Day After Day: RongRong and the Beijing East Village
Nearly four years after the Tiananmen student protests in 1989, Chinese artist RongRong, then a 25-year-old from the southern province of Fujian, joined a group of young and struggling bohemian artists who settled in a desolate village on the outskirts of Beijing. RongRong captured the quotidian yet eruptive life of this community, as many of his fellow artists pushed their bodies to the brink to create radical and subversive performances.
Considered highly disruptive by political authorities, these artists lived under constant fear of harassment, raids, and arrests. Both as a principal photographer and essential collaborator, RongRong faithfully documented what remain some of the most powerful and important performance works of Chinese contemporary art, by artists such as Zhang Huan, Ma Liuming, and Ai Weiwei.
The Walther Collection in New York currently presents “Day After Day: RongRong and the Beijing East Village”, an exhibition featuring 40 of RongRong’s seminal photographs from 1993-1998 portraying the Beijing East Village—an artistic community poignantly described as “a meteor in the history of contemporary Chinese art.”
The exhibition emphasizes these explosive performance art activities in the village, before and after it was forcefully evacuated in the summer of 1994. RongRong’s emotive photographs will be paired with excerpts from a diary that RongRong kept during his stay in the village, as well as his present-day recollections. Such writings provide essential insight into the performances as they were being conceptualized and carried out, such as the extreme heat and squalid conditions of the public latrine that was the setting for Zhang Huan’s 12 Square Meters; the ominous arrest of artists and viewers that followed Ma Liuming’s groundbreaking nude performance Fen-Ma Liuming’s Lunch; and the chilly evening when the collaborative Primordial Sounds took place beneath a Beijing overpass.
Alongside the show, Steidl publishes “RongRong’s Diary”, which features a near-comprehensive compilation of the artist’s writings from this period. In short journal entries and personal correspondence with his sister, RongRong recounts his blossoming friendships with fellow artists, memorable outings and incidents, and their guerrilla approaches to staging new works. In doing so, he offers reflections both mundane and profound: adjusting to his new life in Beijing, deep anxiety about police backlash, and wavering faith in what photography can achieve in turbulent times. With over 120 images, “RongRong’s Diary” includes never-before-seen photographs selected by RongRong to highlight everyday life in the Beijing East Village and to call attention to a number of lesser-known performances. The book’s interplay between RongRong’s images and texts creates an absorbing personal narrative of an artist coming into his own.