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Ties That Bind 

Chinese artists switch gender roles to explore issues of oppression.

J. Jaia Chen in Red Ties.
  • J. Jaia Chen in Red Ties.
Foot-binding endured for more than 1,000 years in China without widespread resistance. The once-pervasive cultural practice of bandaging girls' feet so tightly that normal growth could not occur is now a thing of the past, but today many Chinese women are attempting to understand the reasons for the persistence of a practice that permanently disfigured women even as recently as 60 years ago. J. Jaia Chen, who emigrated to the United States from Beijing as a teenager, is on just such a mission, and her show Red Ties at the Sculpture Center explores this terrain with quiet intensity.

Chen, 29 and a graduate of the master of fine arts program at Ohio State, is quick to point out that foot-binding originally played a part in ancient Chinese religious celebrations. During the rituals, says Chen, "women had to force their bodies to accentuate certain positions." The foot-binding was a way to facilitate those odd positions. This historical slant is what political pundits today would characterize as "favorable spin": It suggests -- if one accepts this account of the origins of the practice -- that foot-binding was not a systematic societal plot to maim women (and thus force them to be powerless and dependent). The corrupting influences came later. It is Chen's achievement in this exhibit that she holds onto both aspects of the foot-binding story at once. She recognizes the hurt and pain that it has caused (part of her goal is to "question the historical roles of Chinese men and women"), but she also is intrigued with foot-binding's link to celebration and ritual. Consequently, the show is free of the ideological overkill that one might have expected.

The show consists of an installation, the props from a performance piece, and a series of photographs of the performance itself. It effectively demonstrates what happens when tradition goes awry -- when practices originally performed to facilitate celebration become instruments for systematic mutilation.

The installation appears to be a memorial to all the females deformed by the practice of foot-binding. In it, a group of sculptures fashioned from dough hang from filaments attached to the ceiling. These misshapen sculptures have a grotesque aspect in their evocation of mangled arms, feet, and elbows. Interestingly, Chen does not restrict herself to sculptures of feet. She seems to be saying that, just as these women's feet were deformed, their entire bodies were, too.

The piece emphasizes not the social benefits to be gained by foot-binding, but the tremendous cost. The feet of young girls were bandaged so tightly that the toes folded underneath the foot and the bones were broken. As sociologist Robert Edgerton reports in a chilling article titled "Sick Societies": "Accounts of the anguish these children suffered during the process of replacing blood- and pus-soaked bandages with new and still tighter ones are truly harrowing." Eventually, the pain subsided, but these women would hobble awkwardly for the rest of their lives.

Chen says that, in China, women frequently use dough to sculpt images. "I don't want audiences to think of bread when they see these shapes," the artist emphatically states. She has nothing to worry about. Instead, the dough serves to remind the viewer of the inroads that foot-binding eventually made into the Chinese population. Dough sculpting was traditionally a folk art; by contrast, foot-binding was originally a practice confined to the Chinese elite around the time of Confucius. But by the beginning of the 20th century, it was accepted all over -- encompassing both peasant populations and the urban poor. Furthermore, this sculpted dough is a fine metaphor for what Chinese women were to their husbands -- dough that could be fashioned into whatever shape was desired.

Precisely what male needs did foot-binding satisfy? That's just one question that Chen took on in her performance piece. Chen and artist Joel Seah -- who is finishing up his bachelor of fine arts degree at the University of Alabama -- collaborated on the piece, which, they say, explored such topics as role reversal, trust, and restriction.

For Chinese men, foot-binding was a turn-on and a convenient way of ensuring that women stayed subservient. They were attracted to the small feet. In fact, the naked foot became known as "the golden lotus." Nor was the sexual thrill all. Chinese males liked foot-binding because it kept their wives at home. Once a woman's feet were bound, her mobility was seriously compromised (to the point where she would not even be able to walk unassisted); it followed that she would be less likely to engage in extramarital affairs. Also, the woman would not be able to work, so the man could gain social prestige by demonstrating that he could provide for her.

In their subversive performance, Chen and Seah (who is also Chinese) took the practice of binding and changed its whole dynamic. First, Seah wrapped Chen's face and bound her feet. Then he led her out in front of the assembled crowd. Here, he played the role of the proud Chinese male who takes care of his tottering wife and wants to earn societal points for his ability to do so. In the next phase of the piece, Chen wrapped her collaborator in the same manner. Having bound her male companion, she then became the triumphant one, proudly showing off her strength (and his vulnerability) to the crowd. The image of a woman leading a man resonates beyond the context of Chinese culture. One thinks of the blind Oedipus being led toward the center of the stage -- another male who, in blindness, has been given a chance to reach new insights about himself and his society. A more culturally specific reading might suggest that the artists have attempted to reconcile the opposing yin and yang forces in the universe by recognizing that both such forces -- active and passive -- exist within themselves. Then, too, there was the strain of social activism in this performance piece. By using these wordless enactments to simplify complex interpersonal issues, Chen and Seah were suggesting that much can be learned about such matters nonverbally.

The import of the performance piece can be grasped with a few well-chosen images. That's why Chen has chosen to exhibit selected photographs instead of displaying a videotape of the entire performance. This condensed version distills the messages of the piece. To be able to contrast images of Chen's bound face and feet with those of her collaborator in close proximity is to understand in an instant the concept of the oppressor becoming the oppressed.

Chen and Seah say that, when they concluded this performance, they felt invigorated by the trust they were able to place in each other -- and gained insight into the historical roles of Chinese men and women. It's obvious from the photographs that they have managed to express their very particular concerns (those dealing with Chinese history and culture) in an accessible language that transcends cultural barriers.

Foot-binding was outlawed after World War II, but exhibits like this suggest that modern Chinese women are still sorting through the wreckage. Traditions and rituals can be destructive as well as life-enhancing. That, ultimately, is the message in Chen's insightful exhibit.

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