Archive for Sunday, December 31, 2000

China bids to join global art world

Shanghai show tame, many avant-garde works censored

December 31, 2000


— The painting of Mao Tse-tung as a Renaissance saint was too risky for the Shanghai 2000 Biennale. The photo of a man eating a dead baby was too disturbing.

The works, rejected by the Shanghai Art Museum's official contemporary art show, went on display at private galleries. That's when police raided a gallery and seized the exhibits.

The two-month Biennale, with 67 artists from 15 countries, is China's bid to join the club of biannual art extravaganzas led by Venice and New York City. But also on display amid the relatively tame paintings and sculptures from Chinese artists is the communist government's distrust and censorship of China avant-garde.

"Most of the avant-garde we don't have. It just is not suitable for an official exhibition," said Li Xu, one of the Biennale's four curators. "No government in the world wants to put anti-government material on display."

Artists in China today enjoy almost unprecedented freedom to create in private. Problems start when artists want to show their work to the public. They are shut out of museums and the staid, state-controlled art press. Artists most admired abroad are largely unknown at home.

While private galleries are more daring, since 1997 authorities have revoked permission for at least two large independent exhibitions in Beijing.

Contemporary art is in the midst of a 5-year-old boom, winning acclaim abroad and high prices from collectors. China's government is eager for the prestige that a place on the world art map would bring; 34 Chinese artists are featured in the Biennale, which runs through Jan. 6.

But the Communist Party remains uneasy with creative freedom, and a vast bureaucracy polices and censors the arts.

Official hostility extends to pioneers of more popular arts. Paris-based Gao Xingjian recently collected China's first Nobel Prize for Literature but can't get published at home. Censors won't let cinemas screen "Devils on the Doorstep," director Jiang Wen's saga of Japanese wartime occupation that won the Cannes Film Festival's Grand Prize in May.

China dominated last year's Venice Biennale, with 17 artists represented. Any official pride, though, was tempered by knowledge that, like Nobel laureate Gao, many work abroad in self-imposed exile. Cai Guoqiang, winner of the Venice show's International Prize, lives in Paris.

Instead of congratulating Cai, an official art school threatened a copyright lawsuit, accusing him of misusing a 1960s propaganda image for his room-size diorama, "The Rent Collector's Yard."

In this climate of conflict, contemporary art has grown markedly violent. A 1999 video by Yang Zhichao shows the Beijing artist having his identity card number the tie that binds every Chinese for life to the suffocating bureaucracy branded onto his back.

"It's getting worse. It comes from frustration about the cultural situation in mainland China that they can't have any open discussion," said Hans van Dijk, a Dutch curator of Chinese art who lives in Beijing.

Pieces that made it into the Biennale are high quality for China, if mild by art world standards.

One Chinese artist whimsically dressed a copy of Michelangelo's sculpture, "David," in a Mao suit. Also represented are artists from Britain, Tanzania, the United States and Indonesia many shown in China for the first time.

A crowd-pleaser is by Shanghai's Chen Yanyin: a table full of wilting roses impaled on IV needles. Surgical tubing runs to clear plastic bags hanging from the ceiling and labeled with such gentle prescriptions as "Forgive" and "Import Love."

"This is an attitude that doesn't belong to any one country or any skin color. This is true art," said Li, the Biennale curator.

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