BEIJING — “BEIJING AUTUMN: OFF THE RADAR ART RESISTANCE IN CAOCHANGDI —CCD300″ is the SMS that was sent to advertise an exhibition project called Manmade and Natural Disasters, started by a group of artists living and working in the Caochangdi art village to the northeast of Beijing.
A similar notice was posted on Weibo, China’s version of Twitter. There were no other forms of advertising: Everybody knew in advance that the topic of the show and some of the artworks and the names involved would attract the attention of government censors.
Everybody knew in advance that the topic of the show and some of the artworks and the names involved would attract the attention of government censors.
CCD300, where the show was to be hosted, is a complex of artists’ studios, independent spaces, conference rooms, a bar with a terrace, and a screening space. Altogether it is as large as a block and it is split among several landlords and sub-landlords. Among the renters are foreign and local artists and experimental spaces.
At the time chosen for the opening, the ongoing Bo Xilai saga, together with other corruption scandals and the new middle class’s serious concern about the future of the country had raised social tension to a heightened, sensitive level in view of the next scheduled Communist Party congress which is going to mark an important generational shift in the government’s standing committee members. One week before the show, Beijing was the theater of a perfectly orchestrated anti-Japanese protest campaign about the hotly contested islands know as Diaoyu (to the Chinese) or Senkaku (to the Japanese).
The staged protest succeeded to divert people’s attention from internal affairs and focus political frustration and rage on an external target. Playing the Japan card worked very well — the inspired anger was as automatic as a Pavlovian reflex. It proved once again that the majority of the Chinese population (even the educated sector) is still an easy victim of their government’s manipulative tactics. But not everyone was complacent.
Among the confusion created by the carefully staged mis-en-scene (remarkably, the protest setting created by the party around the Japanese embassy in the Liangmaqiao neighborhood near Caochangdi became one of the best “site-specific installations” of the month), several Chinese artists took their chance to make a statement. During the summer, some of the walls of the area had been tagged with Chinese and English sentences advocating how sensibility was “under control,” courtesy of the Forgetart collective, and although they were quickly covered with thick layers of grey paint, the transparency of the varnish turned the tags into ambiguous visual signs (seen at top).
The newly opened Mexican art space TJ China Project Room, run by the artist-couple Daniel Ruanova and Ｍeli Barragan in CCD300, hosted a solo exhibition of Dai Hua, a witty young man who presented several socially oriented pieces characterized by fine intelligence and sharp irony. Among these, the animation work “THE END” is a beautifully designed cartoon in which elements of the Chinese flag transform themselves into images of the past and recent history. A few days after the opening, the police visited TJ China, asked about Dai Hua’s contact information and phone number, and shut down his Weibo account.
On September 8, Dai Hua delivered an artist’s talk at the gallery after having agreed to do it with the doors closed and a limited audience. That same day at 4pm, the show Manmade and Natural Disasters at gallery space Caoba CCD300 opened its doors with a complex admittance procedure. We had been informed the day before that there was no idea about how long the opening could last and not a clue about how long the whole exhibition could have stayed on. Lao Gan, the owner of the gallery space, seemed to have enough guile, experience, and connections to pull the opening together without open confrontations, and it went off without a hitch. But the procedure is a good example of the Chinese way to deal with both authority and self-censorship.
At the opening, a large number of video pieces were turned off. This included Ai Weiwei’s “4851″ (made up of the list of names of the Sichuan children killed in the 2008 earthquake), Li Jie’s “Passby” (a snapshot collection of trainwrecks, collapsing bridges, and other malfunctions of the system that cost human lives), and Li Dazhi’s “Red Book” (a captivating video of Chinese schools’ physical exercise routines projected on a small ceramic plate filled with several red peppers), as well as Japanese artist Megumi Shimizu’s video. We were told that the videos would remain off until after 7pm, because that was the working schedule of the few plain-clothes policemen in the area, and after that time they would go home or out to dinner and get drunk.
That day, those videos were never turned on, while all the other works were left untouched. Among them was Sun Shaokun’s graphic video recording of the hours following the flood that had hit Beijing in August because of the heavy rains, showing the floating corpse of a young woman. The following day, all videos except Ai Weiwei’s were turned on. During the following week, the videos remained on but the labels with the names of the artists and the title of the works disappeared. The following weekend, all the video works were on, although some had been changed position and placed on a different wall, and others were missing the name of the artist.
Then, something happened to one of the installations. Li Zifeng’s piece “A Lot of Chicken and a Lot of Rice” consisted of a skinned chicken hanging from the ceiling above a circular mountain of uncooked rice on top of which were scattered several 100 renminbi (Chinese currency) bills. Suddenly, the skinned chicken mysteriously disappeared from the installation in one gesture that reasserts the absurdity of the Chinese system. The removal of the chicken also proves something more subtle and relevant. Today, in China (and possibly elsewhere as well), it is very difficult to distinguish censorship from self-censorship, or to extrapolate the real issues and intentions at stake behind both of them.
As much as it seems easy to judge or indulge in opinions from outside, life and artistic practice in an unfree but complex country like China cannot be understood in a simple way. In my view, this exhibition was interesting because it was the artists’ will and commitment that made it happen in the first place. They engaged with the risks involved and never gave the feeling that they were trying to use the show just to obtain visibility abroad by playing on well-known stereotypes. They felt called to testify about what was going on in their country and wanted to make a public statement.
The significant contribution of Ai Weiwei confirmed the support and mutual friendship which exists between him and the other artists, and it was handled in a strategic way, allowing visitors to actually see his work in mainland China in a small independent space — a rare occurrence. Choosing a low-profile advertising strategy and playing the Beckett-ian game with censors was also an interesting move; in the end it allowed us to see the project happening and to observe this interesting sociological dialectic, the ground conditions of the Chinese art world.
The show lasted 15 days, at the end of which a roundtable discussion was held with the artists, a few journalists, students, and other professionals. Each artist spoke for about 30 minutes about why he or she decided to take part in this project, discussing what they felt were the most important concerns for Chinese society, contemporary art, and culture. Another 30 minutes were spent answering the questions of the public. Everything was recorded.
What makes such an event valuable is that it was made in China, about China, with an authentic will to inquiry and affirmation of historical awareness through art and discussion. In my view, it is important that these voices and others active in the country don’t go unnoticed, because from their micro-resistance efforts a new sense of responsibility and engagement through cultural action begins to spread.
Manmade and Natural Disasters took place at CCD300 (No. 300 Caochangdi, Chaoyang, Beijing) for an undisclosed length of time.