Avant-garde Bursts onto Chinese Art Scene. `Action art' symbolizes artists' determination to brashly take advantage of eased state censorship

CHINESE officials expected provocation at the nation's first avant-garde art show over the weekend. But when a young artist pulled out a gun and fired two shots at one of the works, even the most radical spectators recoiled.

The artist who fired the shots, a Shanghai woman, was demonstrating ``action art'' - one of the latest innovations of China's modern art circles. After firing at a glass and metal display of two life-sized telephone booths, entitled ``Dialogue,'' she rushed from the room and was later detained by police, Chinese sources said.

``I thought it was firecrackers,'' said Gu Xiong, a long-haired painter from Sichuan Province who was in the gallery when the shooting occurred Sunday, the eve of Chinese New Year. ``But they were real bullets.''

The outrageous stunt revealed how China's avant-garde artists are brashly taking advantage of the opportunity provided by eased state censorship in a bid to spark greater public attention for their highly unorthodox art.

In other ``action art'' performances, some artists showered viewers with condoms and Chinese coins. Others, garbed in sheets, prepared to disrobe before authorities hustled them out. Police shut down the exhibit immediately after the shooting, less than three hours after the unprecedented show opened.

``We want to show the world that China, too, has modern art, no matter what its present quality might be,'' said Gao Minglu, a young art critic and the chief organizer of the exhibition. ``We want to let Chinese people know that we can create modern works, not only traditional art.''

Symbolizing their determination to promote unconventional art, Mr. Gao and other organizers chose a ``no U-turn'' sign as the exhibit's logo. Huge black cloth banners bearing the red-and-white road signs draped the square outside the China Art Gallery, drawing crowds of curious passersby.

``Modern art must break through all the barriers to advance - there's no turning back,'' said Gao, explaining the logo.

The ``China/Avant-garde'' exhibit, including some 180 works filling three floors at the nation's most prestigious art gallery, is the first of its kind.

Highly controversial, the show was delayed for two years by a 1987 Communist Party crackdown on ``bourgeois liberalization'' and Western culture.

The exhibited works borrow heavily from abstract Western art and range from displays containing a huge pile of inflated surgical gloves to others made of hundreds of chopsticks.

Some artists stepped into their own works.

``Today I'm a living object on exhibition,'' said Shanghai painter Li Shan.

Dressed in a flaming red suit, Mr. Li sat washing his feet in a tub of water surrounded by black-and-white images of Ronald Reagan in a work titled ``Goodbye.'' ``I'm saying goodbye to Reagan,'' Li said.

Mr. Gu, the Sichuan artist, stood beside a 20-foot painting of a rip in a giant wire fence, dressed in a matching fence costume.

``Man can create great cultures, but he also encloses himself,'' Gu explained. ``I want to break out of this, I want freedom.''

Several artists interviewed said that while enjoying greater creative freedom, they are still socially ostracized, poor, and face major hurdles in having their works publicly displayed.

``No one obstructs me, but no one supports me,'' said painter Zhu Xiaohe, an art teacher.

``Most Chinese still prefer pop singers and movie stars,'' sighed Gao, the art critic.

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