“Well, Dorothy, you’re not in Kansas anymore!” Luise Guest reminds herself in Half the Sky, her book on Chinese women artists. She might well be writing about Australia’s very current dilemma of being forced to rethink its place in the world as China comes to dominate the economy and politics of East Asia. While politicians tread lightly around Chinese influence and the US alliance, certain quarters including the Australian media have been near hysterical about the decline of the Anglosphere, and the rise of a foreign power whose language and values are often at odds with their own. In the middle of this are the artists who work between China and Australia, who may as well be travelling between planets as between countries and cultures. For while these artists have, for the most part, adopted the liberal ideas of the contemporary artworld, in China they remain at risk of being censored and imprisoned. They cannot play out the fantasy of freedom and social mobility that Western artists entertain without putting themselves at significant risk.
Understanding Chinese-Australian artists has never been more important, as Australians try to grapple with the fundamental challenge to Australian identity that China presents. This challenge is nothing less than the triangulation of capitalism, democracy and freedom, ideas that China’s communist free-enterprise system proves need not go together. So it is that artists like Guo Jian have lived a double life since coming to Australia after being one of the hunger strikers in Tiananmen Square in 1989. Here he made his name painting in the style of the Chinese Political Pop movement, from his place of residence in Sydney. Drawing on his experience as a propaganda painter in the People's Liberation Army, he made contemporary works that showed soldiers in dancing poses, mimicking the entertainment and propaganda he was subject to while being trained for a Chinese war with Vietnam. In the twenty-first century, he joined the boom of contemporary artists using the opportunities of a newly industrialised China to set up a studio in Beijing, and shift into installation and sculpture.
It was amidst this new atmosphere for making big, contemporary works that Guo conceived of a diorama of Tiananmen Square out of building rubble. He went on to cover it in pork mince, reflecting his own experience of carrying bodies from the site of the massacre in 1989. As an extraordinary sign of his life to come, that day he was wearing a T-Shirt featuring an Australian Aboriginal design. The Square is one of many works about Chinese social issues that have been part of the twenty-first century boom in contemporary art in China. Fuelled by collectors both inside and outside the country, the boom has enabled younger artists to join older artists like Guo in questioning the place of China in a world of liberal ideas and global capital.
Guo’s The Square (2014) was bound to attract the Chinese government’s attention, in a country where even the number 89 alerts its online censors. He was imprisoned and then deported after making the work, not to be allowed back in the country for five years. The Australian embassy pleaded his case, as it has for other people living between the countries who have found themselves under arrest in China. Without the right to live in Australia, Guo may well have been imprisoned for longer than two weeks in Beijing. Other artists without the security of residence elsewhere tend to code their work more ambivalently in order not to attract attention. Ai Song’s model of Tiananmen is made of barbed wire, analogising totalitarianism, but it is called Castle (2011) and has escaped censorship. Castle sits within an oeuvre of barbed wire sculpture, in which Ai has crafted everything from tanks to human figures climbing fences. The image of Beijing’s power is at once everywhere and nowhere in his work, alluding to the impenetrability of the regime without naming it.
The tension plays itself out in what art critic Wang Lin calls the “Two Chinas,” one that is censored and policed and another that exists beyond its borders on the Anglophone internet. Middle class Chinese can see beyond their censored online world with VPNs (Virtual Private Networks). This enables them to see all the more clearly the ways in which information is controlled and the media is propaganda within China. This control is pervasive, such that those without VPNs, and those who have grown up knowing nothing else, simply do not know that there was a Tiananmen Square Massacre, or that Taiwan does not regard itself as a part of China. These words, and those of the Dalai Lama and Falun Gong, will almost certainly lead to this publication’s website being blocked in China (for the same reason, the website of Australian art critic John McDonald is censored in China). Online, these terms not only attract censors, but may well alert the police.
Of course, the most famous artist who works between the two Chinas is Ai Weiwei. His recent works at the 2018 Biennale of Sydney, including a giant blown up refugee boat, Law of the Journey, 2017, and a film about the global refugee crisis, Human Flow (2017), carry on a deliberate program of political work that dates back to the 1980s, when he was part of what has become known as the Chinese avant-garde. Ai is now something of a stand-in for Chinese dissent in the world’s media, and his production values have grown with it. There is no denying the scale of his operations. Even his work for the Biennale of Sydney at Cockatoo Island featured a viewing platform to maximise photo opportunities. Ai’s celebrity status is such that he plays himself in his film Human Flow (2017). No longer just the provocateur, he appears in the refugee hot spots around the world alongside aid workers as just a regular guy.
By dropping into refugee zones, Ai makes an implicit comparison between his own situation in China and that of people fleeing conflict and deprivation. Again, there are two worlds at work here, one in which Ai is able to step out of that persecuted situation and into the wider world, and one in which people are trapped, as stateless DPs with their life on hold indefinitely. More crucially perhaps for China, Guo and Ai have attracted the attention of the Chinese Communist Party by giving form to their dissent in works about highly sensitive issues, such as Tiananmen Square. In Ai’s case, it was work about the Sichuan earthquake that brought the Chinese government to bear upon him and his art. The earthquake killed thousands of children who had been inside badly constructed school buildings, due to the corrupt relations between government officials and contractors.
Again, it is possible to compare this kind of work with that of other Chinese artists who foster circumspection and address social issues. Wang Qingsong is the most successful artist photographer in China. He stages photographs that address the complexity and stresses of living amidst highly paced economic growth and its collision with everyday life. The inspiration for Follow You (2013) was a news report about a student on a medical drip taking an entrance examination for university. Wang bought twenty tons of books and staged more than a hundred students sleeping in the classroom while playing the student patient himself. On the back of the wall are posters of encouragement that resemble the slogans of the Communist Party, such as “Study well, progress everyday” (好好学习，天天向上), and “For sustained development, education is crucial" (百年之计，教育为本). The question marks he has placed after these slogans make it clear that Wang is being cynical about such propaganda, as the importance of having higher degrees put great deal of pressure on students and families in China. Australia profits from this anxiety, as its universities sell degrees to Chinese students, whose families go to great expense to send their children here.
The frustration of those living within China lies in the magnitude of such issues, that affect hundreds of millions of families, and the seeming inability or unwillingness of the government to address them. While the situation makes artists like Ai and Guo appear heroic, the reality of censorship in China is often more banal. A recent example is the 2018 exhibition Wild Field (旷野) in Shijazhuang, that was shut down after twenty days. A high-profile show in China, attracting media attention, it focused on issues taking place in the Chinese countryside. It also featured several artists who were part of the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, including Yan Zhengxue, Wang Peng, and the Gao Brothers.
A banned exhibition is often labelled dangerous or illegal to the public, but there are rarely any written directives to shut down. Instead, local police simply brief organisers. The curators of Wild Field had already attempted to negotiate with the local cultural department responsible for censorship. Officials visited several times, in a protracted negotiation over what and how works were to be censored, through China’s four conditions for art exhibitions:
1. No works contradicting the ruling party’s four cardinal principles are permitted. The works need to:
(1) Uphold the socialist path;
(2) Uphold the dictatorship of the proletariat;
(3) Uphold the leadership of the Communist Party; and
(4) Uphold Marxist-Leninist and Maoist thought.
2. Pornographic and obscene works are prohibited.
3. Performance art is prohibited.
The regulations are blurry when it comes to social issues, since even raising some of these issues can be interpreted as criticism of the Chinese Communist Party. In his introduction to Chinese contemporary art, Paul Gladston writes of another censored show, “Any threat to its staging was ultimately not inscribed precisely in law but was instead a matter of bureaucratic interpretation as well as an associated fear of loss of face with regard to the maintenance of public order.” In other words, censorship is here as much about administrative overreach as it is about maintaining state power.
So it was that in Wild Field, Wang Peng’s Ruins (2010) and Grove Monument (2014) attracted the attention of the censors, as they counter-memorialised the aborted 400 million foetuses resulting from the One Child Policy. This was mainly directed at Han couples, who after 1978 were only allowed to have one child if the couple were residing in the countryside. This rule applied unless they had a girl who had reached seven years of age, in which case the couple were permitted to have another child. The One Child Policy was brutal, cruel and bloody. If the authorities discovered a pregnant woman who already had one or more children the government forced her to have an abortion, no matter what stage of the pregnancy, and had her permanently sterilised. The most cruel moment in the history of the One Child Policy was probably Zeng Zhaoqi’s “No children within 100 days (白日无孩运动)” policy, that is also known as the “Lambs Massacre.” This took place in the Guan and Shen counties of ShanDong province in 1991. No children were allowed to be born for 100 days (from 1 May to 10 August) and during that period any child, whether first or second in the family, was to be aborted.
After some negotiation, Wang’s works were permitted but had to change their name to Life. The work originally named Grove Monument also had to be covered in fabric, because it was carved with the impacting words, “the spiritual monument of the children who died from the One Child Policy.” On the opening day of the exhibition the officials went one step further, forcing the gallery to remove the monument, leaving just the base. Ruins, a series of photographs of aborted foetuses left on rubbish dumps, were also removed and replaced by colourful scenery. While the Western artworld has become jaded with political art, incorporating risk into its own modes of art consumption, Chinese artists are working in a very different situation. Wang, one of the student protestors at Tiananmen Square, made these works because he had seen foetuses in a hospital rubbish bin during the time of the One Child Policy. His artist’s statement gives some sense of the mood with which many Chinese artists make work: “During the enforcement of 37 years One Child Policy, the distorted system has revealed the cruelty and ignorance of humanity, plus the long-term brain-washing education that make me feel nihilistic to life. The nihilistic feeling made me question the meaning of lives.”
Artists are not alone in questioning the current state of Chinese society. WeChat is frequently full of conversations about terrible things that have happened in China, as if such events can gauge the mood of the country today. There are stories of children being repeatedly run over in traffic, or suicides in which people are encouraged to jump from buildings, reflecting widespread concern that China has become a shallow, consumerist society. It is in this context that artists find that their work matters, more so than we can admit in the West. As Wang says after visiting the US: “But it was interesting that in America you had all the freedom you could want but nothing you did could provoke as much attention as in China. Here you might always worry that the police will come and get you. But in America no one even noticed what you were doing. Then you just felt more depressed …”
So it is that even obtusely political works, like Wang Yongsheng’s paintings in Wild Field, may well attract official interest. The Spiritual Conclusion of the Anxious Conjunction between Urban and Rural (2017) shows a giant fly looming over a crowd of people. Wang is reflecting on socialism in China, here showing a compressed atmosphere. Again, negotiation with the censors meant that these paintings were censored, albeit in an absurd way. On the day of the opening, the gallery pasted some cartoon-like images, painted by the producer Liu Heyin, to cover the heads in order to pass the inspection. The visibility of censorship is the very opposite of what we might expect in Australia, where for years films were simply cut at the whim of the censorship board, making it difficult to see what in fact had been removed. It may not even have been the subject of Wang’s work that attracted the censors, but its style. Expressionism has long been associated with capitalism in China, as opposed to Socialist Realism. It may also have been Wang’s identity that alarmed the local authorities, since although he is Han, Wang grew up with the Uygur minority in XinJiang province, a minority that has been active in its protests against Beijing’s authority. The ambiguities around censorship, the way that “the rules aren’t set in stone,” as Wang says, creates both a despairing mood among artists, but also a feeling for making work that grasps the possibility of freedom.
Other works in Wild Field addressed issues in rural China. One of the authors of this essay (Tami Xiang), showed portraits of a handful of the sixty million “Left Behind Children,” subject to the restrictions of the system of Household Registration (HuKou户口) and separated from their parents who have gone to the cities to work, often leaving them in the care of a generation of Mao-era grandparents. Guo Xiaojun also presented 18,000 photographs from the internet depicting the misery of life in the countryside, without access to social services. We see the houses of farmers being forcibly dismantled, children selling themselves to raise money to cure their parents’ illness and so on. A collage of these photographs constructs another, large image called Settled Down in a Prosperous and Contented Life (2018) that mimics the traditional front wall of a rural house. These walls typically paint plum blossoms, orchids, bamboo and chrysanthemum on such walls, symbolising the traditional national characteristics of pride, politeness, modesty, and honesty. The disparity is between the farmers’ dream and their reality.
At the opening of this exhibition, Settled Down in a Prosperous and Contented Life was not allowed to be shown. The curators pasted a curtain over the wall, with a DO NO TOUCH sign to ensure people were unable to see the details that made up the composite image, undermining the idyllic charade. Meanwhile, gallery staff projected something beautiful onto the curtain to disguise its real content. Despite this hundreds of people attended the opening and some looked behind the curtain, arousing discussion on the censorship of the work. Invariably, this irritated the local authorities, who ordered the gallery to seal the curtain with sticks and nails so that it could no longer be viewed.
In a Western or perhaps any other context, to make such censorship visible with curtains and other distracting signposts appears ridiculous, since it makes visible the very power that the works are critiquing. Certainly, this would have been the curatorial gamble, to illustrate the very constraints surrounding freedom of expression. In Guo’ s case, the impact of censorship was multiplied, first by the curtain and then by the projection. Already mimicking the strategies of the government in his paradox of a beautiful picture composed of details that revealed real-world misery, Guo found his work’s doubled again by foreclosure. Alongside the banality of censorship lies this relentless misery of life under a regime that is becoming increasingly authoritarian. It is worth noting that this trend is also taking place in Anglophone countries, which are broadening anti-terrorist legislation to cover protestors and whistleblowers (in Australia and the UK), and using terrorism as a reason for policing borders (Australia, the UK and the US). While censorship was traditionally relegated to moral issues in the Anglosphere, it has become increasingly political, as in China.
While the issue of censorship in China is a familiar one for readers of Western commentary, we read perhaps less about what is a more intractable problem there. This is the problem of patriarchy. As freedom was never part of China’s internal conversation, nor was feminism. Arguably, patriarchal culture has been governed by authoritarianism for centuries, and is rooted in the dynasties that ruled China until the early 20th century. The artworld reflects this situation. Tami Xiang was one of only three women of 52 artists featured in the Wild Field exhibition. There has been no feminist movement in China, and yet as Guest notes there has been a history of transformation that is particular to Chinese women in the 20th and 21st centuries: “From food-bound 8/9 ‘little lotus’ to the Modernist ‘xin nüxing’ (new woman), from revolutionary heroine to contemporary ‘factory girl’ operating in the global economy, Chinese women have experienced radical change in three generations. It would be facile to expect that theories of gender would follow the same trajectory as in the West.”
One area that women have been more visible is in performance art. In spite of the government's no performance art rule, there are now performance artists and even performance art festivals in China. Many of these works address issues that affect Chinese people without stepping so far as to directly critique the government. Submerging herself in a highly polluted Chinese river, set out to highlight the deterioration not only of the river but of Chinese society, Li Xinmo simulated the recent murder of an art student whose corpse was dumped in the river. The destruction of the environment and the murder of this young woman are aligned in Li’ s performance that is paradoxically beautiful, as she is covered by an algae bloom likely caused by phosphorous running into the water from farms. The triangulation of murder, pollution and beauty points once more to a melancholy consideration of the Chinese state and society.
Works of art that alert us to the national issues of China enable a greater understanding of the difference of this vast, crowded country, and the ways in which Chinese people see themselves. Alongside the many introductory books and essays published in Australia, the cultural sensitivities for government and corporate workers and the courses in WeChat, the visual arts plays a role in framing who the Chinese are. But it is important to note that artists undertaking social practices are a minority in their own country. Most Chinese artists are engaged in making traditional kinds of art, studying calligraphy, landscape and stamp making at the thousands of art schools across the country. Collectors and galleries within China are largely interested in a traditional aesthetic, assessing students with criteria achieved only by dedicated years of studying and building skills. Teachers at art schools are treated like gods, patriarchs responsible for the transmission of tradition.
In this context, what in Australia counts as contemporary art is barely seen and little understood. Innovation takes place within traditional genres, bending and extending the rules that Chinese artists have learned make up aesthetic quality. This is the kind of work we see in the current Sydney shows of Sun Xun, with his giant drawings, prints and woodcuts that sometimes glow in the dark (as in the work commissioned for the Museum of Contemporary Art in Sydney), rolled out like a classical scroll, drawing from tradition, and expanded into 3D form as animations in perpetual motion. His print and screen‑based works on exhibition at the MCA and White Rabbit Gallery, with their archetypal mythological themes driving the narrative, bring to mind Walter Benjamin’s Angel of History, propelled forward with its back to the future while looking at the ruins of the past.
Just so, Gladston reports on the way that within China, such work might be seen as part of a shift to “exceed Westernisation by rediscovering ‘the resources of our traditional national spirit.’” Sun, whose graphic mark‑making, layered post-historical and post-industrial landscapes (buoyed by the relationship to Soviet era European art) is a good example of how these traditions of art practice are subverted from within, and are now part of an ongoing struggle over the meaning of Chinese modernity, and the place of national identity within a highly industrialised but undemocratic country. Artists concerned to forefront social issues struggle not only with the restrictions of their government, but also with the ongoing legacies of a traditional education in Chinese art, and a mainstream that remains tied to practices that are as culturally restrictive as they are politically conservative.
- ^ 1 Luise Guest, Half the Sky, Piper Press, Sydney, 2016, p. 222
- ^ 2 On the place of Australia between a rising China and a declining US, see Hugh White, “Without America,” Quarterly Essay 68, November 2017
- ^ 3 See Elizabeth Fortescue, “I remember the blood stain on my aboriginal T-shirt': Artist recalls the horror of Tiananmen Square,” The Daily Telegraph, 8 March 2017
- ^ 4 For another case in which being resident in Australia has aided release, see the interview with Feng Chongyi in 4 Corners, Power and Influence episode, ABC TV, 5 June 2017
- ^ 5 Chinese art critic Wang Lin spoke about “Two Chinas” at the forum for the Parabiosis exhibition, held at the Chungjiang Contemporary Art Museum in Chongqing in 2016
- ^ 6 See Ai Weiwei, “The artwork that made me the most dangerous person in China,” The Guardian, 15 February, 2018
- ^ 7 Wild Field, curated by Liu Heyin, opened 27 May 2018 at NIU Art Space, Shijiazhuang
- ^ 8 The four conditions are quoted in Wan-Chia Wang Censorship and subtle subversion in Chinese contemporary art, 2013, Master's Degree in Contemporary Art, Sotheby's Institute of Art, New York, 2013, p. 19
- ^ 9 Paul Gladston, Contemporary Chinese Art: A Critical History, Reaktion, London, 2014, p. 214
- ^ 10 Artist's statement for the Wild Field exhibition
- ^ 11 See TateShots: Wang Peng, 30 August, 2013: https://www.tate.org.uk/context-comment/video/tateshots-wang-peng
- ^ 12 Guest, Half the Sky, p. 8.
- ^ 13 Gladston, Contemporary Chinese Art, p. 28.
Card (detail): Guo Jian, The Square, 2014, pork mince, mixed media. Courtesy and © Guo Jian
Darren Jorgensen is Senior Lecturer in the Faculty of Architecture, Landscape and Visual Arts at the University of Western Australia.
Tami Xiang is a Chinese‑Australia contemporary artist, her work has been published in the New York Times and has been exhibited in mainland China, France, the United States, Taiwan and Australia. She is currently undertaking a Master of Fine Arts by research at the University of Western Australia.