Artist’s Take on Sexual Abuse Turns Ugly


Published: New York Times World, August 6, 2013

Courtesy Li Xinmo A man rushed the stage and groped Yan Yinhong during her performance.

Courtesy Li Xinmo
A man rushed the stage and groped Yan Yinhong during her performance.

HONG KONG — Life imitated art, startlingly and crudely, in the city of Hai’an, north of Shanghai, when two men rushed the stage and groped the painter and performance artist Yan Yinhong as she danced “One Person’s Battlefield” — her furious comment on sexual violence against women.

The assault continued through her entire performance as she dodged the men who kissed and groped her, grappled her to the floor and thrust their hands up her skirt, the audience making only halfhearted efforts to help as they stood by and recorded the incident with phones and cameras.

Did she report it to the police? No: “How could you report that here?” she asked.

“To me, their interference showed the vileness of society, and our society is vile,” Ms. Yan said in a telephone interview.

It was “real embarrassing,” said Cheng Meixin, an independent art critic and curator and the organizer of the Hai’an China Contemporary Art and Ideology Forum, where the incident took place in mid-June. “It should never have happened,” he said. One of the men — both are Beijing-based artists known to Mr. Cheng — had “psychological problems,” he said.

Was the man getting help, I asked?

No, Mr. Cheng said. “In Chinese society you don’t get help when you have those kinds of problems.”

I wrote about Ms. Yan’s work in this column after she performed her piece in Beijing in late May. I described how she depicted scenes of sexual violence and then, in a moment of surprise for the audience, did a handstand, her skirt dropping away to reveal the face of a uniformed policeman painted onto her flesh-colored leotard. Her message: There is a great deal of sexual violence around, quite a bit of it perpetrated by representatives of the state.

So I listened, feeling shock but also a weary familiarity, and mostly marveling at the brutish irony (sexually attacking a woman as she protests sexual attacks against women — who would make that up?) as Li Xinmo, a fellow performer, recounted the events in Hai’an over dinner in the 798 Art District in Beijing, not long afterward.

Ms. Li saw something other than “a vile society” or untreated mental illness.

That same afternoon in Hai’an, another, third man had interfered in Ms. Li’s piece, “Mouth of the Spring.”

Something systematic was at work, she said: anti-woman sentiment.

Dressed in her trademark white, Ms. Li had sat quietly on the stage (a large square of white-painted ground with a white wall behind it), drinking black ink from white teacups. Next she splashed herself with ink from a bucket. Finally she dumped the contents of the bucket over her head. The ink symbolized the internal poison and external stain of thousands of years of official Chinese literary, philosophical and political thought, which Ms. Li sees as overwhelmingly male-centered.

Video footage shows a man walking up to her, taking a cup and drinking from it, as she moves away her tray with the teacups and a pot.

“I asked him to stop, but he ignored me,” said Ms. Li, looking pale as she spoke, the entire incident and its aftermath a strain. It was unsolicited interference, she said, and “it felt like a violation.”

Video shows her angrily picking up a tea tray and flinging it away. At the end she stalks off the black-spattered floor, radiating anger.

Ms. Li says she faces much criticism for her feminism from male Chinese artists. “They are just the same as other men,” she said, adding, “I’m so sick of this.”

This is what Ms. Li concluded from the assaults on her and Ms. Yan: “If the artists had been men, such interference would have been unlikely,” she said, summarizing comments she posted on an online art magazine, igniting debate. “But it seems that people are used to not respecting women’s wishes.”

“Those three men don’t represent all Chinese men,” she said of the two men who interrupted Ms. Yan’s performance and the one who interrupted her show. “But they are a kind of mirror that shows a face of men, an ugliness, and shows the real experience of women.”

Particularly upsetting, she said, was the response from some artists and critics. While some defended Ms. Li and Ms. Yan, others said the events, including the sexualized attack on Ms. Yan, constituted “interactive art.”

Writing on, the artist and critic Wu Wei challenged Ms. Li’s interpretation. Mr. Wu concluded that the men’s actions were a form of interactive art, though he conceded that at one point one man may have overstepped a boundary — when he unzipped his fly and took out his penis, a moment also confirmed by Ms. Yan. Even that “basically fit the meaning and needs of the piece,” Mr. Wu wrote.

Ms. Li’s interpretation was itself a form of prejudice, he wrote. “Li Xinmo is always talking about feminism,” he said. “But this kind of feminism, doesn’t it just become female chauvinism?!”

To Ms. Yan, it was nothing of the kind.

If she appears in the video initially to play along with the assault — a true artist — she said that her energy was focused on her protecting her show and the leotard with the policeman image, as the men groped her.

“Otherwise my performance would have been ruined,” she said.

As the assault continued, her resistance grew.

“I was angry,” she said. “But as it was happening, I was 80 percent thinking, ‘How can I successfully finish my show?’ and 20 percent thinking, ‘What if I had been in some other place and met guys like this?”’

That could have actually been dangerous, she said.

“I felt that I could handle it,” she concluded. “There is so much of this in my daily life. I come across this kind of thing all the time.”