MARTYN SEE TONG MING, Dr. Lim Hock Siew, 2010, video still. Courtesy the artist.

Artists in Controversy: Inhospitable Climes

It was a bitterly cold winter in Beijing, particularly for more than 1,000 artists living in the art zones on the northeast fringes. Beginning in November 2009, residents of Zhengyang Creative Art Zone, 008 Art Zone and neighboring areas were served eviction notices so that the areas could be razed to make room for new government-sponsored developments. A campaign of protests and performances from December through February ultimately had little impact—though the artists secured some compensation—as the art zones were reduced to rubble. 

Shanghai’s new Jiading arts district, an effort to replicate the prestige of Beijing’s Caochangdi and 798 neighborhoods, was also visited by wrecking crews. But unlike in Beijing, authorities targeted just one building: the newly constructed studio of Ai Weiwei, which had allegedly been built without proper paperwork. In protest, Ai organized a demolition party for early November, serving river crabs (a homonym in Chinese for “harmony,” a word used by the Communist Party to justify censorship). Police detained Ai in Beijing, preventing him from attending the party, which proceeded without him. 

Ai, as one of China’s leading artists, has learned how to leverage his renown to press the Chinese government for social justice, skirting censorship in the process by utilizing new-media platforms such as blogs, Twitter and YouTube. This ongoing campaign has put him in harm’s way. A security official struck him on the head in August 2009 when he attempted to testify in the trial of human-rights activist Tan Zuoren, causing massive brain hemorrhaging. In August 2010, Ai went to Chengdu to file a complaint about the assault the previous year; at the Jinniu district police station, ten undercover officers assailed Ai and his assistant. 

In what some fear as a sign of a crackdown following Liu Xiaobo’s winning of the Nobel Peace Prize, Ai was blocked on December 2 from leaving Beijing on a flight to Seoul; travel has also been restricted for other intellectuals.

While Ai and others are blocked from leaving the country, the United Kingdom’s new visa regulations prevented five Kurdish-Iraqi artists from attending the opening of  “Contemporary Art Iraq” (4/16–6/20) at Cornerhouse Art Gallery in Manchester. Despite endorsements from the government of Iraqi Kurdistan and the British ambassador to Iraq, the artists—among them, Azar Othman Mahmud, painter Falah Shakarchi and photojournalist Julie Adnan—could not provide the required financial statements due to Iraq’s hobbled banking system.

Money was the issue in Thailand, where artists Manit Sriwanichpoom and Apichatpong Weerasethakul led a successful campaign to revise the distribution of funds from the Thai Khem Khaeng (“Strong Thailand”) stimulus package for the arts. In April, the Office of Contemporary Art and Culture and the National Board of Film and Television (NBFT) had given half of the 200 million baht (USD 6.2 million) to veteran filmmaker Chatrichalerm Yukol’s nationalistic blockbuster about the 16th-century King Naresuan; a further 330 million baht was awarded to the film shortly thereafter. Manit and Apichatpong, along with 700 petitioners, convinced the NBFT to lower the allocation for Chatrichalerm’s film to 46 million baht and disperse the rest to more than 40 independent projects.

“Any video creator, all around the world, anywhere, can nominate their work,” was YouTube’s boast about its new collaborative project with the Guggenheim Museum, the online video-art biennial  “YouTube Play.” However, video artists of Belarus, Côte d’Ivoire, Congo, Cuba, Iran, Iraq, Lebanon, North Korea, Somalia, Sudan, Syria, Myanmar and Zimbabwe—countries against which the US Office of Foreign Assets Control has trade embargoes—were barred from submitting. Why artists from those countries should be excluded from the project (not to mention YouTube and the Guggenheim’s selective definition of what comprises “the world”) compelled New York’s nonprofit White Box and the collective Specify Others to organize “Sanctioned Array,” a selection of artists’ video works, also posted online, without such geographical restrictions.

The clash of cultures was decried by French conservative groups Non aux Mangas (“No to Manga”) and Sauvegarde du Château de Versailles (“Versailles Protection”), which mounted campaigns against “Murakami Versailles” (9/14–12/12), an extraordinary display of 22 works inside the opulent royal palace and on its grounds by the otaku-inspired artist. Objectors gathered 12,000 signatures, protested at the palace gates and ultimately forced museum president Jean-Jacques Aillagon to concede that future contemporary exhibitions would be restricted to the palace grounds.