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Connecting performance art and environmentalism

For many of us, the reality of global warming and environmental crisis induces an overwhelming sense of hopelessness because there seems to be a lack of real solutions for ecological catastrophes. The looming sense of crisis is the reason why people came out in droves to the Derwent River on an overcast day in June 2014 to participate in Washing the River, artist Yin Xiuzhen’s performance event in Hobart, Tasmania.

Audience members took brushes and mops to engage in a ceremonial act, taking part in the symbolic cleansing of a monumental stack of 162 frozen blocks of dark brown ice made from the water of the Derwent River. The artist has tapped into the universal desire to make some sort of contribution to undoing the damage to nature. Since the 1970s, performance artists have developed a vital and creative role in environmental activism, and like Yin, they have done the work of bringing entire communities together to enact ecological change; or, to actually do the work of restoration such as reforesting lands and replenishing at-risk eco-systems.

Yin’s performance provided a new updated perspective toward performing environmentalism. Washing the River was restaged four different times and it was first performed at the Funan River in Chengdu, China in 1995. The event was presented again at the Upper Georges River in Sydney, Australia in 2010 and more recently, in 2017, at the Pesanggrahan River in Jakarta, Indonesia. An artist who lives and works in China, Yin originally staged Washing the River for an agricultural community in the rural south of her country. She explains that, when the performance ended, people wanted to bring the blocks of ice home to keep their food cold. As shown by their urge to re-use the ice from the river, the audience members living agrarian lifestyles differ greatly from the class of consumers who generate the most waste and carbon emissions.

For a long time, China’s contribution to the survival of the planet and the whole of natural life was through the country’s slow industrial growth, sustaining a population of 1.3 billion people in the 1990s. But the society known for bicycles (not cars) as its primary mode of transportation was transformed dramatically in the thirty years after Deng Xiaoping’s economic reforms. By 2018, China was emitting more carbon from fossil fuels than Europe and the United States combined. Still, the image of a progressive, successful Chinese capitalism aligns with the modern nationalist ideal for a country once denigrated as backward and primitive.

The Yin exhibition in faraway places in all parts of the world emphasizes the cultures and lifestyles that are also endangered, along with their rivers and diverse ecological systems. The banks of the Derwent once served as the home for the aboriginal Tasmanian community before the British occupied the territory in the 19th century. The activist practice of Yin’s performance connects with the aboriginal community’s time-honored communal rituals, paying reverence to the river, to nature, and thereby providing a reminder that humans are inseparable from nature. The 19th century industrial drive is one that divided humans according to the primitive and the modern, recognized as agricultural economies and the industrialized nations. Only now, the whole of the human species is implicated today, since it is responsible for the demise of the environment.

Performance artists like Yin (and others, including Ana Mendieta, Kalisolaite ‘Uhila, and Patty Chang) remind us of our inextricability from nature and of the fact that there are many humans who still live close to nature. The artistic and performative ritual is timeless in its connecting humans to natural processes. Against the dire consequences of ecological crisis, the performative aesthetic is a creative solution for rethinking the role of humans and for taking seriously indigenous forms of knowledge that affirm all biological life. All natural life must share the same natural resources, breathe the same air and drink the same water. Creative inspirations such as Yin’s, bringing communities back to the river, engaging with each other and with nature, engenders an uplifting hopefulness and a return to the belief in human possibilities.

Featured image credit: “New Norfolk Derwent River” by eGuide Travel [CC BY 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)] via WikiCommons.

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