Ma Liuming was 24 years old; the year was 1993. A young, attractive artist with long hair. He was at a party with a female friend, and they had the idea of exchanging clothes for fun. The result astounded him: with make-up and a long dress, the man became a perfect female beauty. This incident, a chance whim, awoke Ma Liuming's interest in what gender is, and from this, his own artistic style grew, his special form of performance art. During the next ten years, this became his artistic trademark – himself as a woman in various performances. Under his nom de scène, he created a number of performance works and photo series: photos in a dress in or with a naked lower body in 1993; in 1994 he appeared naked in the artistic community East Village in a series of appearances he called Lunch; in 1998, he walked on the Great Wall of China.
In the early 90s, performance was not widely accepted, and the naked Lunchappearances led to police intervention. Ma was arrested and incarcerated for more than two months. East Village, were young artists like Ma and Zhang Huang worked, was also disbanded by the authorities. Ma Liuming became a familiar name in the contemporary Chinese art world, and one of the first to be noted internationally.
Ma's trademark received a name: Fen-Ma Liuming. "Fen" (芬) is a common girl's name, "sweetly scented beauty". In the name Fen-Ma Liuming, the male and the female are united. The core of the visual expressions is the juxtaposition of an attractive female face and a man's body. This union of differences becomes a reflection and critique on the relationship between biological and social gender. In the artist's own words: "Fen-Ma Liuming also wants to clarify an awkward relationship: we judge a person by their clothes and other cultural markers, and not by who that person is. The attitude with which one encounters outward appearance often dictates how one encounters the inner personality."
For Ma Liuming, this is a central theme: how gender is judged according to visual experience. His work Visa to the USA makes us aware of this, using humour as a weapon. In 1998, he applied for a visa to the USA for his exhibition PS1 in New York. When he received the visa, he discovered that he had been registered as F (Female) rather than M (Male). "They just looked at my photo and didn't feel they needed to check what it said in my application." He went back to the US embassy in Beijing, they both had a good laugh, and his visa was stamped with an "M".