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  • Jun 21, 2021

Shanghai Museum Removes Video Ranking Women's Looks

* last updated Tuesday, June 22 

Installation view of SONG TA’s Uglier and Uglier, 2013, single-channel video: seven-plus hours, at “The Circular Impact: Video Art 21,” OCAT Shanghai, 2021. Photo by Wu Qingshan. Image via WeChat.

On June 18, Chinese non-profit art center OCAT Shanghai removed Song Ta’s video Uglier and Uglier (2013), which rates the appearance of 5,000 female university students, from its ongoing exhibition “The Circular Impact: Video Art 21” following public backlash. The art center is now indefinitely closed.

Titled《校花》[campus flower] in Chinese after the slang term for “campus belle,” the controversial video is a seven-hour-long compilation of still images and footage of female students captured by Song on a university campus in China. In the video, Song ranks these women “from the prettiest to the ugliest” according to his personal taste, categorizing the individuals under labels such as “unforgivably ugly,” “absolutely unforgivably ugly,” and “barely forgivably ugly.”

The work did not receive widespread public attention until OCAT Shanghai advertised Song’s work in a now-deleted WeChat post dated June 17, two months after the opening of “The Circular Impact.” The post sparked an online outcry on Chinese social networking platforms such as Douban, with Chinese netizens lambasting the work for its misogynistic content and for infringing on the subjects’ portrait rights. The hashtag #SongTaXiaoHua began trending on Weibo, and the story was picked up by domestic and foreign media. OCAT issued a public apology the next day, saying they had “re-evaluated the content of this artwork and the artist’s explanation, [and] found that it disrespected women and that the way it was shot raises copyright infringement issues.”

Although the artist has remained silent on the most recent dispute, in a 2019 interview with Chinese media outlet BIE (formerly known as Vice China), Song likened the creation of the work to the way “street style” is photographed in the fashion industry. He also explained that the work was shot with the help of female assistants to make it “less creepy.” When asked about the power differential between him and his unwitting female subjects, he said, “I still have the right to tell the truth.” He also asserted that “all people objectify others, regardless of gender . . . I objectify you with all my heart—this too is a kind of respect.”

Following its debut at the 2013 group exhibition “ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice” at Beijing’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, Uglier and Uglier was negatively received by curator and art critic Tang Zehui, who noted in her New York Times review that “the women in the video have no chance to defend themselves, becoming the victim of the artist’s work.”

Cassie Liu is ArtAsiaPacific's editorial assistant.

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