Chinese artist navigates politics, censorship and relationships with work

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Xiao Lu's most well-known performance piece, Dialogue, became a symbol for young people fighting against a repressive Chinese government in 1989 - but she says it was never meant to be political.

Contemporary artist Xiao Lu is credited by many as firing the first gunshots of the Tiananmen Square massacre, even though she wasn't there. 

Months before the 1989 rebellion, in which at least 10,000 people were killed, Ms Xiao had been arrested following a performance artwork in Beijing in which she fired a gun at her own installation.

But the Chinese artist says the performance piece, called Dialogue, was never intended to be a political statement - it was meant to be a statement about personal relationships.

Renowned performance artist Xiao Lu is coming to Australia.
Renowned performance artist Xiao Lu is coming to Australia.
SBS News


Thirty years later, however, she concedes that the performance quickly grew into much more than a commentary on communication between men and women - it became a symbol for young people who sought to have their views heard by an increasingly repressive government.

"Every day, the people you meet, the things you experience and the information you receive, all of this is stored in your mind, body and memories," Ms Xiao told SBS News, as she returns to Sydney, where she lived for eight years, for her first retrospective exhibition.

The exhibition, Xiao Lu: Impossible Dialogue, will be on display between January 19 and March 24 at Sydney's 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, curated by gallery director Dr Mikala Tai.

"Artworks have a really fantastic way of making a moment in historic that's so big, and sometimes impenetrable because it's so big and so heavy with historical weight a bit more personal," Dr Tai said.

Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei has claimed his studios in Beijing and Shanghai were raided and bulldozed without warning.
Chinese artist Ai Wei Wei has claimed his studios in Beijing and Shanghai were raided and bulldozed without warning.
EPA

Ms Xiao has had a long career, but in recent years, it has become increasingly difficult to be an artist in China as government censors crack down on the art industry. 

Late last year, an exhibit in Hong Kong by Chinese-Australian artist Badiucao was cancelled after organisers said they received threats from Chinese authorities.

Just months before that, dissident artist Ai Wei Wei claimed his studios in Beijing and Shanghai were raided and bulldozed without warning.

But many artists find ways to navigate the challenges.

"Artists are endlessly inventive, finding ways for them to continue to express themselves and they always surprise us," Dr Claire Roberts, a Chinese art historian from the University of Melbourne, said.

After more than three decades at the forefront of contemporary art, it is a process Xiao Lu is used to.

"In my opinion, these dangerous things can also stimulate me. So, I also think that making art in China has given me a lot of inspiration," she said. 

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