Sunday, 13 January 2013

Protest Art in China

Censorship and government control is a topic that has captivated my attention, particularly when discussing China. It is a country filled with countless paradoxes especially when concerning the political system and the expanding economic development. A lot of debate has taken place about the direction the country is heading as well as the extent to which China should exercise democracy and become a more westernized society. While being labeled as a communist state, modernity is a major desire and with this modernity comes more liberty to the general public; a process that clearly contradicts itself. In the West, we are told so little about China’s situation; absurd given how much influence it has on the world and vice versa. “China is too big to be ignored” and yet I never realized how scarce my understanding about the country is. I have decided to develop this understanding by looking at its contemporary art protests. This will explore the extent of freedom present. Furthermore, I aim to illustrate the control of the government, questioning whether China really is becoming more liberal.
In order to understand art in China, especially protest art, it becomes essential to contextualize it in terms of the turbulent history and the government policies. For instance, the Cultural Revolution in the 1960s had tremendous socio-political ramifications on the country; Mao Zedong ordered a large-destruction of art and artifacts in order to eradicate signs of cultural history. As a result, this evidently had major effects on the course of existing as well as future arts. It sparked art that challenged the newly issued governmental system, portraying level of dissatisfaction and rebellion. This form of art also came into play due to Mao’s attempt to establish a new political system that enforced new ideologies, utilizing a propagandist approach through arts. However, ironically enough this had the opposite effect on many artists in the general public; these favored revolutionary subjects in contrast to conventional themes such as landscapes.
In my opinion this phase becomes extremely pertinent when illustrating the level of government control and analyzing the acts taken against it. Furthermore, it gives us an impression of life and how it has varied through the influence of the economic development.  Since Mao, China has been enjoying more freedom including in the arts however the extent is arguable. In terms of state control, Will Hutton pointed out a pertinent argument that China has moved “away from the all-pervasive control and repression of the Maoist era, to allow a considerable degree of economic and social freedom (including in practice, the right to strike), while keeping political power firmly in the hands of the Communist Party”. This depicts how China has benefitted from more liberty despite the amount of censorship taking place. This creates a lot of ambiguity for someone studying Chinese art. It is also vital to bear in mind that most information available about this topic originates from Western media and is often biased or subjective. For me, this has posed challenge when gathering information for this article, forcing me to draw on certain assumptions.
Moreover it seems that the fear of the government is still very common and several Chinese artists who depict controversial elements of history in their art to raise awareness, actually deny that there art is directly linked. For instance in an interview I read with the artist Liang Weizhou I could not help but notice his constant avoidance of politics, mentioning repeatedly that he is “not against politics but just insensitive to them” (Hirsch Didiereven denying that his art is a direct criticism of the governmental system. Similarly, “Execution” by Yue Minjun is believed to be inspired by the protests at Tiananmen Square, yet the artist refuses to accept this fact or provide justifications to what it symbolizes. Instead, there is a tendency for many artist to relate their work on a wider, more global level as Minjun has done: “Execution” has been associated to many historically significant paintings symbolic of protest such as “The Third of May 1808 by Francisco Goya which commemorates the Spanish resistance to Napoleon’s armies, the Execution of Maximilian by Edouard Manet a series of paintings depicting the execution of Emperor Maximilian of Mexico”. (Nalini S.Malaviya)
Art and politics continues to intertwine and there have hence been a number of artists involved in social activism. Ai Weiwei, a political activist, has for instance been fighting for democracy and human rights in China for many years. Additionally, a main example to exemplify the degree of government control and artistic restraints is the increased number of evictions of artists from their villages even when lease periods have remained. Many have been subjected to assault and severe injury, triggering a large amount of artistic protests. As an example, 20 years after the Tiananmen Square episode, Chen Guang who was a soldier at the time, put together an art exhibition of paintings based on primary sourced photographs illustrating the devastating affects of the event. However, when the local galleries refused to display his art, Guang posted the images on the Internet, which were removed almost instantly- an effective example of censorship! In the words of Will Clem, an uprising is beginning to take form yet is still beneath the surface. The population of China is getting more dissatisfied with the limited possibilities but perhaps not so much the system. Ryan Pyle pointed out that “protestors are not challenging the Party rule, but they want justice, and no corruption”, and once the controlling government affects people immediately and individually, people will start to voice their dissatisfaction and hence the government is forced to act upon this. This is particularly seen through many works of art.
Another artist Liu Bolin has become famous as the “invisible man”, using his art as a form of silent protest. By painting himself, he utilizes his own body to camouflage. He aims at illuminating the fragile status of artists, also drawing attention to problems sparked from the rapid unpredictable modernization. He often uses slogans (interestingly a common tool used by communist) also painted on his body, which forces the audience to reconsider and reread not only the slogan but also his individual circumstances.
The government likes to put up the appearance of being an open and free country, therefore there is freedom however it is the state-version and therefore limited; everyone has all the rights as long as they are not exercised. This is the issue with many of the contemporary artists; their work serves the purpose of spotlighting government failings and the degree of corruption. For instance, worker and peasant protest movements have multiplied as the economy has grown, which reflects both greater confidence and the promises not kept.
The control has indeed limited several opinions to be voiced in China over a long duration of time. However, this does not mean that the opinions and resentment are inexistent. Although in my opinion it is not so much the government people are dissatisfied with, rather the corruption and the inability to actually reach vital information. Modernization has however provided more potential for freedom while still heavily restricting it. The more China develops, the more these problems will surface. Art has proven a useful tool to illustrate this and although it may be censored, the fact that it is only proves this point even more. 


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