Punk video art from China

June 10, 2013 § Leave a comment

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I am so glad Asia is creeping up on New Zealand. Otherwise I might never have discovered the Double Fly Arts Centre (双飞艺术中心) collective. This crazy gang of Shanghai-based artists is a rare find and certainly not the kind of art you’d expect to be sanctioned by China’s Ministry of Culture and I would bet my last dollar that it hasn’t been.

On the other hand, Double Fly (双飞) hasn’t been banned either. For a while, a number of their videos could be seen as part of the Moving on Asia exhibition at Wellington’s City Gallery. The show ended last week and if you missed it, Double Fly video short films can be found online (as are many of the other works from the Moving on Asia exhibition).

Here’s the one where they rob a bank. Watch how baffled the workers are when the Double Fly robbers rob a construction site which will be a bank – once its finished.

Here’s another one where members of the group dress up as businessmen and behave shockingly in an up-scale café. They become such a nuisance that the police are called.

In this one, the Double Fly save the world while parodying global leaders in scenes like Silvio Berlusconi’s infamous Bunga Bunga parties.

The curators say the video art in the Moving on Asia exhibition is designed to raise questions about New Zealand’s geographic and cultural relationship to Asia at a time when the country’s ties to the region are becoming stronger and more nuanced.

The exhibition of 45 works from Indonesia, China, South Korea, India, Philippines and Taiwan were drawn from Gallery LOOP in Seoul and curated for the City Gallery show.  The exhibition’s three parts are New Town Ghosts, Movement No.2 and Who Cares about the Future? A big part of that future is China and the new art has to transmit the electrifying changes that are happening to Chinese society. Rapid progress has benefited millions of Chinese but there’s been an alarming cost as well, like yawning income gaps, environmental degradation, worsening corruption, and the struggle for a moral society.

Since China began opening up in the 1980s, video art started to be made as the equipment became more portable, cheaper and available. Now, it seems video art has blossomed as a medium of choice for many Chinese artists.

While the government, by and large, supports art that subscribes to its narrative of nation building and the legacy of five thousand years of civilisation, many of the new generation of Chinese artists are evidently bucking government orthodoxy while tackling taboo subjects such as censorship, human rights, social injustice and even sex.

While the rebellious artists may not get government support and funding, they cannot be stopped from creating and distributing their works, such as the video shorts in Moving on Asia which gives us a view of a thriving scene that’s off the official map. Viewing these works gives us different perspectives on China and that is helpful to those of us interested in understanding the country better if we can’t be there.

But according to this excellent article by a former Chinese art scene insider, artists still need to carefully navigate a minefield of artistic expression. As Livia Li explains:

But in fact, there isn’t a clear link between Chinese government censorship policy and its impact on contemporary visual arts. As said above, the Government has been applying strict rules on creative content, i.e. TV programmes, theatrical performances, creative writing etc, however, there is not a clear censorship rule around contemporary visual art and this still remains a grey area. On the other hand, the majority of party politicians and government officials don’t fully understand arts and are not good at reading the metaphors behind the art works (and) this inhibited the censorship system working properly.

In recent years for example, cases of art works that have been withdrawn from exhibitions are mostly due to depiction of violence, explicit sexual or abusive material. These themes have been fundamentally banned in all creative industries in China. In addition, political direction is another essential issue that the Chinese government applies strict rules on, and political dissidences would find difficulties in showing their political themed art works in China.

Just ask Ai Weiwei (艾未未) whom the Chinese government categorises as a political activist and a troublemaker. His troubles with Chinese officials are well publicised and can also be seen in the documentary Never Sorry. His latest work includes a music video Dumbass, about his arrest and jailing last year, and more recently, a statement about China’s food safety scandals.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei maps China's demand for baby milk powder.

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei maps China’s demand for baby milk powder. Photo via AP.

By coincidence, the Moving on Asia exhibition ended on June 3, the day before June 4 which, most Chinese bloggers will be able to tell you, is a sensitive topic on the Chinese internet. Any mention of June 4 is removed as quickly as it is posted behind the Great Firewall because the crushing of a large student-led protest on that day in 1989 is a taboo subject that China’s leaders want to keep hidden.

There’s a vigil held in Hong Kong each year (something that would not be permitted anywhere else in China) while Chinese activists, using virtual proxy networks and other tools to circumvent the ‘Chinese intranet’, post photos, links and other information about the ‘Tiananmen Incident’ on Twitter, Google+ and Facebook.

The famous ‘Tank Man’ photo doesn’t last long on the Chinese internet. So sensitive is the topic of June 4 that this photo-shopped Giant Duck version was also taken down on Chinese micro-blogs. Here’s an NPR report on how a giant yellow duck art installation on Hong Kong harbour become an unlikely symbol of the Tiananmen Anniversary.

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This is why discovering Double Fly has been a minor revelation. I think it’s a positive sign that such chaotic and mentalist art is being made in China. It’s a positive sign for China that Double Fly and other punk artists can get their work shown overseas; that some of it makes its way to my city art gallery; and there are curators who are interested in our Asian future and who think art is important to understanding the region.

Who cares about the future? I think these artists do and they give us some idea of what to expect in that future because the hints are there to be found in the weird and challenging world of contemporary video art coming out of China.

Staying in touch with Ai Weiwei

November 5, 2012 § Leave a comment

To the annoyance of the government in Beijing, one of China’s best known political dissidents Ai Weiwei (艾未未) must seem to be everywhere at times. For examples; Ai Weiwei has a new blog, Ai Weiwei does a Gangnam Style parody video, Ai Weiwei has an awarding winning documentary made about his life, Ai Weiwei exhibits naked photos of himself and his friends, Ai Weiwei has retrospectives and new works shown in some of the world’s leading art galleries, and Ai Weiwei chats frequently on Twitter.

As long as the rebellious artist can – with the help of a legion of supporters and fans – remain connected to his online community (he is not allowed to leave China and it is a given that his every move is monitored), everyone with an interest in China can feel less pessimistic about the trajectory the country is taking in terms of tolerating political dissent and political activism.

But when Ai Weiwei is sued, threatened, beaten and imprisoned, we feel gloomy about direction the country is headed despite the Chinese internet growing into a whirlwind of pressure for dialogue, openness and transparency.

While there are other well-known Chinese political dissidents and prisoners such as the Nobel Prize winner Liu Xiaobo (刘晓波) who is currently jailed and the blind lawyer Chen Guangcheng (陈光诚) who is currently in the United States, Ai Weiwei is the one many of us China watchers pin our hopes to because he is the most visible to us. His art gives us a non sanctioned interpretation of modern China and most of us have seen or heard about his work in some form or another, like the Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing or the porcelain sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London. We can also follow his conversations on Twitter, even if they are blocked within China except to those who circumvent the Great Firewall by using VPNs and other censorship defying techniques.

After nearly three months imprisonment and a temporary ban imposed on Ai Weiwei by the government ended last year, the artist has again taken to this digital lifeline that assures us he is alive and well and continuing to live up to a society’s expectations of an artist to be a public conscience that speaks out, even if it angers the authorities.

On Twitter, Ai Weiwei (170,000 plus followers and over 80,000 tweets)  is especially visible to me because I follow him on Twitter. He’s on my China list and he has even sent me a tweet. It was no small thrill to a star-struck fan that Ai Weiwei replied to me even if all he said was ‘eh’ or something close to that.

In Chinese, what he said is wonderfully ambiguous. The Chinese character for ‘eh’ is a kind of a grunt used to show surprise or disapproval. Or it could be used to express agreement or assent in the way an English speaker might say uh-huh.

My Chinese is basic and I had tweeted him to say that I read his tweets as a way of practising Chinese and that I looked forward to seeing the Never Sorry documentary about him by the film maker, Alison Klayman. I hoped for a reply but I didn’t expect one. But the fact that I got one demonstrated for me how if Ai Weiwei is a cyclist, Twitter is his fluorescent yellow visibility jacket. It reassures us that he has this one freedom despite not being able to travel overseas and of being under constant surveillance.

This is why it is vitally important to follow Ai Weiwei (@aiww) on Twitter. It tells us that Ai Weiwei is continuing to do what Ai Weiwei does – whether the authorities approve or not. You will be joining legions of fans, supporters, activists and even critics who believe information should flow freely on the internet, despite the worst intentions of governments.

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