TWENTY-THREE YEARS AGO, Xiao Lu was one of China's most wanted women. Armed with a handgun, she marched into the National Gallery of Art in Beijing and opened fire. Aiming at her own work of art – two telephone booths with images of a man and a woman inside – she shot twice. The show was immediately shut down, Xiao was jailed with her classmate Tang Song and a media storm followed. The piece was dubbed “the first shots of Tiananmen” and her actions were immortalised.
Before we meet, I see a grainy photograph hanging on the wall of Pearl Lam Galleries recording that day in 1989. Xiao stands poised, her arm raised, gun in hand. She wears a large overcoat and her hair is tied in a messy ponytail. I half expect to encounter a mature version of that wild-faced artist with dishevelled hip-length hair. Instead I'm introduced to a solemn woman with a boy cut; she's dressed in black mandarin-collar shirt with loose fitted capris, her lips scarlet red and her nails French manicured.
Tapping her head, Xiao tells me she just shaved her hair a few months ago in Beijing's 798 arts district. “I got quite a response,” she grins. Titled Bald Girls, her performance was a nod to the four women who recently shaved their heads in protest at gender inequality in Guangzhou. As was the case with her first show, the police rushed to the scene but Xiao was unfazed. “This was just showing my attitude,” she rasps. “In Chinese culture they don't have a concept of freedom or equal rights.”
At the age of 50, Xiao remains one of the most provocative women artists in China. Volatile and unpredictable, she has had an unusual journey. After shooting at her work Dialogue in the National Gallery, Xiao disappeared from view. Refusing to speak about the incident, she left for Australia, living in self-imposed exile for eight years and producing little work. It was not until the late '90s that she resurfaced, becoming active again in China. Despite her sudden hiatus and small body of work, she remains a major figure in the Chinese contemporary art scene.
Since the early days of her career, Xiao's work has been a reflection of her inner struggles. “Every piece is like a record of a phase or stage of my life,” she explains. In 2006, she attended an artist forum where she invited male participants to donate sperm for her to use to impregnate herself. Three years later she staged a performance where she drank so much alcohol in front of an audience that she had to be rushed to hospital. Both works were a reflection of her personal life; the former was a reference to her desire to have a child and the latter a commentary on the intoxicating effect of love.
Xiao's latest group exhibition, Dust from the Heart, at Pearl Lam Galleries, takes a glimpse into her controversial past. The show's title refers to the Chinese expression “yi chen bu ran”, which translates to “dustfree”, meaning being free from anguish or suffering – a fitting theme for Xiao, whose work has always been cathartic. “Most of my works are related to my emotions,” she explains. “Male artists always criticise female artists' works as too emotional. But why do we need to avoid talking about emotional issues? These are the best and the worst things in human nature.”
At the centre of the show spanning an entire wall is one of her most iconic works, 15 Shots: 1989-2003, a series of 15 photographs in which she holds a gun and points it at the viewer. Framed in clear acrylic, the pictures are punctured with gunshot holes. Xiao created the piece on the 15th anniversary of the work Dialogue. The work was a way for her to get closure from her failed 15-year romance with Tang Song who she began dating after the incident.
After she fired those first gunshots, Xiao's life became a lurching saga worthy of a soap-opera script. In the aftermath of the performance, Xiao's acts were falsely interpreted as a political statement linked to Tiananmen. Word also spread that Tang Song was a co-conspirator of the performance. Although this was a lie, Tang never denied it. When the pair became romantically involved, Xiao fell silent; she didn't speak out publicly to set the record straight or take full ownership of her work. Instead, she decided to leave China altogether.
Arriving in Sydney a few months later, Xiao found herself scraping by with little money, doing odd jobs to survive as an artist, and eventually resorted to drawing portraits for tourists on the street. Tang, who became active in political protests, stowed away illegally on a cargo ship to get out of the country to find Xiao in Australia. He was caught when he arrived and spent months imprisoned in a refugee detention centre. Shortly after he was released their relationship began to unravel. Tang grew fond of gambling and drove them to near penury, but all the while Xiao stood by him. “If you want to ask me what inspired me to continue, I would say hope,” reflects Xiao quietly. “Once a person has hope then he can keep going. Life is living in between hope and disappointment.”
In 1997, when Xiao finally returned to China, she and Tang split up. Xiao decided it was time to reclaim ownership of Dialogue, but when she announced to the art community that she was the only person responsible for the performance, she was met with a backlash. “I was blamed,” recalls the artist with a fiery spark in her eyes. In the male-dominated Chinese art world, she was cast as petty and reactionary; people refused to believe her. Taking a different approach, Xiao began work on a novel titled Dialogue to tell her story.
In 2006, when she was putting the final touches to her book, her work Dialogue sold for 2,310,000 yuan at China Guardian auction in Beijing. It was the final affirmation for the artist and a turning point in many ways. Seeing people's reaction to the work, Xiao realised the impact of her actions: “It was the most impressive memory for Chinese people at that time. I realised my art is not just about myself. My art is like my child – I give birth to it but after it's born he doesn't just belong to me, he belongs to society.”
In her recent works she has been connecting personal experiences to larger issues faced by women and society as a whole. Although Xiao has been called a feminist artist for years, she insists the idea is actually very new to her. “Last year a German curator contacted me because she wanted to do a feminism exhibition. So I talked to her and read more books to get more information about it. Since then I started to change,” explains Xiao, who is now planning to stage a Bald Girls performance in Beijing every March. Next year she also plans to travel to Colombia to reenact the piece.
Despite the success of Xiao's recent performances, she is still known as the woman who pulled the trigger in 1989. Does it bother her that people are still associating her with that work two decades on? “No, of course not. It's an important part of my life,” she responds. Asked what that work was about, she goes on to explain: “At that time I created the piece, I felt I wasn't able to really communicate with men. The phone call could never go through. It wasn't connected.”
And now? “I'm still trying to be open. I feel like if I try to face problems, then it's better.” She pauses, then leads me outside and points to her recent series of drawings (Toxin) made from residual oil used in a Taoist massage she received. Xiao compares Dialogue to this piece. “It was like the Taoist massage. It got the toxins out. The Taoist massage gets my physical toxins out of my body but my other works get my mental toxins out of my system.” Can she connect with men now? “Yes, better,” she replies. “Past is past.”