fen-Ma Liuming disappeared. The theater lights then came up. The foreign artists participating in the festival were curious about Chinese artists and watched the performance. This was my first public performance using the stage and lighting available to create a unique effect. The atmosphere was full of mystery and exotic allure.
In 1996, during the NIPAF tour’s second stop in Nagano, Japan, “Fen-Ma Liuming”was performed at the Nagano Cultural Center. On March 3rd, in a dark performance hall, Fen-Ma Liuming sat between a TV set and a large mirror on stage.He turned on the TV, and as he changed the channels, light from the screen shone upon him. The mirror behind him vaguely reflected the changing contents of the TV. After about 15 minutes, the performance came to an end. Fen-Ma Liuming switched off the TV, and the theater lights went out. He disappeared, and the lights came back on, signaling the end of the performance.
Self-Portraits by Fen-Ma Liuming
In 1996, I started a series of performances called “Self-portraits by Fen-Ma Liuming”. On August 6th of that year, at my studio in Liulitun, I took 36 selfportraits using a camera mounted on a tripod and the camera’s self-timer. The aperture, focal length, and composition were all spontaneous and unchanged throughout the shoot. The performance ended after taking 36 shots, which was the standard number of shots for a traditional roll of film.
There was another self-portrait performance in 1997 at the Setagaya Art Museum in Japan, as part of the “DE-GENDERISM” international joint exhibition. On February 9th, Fen-Ma Liuming held a camera tripod in his hands and took photos alongside all the participating artists’ works on the visiting route, with many visitors following him. These two works were self-portraits taken during performances. Due to the camera’s fixed aperture, speed, and focal length, and the uncertain composition and lighting at the time of taking self-portraits, so-called “bad photos” were produced. I called these incidental photos and also presented them as works.
Audiences From Different Countries Take Photos with Fen-Ma Liuming
Most of Fen-Ma Liuming’s performances outside China were named “Fen-Ma Liuming in [name of place]”, and included a major series in which audiences from different countries took photos together with him. During the performance, a sign would be put up reading “Audience can take photos with Fen-Ma Liuming fully dressed or naked”. Fen-Ma Liuming would sit in front of a mirror, with the camera mounted on a tripod, and take photos using a remote control with the audience.The sound of the shutter release would be amplified through a loudspeaker, echoing through the space like gunfire. The performance would end once the roll of the film was finished. During post-production, I printed the negative numbers as an indicator of the photos’ authenticity and integrity.
From 1997 to 1999, I performed this series of works in various locations, including Breda in the Netherlands, Alma,Trois-Rivieres and Toronto in Canada, P.S.1 in New York, London, Geneva, Basel, the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, Enns in Austria, and Nagoya and Nagano in Japan. Since performance art is public outside of China, I had the idea to involve audiences in the performance so that Fen-Ma Liuming wouldn’t need to perform additional actions. I was curious about how audiences from different countries would react. For example, in Geneva, when Fen-Ma Liuming appeared at 11:00 p.m., the audience took an active part in the performance by taking photos with the naked artist. Some were nervous, their hands trembling when they had contact with Fen-Ma Liuming’s body. One woman came over four times to take photos with Fen-Ma Liuming. In Japan, the audience was more cooperative but relatively restrained. This series of works was exhibited in the form of photographs and multimedia at the Gwangju Biennale 2000 and the Istanbul Biennale.
Fen-Ma Liuming Falls Asleep After Taking Sleeping Pills During A Performance
In another series of group photos, Fen-Ma Liuming took sleeping pills before going on stage and falling into a state of sleep there. Audiences were invited to take photos with Fen-Ma Liuming by pressing the self-timer of a camera mounted on a tripod. A staff member took Fen-Ma Liuming from the venue when the whole roll of film (36 shots) had been finished. The photographs were taken by the audience who participated in the photo shoot, while the video recordings were taken by FenMa Liuming himself. This performance was done in several places in 2000-2001,including Jakarta, Lyon, Gwangju Biennale 2000, Munich, Dusseldorf, and Munster.This performance was done at several places in 2000-2001, including Jakarta, Lyon,Gwangju Biennale 2000, Munich, Dusseldorf, and Munster. Fen-Ma Liuming’s intake of sleeping pills caused him to enter a state of sleep with occasional unconscious movements as if in a hypnagogic state. For instance, Fen-Ma Liuming took some sleeping pills one hour before the performance in Jakarta, and half an hour later, he felt sleepy while putting on his makeup. When he sat on the stage waiting for the audience to take photos, he was in a half-sleeping state, feeling the silence around him and sensing the audience coming up to the stage. Fen-Ma Liuming slowly lost consciousness and returned to half-sleep over time, hearing laughter and shouting, and then lost consciousness again. Finally, he had been taken off the stage. It wasn’t until I saw the live video that I understood what had happened. In Indonesia, the audience was highly engaged and did many interesting performances, turning the photo shoot into a carnival. In addition to the performance, photography was also tried in several different ways, for example, Fen-Ma Liuming himself or the audience taking self-portraits, which produced different psychological reactions and effects. A video of this work was presented by the Asia Art Archive at Documenta fifteen in Kassel in 2022.
Playing Movie Music in Two Performances
“The Perfect Day I” series was performed at the International Performance Art Festival in Thailand in November 2000. In the afternoon of the performance day, I sat on the street in the Thai heat wearing the thick clothes that I would wear in cold Beijing, sweating profusely. In the evening, I wore a T-shirt to perform in the designated venue. Nudity was not allowed as Thailand is a Buddhist country. Fen Ma Liuming stood in front of the audience, silently making occasional changes in position. At this point, an assistant, who had been arranged beforehand, came on stage and sprayed water on Fen-Ma Liuming’s face several times, as if watering flowers. Then, the music “Perfect Day” from the movie “Trainspotting” played. Finally, when the music ended, Fen-Ma Liuming left the scene.
On September 22, 2001, “Perfect Day II” was performed at the Istanbul Biennale. The performance took place on a small island with a tower located at the strait between Europe and Asia, which was also the venue for the evening banquet for the participating guests. As the night was falling and lights in the distance began to light up, the guests arrived at the island by boat, drinking and chatting outside.Suddenly, various languages’ voices (which I had recorded in advance in the exhibition halls) played over the outdoor loudspeaker, gradually increasing in volume, then suddenly becoming quiet. Fen-Ma Liuming appeared on stage wearing a pair of trousers and standing naked from the waist up in the spotlight, gazing at the audience and into the distance. After a while, an old man appeared on the stage, repeatedly spraying water on Fen-Ma Liuming’s face with a spray bottle. At this point, the music “Perfect Day” from “Trainspotting” was played, and the water mist diffused in the spotlight. When the music was over, Fen-Ma Liuming stepped down off the stage. These two performances expressed the absurdity and romance of everyday life.
On September 21, 2001, at 5:00 p.m., I performed at the opening ceremony of the Istanbul Biennial, interacting with participating artists and the live audience. Before the performance, I arranged 62 chairs in a square array in the park, each with an artist’s name card in alphabetical order from A to Z. The artists sat in their designated chairs and waited. Meanwhile, I put on makeup and took some sleeping pills in a small guard room. The pills soon took effect, and I fell asleep. When I woke up at 5:30 p.m., Fen-Ma Liuming walked onto the site from a distance and sat down on his chair, also falling asleep. At this point, with the help of an assistant, audience members were invited to spray water on Fen-Ma Liuming’s head and body with a spray bottle. As the sun went down, it grew cold, and Fen-Ma Liuming began to shiver in his semi-conscious state. Suddenly, the fountains surrounding the square of seats began to spurt water inwards, surprising the audience. After they calmed down, they burst into violent applause. A few minutes later, the fountains stopped,and a staff member took Fen-Ma Liuming away. Because of the cold weather and the sleeping pills, I vomited as soon as I entered the dressing room.
A Dialogue with Art History in Two Performances
“Fen-Ma Liuming in Montreal” was performed at the Performance Art Festival in Montreal on May 4, 2001. This performance aimed to engage in a dialogue with Beuys’ famous performance “How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare.” Fen-Ma Liuming took sleeping pills in advance and sat in a chair, slowly falling asleep. On the chair next to him, there were sleeping pills and a notebook with the words “Beuys: How to explain pictures to a dead hare. Hare: Can I eat a carrot? ” The audience sat on the floor, surrounded by ten live hares who were moving around, some eating carrots and hay, while others were running and playing with the audience. After about half an hour, the curator announced the end of the performance.
The performance “Fen-Ma Liuming in Lisbon” took place at the Filomena Soares Gallery in Lisbon on the evening of September 27, 2001. It was an art piece that engaged in a dialogue with Cézanne’s still-life paintings. Fen-Ma Liuming sat on a chair placed on a large wooden table and slowly fell asleep under the influence of sleeping pills. Similar to Cézanne’s still life paintings, there was a white porcelain vase with flowers, and wax apples placed on a wrinkled sheet of white cloth. During the performance, a staff member pushed a cart with a peeling machine and some real apples through the audience, continuously peeling apples for them. After about half an hour, the performance ended when Fen-Ma Liuming was woken up by the curator.
“Untitled” was performed on the evening of October 20, 2001, at the SP2 Performance Art Festival in London. The venue for the performance was a disused church where I had set up a fax machine at the top of the church beforehand. I had invited my friends in Beijing to send any messages they wanted to the fax machine. After taking some sleeping pills outside the church, I sat on a chair leaning against the church wall and fell asleep. The occasional sound of the fax machine receiving messages accompanied me during my slumber. A street lamp shone on my body while the audience walked around or sat in silence. When the other artists’ performances ended, the curator woke me up and I left the scene, thus ending the performance. This time I did not perform in the role of Fen-Ma Liuming and wore all black for this performance.
“Fen-Ma Liuming in Quebec” took place on September 19, 1997, at Le Lieu, a performance art organization in Quebec. The exhibition hall was filled with chatting audiences holding glasses of beer. Suddenly, the lights went out. Fen-Ma Liuming quietly walked through the audience and stopped at various points throughout the hall. Each time he stopped, a spotlight slowly illuminated him before gradually fading away. He repeated this process about ten times, moving through the audience and standing still in different parts of the exhibition hall. The performance ended when Fen-Ma Liuming disappeared into the darkness and the exhibition hall lights came back on.
“Fen-Ma Liuming in Setagaya Art Museum” was a performance that took place at 3:00 p.m. on February 11, 1997, as part of the international joint exhibition “DEGENDERISM” at the Setagaya Art Museum. The audience waited in a small theater while I shaved with an electric razor and put on makeup in the next room. The audience was able to watch the process of me putting on makeup on a large screen, while the sound of the electric razor grew louder and played through a speaker on stage.” Suddenly, the screen went off, and Fen-Ma Liuming appeared on stage wearing black tights. Two sets of clothes, a man’s suit, and a woman’s dress had been placed on the stage in advance. Fen-Ma Liuming put on both sets of clothes and began to cut them with a pair of scissors. He then walked through the audience seating row by row, cutting the clothes when he passed an unoccupied seat. He eventually stood on a chair and cut off all the clothes. The scissors slipped from his hands, and Fen-Ma Liuming walked naked in front of the audience before disappearing from sight.
The Last Live Performance
I made my final live performance, “ANY DAY”, at the Asia Art Festival held at Fukuoka Asian Art Museum on March 9, 2003, at 5:00 p.m. The performance featured 10 TV sets on the scene, with nine of them showing different videos of me napping normally, while the tenth one showed my face after taking sleeping pills and sleeping next door. This time, I was dressed in black, and only my face was made up. The audience moved back and forth between the two spaces, trying to determine which face on the screens was the one in the performance.
For 11 years, all of my performance works shared a common feature: they were done through the character of “Fen-Ma Liuming,” just as a writer creates a protagonist in a novel to interpret the world through their works.
Then, one winter day in 2004, after a heavy snowfall, I invited my friend Wang Jinsong to the Great Wall at Simatai to take a photo of Fen-Ma Liuming superimposed on Ma Liuming in everyday clothes. Since then, Fen-Maliuming has only appeared in recorded images.
After 30 years have passed, I can recall Fen-Ma Liuming with more clarity than ever before. As I wrote in my autobiography in 1995, “The relationship between art and the artist is like lovers; I will always dress up for you, my beloved art!”