When asked why he is fascinated with setting fire to chairs during live performances, leading British performance artist Nigel Rolfe said in all seriousness that he has hated chairs after being injured by one several years ago.
He set two chairs ablaze last week in Beijing－a child's high chair and a traditional wooden Chinese one－as part of his first solo show in China held at the Red Brick Art Museum.
The show looked back at the artistic practices of Rolfe's most important works of performance art through site-specific photos and videos recording.
In fact, the hard-working artist staged four pieces of performance art during his short stay in Beijing. The performance for his opening show on Jan 31 attracted hundreds of visitors. Bound in ropes, Rolfe blew off clouds of colored powder around his head to create billowing clouds floating in the air, a common theme seen in many of his works.
"It's all about resistance. I'm a body artist. I love to touch everything and get close to the materials I use in my art," says Rolfe, 68, who began putting on physical art shows in 1969 before the term "performance art" had even been invented.
He sees his body as "sculpture in motion" and a painting tool to interact directly with elements such as water, fire, air, earth and other raw materials like flour and wood to reveal the fragility of life by challenging his limits.
Jonas Stampe, curator of the show and a longtime friend of Rolfe, says the artist's choice of materials often bear symbolic meanings. For instance, the chair represents authority and power. Even simple actions like standing, falling, walking and even breathing take on new meaning.
"To experience a live-action sequence by Rolfe is to live in a unique moment. He seizes the moment in movements and stillness, inventing sensible images of beauty and meaning," adds Stampe.
The exhibition is entitled The Time Is Now, echoing the artist's concept of what makes good performance art.
"It is happening right now, right before your eyes, and you witness it", he says, stressing the importance of audience engagement.
His audiences at his shows provide constant feedback to let him know if he is on track, and the sounds of clicks and flashes from hundreds of cameras show Rolfe that he has everyone's attention. But this doesn't necessarily mean that everyone understands his performances. During one performance three years ago, he stood motionless on a snowy street in a Swedish city for six hours. A man drove past him and then returned, shocked by his stillness, repeatedly asking him what he was doing.
"Sometimes they think I am insane or simply a fool. But I have to be confident and concentrate on my work," says Dublin-based Rolfe, who is a professor at the Royal College of Art in London.
The artist explains that he gains strong emotional power from his performances. He often enters a meditative state where he forgets about everything else other than his art. One of his longest shows lasted nine consecutive nights.
Having practiced performance art for nearly half a century, Rolfe has faced many challenging situations, some of which have even proved life-threatening. On one occasion he fractured his spine, nearly leading to permanent paralysis. After suffering from broken ribs, Rolfe would often bind his chest to make his endurance of the pain as part of the performance.
After he injured his back, he performed several pieces about falling over, which could have led to severe, if not fatal, consequences if he hadn't executed them correctly.
"I have to take risks and try new challenges. The most dangerous things are usually unseen, such as the bacteria that carry diseases," he says.
So far, Rolfe has taken his performance art shows to more than 40 countries across the world. He produces about 20 art pieces every year, as much of his time is taken up by teaching.
As one of the few performing artists to still practice the art at an elderly stage, he admits that he won't do many of the things he used to in the past just to avoid injury. But he still enjoys the process of performing.
He loves to use colored flour, which brings back childhood memories of helping his mother make desserts in his hometown on the Isle of Wight in England. He loves the phrase from the Bible that says: "For you are dust, and to dust you shall return."
"It's about life and death, and transformation," Rolfe says.
Talking about his near half-century in performance art, Stampe says that Rolfe's works have always been about "right now", and so every time he performs, he is marking a turning point during a period of uncertainty.
And it has been these uncertainties that have driven Rolfe to continue performing throughout his life.
If you go
10 am-5:30 pm, through Feb 25. Red Brick Art Museum, Shunbai Road, Chaoyang district, Beijing. 010-84576669.