This was one of my personal favorite that's Beijing columns, which ran in the October 2002 issue. It's a eulogy for a departed performance artist named Guo Fen, a relative of mine--and a figment of my imagination, I should add: To my great consternation, lots of readers just didn't get that this was a piss-take on the Beijing art scene.
* * * *
Guo Fen, one of Beijing's most versatile, prolific, and controversial artists, passed away on August 17 at the age of 36. As a distant relative of the artist's and an avid collector of his works, I have been asked by the editors of this publication to write a few words about the man, his life, and his art.
Guo's life in art was a direct, unflagging, and conscious challenge to entrenched and outmoded notions of "talent" and "good taste." True, his detractors have labeled him variously as a cynic, a fraud, and an exploitative pervert--an artist only of the confidence game, it was said, who pandered shamelessly to wealthy foreign collectors and courted controversy through cheap sensationalistic stunts. But these barbs bounced off Guo like water off a duck's back. He was secure in his uncanny commercial acumen, the exercise of which--like the exercise of his art--was well served by his freedom from the fetters of conventional ethics.
Guo Fen was born in 1966, in Wuyang County, Henan Province. That province, cradle of Chinese civilization (and this writer's ancestral home), has produced artists and craftsmen now famous across China for the fidelity and sheer variety of their reproductions. As a teen, Guo learned to cast excellent reproductions of Shang Dynasty bronze vessels, whose verisimilitude was such that he was able to place, for a time, bronze installations in several municipal museums in Anhui and Jiangxi. His forced absence from the art world--resulting from a misunderstanding over Guo's alleged misrepresation of those bronzes as genuine--gave the young Guo the opportunity to hone his skills in other media: carpentry, plastic injection molding, and textiles. It should be noted that the bronze vessel incident was Guo's only criminal conviction; the other offenses with which he was charged--the highly publicized incident inovlving the seven-year-old girl and the moray eels notwithstanding--either never came to trial or were dismissed on technicalities.
After losing the pinky finger of his left hand to a power loom in 1986, Guo was released from prison. Undeterred from pursuing his artistic vision, he soon made his way to the capital, where the resourceful 20-year-old audited courses at the prestigious Central Academy of Arts. Exhibiting the rare combination of daring artistic originality and uncanny market savvy that would come to characterize his career, he pioneered the combining of Chinese socilalist realism with western pop art themes, creating, almost single-handedly, the celebrated "McStruggle" school of art. The commercial success of acrylic paintings like "Red Star over Golden Arches" (1987) and "Colonel Sanders Addresses the Yan'an Forum on Chicken" (1988) spawned innumerable imitators. Sadly, his contributions to the genre--one that has come to define modern Chinese art--have gone largely unacknkowledged.
In early 1991, following a brief sojourn in Fujian Province, Guo Fen moved to New York, where he gained notoriety for exhibiting a series of photgraphs depicting a severed finger planted upright in a flower pot. In all fairness, Guo never made the claim that the finger was his missing digit: He stood before the exhibit, his four-fingered left hand raised, and did not force viewers to draw the conclusions that they did. Talk of legal action (the finger and photos thereof, it turns out, belonged to another Beijing artist named Sheng Qi) convinced him to return to China. But he carried with him many influences from his months in New York. Greatly impressed with the prices the Saatchis and other collectors were then paying for pieces by Damien Hirst and other avant-garde artists, Guo began experimenting with alternative media--a period that culminated in his seminal and disturbing series, "Misanthropology 101: Studies in Phlegm, Bile, Excrement, and Ear Wax."
No doubt Guo Fen will be best remembered for his bold performance pieces and accompanying video installations. "Puppy Chow," his clever satirical inversion of an infamous piece by a contemporary, in which Guo fed his dog's aborted fetal pup to a young working girl from Dongbei; the multi-sensory "Great Wall of Mollusks," in which Guo pioneered the new genre of olfactory art; and his highly controversial, cannibalistically-suggestive "Tastes like Chicken."
Perhaps the greatest work of Guo's brief but brilliant career was his last---a final, if accidental, sacrifice for art. "Slaughterhouse Sluts," a performance protest against cruelty to animals and the exploitation of women, had all the hallmarks of Guo's work: Rich irony, unabashed escess, and a high asking price. I know that Guo Fen would not want us to blame the women with the chainsaws for the accident; he knew that he was taking a risk when he climbed into the eviscreated carcass of that ox. Guo had hoped that this work would get him invited to the Venice Biennale, and in one last cruel irony, the invitation did arrive, albeit postumously. As the performance was captured on digital video, Guo and his life's final work may yet make it to the Biennale, where surely he will gain the critical acclaim that has so long eluded him.