Thirty years ago in Beijing, on the eve of Chinese New Year, contemporary Chinese artist Xiao Lu made her artistic debut by firing a shotgun at her installation Dialogue. Ever since, these famous shots have reverberated on multiple political levels, often noted as an important feminist moment in contemporary Chinese art, and as the first shots of Tiananmen Square (which occurred four months later). The mythology of this moment and Lu’s three-decade-long career are being thoughtfully considered in Lu’s first major retrospective Impossible Dialogue at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.
A portion of the exhibition centres on Dialogue, 1989, which was initially shown as part of the landmark show China/Avant-Garde. After Lu undertook her extreme performance, the exhibition was shut down and the artist was forced into hiding, living in Sydney for an extended period. Meanwhile Lu’s co-conspirator and boyfriend at the time, Tang Song, was arrested. While he had little involvement with the work, it was his political reading of Dialogue that became the dominant narrative.
As Mikala Tai, co-curator of Impossible Dialogue, explains, the show explores Lu as both an important but also largely misunderstood figure. “Dialogue wasn’t this large political statement, but more about relationships and a more internal or big divide that humans have,” explains Tai. In interviews, Lu speaks of Dialogue (and indeed much of her work) as very instinctual. She told research scholar Monica Merlin in 2013, “I really cannot explain clearly why I did it; it is as if the whole thing was predestined.” At a later point Lu summarises, “I felt like I could not communicate with men. Dialogue was about that.”
In showing a more complex and nuanced reading of Lu’s artistic history, 4A is exhibiting photographs, early ephemera and archival material from the performance at China/Avant-Garde, alongside a series of various performance documentations and videos, particularly from the last 15 years. As Tai explains, the works in Impossible Dialogue all largely stem from 2003 onwards, which was “the moment when Lu decided she wanted to claim her place in history and re-articulate her intent behind her work.” The show also includes documentation from a newly commissioned performance piece, which Lu undertook with almost scientific precision by setting up a hypothesis she wanted to test. It’s a process she uses for much of her work, particularly as the outcomes can never be known in advance.
In recent years Lu has not only extended this sense of precariousness, but has honed her voice by developing a more political stance. “I think for her it has been this process—that’s why we called it Impossible Dialogue,” explains the co-curator. “It’s about someone really coming to grips with a story that has almost been constructed for them, and then actually making space to tell another story. Some people, when you say Xiao Lu’s name, still only remember—even in very art historical circles—will only think about that 1989 work.”
While the political and social intent in Lu’s work is important, there is also something beyond this intent: something deeply elemental is at stake in Lu’s performances. “It’s that she lays everything bare,” explains Tai. “She becomes available to extreme emotions and embraces the consequences of those emotions as well. It’s about testing the depths—and the consequences—of human emotions.”