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Club Seen: How Performer Zhihao Pushes the Limits of his Body and the Dancefloor

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Club Seen shines a light on the artists, VJs, and designers providing a visual dimension to after-hours underground culture in urban China.

In the year following his graduation, performance artist and choreographer Zhihao embarked on a pilgrimage. Hitchhiking from the city of Dali in Yunnan province to the easternmost region of Tibet, he sought to learn more about traditional Chinese dance styles in southwestern China.

“I would dance on the street to earn money, and watch the local dancers and see how they moved,” he says. “At that time, it was just for fun, but the styles I learned along the way have had a huge effect on how I perform and choreograph now.”

Though he was fresh out of university with a degree in digital media, the trip inspired him to revisit his high school passion: dance.

Zhihao at 44KW Radii China

Harnessing elements of ceremony and technology, the Guangdong-born, Shanghai-based artist has since become one of the more creative players in the city’s nightlife, combining visceral performance art with dance and digital media.

As a dancer, Zhihao has never been afraid of pushing the limits of his performances and his body.

In 2019, he worked alongside Shanghai techno and house club 44KW for a party called 44 Non Stop, directing a grueling four-hour performance within an ongoing 44-hour long party format. Intense, ritualistic, and sexually charged, his performers improvised with rope and baths of red jelly while grappling with the ideas of rebirth, disgust and lust in relation to the body.

shanghai performance zhihao 44kw

Zhihao recalls that some of the audience members, however, did not respond favorably. Feedback from online audiences on a recap documentary of the performance was mixed, with questions such as, “Why do you torment your actors like this?” The dancer observes that his themes of discipline and time endurance can be a hard pill to swallow for some onlookers.

“At that time, I was challenging myself a lot, including one exercise that let me experience death for one to two minutes using a gas,” he says. “I was doing a lot of research and work about pushing the boundaries and limits of the body.”

Zhihao Midnight Kungfu Radii China

He has employed this endurance-based approach in dedicated art spaces as well. In 2017, he participated in a ballet-style dance performance in which the one agreement between the seven collaborators was to “just keep going — don’t stop.”

In another performance titled “夜粥 Midnight Kungfu,” shown at A+ Contemporary Space in Shanghai, dancers performed for six hours straight until 5am while onlookers camped out eating porridge and drinking soju.

Zhihao Midnight Kungfu Radii China Image

The performer’s explorations have also brought him attention at larger art institutions in Shanghai. At Power Station of Art — the first state-run contemporary art museum in mainland China — he performed “Camera Screen and Real Scenes,” a solo performance using cameras and computer screens as an extension of his body, which delved into the idea of human connectivity to technology.

“I realized all this information is processed through our electronic devices. It’s almost like these devices act as a window or gateway to how individuals process the world,” he says about the piece. “I wanted to explore what is real human thinking, and what is processed or digitally curated thought.”

Camera Scene, Real Sense Zhihao Radii China

Like other artists experimenting with themes of digital dystopia, Zhihao has increasingly become interested in the capitalistic nature of culture, exemplified in metropolises like Shanghai. He gently hints that this is the real reason behind crossovers between nightlife and fine art happening in major cities around China — something that he has experienced, but also increasingly informs the way he produces work.

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In recent years — to reach new audiences without the price tag of production resources — nightclubs throughout China have more frequently opened up their floors to small-scale art productions. For performers like Zhihao, these smaller venues can also accommodate freedom of expression without needing to adhere as strictly to local censorship laws and practices.

He says this is partly why artists like himself have “been trying to bring scenes that you might see in galleries into clubs, and the clubs into galleries” more frequently.

44kw shanghai zhihao performance

Zhihao’s background in digital media helped amplify his interest in the medium of dance, specifically the ways in which he utilizes screens and online streaming platforms within his work. Yet his interest in media extends to older formats as well.

He recalls that while working at a production studio, he was given the task to transfer some old VHS tapes to a digital format. “I was so lucky — these tapes were basically documentation of the beginning of contemporary theater and dance theater in China,” he says. “I started to study them intensely when I was working at the studio.”

Wanting to more clearly establish a relationship between video and dance, but unsure of how, Zhihao began to document himself and his compositions on film and video so that if he finds the answer to his question later along the line, he can make a connection.

Although he experiments with a variety of visual mediums, Zhihao’s dedication, first and foremost, is to dance. One can draw similarities between his performance methods and that of the heavy-footed clubbers swaying in rhythmic motion in China’s underground music venues.

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Though the artist admits that he has given up on different styles and approaches over the years, he explains that for him, the dancefloor has always been an observation deck where he can learn from clubgoers, who he describes as the most “organic dancers.”

When first introduced to nightlife, Zhihao was still exploring and teaching himself dance, and would gravitate towards dancers in clubs that he felt were original.

“I would think, ’Oh wow — why is that guy dancing like that? He’s not a professional dancer, but he dances with his own style and energy.”

These “ordinary” dancers — how they interact with one another both in digital and physical spaces — have had a lasting impact on the way Zhihao conceives his work now. Using a multitude of alternative spaces, he uses dance to form a clearer connection between the world of nightlife and professional performance.

All photos: courtesy Zhihao

Betty Grace Neilson
    Betty Grace Neilson is a British writer, photographer and events producer based in Shanghai. Expect to bump into her at a bunch of nightlife spots with a white wine spritzer in hand.