On November 13, 2010, Zhu Fadong’s solo exhibition “All for Sale” opened at 798’s White Box Museum of Art. It was no different from any other opening on any other Saturday in 798. All the mandatory guests, journalists, and VIPs were present, and a ballet performance afterward added to an otherwise lively spectacle. The work on display encompassed the most significant of Zhu’s output in recent years, and included the new sculpture piece, Person for Sale.
Although Zhu Fadong came of age alongside the artists Zhang Huan, Rong Rong, Ma Liuming, Cang Xin, and Zhu Ming, seldom do people speak of this fact. In fact, fewer and fewer people even recognize his name. Even if he shows up to the gallery in his trademark blue worker’s hat and toting his courier bag, the passage of time seems to have so distanced audiences from his persona that they are incapable of fathoming the significance he once held in the history of Chinese contemporary art. Their reaction— or lack thereof— is the same when looking at the sculptural rendition of the Person for Sale from sixteen years ago.
Some eighteen years ago, Zhu Fadong pulled off the first piece of performance art of his career, Announcement of Missing Person. It was called by some the first important work of performance art in the history of Chinese contemporary art. It also made Zhu famous throughout the city of Kunming. Even mainstream media showed remarkable interest. However, the art world knew nothing of the debate in question, for nobody yet had a notion of what “performance” was. The reaction of most was either misconception or flat-out rejection. Fortunately, none of this affected Zhu’s “swift rise to fame.” In 1993, critic Wang Lin published an article about Announcement of Missing Person in the leading magazine of that moment, Jiangsu Pictorial. All the theorists were taken by storm. The performance was even voted as one of the top ten happenings in the art world that year.
Having had a sweet taste of fame, Zhu Fadong went ahead to paint a version of Announcement of Missing Person, which showed at the Second China National Oil Painting Exhibition. Thereafter he decided to leave Kunming to live and work in Beijing. He doesn’t deny that the motivation behind this move was so “more people could see his work.” In 1994, still in Beijing, Zhu realized what remains his most important piece: Person for Sale. As an extension of Announcement of Missing Person, it upheld the model wherein art penetrated society— for more than one year, Zhu walked around the city’s streets and alleys, wearing the same blue tunic, emblazoned with a patch on which was written “Person for Sale, Price Negotiable.” The idea was that he would “sell” himself— his body, his mind, anything of his that could be “sold”— in exchange for cash. Anybody could make use of him, and he could make himself useful to anyone.
Announcement of Missing Person and Person for Sale were both documented in Ai Weiwei’s 1994 Black Cover Book. In the subsequent umpteen years, Person for Sale would appear in any number of retrospective exhibitions, and even in textbooks. But people would go on to forget Zhu Fadong as fast as he first made his name. As for the sculpture Person for Sale, it’s hard to say whether it will gain traction in today’s extremely pragmatic environment, or if it will linger as a token of the artist’s own personal yearning.
We saw Zhu Fadong in his Tongzhou studio, already more than fifty and with his youth well behind him. But he has managed to preserve the frivolous gaiety of those times. With great zest he relates to us stories about those early works. He tells us how, in performing Announcement of Missing Person, he scared the old ladies in attendance half to death, and how the mothers of his artist friends would say that anybody who makes art will end up lost. He recalls the conversations he would strike up while performing Person for Sale. He recounts with extreme clarity how, before he became a professional artist, he struggled to survive in Hainan, and how free and unfettered his life was during school. He describes everything as if it were just yesterday, when in reality all this took place nearly two decades ago.
The original documents and painting of Announcement of Missing Person, as well as the photographs of Person for Sale have all been taken into the Beijing Art Now Gallery collection by Huang Liaoyuan. They have also entered the annals of art history. Zhu Fadong is optimistically making arrangements for his next show, which will contain works both old and new. He has tried working with paper, and making installations and sculpture, but he plans to continue with his “performance.” The Zhu Fadong of today has a studio, and a big house. But he’s still pretty much the same as when he first arrived in Beijing: a man with an intense passion for provocative art.