BEIJING — 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.
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.
Indeed, controversial art and performances have been migrating to the 798 area as a kind of art refuge.
"In a little more than three years, the artists went out and the businesses came in," says Brian Wallace, owner of The Red Gate Gallery, which has spaces both downtown and at 798.
"This area is going to become a tourist zone ... so now they frequently send out undercover agents to make sure no one violates socialist principles for art," says one staffer at a 798 shop.
Yet some modern art is still more equal than others. At the White Space gallery, a performance-art video by Austrian artist Hermann Nitsch, which involves handling what appears to be excrement, and a mock crucifixion of several women in which "blood" is poured all over the body - has brought no comment by Ministry of Culture reviewers.
The line is drawn strictly at criticizing or poking fun at Chinese leaders or symbols of officialdom, experts say. Subjects dealing with extreme behavior, sexuality and nudity, and most other subjects are often ignored by censors in the current China.
"No one at my school will dare to draw anything negative, or joking, about China's leaders," says an art professor from Hunan who is taking photos of the White Space exhibit.
What bothers some artists is that foreigners come to 798 and imagine that the climate they are experiencing is China itself. In this sense, they say the small elite zone is a kind of propaganda tool.
"Foreigners go up to 798 and they get the wrong idea about what China is," says a photographer.
Yet while political subjects are absolutely forbidden in China, censorship is not unique to it. In the US, art that desecrates the US flag has been censored at times.
The 798 brain trust points out that China is still emerging, and compromise is necessary. The cultural-industry zone maintains a steady stream of sophisticated work and activity. Last weekend was a press event for a new "Artists Pension Trust" - in which 250 artists in five global regions each donate one work per year over a 20-year period. After 10 years, the works are sold and profits shared, a "mixture of capitalism and socialism." This weekend is the kickoff of the Third International Dashanzi Art Show, one of 798's biggest events.
Newly rich Chinese for the first time have started to buy modern works. Yet even many highly educated mainland Chinese feel that art belongs within patriotic borders. A recent feminist work by artist Cui Xiuwen of a distressed schoolgirl lying on Tiananmen Square wearing a "young pioneers" uniform over a voluptuous body, was seen as offensive by some locals.
"Tiananmen should be a sacred place for the Chinese leaders," says one Beijing University master's candidate. "It should be treated that way. That is how many Chinese feel. They think these works are offensive."
Yet some artists still find meaning in the Tiananmen moment. Wu Wenjian, who was put in prison at age 18 after the Tiananmen massacre, drew during the eight years of his prison term. He has stayed with the theme of the massacre.
"In China people like to forget things," says gallery owner Gao Qiang, who shares a name with, but is not related to, the artist of the yellow Mao. "But we found some artists were still working on this subject. They should have a right to show.
"People always ask me what should be the standard for our work ... and when things will change. I say 'I don't know. I think I should be free,' is what I say."