The late 1980s in China was an age of innocence; a period where the government was liberalizing and commercial pressures had not yet come to dominate society. It was a period for enthusiasts, idealists and dreamers. In 1989, an art exhibition was held in the official national gallery. It was the first time contemporary artists had formed a group in China to appear in an official exhibition area. The young artists were so excited that they made numerous exotic modern works, including some kaleidoscopic performance works for the exhibition. The most eye-catching one was the historic ‘gunshot incident’.
On February 5, 1989, female artist Xiao Lu stood in front of her ‘Dialogue’ installation, which was made out of two telephone kiosks, and fired a gun at it. The exhibition was closed because of this ‘gunshot incident’. The artist Tang Song, partner of Xiao Lu, was arrested for owning firearms illegally. Xiao Lu reported herself to the police later on. The incident was so shocking that it covered the front page of various key newspapers, each with a varying interpretation of her actions. However, contemporary art is always accompanied by misreading.
The ‘gunshot incident’ could be described as announcing the end of an era. Idealism was ruined both in art and society in general. ‘They had a strong historical, political feeling to explain the work like this, but I just have some emotional obsessions at that time in my own female world, which seems too small for the male’, 1 said Xiao Lu years later. Back in 1989, Xiao had just graduated from college with a failed love, which made her believe that it was impossible to have an efficient dialogue between the two sexes. The ‘dialogue’ installation was created to express her personal feelings. The images of a female and a male were put separately inside the two telephone booths revealing their attempt to communicate with each other, while a microphone hung in between to show the failure of the conversation. The young artist at that time had no idea about performance art. She just wanted to destroy the installation in a speedy way to emphasize the idea of the work. A gun was an ideal method and available as she was the daughter of high-ranking officials.
After the bullets were shot on the exhibition, Tang Song, who actually wasn’t involved in the creation of the work, was arrested. Because of this, the two young artists fell in love with each other. Tang claimed himself as the creator of the artwork and interpreted it with the grand narratives from political, social and legal aspects. As both of the artists had high-ranking official family backgrounds, they were released after three days. Tang, who was experienced at talking in public, attracted considerable attention both from media reporters and art critics. Xiao, who loved Tang, chose to be silent.
The original intention of the work was to discuss the communication and paradox between two sexes, however what happened after the shot exceeded the expectations of everyone, including the artist herself. Tang and other critics perceived the work in a typical male-grand gesture way because of the political context. As a result of the failed communication and misunderstanding between each other, the original meaning was ignored and intentionally distorted. The female artist lost her voice. Fifteen years later, however, Xiao broke her silence to describe her original idea about the artwork in a letter also telling of her failed love affair with Tang, who had only loved himself and taken the gunshot performance from her. The tragic result of this love story forced Xiao to review the artwork, claim the sole right of the work and inspire her independence as an artist rather than just a lover of Tang.
In the long fifteen years, however, this artwork has always been accepted and explained by public from a political perception. ‘Dialogue’, no matter whether it was talking about the feminine private feelings or the masculine political metaphor, has exceeded the installation itself. All the issues surrounding the artwork can themselves be seen as performance art. Who was authorized to interpret the artwork? How many works in art history has been deprived its original meaning like this? Probably the process of continuing to question is the most meaningful thing.