Cruel/Loving Bodies

This weekend (July 8 and 9), I had the pleasure of participating in a roundtable discussion of Cruel/Loving Bodies 2 project, which is on display at the Hong Kong Arts Centre from July 8 through July 28. The Pao Gallery on the fifth floor and the Goethe Gallery on the fourteenth floor are co-presenting the exhibition. Cruel/Loving Bodies 1 was exhibited at Shanghai’s Duolun Museum of Modern Art (June 2004) and Beijing’s 798 Space (July 2004).

This was the first time I have contributed to an art discussion and, not unsurprisingly, approached it as if it were an anthropology meeting, understanding my role to be that of discussant. I came to play a familiar head game, reading textualized bodies against themselves, against each other, and if time permitted, against other texts. My jaw clenched at the responsibilities that my imaginary job description intimated; what would I say if asked, “What influences do you see in the work of Mayling TO? (杜美玲)” However, the experiences of viewing “Here We Are” with artist Lesley SANDERSON, sucking an ice pop with HE Chengyao (何成瑶), and dubbing Deep Throat as part of ZHENG Bo’s (郑波)“Watch porn, learn English” movement jolted, if only momentarily, corporeal habits. And I expectedly found myself remembering to play hide and seek.

When playing hide and seek, children want to be found. If you don’t find them within what they think is a reasonable amount of time, they will call out to you. In turn, if they can’t find you, they become frustrated, expecting a return call. After all, the point is to find and be found; the seeking is simply a means of enhancing the pleasure, not an end in itself. I think this commonplace observation points to a practical understanding of the fine line between love and cruelty. In hide and seek, love is the effort to find the person, cruelty the refusal.

Most of the time, I don’t play. Instead, my shoulders tighten, my eyes squint, and my heart makes judgments about my interlocutor based on superficial signs—skin color, hair texture, body height and mass, the smell of sweat and light perfume, the drape of a skirt, the polish of leather shoes. Together, these signs suggest how the woman if front of me has treated herself and been treated by others; I too treat her like a lady should be treated. Grimy cheeks, missing teeth, crooked fingers, swollen ankles, rheumy eyes, and sweat-stained clothing also reveal past interactions; unthinkingly, I treat the old peasant like a beggar should be treated.

In presenting bodies in unexpected ways, however, the artists of the Cruel/Loving Bodies project pre-empt habitual interactions. How does one treat, for example, the virtuous women of BAI Chongmin (白崇民) and WU Weihe (吴玮和)? The form echoes that of the Terra-cotta soldiers, but unlike the first Qin Emperor’s guard, these figures have no clear features, except for a number, which corresponds to examples taken from LIU Xiang’s 烈女传. This difference invites the reader to seek: What history brought these signs together in this particular way? Or consider, susan pui san LOK’s (骆佩珊) “Notes on Return”, which skitters across the uneven, indeed flimsy, surface of plastic strips: How can a world become so unstable?

I assume that I know how to treat a lady or a beggar because I assume that their bodies reveal the history that made them who they are. In contrast, the Cruel/Loving bodies compel the viewer to reconsider how these bodies came to be; we don’t know how to treat them because we don’t recognize the processes that formed them. That moment jolts us out of habit as we lurch toward the child’s call: come and find me. Our lady and beggar abruptly seem otherwise as well: what if I have been misrecognizing the signs all along? What if this misrecognition has been a refusal to play? And what if an ability to read the signs has merely enabled me to be cruel?

If in Hong Kong this month, please visit the Cruel/Loving Bodies 2 exhibition at the Hong Kong Arts Centre. The curious can visit the artists’ sites: Leungpo 梁宝山, Zheng Bo, Conroy and Sanderson, susan pui san LOK, and Mayling TO. I have also uploaded some images of the opening weekend.

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