Ai Weiwei isn't the only contemporary Chinese artist pushing the boundaries -- and making Beijing nervous.
- By Joshua E. KeatingJoshua E. Keating is an associate editor at Foreign Policy.
On June 22, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was released on bail after nearly three months in prison. Ai was charged with tax evasion, though supporter believe his arrest was motivated by his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government.* Ai’s imprisonment shocked the international art world and highlighted the increasingly repressive tactics of the Chinese state’s censorship regime, which has clamped down on even the faintest hint of protests in the wake of the democratic revolutions in the Arab world. Ai’s politically confrontational work is something of an outlier in China, where most high-profile artists steer clear of explicitly political material. But he’s not the only one who has pushed the boundaries with his work — and paid the price.
*This article was updated on June 22.
Art: The 57-year-old Beijing-based performance artist Cheng Li was little known internationally until March 20 when he shocked the sensibilities of Chinese authorities and earned himself a year in a labor camp with a provocative performance at Beijing’s Museum of Contemporary Art. During the performance, titled Art Whore, Cheng had sex with a woman on a balcony and in a basement of the exhibition hall while patrons looked on. According to Cheng, the piece was meant to show that “the popular trend of commercializing art is nothing but a trade of sex for commercial benefits.”
Another performance artist who viewed the performance said that Cheng was “using his art to criticize the current situation in the art circle, where people seem to lose their principles. It is his way of expressing irony that art today is overcommercialized.”
Consequences: Cheng was arrested on March 24 and sentenced in May to one year of “re-education through labor” for his performance. The fate of the woman, who was also arrested, isn’t known. In the formal charge against Cheng, the Administrative Commission for Re-education through Labor wrote that his act had “attracted multiple people to look on and caused public [dis]order in chaos.” His supporters have countered that the audience was made up of other artists and critics who were “prepared mentally for what they were going to see and were very quiet during the process.”
Cheng’s lawyer has filed an appeal and demanded that legal scholars “clearly define the relationship between the arts and the law.” As for Cheng himself, he tells his lawyer that he is being treated well so far but is “a little bored these days.”
THE GAO BROTHERS
Art: If Mao Zedong is something of an obsession for the two Jinan-born brothers — both in their 50s — they certainly have their reasons. Their father, a factory worker, was arrested during the Cultural Revolution and sent to the countryside for “re-education.” A short time later, the family was told he had committed suicide.
The brothers have exacted a certain level of revenge on the Chairman, depicting him in their work alternately as a kneeling penitent, with giant breasts, a detachable head, and in one of their most famous works, as a firing squad of clones about to execute Jesus Christ.
“It’s something I hope all Chinese people will one day be able to accept and understand,” Gao Zhen told the New York Times in 2009. “We wanted to portray him as a human being, a regular person confessing for the wrongs he’s committed.”
Consequences: Not surprisingly, while the brothers have won a devoted following overseas, it’s not easy for them to show their work in China. Over the years, authorities have raided their exhibitions, confiscated their work, and turned off the electricity to their studio. Until 2003, they were forbidden from leaving mainland China.
Prohibited from showing in gallery spaces and museums, the Gaos hold several “parties” every year where fans can come view their work in private homes. The locations of the exhibitions are revealed several hours beforehand and spread via word of mouth and text message.
Despite their incendiary reputation, the Gaos insist their work is more personal than political. “I don’t consider myself a dissident at all,” Gao Qiang told the Los Angeles Times last year. “I never even think about this question. I just use art to express what I want to express.”
Art: Guo Gai’s body of work in photography, sculpture, and performance comments on what he sees as the increasing materialism and spiritual decline of Chinese culture as the country transitions from communism to an authoritarian form of capitalism. According a statement accompanying the work, the set of photographs, Chinese Jesus Triptych, is a commentary on how “faith in communism” has eroded in China thanks to the pursuit of materialism, while at the same time “Christian faith, and religious faith in general, has been developing rapidly.”
A new work which will be displayed in August at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a ten-part vocal performance using only “expressive syllables and feelings outpoured in sound” to comment on 10 incidents in China in 2008, including the Beijing Olympics and the Tibet riots, during which 12 people were killed. The piece aims to “comfort the souls that suffered, and to voice complaint about the lot of ordinary people.”
Consequences: Guo was arrested by Beijing police on March 24 at the Beijing Museum of Contemporary Art — just a few days after Cheng Li’s controversial performance there — for taking photos at an exhibition that included work commenting on the crackdown on freedom of expression following the stillborn Chinese pro-democracy movement dubbed the “Jasmine Revolution.” Guo was released a month later in “reasonable health” but has been legally barred from leaving China — or Beijing — for any reason, meaning he won’t be able to attend the exhibition of his work in Minneapolis this summer. The exact reason for his detention remains unclear.
Art: Ou’s best-known works consist of photographs of himself doing push-ups naked in front of famous Chinese landmarks. “I love my country. I also love my body,” blogged the artist, who has described the photos as an effort to “mark events of historical importance and to link these events, which may seem random, to make people aware, and to help them understand that critical thought about these events is very important.”
Ou’s work includes well-known monuments like the Forbidden City and the “Bird’s Nest” stadium in Beijing, but others are a bit more politically touchy. He photographed himself in front of Tibet’s Potala Palace on the anniversary of the 2008 riots and near the Wangjialing coal mine, where 38 workers were killed in a flood in 2010.
There has also been speculation that Ou’s push-ups may refer to the highly publicized death of a teenager in the city of Weng’an in 2008. The police report into the case, which the authorities described as a drowning but the victim’s family says was a rape and murder, included a seemingly non-sequitur reference to the victim’s friend — with her at the time, so the report claims — doing push-ups. The phrase became a kind of codeword for Chinese Internet users to discuss the case. Despite the speculation, however, Ou has never explicitly referenced the matter in any of his public statements about this work.
Consequences: Ou, whose work has been exhibited alongside Ai Weiwei’s, has been arrested several times for public nudity and had his cameras confiscated, but has never been held for an extended period of time. It may help that he was already something of a celebrity as a television host in Guangdong before he became an artist and that he intentionally leaves the significance of his work open to interpretation, as opposed to more blatant provocations like Ai’s.
Nonetheless, Ou is aware that his art is risky in China and takes precautions, telling China Daily in 2009: “Every time I go out to shoot, my family worries about me. … I write ‘help’ messages on my cell phone beforehand and inform my friends they should get ready to rescue me if I get into any trouble.”
SUN YUAN AND PENG YU
Art: Over the last decade, Sun and Peng have emerged as enfants terribles of installation art, not just in their own country, but internationally. They first gained notoriety in 1998 for an installation called Honey in which a (real) cadaver of an old man was buried beneath a bed of ice, with the corpse of an infant lying next his exposed face. In another piece, the two gave blood transfusions to infant corpses. They’ve also constructed a column out of human fat and chained pit bulls to treadmills.
Their work occasionally verges on the political. Old People’s Home featured realistic-looking sculptures of decrepit old men resembling world leaders puttering around the gallery in motorized wheelchairs. In a 2009 work called “Freedom,” a gushing fire hose flails about in an empty room — a piece that some critics interpreted as a reference to the Tiananmen Square crackdown, 20 years earlier.
Consequences: Despite the deliberately confrontational (and gruesome) nature of much of their work, Sun and Peng haven’t yet fallen afoul of the Chinese legal system. In their late 30s, the two are seen as part of a new generation of Chinese artists who came of age after the era of rigid censorship during which figures like Ai Weiwei and the well-known contemporary artist Zhang Huan cut their teeth. Authorities have been far more willing to tolerate boundary-pushing material that would have earned a jail sentence during the 1980s, so long as the content is not explicitly political. With contemporary Chinese art exploding as one of the most profitable commodities in the international market, most artists have been willing to take the deal.