Can art bring down the government? – by Louisa Lim
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“Contemporary arts must also take patriotism as a theme, leading the people to establish and maintain correct views of history, nationality, statehood, and culture while firmly building up the integrity and confidence of the Chinese people.” – Xi Jinping, October 2015
In late July, after the death of Chinese Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo, a ghostlike picture materialised on walls around the world in Melbourne, Sydney, Ottawa, New York City, Taiwan, Dublin, and even Beijing. It showed images of Liu Xiaobo floating skywards, hand in hand with his wife Liu Xia, with blank white expanses where their facial features should have been. This was the work of Badiucao, a radical Chinese artist who, like Banksy, hides behind a pseudonym. He keeps his identity secret out of caution: “If you’re spreading negative energy like me, drawing criminals of the state, you become a problem.”
Such work was designed with one aim in mind: to survive inside the Great Firewall. To create a participatory art phenomenon, Badiucao uploaded the work so it could be printed out, and purposely made it easy to copy. This led to the second wave of reposts, of the picture appearing on walls around the wall, followed by a third wave of selfies from the different sites. Liu Xiaobo might have disappeared from the corporeal world and the pages of state-run newspapers, but Badiucao was determined he should live on in cyberspace.
In this way, a new breed of Chinese political artists has turned the borderless expanse of cyberspace into a virtual studio, a collaboration space and a digital museum, creating and sharing work about China that might not be shown there. Hong Kong artist Sampson Wong Yu-hin – part of the Add Oil Team with Jason Lam Chi-fai – also created a virtual, participatory homage to the Nobel laureate, asking people to record themselves reading Liu’s famous “I have no enemies” speech, which he was forbidden from finishing in court. The result – mostly in Cantonese – is especially poignant, with the young voices serving as a Greek chorus of doomladen augury.
“I definitely worry about the future because the future is happening right now,” says Sampson Wong. Though Hong Kong’s freedoms and way of life are guaranteed until July 1 2047 – fifty years after its return to Chinese sovereignty – one of his works was yanked from public view last year, in the most high-profile case of artistic censorship in Hong Kong so far. The light installation, which Wong and Lam created, running down the side of Hong Kong’s tallest building, included a countdown in seconds to the moment when the One Country, Two Systems guarantee expires. It was stopped by the government body during a visit by China’s third-ranking leader Zhang Dejiang, with the Arts Development Council, who accused the artists of “disrespectful behaviour.”
Wong blames self-censorship and institutional timidity for fear of retribution, though he says this act presages a wider clampdown. “We’re still at the stage where people involved would deny absolutely that they’re censoring you or they dislike your political message, so it always comes from an excuse about official opportunities. Until now, this argument is quite convincing to the general public.”
His response has, characteristically, been artistic: a Museum of Censorship to document the growing number of cases within Hong Kong, where commercial outlets are starting to shy away from any art deemed politically sensitive. “We no longer feel completely safe here,” Wong says, “I kind of worry about those writers and filmmakers who are now in Hong Kong but writing and talking about mainland china. If you look at the case of the China Quarterly, that kind of pressure on universities would extend to Hong Kong shortly.”
Badiucao – who jokes that all his work belongs in a Museum of Censorship – reflects that censorship is a blunt tool used by a government that fears the imagination of the people.
The logic of the Chinese Communist Party, in his words, is to simply ban anything potentially troublesome, whether that is motorbikes, paintings of surveillance cameras or images of Winnie the Pooh, who was censored on the Chinese internet after becoming a meme to compare with President Xi Jinping. The two sides of censorship – the fear it seeds and the absurdity it provokes – creates the tension that drives artists. Badiucao remarks, “When they’re censoring something really absurd, like Winnie the Pooh, we all know it’s not working, they’re making themselves [into] jokes.”
For both artists, China’s growing influence around the world has changed the notion of exile. For Badiucao, living in Australia no longer means being beyond the reach of the Chinese state. “For me, this is no longer a completely safe place,” he says, as he explains why he works under a pseudonym and keeps his identity hidden. The increasing number of Chinese students in Australia – almost 200,000 in 2016 – has left him worrying about Chinese ability to exert influence, and initimidation, overseas, especially given China’s close economic ties with Australia. “The reason I left was I was looking for a free state to do what I like in my art practice. Unfortunately in Australia, I don’t feel 100% free.”
For Wong, who is reading a pamphlet called a Can Jokes Bring Down Governments? by the Dutch design collective Metahaven, the power of art lies in its subversive nature. “Art becomes dangerous in the way it encourages people to express themselves in non-standard ways.” He sees the future of Hong Kong as a viable place to create art as looking increasingly fragile. He admits that departure has become a common topic of discussion in recent years, following the kidnapping of booksellers to China and the jailing of three pro-democracy activists. The urge to “fight a beautiful fight” is strong, he says, but untested, as Hong Kongers have not yet fully felt the full strength of repression. “We are still in a state where we can’t quite imagine what it could be,” he admits. “And in a way that lack of imagination is worrying. I think one of the roles of artists in Hong Kong is to expose that kind of question.” ∎