Chaos and censorship at Beijing’s inaugural 798 Bi
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[楼主] 嘿乐乐 2009-08-31 14:10:09
Chaos and censorship at Beijing’s inaugural 798 Biennale

Opening days mired by repression of Chinese artists, but international contributions unscathed

By Chris Gill | Web only
Published online 26 Aug 09 (News)


Protest at the opening ceremony of the Beijing 798 Biennale

beijing. The inaugural Beijing 798 Biennale, held in the sprawling 798 art district in China’s capital, saw a chaotic opening on 15 August, with major works by Chinese artists widely censored by authorities. The biennale was arranged with international contributions operating independently at numerous private galleries in the 798 complex, which were not affected by the censorship and avoided the operational issues that hampered the main exhibition hall.


Billed as the first non-government biennale in China, the event was hampered by a lack of funds, operational support, and some inexperience on the part of the organisers, who were predominantly Chinese art journalists.


In steaming temperatures of around 40ºC, hundreds stood out in the sun to listen to opening speeches by assembled dignitaries. The ceremony was briefly interrupted by a demonstration and water being thrown at the platform. The demonstration, whose purpose seemed obscure, was performed by a group including a deaf mute in ancient Chinese costume, a man wheeling a cart of bedpans and another man wearing a metal mask accompanied by someone dressed as a bride. 798 Biennale’s chief curator, Zhu Qi, said they were protesting about their exclusion from the exhibition.


Zhu outlined the problems faced by the fledgling biennale: “Seven pieces about Sichuan were suddenly censored, as Sichuan province has now become a very sensitive topic.” These included works referring to nail houses—people who refuse to move out of houses slated to be demolished—the Three Gorges dam, and the earthquake of May 2008, with works such as Zhang Lisheng’s Three Gorges migration videos, and Yuan Gong’s records of the disaster zone. “I think the Sichuan propaganda department called the Chaoyang district government directly,” said Zhu. “The censorship was by the Chaoyang district, not the central government. Some pieces were already shown in Sichuan.”


Zhu also said that a performance piece—Zhang Jianhua’s “Farmer’s Feast”—was stopped on the second day of the biennale as an elderly cadre was upset by characters in the work acting as prostitutes. The artist had spent an estimated RMB100,000 (£10,000) of his own money to finance the planned seven performances. Other works were damaged or unable to function by the second day due to issues with electricity. Zhu blamed junior employees of the Seven Stars group, which is in charge of the 798 district. “They just don’t care, they are a government work unit,” Zhu said.


Operating on a shoestring budget, Zhu said money came “as a few thousand RMB here, a few there. A lot of the artists financed themselves, and the international artists arranged their own money. Galleries offered their spaces as sponsorship.”


In the stiflingly hot 4,600 sq. m main exhibition hall, a wide range of works escaped censorship, however, including a photographic work by Sun Ping showing the artist painting calligraphy with her vagina, a large neon sign brandishing the Nazi concentration camp slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work Brings Freedom), and a dangerous looking construction of a hut several metres above ground level, where artist Xi Jianjun offered fortune-telling services to those brave enough to venture up. A life-sized replica of an underground church by Wang Zhong also escaped censorship, though Zhu said he had asked the artist to obscure large character phrases painted outside the installation.


“If you came on the opening day you saw what we had intended to do,” said Zhu. “After that, and even if we try to repeat it in the future, it will never happen again as they are now aware of what we want to do, the upper level cadres will now pay attention. Actually I just wanted to open discussions on some of the problems concerning society, and have a dialogue. I know it looks bad for China.”


798 Biennale’s chief international curator Marc Hungerbühler said: “The international contingent were self financed, with more than 20 countries providing support. I arranged the international section into galleries because of these kinds of control issues. I have experienced this before. We carried out our work of curating the biennale very well, but the main organisation was out of our control. I think there was a lack of experience, as it was the first time for this event. There was no intention to be provocative, you cannot do that in these type of countries.”


After the opening, a select group of VIPs were whisked off for the reception at a remote location near the airport, slated to be the future site of dedicated artists’ museums. With limited refreshments on offer, VIPs reportedly had to decamp to a nearby kerbside food seller to purchase beer and “yang rou chuan”, Chinese shish kebabs.

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