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China strikes back as modern artists push boundaries

By Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor / April 27, 2006


Chinese modern art has been pushing the borders of the acceptable. But just as limits seemed to fall, the local culture police struck back, albeit politely. Three galleries at the chic Dashanzi art area were told to remove more than 20 paintings in recent weeks, all with political themes.

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The move seems an important setback to many in the art world here, though not a dramatic one. It comes at a time when Chinese modern art sales overseas are booming, even doubling in value. The highest price ever paid for a single painting by a living Chinese artist came at Sotheby's in New York on March 31 - $975,000 for "Comrade No. 120," by Zhang Xiaogang.

Contemporary art in China has matured from the days when it was mainly imitative of the Western avant garde. The number of artists has spiked. Yet the crackdown on political art shows that official lines continue to be drawn firmly when it comes to the sacred goods of the nation, and that no political images or themes that are unapproved may be shown - even in relatively secluded places like Dashanzi, visited mainly by foreigners and a self-selecting group of educated Chinese.

The forbidden works were part of shows in the Chen Xindong, Gao Brothers, and Chinese Contemporary galleries - all located in a sprawling old electric factory area known popularly as "798." They include: a yellow Mao swimming in a red Yangtze River, by Gao Qiang; a gray set of expressionless men suggesting Beijing leaders, called "Brothers"; tanks in Tiananmen by Wu Wenjian; and a Cultural Revolution-style greeting to Mao, made out of 10,000 yuan, the Chinese currency, by Huang Rui - one of the founders of 798.

"This is China and it is still run by the Communist Party," said one artist at 798 who requested anonymity. "You look outside and see skyscrapers. But a lot isn't modernized."

Seven men entered Gao Brothers in late March, less than a week after a show titled "Ash Red" opened. They were from the Ministry of Culture and security services. They seemed to know what they were looking for, says Gao Qiang, one of the Gao brothers. They asked Gao, "What do these works mean?" Gao replied that it was art. They said the works were inappropriate, and gave him a list of a dozen to remove.

Catalogues for the shows were officially banned; planned articles and interviews in local magazines were tracked down and stopped. It is understood among artists that many forms of expression - intellectual, artistic, Internet blogging - have been curtailed in recent years.

"798 is more open than other places, so we wanted to come here," says Mr. Gao, who went to London this week with his brother for a performance-art piece called "Hug," where strangers are asked to embrace each other. "But some subjects seem off limits still ... they were very firm about it."

The 798 area is officially designated a "district for cultural industry." Its evolution illustrates the speed of change in modern China. The factory was taken over by artists and turned into a cheap studio space for work and living. It became a small beehive of the avant garde, a discreet zone of the faintly dissident - edgy, fringy, smart. A club scene developed. That, in turn, attracted fellow travelers who wished to traverse the borders of the acceptable - in a country where politics and expression often can't exist in the same sentence. Galleries, crafts, boutiques, coffee shops, bars, and bookstores moved in to cash in on the vibe. Rents went up. And, as in similar stories worldwide, many artists could no longer afford to live there, and moved out. It all happened in less than five years.