At 4 p.m. on April 23, rock star Pang Kuan walked onto the small wooden platform at the Star Gallery in Beijing that would be his home for the next 14 days. Two days earlier, Pang — keyboardist for the Chinese rock band New Pants — announced he would spend two weeks living in the gallery, eating, drinking, and sleeping on a 6.25-square-meter stage, in full view of museumgoers. Those who couldn’t make it in person could watch via a 24-hour livestream of the piece, which Pang named “Bye Bye, Disco,” after one of his band’s songs.
Although Pang avoided using the term “quarantine” to describe his piece, it was hard not to connect the two as a new wave of lockdowns rippled across China. Stuck at home, millions tuned in to watch as Pang reclined in his chair or exercised by pacing up and down the length of the stage. Through it all, he acted oblivious of his audience, as if he were being watched through a one-way mirror.
Pang’s ability to draw and hold a crowd’s attention is hardly news. New Pants thrived on the edges of China’s rock scene for more than two decades before swallowing their pride and signing up for the hit variety show “The Big Band” in 2019. Their eventual win propelled the band into the mainstream consciousness and made Pang, whose frenetic stage presence anchors the act, a star. While performing, he thrashes about as if possessed, enticing the audience to join in — a stark contrast to his more muted persona in “Bye Bye Disco.”
The response to Pang’s piece from the mainstream art world has been less than enthusiastic, however. Some observers complained that Pang was merely grandstanding, and that his performance would distract the public from more serious issues related to the country’s quarantine policies. As if to prove their point, Pang’s fans were so curious about how he relieved himself onstage that #pangkuanstoilet began trending on social media. (The secret was a white toilet hidden behind his chair.)
But what really seemed to bother Pang’s critics was the idea that spending two weeks sleeping and snacking on camera was enough to constitute a work of performance art. Several critics compared Pang’s work unfavorably to Tehching Hsieh’s 1978 “Cage Piece,” for which the New York City-based artist spent a year locked behind bars, not speaking, reading, listening to music, or doing anything beyond the bare minimum needed to survive as part of a self-imposed experiment that was more primitive and brutal than many modern prisons.
Pang and Hsieh’s performances differ in a few critical ways. Hsieh is a performance and conceptual artist in the strictest senses of those terms. His art conveys clear ideas; people don’t have to know who he is to be moved by his work.
But many of Pang’s critics within the Chinese art scene seem less concerned with his lack of substance than the relatively mild way he chose to express himself. Since the 1980s, Chinese art critics have tended to judge performance art first and foremost by how hen it is. A Chinese word that could be translated as “savage,” “ruthless,” or “resolute,” hen can refer to the risk and suffering undergone by the artist during the creative process or depicted in the work’s subject matter. Hsieh’s work is the epitome of hen. So is that of Li Binyuan, who became famous for his 2012 piece “Deathless Love,” in which he bought 161 hammers and used them to smash each other until only one remained.
Judged by this standard, Pang’s piece was a relative cakewalk. On April 20, when he first spoke with gallery owner Fang Fang and designer Zhu Sha about his idea, Pang mentioned that the two indispensable elements of his performance would be his isolation and the livestream — though it would be better yet if there could also be a live audience. But as for how he would be isolated and what standard of living he would maintain, he left it to the discretion of Zhu and the gallery.
Pang Kuan gets a COVID-19 test at the Star Gallery, Beijing, April 2022. From @庞宽新裤子国货教父 on Weibo
Pang and his partners eventually decided to respect certain limits. Pang couldn’t fast, for example, nor could he eat just a boiled potato a day, lest his performance be viewed as a protest. Their approach has been interpreted as a means of avoiding unwanted government attention, but I believe that it was, more than anything, informed by the way the three men view art and their unwillingness to make it serve a political purpose.
This led to some mixed messages. Though the public announcement of his work called it a “performance art exhibition,” in recorded conversations between Pang, Fang, and Zhu, Pang shied away from the “performance art” label. But if this self-directed, self-enacted quarantine wasn’t performance art, then what was it? Pang’s answer is simple: a “party.”
If Hsieh believes life is a form of imprisonment, Pang sees it as a series of parties — regardless of whether anyone is around to enjoy them with you. That’s one reason why Pang didn’t just bring instant noodles and other necessities on stage with him, but also magazines, stylish clothes, alcohol, and tea.
Art’s role as a vehicle for social criticism is an article of faith to contemporary Chinese artists. They have little patience for petit-bourgeois works like Pang’s performance, with its lack of poetry or ideals and its complete unwillingness to make a statement. The feeling is mutual. After his performance ended, Pang was asked where he thought his work stood next to those of artists like Hsieh and Marina Abramovic. “Do those two watch ‘I Love My Family?’” he replied, referring to a popular Chinese family sitcom from the 1990s. “If they were to watch ‘I Love My Family’ and laugh — now, that would be true performance art.”
Yet, to say that Pang’s piece had no social significance overlooks one of its most important elements: the audience. Works like Hsieh’s tend to be individualistic affairs created and performed largely out of public view. When they are finished, they are released as a series of photos accompanied by a write-up.
In contrast, one of the few things Pang felt strongly about in the lead-up to his performance was that it needed to be livestreamed. He was rewarded with an audience that, while perhaps not familiar with performance art, hung on his every action. After the livestream began, viewers created an online file documenting Pang’s movements down to the minute. Many of them were university students who were locked down on campus. In Pang’s idleness and boredom, they saw their own predicament; his reality in lockdown, though self-imposed, reflected their own. In the collaborative online document and the comments section under Pang’s livestream, one could sense a tacit mutual understanding and care that made Pang’s performance look less like an individual work of art, and more like what he wanted it to be: a party.
In the process, Pang became a kind of digital glue, binding together millions of otherwise unconnected people. Measured against the standards of performance art, his lack of political engagement and focus on everyday banalities might seem shallow. But in the context of China’s ongoing lockdowns and quarantines, it fulfilled a real need for something we all desperately lack: contact with strangers.
That may seem insignificant, but building connections between strangers is itself a kind of political action. On May 11, just as Pang’s quarantine was about to come to an end, netizens left a stream of comments on the file documenting his actions, which by that point had been edited by more than 500 people. One of them read, “This was the closest I’ve been to an exhibit or a crowd since the lockdown began.” Another replied, “Can’t wait for us to all meet at a live festival.”
Translator: Lewis Wright; editors: Cai Yineng and Kilian O’Donnell; portrait artist: Zhou Zhen.
(Header image: Pang Kuan on display at the Star Gallery, Beijing, April 2022. From @庞宽新裤子国货教父 on Weibo)