Chinese artists cross the red line
24.04.2006 Jonathan Watts, The Guardian
Police stage political crackdown on Beijing's booming contemporary gallery district
China's censors may not fully understand contemporary art, but they know what they don't like. Since the start of this month, police and propaganda officials have launched their biggest crackdown on Beijing's counterculture hothouse - Dashanzi art district - where at least three galleries have been ordered to remove politically sensitive works.
On their orders, down has come an oil painting by Gao Qiang depicting a sickly yellow Mao Zedong bathing in a Yangtze river the colour of blood. Out has gone a child-like depiction of the 1989 Beijing massacre by Wu Wenjian, who uses stick figures to illustrate tanks and soldiers shooting at people. And back to storage has gone the centrepiece of the celebrated artist Huang Rui's first solo exhibition on the Chinese mainland: a cultural revolution slogan made up of of banknotes bearing Mao's portrait.
Residents say there has been nothing like it in the three years since Dashanzi began its transformation from an old arms factory into one of the world's most fashionable contemporary art centres.
The Xindong Chen gallery was among the first to fall foul of the censors, when its exhibition, Charm and Strength - Mao Zedong and the Chinese Contemporary Artists, was abruptly closed last October. "I was surprised because, after 25 years of economic reforms, I thought China was ready to accept creations like these," said the owner, Chen Xindong. "These are great contemporary artists. Their work is shown all over the world. Why not in China?"
That clampdown reflects the dramatic changes in the Chinese art world. An increasingly confident generation of artists is pushing at the limits of acceptability, as foreign galleries open branches in Beijing to cash in on the boom in Chinese contemporary art. The authorities, meanwhile, are struggling with a new desire to promote alternative culture and an old instinct to control it.
The censorship rules seem unclear. If there is a pattern, it is that private and commercial freedom is almost unlimited, but anything public and political is subject to controls. Galleries in Dashanzi openly display nudity and sexually explicit pictures. But even a flat image of political leaders seems to make the censors queasy. One of the pieces that had to be removed is a grey painting of the current leadership all in the same dark suits and ties with the same hairstyle.
The Gao brothers - two of the most renowned members of the Chinese art community - thought long and hard before deciding to display a portrait of a corpulent Mao with a pig by Gao Qiang (not related). "We felt it was important to create an opportunity for artists to express themselves on subjects that are part of our history," said Gao Xianxian. "But we were very cautious. We put the most sensitive works at the back of the exhibition room, where fewer people were likely to see them."
Within a week, however, police ordered the work taken down.
Despite the crackdown, the Gao brothers said the climate was improving. From 1989 until 2003, they were on the government blacklist and forbidden to leave the country. But they are now part of a new wave of Chinese artists wowing galleries abroad. Next week, they will visit Nottingham to recreate their renowned work, Hug, in which they persuade strangers to embrace.
Many of today's leading Chinese artists grew up during the cultural revolution, were students during the 1989 democracy protests, and have long explored these topics in their work. But it is only recently that they have found public outlets for their more politically sensitive pieces. Much of the work by Huang Rui - one of the founding fathers of Dashanzi- uses wordplay and sexual imagery to mock propagandist slogans.
Overseas, it is well-known, but in China it rarely gets out of his studio. His exhibition piece, Chairman Mao 10,000 RMB, in Dashanzi, lasted only a few days this month before being closed. "We're at a delicate stage," said Huang. "The government is trying to find a balance. I think they want to develop Dashanzi to improve the city's image. But some in power are old-fashioned and want to use traditional methods of control. We must push our ideas. [President Hu Jintao] talks about creating a harmonious society. That means having more culture."
Beijing's mayor, Wang Qishan, wants to see further development of Dashanzi. Brian Wallace, whose Red Gate Gallery was the first foreign-owned space for contemporary art in China, said: "Before Dashanzi, there were only three of us, so 99% of artists had no way to show their work to the public."
His business has been affected by the censors. Two years ago, officials ordered the closure of an exhibition by Sheng Qi, who cut off the little finger of his left hand after the 1989 crackdown and who now juxtaposes this mutilation with idealised pictures from the cultural revolution. But the ban aroused the buyers' interest. In the next few months, Sheng was the gallery's best-selling artist.
Compared with the first years after he opened his gallery in 1990, Wallace says the atmosphere is improving. "Ten years ago the officials would have been rude and taken the pictures away. Now they are polite and ask for pictures to be withdrawn from public view."
Gao brothers Xianxian, 50, and Qiang, 44, from Shandong province were on a government blacklist and unable to leave China until 2003. They use photography to explore social and political topics, such as protesting peasants. Famous for Hug, a work that encourages strangers to embrace.
Huang Rui Beijing avant-garde artist and a founding father of Dashanzi art district. Uses wordplay to satirise political slogans. Censors ordered removal of his work, Chairman Mao 10,000 RMB, which was an ironical take on the capitalist legacy of the late communist leader.
Sheng Qi Painter and performance artist, 41, whose motif is his mutilated left hand. He cut off the little finger in the wake of the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre.
Wu Wenjian Beijing artist who used naive style of painting to depict slaughter by tanks and soldiers in 1989. Police ordered them removed.
Gao Qiang Beijing-based painter whose garishly coloured portraits of Mao have been deemed unsuitable for public display.