New Geographies of Feminist Art: China, Asia, and the World

Mother Country: He Chengyao’s Matrilineal Intermedia Art

Meiling Cheng

He-Chengyao, Public Broadcast Exercises, 2004, from Brooklyn Museum’s website.

As a common English expression, the phrase “mother country” dates back to the early European settlers to the U.S. The Pilgrim Fathers proclaimed their separation from their mother country, England, to become established in a foreign and challenging territory. In contrast to “fatherland,” which prioritizes one’s nationalistic heritage, “mother country” therefore connotes the birthplace from which one departs in search of a new life. My inquiry adopts and modifies this gendered socio-geographical trope as a central metaphor for Chinese artist He Chengyao (何成瑶)’s performance oeuvre. I argue that He’s gynocentric performances take stock from her own gendered, middle-aged, and maternal body as her “mother country” simultaneously to claim her independence from its enculturated bondage, to come into her own as an artist, and to return home to her mother.

From her first impromptu performance on the Great Wall to her more recent documentary works about poor and mentally ill rural families, He Chengyao’s creative path reverses China’s massive urbanization trajectory to move from the city to the country. I will examine a selection of the artist’s solo and participatory performances (2001-2009) to analyze how He chose body-based live art and fieldwork-based performative projects as conduits to imaginarily reunite with her mentally impaired mother, while re-engendering her matrilineal artistic career.