The Chinese government’s recent demolition of the artist Ai Weiwei’s studio raises questions over the state of free expression in modern China. Artists are changing their tune in response, Elizabeth Harris writes.

For me, to smash it is a valuable act.”

Ai Weiwei’s work Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn elicited public outrage for destroying a priceless artifact. Weiwei merely responded, “Chairman Mao used to tell us that we can only build a new world if we destroy the old one.”

The intertwining of destruction and artistic creation is not new to China. The Four Olds -old customs, culture, habits, and ideas – were four elements of Chinese culture and thinking that the instigators of the Cultural Revolution said needed to be eradicated to ensure progress. In an attempt to wipe the slate clean, precious art was destroyed, such as the statue of the Yongle Emperor.

In dropping the vase, Ai Weiwei asserts that an object is “powerful only because someone thinks it’s powerful and invests value in [it]”. This message would scare any authoritarian government. It is a damning reminder to our governments that they are only so valuable and legitimate as we allow them to be.

The importance of public art and architecture as a mode of state power projection did not die with the Ming dynasty reign of the Yongle emperor, or with the destruction of his statue.

The Bird’s Nest stadium – which Ai Weiwei himself was involved in the design of – exemplifies this. Despite his support of the nation’s cultural program, Ai Weiwei has been forced into self-imposed exile following a period of detention, the confiscation of his passport, and a prohibition on his speaking publicly.

One of the greatest ironies of China’s suppression of artists is that political art was a driver of the Cultural Revolution and was used by the state to consolidate power: traditional ink landscape painting was replaced by Soviet-inspired propaganda art in an attempt to assert new social norms.

During the period of liberalisation which followed the death of Mao in 1976, Chinese art schools flourished. Students, eager to access the Western publications available in such schools, flocked to attend the institutions. Mere months before the Tiananmen Square Massacre of 1989, the first survey exhibition of Chinese modern art – China/Avant-Garde – was held at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing.

However, following this artistic communities were once again subjected to oppression. Ever since, artists have been allowed to express themselves in China to fluctuating degrees. All too often, the latitude they are given greatly depends on the political messages present in – or absent from – their works.

He Xiangyu, for example, has moved on from his military tank crafted from Louis Vuitton leather (an indictment of capitalist China) to increasingly minimalist works. This shift is representative of a broad sweep of young Chinese artists who now avoid political subject matter for fear of being labelled a dissident, akin to Weiwei, and having their artistic practice stifled altogether.

One artist who has stayed in the country despite the threat of government retaliation is Liu Bolin. Bolin’s semi-performative, illusionary works examine how city and social surroundings affect the country’s inhabitants. Bolin paints his body to merge with the scenery, standing in the open and yet pushing his body to become one with his surroundings. The eye is made to second-guess what it sees, while the mind second-guesses the impact of governmental oppression of the arts.

This tension between visibility and invisibility is an important political message in today’s China. Simultaneously ‘there’ and not, Bolin stands in front of Chinese flags, earthquake rubble and military memorials. His work both highlights and fades into these symbols of oppression and neglect. It is a demonstration of disdain for the government’s persecution of artists and a silent protest against the Chinese government’s neglect of outcasts, such as the poor and the disadvantaged.

Much like Bolin, these groups are simply one with the scenery. His seamless union with the background exemplifies the insidiousness of artistic protest. Simultaneously, his work is a sombre reminder that protest against the government’s program of persecution is in vain.

In the end, the recent demolition of Ai Weiwei’s studio may be considered an act of retaliatory performance art. The government’s destruction of the activist’s Garden of Eden undermines the very basis of the Revolution. Indeed, the studio itself was once a socialist car part factory building. Its destruction brutally reminds artists of their controlled and oppressed place in society.

Unlike during the Cultural Revolution, however, the government has failed to replace the ideals embodied in the building with anything new.

The act of destruction, whether it be of a studio or Han Dynasty Urn, can be an act valuable in its very abruptness and perverseness. While the 1949 revolution may have been fought – from the communist perspective – for freedom, as Ai Weiwei told CBS in an interview, “as an artist, you always have to be an activist”.

While art and the Chinese cause of progress may once have been intertwined in socialist painting, art and the regime are now divorced. Something even more precious than a vase – political, and therefore artistic, liberty – was shattered somewhere along the way. Offering nothing to replace what it destroyed, the government is left an activist in name only.

Elizabeth Harris is currently studying at the Australian National University, where she majors in Art History. Her writings often revolve around the complex intersection between Art, Law and politics.

Featured Image: Wikimedia Commons

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