Fearless performance artist Xie Rong (also known as Echo Morgan) puts herself in vulnerable, uncomfortable positions to communicate strong political messages. Using her own body as a canvas, she invites her audience to bury her with stones, throw water on her and touch her pregnant stomach. Xie’s arresting performances infuse personal experiences growing up in China with broader political points about race, gender and cultural attitudes. She draws strength from the audience’s uneasiness and plays on relationships of control. With these unforgettable performances, coupled with strong photography by Jamie Baker, Xie is poised to make her mark in a big way. Today she tells us why she has dramatically pivoted her practice towards a deep concern for the environment.
Xie Rong, Light, photo Jamie Baker, Asian Culture Center, Gwangju, 2019
ON HER LIGHT BULB MOMENT
In 2019, I flew to Sydney and back for a single performance. I spent 48 hours in the air and only 30 hours on the ground. The trip prompted me to look into my carbon footprint and I discovered that flying from London to Sydney produces the equivalent amount of carbon dioxide that a resident of India produces over the course of an entire year. My performance in Australia had been connected to the sea, examining it as a border and addressing political policies towards refugees. But I felt so guilty about flying so far to perform a work about nature that I rewrote the entire script in my hotel room the night before. I performed a work about environmentalism that day and the experience made me step back and rethink my entire practice.
Xie Rong, Sea 海, photo by Anna Kucera, Sydney Art Space, 2019
When I admitted my regret, the curator told me to she wanted to meet me at 5am the next morning. She took me to her favourite spot on the beach to watch the sunrise. She told me that sometimes you have to remember moments, that experiences are important too. She told me how important it was for me to share my message and how much it meant for me to be there spreading it. She reminded me that as an artist you have to produce things. After doing all this research I wanted to find something I could do to counteract the environmental damage of travelling so I have adopted a plant-based diet. I feel like I’m contributing to the movement of changing. People have to realise that it’s down to individual action rather than system change. There are small efforts we can make in our daily life that will make a change.
The whole experience led me to deeply research environmentalism. I’ve spent the pandemic looking into the crossovers between performance art, action art and activism in this context. I’ve found so much strength and power in what other artists have done. I was talking to the artist Betsy Damon and she said, “I will only do art that belongs to the ecosystem and I will only teach art that is activism”. I felt that was such a grand and meaningful decision. I’ve made a film about my research this past year that juxtaposes found footage and still images. I’ve been thinking about how much my own work could actually make a change. I usually perform in galleries, but I’ve started asking myself am I brave enough to actually go out on the street to stage a performance and risk being arrested?
Xie Rong, Be the inside of the vase, photo Jamie Baker, Dyson Gallery, London, 2012
ON THE POLITICS OF A PATCH OF GRASS
One area that has really interested me is the subject of lawns. It felt like a subject that had a lot of historical and cultural roots that I could dig into. Many years ago, in China, my father invested money to buy a prominent site in our city centre and later discovered the square that it was situated on was to be a huge lawn. Lawn does not grow well in China. It sat on the edge of a dead patch of land for 15 years. The lawn space was installed as a symbol of a modern international city. English culture has influenced the world for decades, and lawns are really symbolic of that. American lawns are symbolic of man conquering nature and by extension indigenous people. A lawn represents a certain history; it’s more than just a piece of grass. It has historical roots. We need to revisit our history books and reflect on what we have normalised. I love what Zheng Bo said, that art needs to be a multispecies celebration and I feel this inclusiveness needs to be discussed.
The message I always got when I lived in China was that capitalism is killing the planet. I always reacted against it because I felt I was being brainwashed against capitalism. But now, having lived in this country for 20 years, I’m starting to think maybe I believe it. For me, as a Chinese artist, I feel this responsibility to address the global scale. I want to have more dialogue and encourage more exchange of information. With the pandemic, China is in danger of withdrawing to protect itself in this bubble. I feel the need to be more present in the Chinese art scene because I feel this dialogue is so important. If we want the planet to change we have to work together.
Xie Rong, Circle of Fire, photo Jamie Baker, Röda Sten Konsthall, Gothenburg, 2018
Xie Rong’s ecological research film ‘Eco Echo’ can be viewed here. The film was supported by Chinese Arts Now festival through Arts Council England funding, and will be shown at the Transmission Gallery in Glasgow during COP26
This feature is part of ‘Unearthed: Eco-visionaries’ a thought-provoking series by Kate Neave uncovering contemporary artists at the forefront of environmental thought. We discover artists that engage with the natural world, explore topics at the frontier of art and nature or shed light on an environmental issue. Taking inspiration from these creative practitioners, we join the complex conversation about the climate crisis, harnessing creativity’s power to reach a deeper understanding and be a catalyst for change.
Xie Rong x Echo Morgan – After her divorce in the UK, a petite Sichuan girl started her five-years performance art journey.
Art China · Meng Yuan | 2016-11-03 17:20
The first “Beijing·Live” International Performance Art Festival was held from October 15th to 23rd, 2016. More than 30 performance artists from 13 countries presented performance art works at the Danish Cultural Center. Echo Morgan performed her new work, My Father and My Son. The Art China reporter interviewed the artist Xie Rong and had a new understanding of her behavior.
1. You were a designer at the beginning. What is the opportunity for you to switch to behavioral art creation?
Yes, I was in college at the Central Saint Martins College of Art and Design. I belonged to the University of the Arts in London. When I was in school, I found that the boundaries between design and art were very vague. The graduation thesis at the time was influenced by Hélène Cixous’s theory of “negative writing”. In the book “Medusa’s Laughter,” she wrote: “Women must write about herself: must write a woman and bring a woman to writing… a woman must put herself in the text – bring her story back In the world and in history – through her own actions.”
My graduation thesis is “The Symbol of Negative Writing and Identity”, and I wrote an autobiography “Xie Rong and the Thirsty Devil”. In the autobiography, I combed my family history into the “three steps”: the root of the school, the school of death and the school of dreams. This is a turning point in my spirit and a turning point in art.
Xie Rong’s paper self-made book
I am a very emotional person. From small to large, I can feel the impact on my body and emotions around me. I like performance and like to speak, but I didn’t find a suitable channel to send it out. Body writing made me open my voice. I realized that my voice and my story are powerful. I used to think that this is just my personal experience. I think art is not personal but public. Everyone can feel and Experience, so I feel too personal to become very narrow. But after reading the book of Xisu, I found that it was not. When I put my body in the big age, I suddenly had power. I found the art of performance art and the sheep to express myself.
Xie Rong’s paper self-made book
2. What is the first performance art work?
In fact, this starts from the fact that I stopped writing for two years. When I was 21, I married an Irishman. After seven years, I separated. Later, I met my father to commit suicide. The two worlds collapsed at the same time, causing me to collapse. I have not created any works for two years. From 2011 I entered the Royal College of Art and followed Nigel Rolfe to study performance art.
“Send Book” was created in 2011 by artists during performances
“Book” was created in 2011. The artist is barefoot and uses ink to wash his hair.
My first performance art work was “Send a Book,” which was created in 2011. I was studying printmaking and learned that the world’s first prints were made with women’s hair instead of silk. So I went back to the woman’s body and painted it with ink on her hair. The painting was very abstract and it was an understanding of my own hair. I spent five hours creating an eleven-meter abstract scroll that represents my eleven years with my ex-husband. After bathing, the water washed the paint off the hair, and the ink was painted all over the body. At that moment, I felt that I was born again. Many of my works draw on the works of predecessors and need to think about how to turn them into their own artistic language. I feel that my cultural background is very important.
Xie Rong is painting with his hair
“Send Book” was created in 2011. The artist paints on a long roll of eleven meters.
3. This time, “My Father and My Son,” I used an object like a ball, which seems to appear in your previous work.
The object was woven from bamboo strips and covered with more than 80 sheets of rice paper. The shape is not very precise. It is made up of two parts, like a lantern, uterus, breast, testicles, planet, silkworm cocoons, eggs, nests, and so on. It also appeared in my four-hour behavioral work, Be the Inside of the Vase, in 2012. The image at the time was more precise and it was a vase.
Bamboo and rice paper woven objects
Objects appearing in “My Father and My Son”
At that time, the museum did not allow me to ignite the vase. I stood in the whole body with Meilan Zhuju, and asked the audience to throw a water polo to break the vase. The story of my father and me has puzzled me for so many years, and I hope to break it. The audience broke the lantern with 150 water polo. The water polo lost its light in 5 minutes and washed off the blue and white porcelain patterns and pigments on my body.
Xie Rong painted part of the bamboo on his body
Xie Rong’s 2012 performance art work “Being the Inner of the Vase”, which also appeared similar objects
One of the water polo players was very hard when they lost it. It hit my eyes and it hurts. The dark circles are like pandas for two weeks. This is a kind of violence. It is a retrospective of the cold violence I felt when I was a child. My mother has a face to face. I am not allowed to talk about their divorce. It is a mental imprisonment for me. At the time, an editor wrote a commentary and said that it was very repugnant to this kind of violence, and he did not know how to become a party to violence. She feels that the artist appears in a fragile and weak image, using his own vulnerability to make the audience become weaker, and the artist controls the mood of the audience.
The audience threw the water polo to the artist, the water polo broke the rice paper, and washed off the paint on the artist.
4. You just mentioned that there is a water polo that hits your eyes. Does it mean that there are many sudden and random factors in the performance of performance art?
Yes, there was an unexpected situation in the performance art performance of “My Father and My Son”. After my father died, I really wanted to burn the lanterns that were not allowed to be lit before. Originally, the fire was very beautiful when I was experimenting the previous day. The ashes floated up and slowly fell. At that time, it should be the end of my performance art. On the second day of the official performance, I found that the paste completely prevented me from burning the lantern. I used to use the pvc adhesive that was very flammable in the UK.
After the flames are gathered, leave scars and holes
Everyone saw it at the time. Some people gave me a lighter. Many people who had heard my thoughts wondered how I would continue to the next step, and most of the audience didn’t know that this momentum was not my original idea. I found that I liked this kind of burning way. The flame burned up, and soon the flames went out again. It was both arrogant and subtle. Curator JonasStampe said that this is the sorrow of people. You want him to drift with the wind in a big fire, but it is always lingering. This is the most real emotion and life of man.
Later, when I was communicating with a Swedish artist, he felt that the most striking thing about performance art was that while the audience was thinking, the artist was thinking about the direction of performance. This is also the place where performance art is different from step-by-step stage play. It is a real situation on the scene, rather than step by step according to the script. When I wanted to burn this lantern and burned it, during this time, everyone had a lot of ideas and removed all the factors of the stage and performance.
5. You said that you haven’t thought about how to explain this work with your mother after returning to the UK. Is it afraid that the mother can’t accept the nude or do you say a lot of personal family scars in the work?
I think that for performance artists, the body is no longer naked, but a carrier of art. In fact, this is more about my mother’s face. My mother is a soldier. My father is a little punk. It is a waver in the rivers and lakes. She wants to use her love to save a fallen soul. At that time, the mother’s family did not agree with them. After quarreling with the family, the mother rushed out of the house and suffered a car accident causing the uterus to shift, leaving a scar on the lower back. In “Inner of the Vase”, I set up a canal with a water polo. The shape is a map of China. It has nothing to do with politics. It is the shape of the scar on my mother’s lower back.
The canal of Chinese land graphics is the scar of the mother
After the performance art performance
The behavior I did at the time was not only showing my own pain, but also showing my mother’s pain. When I told my mother about this behavior, she was very angry and said, “I have been divorced for 30 years, and even my best friend has not told me. I don’t want others to see my jokes because the Chinese believe that the ugliness cannot be promoted. You made a work, the whole world knows about me and your father, and the whole world knows your growth experience.”
But I think it’s actually like being happy to write in the novel “Good Women in China”. “The custom of China is to face, but the face is also part of your body. It hurts your own heart and hurts your face. “”
6. You used a very calm tone to tell the story in “My Father and My Son”. What does the power of language and narrative mean for your performance art?
My mentor, Nigel Rolfe, and I said that when you are most powerful, when you are silent, you need to learn to control your own voice. When doing the act, I am now reminding myself to come. The professor also told me to remove the personal feelings, because the story is already very personal, there is no need to go to lyrics, and the lyrics will look very artificial. Speaking very peacefully, then it is a story, emotions are something that others have to experience, not what you emphasize.
7. Why do you insist on doing performance art?
Let me take a picture of my film based on my work in 2013. At that time, I talked about my father’s experience. His life represented the experience of people of that era going to sea to do business. He accumulated a lot of wealth, but he died in a car accident and killed many innocent people. Then he was sentenced to jail and imprisoned, and his family was ruined to redeem his freedom. After he was released from prison, his life was declining. His life represents a lot of tragic people. I received letters from audiences around the world, and I told them the tragic story of their personal privacy. I have found a medium that allows me to express myself and put my personal stories in the big age and resonate with people.
It is very fortunate to be a performance artist. You can use your work to record your own changes and record your life. When I performed the performance of “The Inner of the Vase”, I had a very young body. At that time, I was talking about the relationship between my daughter and my father. The image is in line with the image of a very small girl. This time, “My Father and My Son,” I am already a mother who has given birth to a child. My image is a daughter and a mother. I think that when I am old, I have to do a corresponding behavioral work. It is wrinkles all over the body, and the feeling of a ceramic to the last time after the time splits.
When I was doing performance art in Berlin, I met Linda Mary Montano, who did the same thing every three years. At the age of 75, lying on the street in Gothenburg, a very faint “squeaky” sound every second. On behalf of the heartbeat, for an entire hour, the last woman yelled at her with a horn, “Linda, got up, and died after sleeping.” She also recorded herself every day: “I am dying, I am going to die, I am Every day is dying.” She said that she would do the day she eventually died.
Adherence to performance art is not just a matter of emotional and ideological needs. Performance art is very inclusive, and all the techniques I have studied before can be placed in performance art. Performance art is not that you see a picture on the wall. I am this piece of art. I live in front of you and can re-emphasize the purest and most essential relationship between people. Nigel Rolfe once said: “Being a performance art is a responsibility. We live in a turbulent society, and war still exists. If we can use our individual voices and behaviors to infect a small group of people, we express our concern for society. The sense of responsibility, then the performance art is meaningful.”
“Touching the blessing”
When Xie Rong was pregnant for six months, she invited the audience to touch her pregnant belly. Life is shared and feelings are shared.
“Steel Ball Iron Egg”
She is like a steel warrior, dressed in armor and hanging iron balls. Whenever people shake their bells, she opens her helmet and tells a story.