By Huisi He
“I showed up in New York City. I will be famous and rich. All my dreams will come true. The whole world will see my performance. I will buy a house with garden, and my dog will play in it. I will have a gallery. This is the line from my performance Traps (2016) at Panoply Performance Laboratory in Brooklyn, New York. I was prepared for New York City the moment I got my Master of Fine Arts in studio art. I believed the city would promise me the brightest future with money and fame. A few months later however, I got a significant amount of credit card debt.
I did the performance Traps in February 2016, seven months after I moved to New York City. It took me a whole night to figure out the line, six sentences, for the performance. I felt the city already took away my power of having dreams, so I had to make something up in a self-mockery way. “The performance would embarrass me. And it already did.” I told myself at the night.
I closed my eyes and stood backward to the audience, waiting for them to set up mousetraps. Meanwhile, another group of audience was planning on how to read the line out of loud. There were six dreams in the line, and each sentence was paired with a certain dance movement, which they didn’t know yet. But they would figure it out after a short time of observation.
This performance was a compressed version of my life in New York City in a sense of satire: I was the performer, but I had no control of my performance. I felt insecure, vulnerable and fragile while waiting for my show to begin. When an audience read: “ I showed up in New York City.” I immediately got my pretentious smile and responded with the movement coordinated to it. “I will be famous and rich.” “I will have a gallery.” … I was mechanically following the line and repeating my six movements, moving forward, backward, left and right, lying down and circling. I was in great fear of stepping on mousetraps, but I enjoyed a tiny break in the interval between each step.
My dreams and confidence put me at risk. And the endless feeling of insecurity made me think why I left China and came to the United States? After careful consideration, I only got one reason that I tried to be far away from my family, especially from my grandfather. I wanted to pursue a life that I did not have to view myself through others’ glass lenses. It was four years ago that I did my first performance Fading Away. The performance took place at Smalls Gallery in Tallahassee, Florida, my professor Cynthia Hollis’s backyard.
I hung nine pillowcases with portraits of my grandfather on a cloth line between two bamboo trees. I adopted Chinese ink to paint a portrait of my grandfather on each pillowcase, varying from unrecognizable abstract to recognizable representative images. During the performance, I was washing each pillowcase in a small iron bathtub. While the water turned darker each time, the portraits of my grandfather remained. I drew a conclusion from this performance that there was no way to change or escape from my past.
“Snap, snap, snap…” Mousetraps were exploding around me, crushing my beautiful images of future and dragging me back to the reality of restlessness and panic. I found no way out, and the future was like a pile of puzzles in a maze without entrances and exits. “The whole world will see my performance. All my dreams will come true…” The audience began to sing my dreams loud in a fast pace, leaving me no time to respond, so I just stood still and panicked inside.
Life keeps moving on, no matter you digested your past or not. When I was in China, I constantly had been told what to do and how to feel, respond and act. In 2013, I did a performance Living in My Mother’s Expectation at Working Method Contemporary, Tallahassee, Florida. I stood spiritlessly in a one-foot high two-feet wide square white pedestal. And the only light source was a dim light bulb several inches above my head, rendering a depressing atmosphere. I began to bend and twist my body when the background sound was playing. It was a voice of a middle-aged Chinese woman, who was gradually raising the tone of her voice because she got angrier each time when she was comparing me to her peers’ daughters. Simultaneously, my body was responding to her voice, and it was getting more and more twisted. I was struggling with balance on the limited surface of the pedestal. Eventually, I realized the restraint of the small stage, but I was psychologically powerless to escape from it.
I had been feeling I was incapable of controlling my life until my cultural rebellions made me leave China to the United States in 2007. I always believe that art chose me when I tried to find freedom of expression. In the past years of my art practice, making art has been a healing process for me to let go the negativity of my experience in China. The only way to achieve the result was to face my past honestly and express what I felt at the time. Therefore, my works reveal what I have been through in my life. From my living experience in China to the experience of survival as an artist in New York City, my artworks represent my life moments.
Now I am a New York-based performance artist, and the new scenario comes with other struggles in life. In November 2015, Invisible Line, a performance for the opening night of ITINERANT Performance Art Festival in New York, illustrated the frustrations I encountered after I spent four months here. There was also a line in the performance: “I am standing on my paintings; I am standing on the effort I made in the past; I am standing on my dreams. However, I feel insecure, unstable and fragile. What will happen next? Will my dreams collapse? Will all my effort be in vain? I don’t know. But I won’t stop trying; I won’t stop pushing my boundary; I won’t stop challenging my limits.”
I was standing on an unstable pedestal, a pile of my oil paintings. Based on where I stood, I tried to reach as far as possible by drawing charcoal lines. I put my feet on the pedestal and hands on the floor by using my core strength to coordinate. In this performance, the circles of charcoal drawing were mostly invisible, only fragments of the charcoal mark metaphorizing most of my effort were invisible to people.
“I will be famous and rich…” Their sharp voice broke the stillness of my body and intruded into my blank mind. My body voluntarily responded to their voice, and it drew my mind back to the performance scene. “It was endless.” I thought: “The beautiful words of my dreams, wrapped up self-doubt and hatred, were just lies.” But it ended when the time was up.The end of this performance did not end my struggles in life. It did end, however, some portion of my anxiety.