Michael Zheng: Remembering the Now

By Alanna Lockward

“-¡Oh Caballero de la Triste Figura! No te dé afincamiento la prisión en que vas, porque así conviene para acabar más presto la aventura en que tu gran esfuerzo te puso.”

Don Quixote

“Consciousness-raising and personal integrity were the priorities. Nothing could be bought or sold. Performance continues twenty-five years later to be pivotal and essential”.

Linda Montano

“To escape from the traps of art, it is not enough to be against museums or to stop producing marketable objects; the artist of the future must learn how to evade his profession”.

Allan Kaprow


“Where” does it mean to be born and raised in China, move to San Francisco and become an artist after experiencing entrepreneurship and computer programming for a decade? Michael Zheng is like a fish searching for a countercurrent of epic proportions to be able to relax and finally become himself. As a new member of the oldest Chinese epicenter in the US, self-depicted according to Spanish parameters as a contemporary Don Quixote and in the process of becoming a life-art practitioner in the Mecca of the genre, a place still breathing the performances of Allan Kaprow, Linda Montano and Tony Labat -his former teacher at the San Francisco Art Institute- Zheng territories are everything except safe.

In Zheng ´s new series “Artist for Hire”, the intimacy of a dialogue stretches beyond the need to create a valid artistic anecdote about the dialogue itself. He is determined to infuse his practice in the terrain of “hunger for community, for bodily closeness” that Linda Montano prescribes as the definition of performance audience chemistry today. As in many conceptual works, the narrative, the documentation of the experience, becomes the biggest challenge for the artists and her/his critic. As Roy Ascott says: “To discuss what one is doing rather than the artwork which results, to attempt to unravel the loops of creative activity, is, in many ways, a behavioral problem. The fusion of art, science and personality is involved. It leads to a consideration of our total relationship to a work of art, in which physical moves may lead to conceptual moves, in which Behavior relates to Idea…‘An organism is most efficient when it knows its own internal order’”1 Michael Zheng is looking for an archive of his personal motivations to be hired and those of the individual who hires him to perform an undetermined task for no apparent obvious reason. He is not preoccupied with making this archive present, or articulating it in a visual or textual manner, but rather allows the uncertainties of this process to develop their own specific weight, an intuitive power that would eventually “explain” to a wider and remote audience the focus of those involved. As in other performances conceived in moments of personal crisis (Groundbreaking, 2003), the need for a catharsis becomes the genesis of the piece. In the aforementioned work, the artist buried himself in the ground playing intentionally “with the loftiness of artistic aspiration and the self-importance of artists”. In the performance he directed his assistants through a walkie-talkie to bury him, with his head in the earth first. The two hour long process culminated in a seemingly perfect sculpture of Zheng´s ass sticking out from the ground.

In the performance "Stare" (2003) a volunteer at a time looked at the artist in the eyes for as long as they remained engaged, exposing the tensions of a conventional intimate act in a public setting, in a manner akin to Marina Abramovic and Ulay’s “Relation Works” series of the mid seventies. The psychological power game at play in “Stare” becomes a self-evidence in its own right, the struggle to overcome the unbearable thickness of time is both infuriating and hypnotic; relational aesthetics á-la-Zheng. This combination of self-exposure and transparency, and of quoting pivotal references so kin to art-life performance today, has mutated in his current series by means of a wider and deeper concern regarding self-awareness; in the artist’s own words: “I saw a vision where both my life and my art are centered around the notion and practice of being mindful, and the value of my art and my life in that sense.” The first two experiments of “Artist for Hire” took place very recently in Berlin and Zheng has been so inspired by them that he has actually opened a new space in San Francisco in order to expand this experience to other dimensions, and to facilitate, among other purposes, the kind of dialogue that remains the core of any practice that involves being brave enough to be willing to play with the vulnerability of the now.

Berlin February 9th, 2010


1 Ascott, Roy, „The Construction of Change“, Cambridge Opinion 37 (January, 1964). Quoted in: Lippard, Lucy, Six Years: The dematerialization of the art object. Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1997. P. 2


Alanna Lockward is an author, critic and independent curator based in Berlin.