nyt, may 13, 2006
China Orders Art Galleries to Remove Paintings With Political Themes
By DAVID BARBOZA
BEIJING — Several galleries in this city's thriving arts district were
recently ordered by government officials to remove more than 20
paintings, apparently because they dealt with political themes, artists
and gallery directors here said.
The works, some of which featured radical portrayals of Mao and
references to the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, were taken down
just before one of the city's biggest art festivals, which opened on
"A group of men came and ordered the workers to take it down," said
Huang Rui, an artist and arts organizer here who had one of his works
removed. "We had to do it. The workers in the gallery were scared."
In addition to Mr. Huang's own Cultural Revolution-era representation of
a slogan with Chinese characters made up of 10,000-yuan bills (each
bearing Mao's portrait), the removed works included a Gao Qiang
portrait of a sickly-looking Mao swimming in a blood-red Yangtze River
and a painting by Wu Wenjian showing tanks in Tiananmen Square.
No one is sure who ordered the paintings taken away. But the move came
on the eve of the third annual Dashanzi International Art Festival,
which runs through May 21 and, as expected, has drawn many foreign
visitors. The contemporary-art scene in China is sizzling, and some of
the leading avant-garde artists have recently become millionaires.
Western collectors and Chinese real estate tycoons are helping drive up
the prices of works by artists like Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang, Fang
Lijun and Yue Minjun. Many got their start in the late 1980's with
sometimes not-so-subtle political themes. In March one of Mr. Zhang's
paintings sold at a Sotheby's auction in New York for nearly $1 million.
Through much of the 1990's, many avant-garde artists were restricted
from showing their works in China, partly because they were associated
with the 1989 Tiananmen protests, which ended in a bloody military
crackdown. But today they are like pop stars at home, with major
exhibitions here and huge international followings.
Some collectors and gallery owners here said they were surprised by the
order to remove the works but did not expect a broader crackdown on
Over the last few years, they said, artists in China have been
increasingly free to deal with social and political topics, as long as
they do not portray anything too overtly anti-government.
"I personally don't think there's anything in the wind," said Brian
Wallace, who has been in China for about 20 years and is the founder of
the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. "No one is really worried there's a big
But others fear that a few galleries in a popular section of Beijing,
the Dashanzi district, also known as the Factory 798 area, may have gone
too far in testing what the Chinese government deems permissible.
The government, after all, has cracked down sharply on dissent in the
news media and on the Internet over the last few years. And the
Tiananmen Square demonstrations and their suppression are still
virtually banned from public discussion.
Mr. Wu, for instance, said he may have been a target of the authorities
because he served nearly seven years in prison for participating in the
1989 protests. Five of his works, which were featured in a show called
"Ash Red," were removed.
Representatives of the government came and said, "This is too much," he
said he was told by gallery officials who took down his works. A dealer,
Chen Xindong, said he had been told by police officers to remove two
works from his gallery: one that portrayed Chinese officials, including
President Hu Jintao , and another featuring Mao.
"It's a pity we couldn't show them," Mr. Chen said. But he added: "Such
things happen. I don't think it's news. The condition of contemporary
art in China is much better than before."
Mr. Huang is one of the directors of the Dashanzi Arts Festival and a
pioneer of the avant-garde movement in the 1980's. Since those days, he
said, the government has become more accepting of experimental work.
Asked if he thought his own work had gone too far, he said: "Yes. So we
took it down." But he added: "I have to do this kind of work. That's the
dream of all contemporary artists."
with kind regards,
Matthias Arnold (Art-Eastasia list)
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