Catch as catch can: Beating the Man to Shanghai’s most wanted art

Travel | by David Perry
Posted: November 12th, 2010 | Updated: November 22nd, 2012 | Comments
Wu Meng's "Gravity" at OV Gallery, Shanghai A Shanghai art gallery runs afoul of the local Culture Bureau, and we reflect on the fact that artists and curators in China run real risks every time they push the envelope. For art-curious foreigners, ham-handed government interventions in the arts may be in turns annoying, amusing, or plain befuddling. For the artists and galleries involved, however, it's serious business.... >>> Though many would deny it, for most first-time Western visitors to China—especially Americans, I suspect—part of the allure is the thrill of being watched. A light bout of paranoia puts an edge on things, and imagining that you're somehow important enough to bear watching can flatter the ego and create an easy sense of drama. It's a bit like being in a film, or watching a film: Was that click on the phone a bug? Did my Internet connection time out again because I attempted to view Forbidden Content? Is that man with the bad dye-job and comb-over eavesdropping on our conversation about the latest news that Hurts the Feelings of the Chinese People? Should my feelings be hurt by all this control freakery? Or am I merely a badly mannered, obtuse and rude foreign guest, an ugly-American bull in the China shop? Of course, a newcomer's flirtation with paranoia falls quickly away in the face of sensory overload once one hits the streets of Beijing, Shanghai, or any other decent-sized Chinese city. Garish building-sized billboards, shops stocked with luxury brands, DVD vendors selling the entire back catalogue of the Criterion Collection and the latest Harry Potter film months before its official DVD release.... the cumulative spectacle of "to get rich is glorious" China will do that, as will visits to brightly lit restaurants full of happily gabbing locals and the ease with which many young cosmopolitan Chinese slip into comfortable talk of rock stars, Hollywood and wine tastings.[pullquote]Think of it as a game. Can you find the next sensitive artwork that the censors will seize... before the censors do?[/pullquote]And when it comes to the arts, you don't have to be an aficionado to know that contemporary Chinese art has been a hot commodity in recent years, with much work that's been critical of the PRC's Maoist past while often depicting contemporary China in a fashion that's light years from the harsh days of propaganda posters and Socialist Realism. So yes, China is not your grandparents'—or even parents'—police state. This is a realization that dawns on a visitor or recently planted expat quickly enough. And for many, it ends there. After all, paranoia gets old fast and it's much nicer to see the sights, enjoy the clubs, talk to the friendly people, appreciate the 5,000 years of culture, 56 official ethnic minorities, sample dishes from the Eight Great Traditions of Chinese cuisine and then post all your photos to Facebook when you get back to the States (or pony up for a decent VPN, in the case of more serious travelers and expats). Why get all worked up about it? Sally Smart, "Femmage Frieze" at Shanghai's OV Gallery For others, however—culturally attuned gallery and museum-goers among them, certainly—that sharp-and-tangy newcomer's paranoia shades into a subtler blend, one that's best shared over a nice meal with like-minded friends after an afternoon of gallery hopping, say (ideally, served with river crabs a la Ai Wei Wei, but we can't all be so lucky). Case in point: A Chinese-American experimental musician and decades-long New Yorker said to me after attending the opening of the "Shifting Definitions" show at Shanghai's OV Gallery, "Wow, it's just like the sixties in New York around here!" Part of what I think he meant: Art matters here and now in a way that it did in the US half a century ago but doesn't any more, and that's exciting. Yet I can't help tripping up on the idea that it's too easy to come from afar and romanticize the cat & mouse game being played in China: The cat has real claws, after all, and isn't reluctant to use them. Yet still, for the visitor, it does add an edge. The issue of the night concerned an artist's lecture on the attitudes of Chinese female artists towards Western feminism and expressly feminist art (full disclosure: the artist, Monika Lin, whose "Shadow Count" is part of the "Shifting Definitions" show, is my wife). The talk had to be hastily relocated to avoid being shut down by local Cultural Bureau apparatchiks following rumors that the entire gallery might be shut down for... not having necessary permits x, y and z (or, we surmise, for broaching subjects touching on institutionalized sexism and misogyny in China's ancient and enduringly patriarchal society, including specific incidents involving high-level cover-ups and downplaying of violent sexual assaults). Heidi Voet, "Myself, I Long for Love and Light" at OV Gallery, Shanghai Before the lecture, OV curator Rebecca Catching gave a talk and tour, assisted by Lin and Hong Kong-based artist Phoebe Man, who had flown in for the occasion and who was glad to talk about the paper cut and animation comprising her installation "They Walk the Streets and I Live a Life Sentence." During the casual talk, the man pictured above ("the Man," from here on out) slipped into the gallery, promptly planting himself in front of Wu Meng's four "Gravity" photographs, which show items of women's laundry hanging in disconcerting fashion before images of Shanghai's Lujiazui, Lupu Bridge and a demolition site. Inscribed with Chinese texts that, Catching writes, "are purposely oblique—as part of her strategy in talking reports of women being taken advantage of, raped and murdered in massage parlors." The Man patiently copied those texts into his notebook before moving on to scrutinize the rest of the show, only to return for more time with "Gravity."  Meanwhile, the gallery talk and tour continued. For me, stationed just outside on the sidewalk, it was a bizarrely theatrical moment, with the Man moving deliberately—and, given the paranoia-inducing circumstances, quite sinisterly—through the gallery space as a small group of actual gallery goers (almost entirely women, by the way) listened intently to Catching's curatorial talk, apparently oblivious to the Man in their midst. As it turned out, Wu Meng's texts were apparently not oblique enough, nor was Cui Xiuwen's controversial "Lady's" video, which, to quote the artist, captures footage of "a group of 'ladies of the night' in the washroom of a luxury night club in Beijing." Cui's video showed without major incident at the Guangzhou Triennale, but it was, apparently, too much for Shanghai. Monika's lecture went on elsewhere, successfully—and not without a bit of dramatic frisson and plenty of far-reaching irony given the shadow the Cultural Bureau cast over the entire affair—but the next day we learned that a squad of ten (!) members of various government organs showed up at the gallery to remove the work of Wu Meng and Cui Xiuwen. What happens next? Well... part of the thing about being in China is dealing in one way or another with opaque authoritarian decision-making, often combined with lengthy periods of suspenseful (or boring, yet somehow interestingly boring) waiting. In the meantime, Shanghai galleries have been put on notice (apparently Art Labor 2.0 was also paid a visit by the Man and ordered to remove pieces from Lu Yang's "Hell" show). So, if you're in town and decide to check out the Shanghai Biennale or you're just curious about art scene that's made a name for itself with Moganshan Lu's M50 galleries and an increasingly diverse sprinkling of downtown and French Concession art spaces, enjoy yourself—there's truly a great amount of fantastic art on offer. But don't buy into the notion that what you're seeing necessarily represents anything like an open society where artists and curators are free to explore all aspects of life in China. Not that you would have, but it's easy enough to forget amidst the glitz, even for those who fancy themselves hard-headed critics and nobody's fool. Just keep your eyes open for something really interesting, like a live performance of repressive state power. You never know when you might get "lucky." Below, a few more images from the show, including Wu and Cui's censored work, which, if all goes well, will run through December 18 at OV with the remaining work on display. Note that this isn't the only time the gallery's had such troubles: "Revisioning History" also won the Man's disapproval. [showtime]
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