Censorship in China is frequently determined by who one is rather than what one does. “Ai Weiwei could do finger painting and still get into trouble,” quipped Rebecca Catching, curator of Shanghai’s OV (Oriental Vista) Gallery, referring to the Beijing-based provocateur. In unrelated incidents in November, Ai and the gallery each found themselves under the microscope (a familiar place for Ai).
“There are different rules for different people,” observed Catching, whose gallery opened an exhibition on Nov. 6 amid a succession of cultural bureau raids. “Shifting Definitions” examined social issues confronting women, particularly in China. The gallery had been subjected to intense official scrutiny and harassment since the previous May, when it was shuttered early in the run of another show, “Re-visioning History.” OV was also shut down in 2007 for a show curated by Mathieu Borysevicz (now deputy director of the Shanghai Gallery of Art, a posh commercial space) that included a painting by Sheng Qi depicting a tank—a verboten reference to Tiananmen Square. But OV then operated without incident for a few years.
Ai and OV were targets of what appeared to be a crackdown on the arts in Shanghai in November, immediately following the end of the city’s six-month World Expo. Ai is China’s leading artist dissident, whose activities led to a police beating in 2009 that landed him in the hospital. He more recently criticized the 2009 imprisonment of activist Liu Xiaobo, who won the Nobel Peace Prize last October, and the media’s suppression of the “My dad is Li Gang” incident, in which an official’s son boasted that his connections would absolve him of vehicular manslaughter. Public outcry about the handling of the Li Gang affair was largely “harmonized”—a popular ironic term for censorship that mocks ubiquitous official slogans calling for a “Harmonious Society”—from the Chinese Internet.
About two years ago, at the behest of the mayor of Shanghai’s Jiading suburb, Ai invested over $1 million to build a new studio there. Shortly after its completion last fall, he was informed by higher-up authorities that his studio was an “illegal structure” and would be demolished. This being China, it is impossible to know whether a developer desired the land or if Ai was being punished, most likely both. Property remains a delicate topic, as evidenced by the prosecution of Yu Wuren for protesting the January 2010 demolition of his and other artists’ Beijing studios; they were located on farmland that the government was selling to developers, who purportedly had the artists beaten to coerce them into leaving.
Several years ago, Web users adopted the Chinese term for river crabs, hexie—which is also a homonym for “harmony”—as a way to discuss censorship without being censored. Ai announced that he would observe the demolition of his new studio on Nov. 7 by holding an open party, serving thousands of the hairy river crabs to any and all comers. But on Nov. 5 he was placed under house arrest in Beijing. The party went ahead as planned—though on a reduced scale—and Ai was released several days later. On Dec. 2, as this issue was going to press, Ai was stopped at the airport and prevented from leaving the country, suspected by authorities of heading to Oslo to attend the Nobel Prize ceremony, a charge that Ai denied.
Meanwhile, on sleepy Shaoxing Road in downtown Shanghai, OV’s troubles were just beginning as “Shifting Definitions,” featuring Chinese and international artists, opened on Nov. 6. OV had postponed the exhibition until the end of the Expo, hoping the political climate would relax, and had earlier attempted, unsuccessfully, to clear the official approval process in an effort to avoid more raids, which are said to stem from showing foreign artists. It applied to the city’s cultural bureau but, stated Catching (a Canadian national), “it rejected our package of materials because our license is to ‘show art’ not to ‘have an exhibition.’ There is a weird line between having a shop versus being a gallery.”
On Nov. 3, an “art spy,” one of the now familiar government employees who pose ineffectually as artists to infiltrate events, visited the gallery. The next day, OV’s landlord received a call from the district cultural bureau, and on Nov. 5 the gallery staff was called in for a meeting, at which they were required to present information on the artists’ nationalities (Australian, Belgian, American, Chinese). Beijing attorney Nancy Murphy, who specializes in Chinese art law, confirmed to A.i.A. that “the sensitivity of the Chinese government to having non-Chinese figures involved in the Chinese art world seems to be a major factor in vulnerability.”
At the meeting, however, Catching was told that someone had denounced the gallery because the show was critical of illegal demolitions. As a precaution, OV removed a Wu Meng photograph that dealt with a notorious Sichuan incident in 2009, when a woman self-immolated to protest being forced from her house, and survived only to die under suspicious circumstances in the hospital. Wu was already under state scrutiny, Catching explained, due to her involvement in an experimental theater troupe and her defiance of a government warning against performing at the German Pavilion at the Expo.
No uniformed police or, to Catching’s knowledge, bureau officials showed up at the gallery opening, but an artist talk scheduled for the following day was moved at the request of the landlord, who had been told to “keep an eye” on the gallery (which has since lost its lease and is relocating this month). On Nov. 10, OV was visited by 10 officials from the cultural and public security bureaus, who informed them that OV lacked permission for the exhibition. They demanded to see the works by foreign artists, supposedly to check import licenses, even though most of the artists are China-based. Only two works were seized and those were by Chinese artists: Wu’s piece about a masseuse, and Cui Xiuwen’s hidden video from 2000 capturing the ladies’ room of a “hostess club.”
“Laws and regulations are drafted in such broad, conceptual language that they can be used to capture an extremely wide range of behavior. The result, probably intended, is to cause people to be self-censoring,” Murphy noted. The lack of established boundaries “is quite an effective way of controlling behavior, and antithetical to a healthy legal system. It is not uncommon in China for one of the many laws that are unenforced for years to suddenly be dusted off and used against people.”
While the conjunction of Ai’s arrest and the harassing of OV may have been coincidental, Catching conjectured that the tense atmosphere might have been the result of the Nobel Prize news and a power struggle within the Communist Party following Premier Wen Jiabao’s comments calling free speech “indispensible.” Whatever the reasons, she said, the ongoing scrutiny “does a psychological number” and is in many ways worse than being simply shut down. Indeed, the definitions are always shifting. “They create enough rules that you are always breaking one.”