The beginning of the age of Xi


Two days after the US Presidential election, the other global superpower—China—began the second only voluntary top leadership change, from Hu Jintao and his peers to a new batch of leaders under Xi Jinping. Xi, in a three stage process lasting til March, will first be named Chairman of the Communist Party, and the titles of Military head and President will follow. Li Keqiang will take the number two position of Prime Minister.

The announcements were made at the 18th party congress. At the party congress last month, all but two of the Politburo’s standing committee stood down, and the changeover began of about two-thirds of the party’s other key leadership organisations.

Relatively little is known of Xi Jinping’s plans, although there are hopes among intellectuals, and in the art world, that he will prove less illiberal than his predecessors. Speculation was rife as a photo exhibition featured pictures of former reformist leaders Hu Yaobang and Zhao Ziyang, Zhao was purged after the Tiananmen massacre and was placed under house arrest until his death. It is widely believed his photo indicates Xi is planning a reformist regime, but ‘he is no Chinese Gorbachev,’ former leader Yao Jian Fu told VOA.

In the years following the 1989 Tiananmen uprising more critical voices in Chinese society have faced censorship and oppression. Nobel Peace Prize winner Liu Xiaobo, the literary critic and human rights activist, is still in jail, while his wife, the poet and photographer Liu Xia remains under house arrest in Beijing. Meanwhile, Ai Wei Wei, who was under house arrest, convicted on tax charges, and still has his passport confiscated,writing in a blog this summer, Ai drew parallels between himself, the disgraced politician Bo Xilai (who had been tipped for the prime ministership) and the blind civil rights lawyer Cheng Guangcheng, who fled to the US in May. “We are three very different examples: you can be a high party member or a humble fighter for rights or a recognized artist. But we all have one thing in common: none of us have been dealt with through fair play, open trials and open discussion,” Ai wrote.

At the recent ShContemporary art fair (Sept. 7-9 2012) in Shanghai, it has now emerged that that nervous officials told galleries to take down a number of works, including a digitally manipulated photo of the Monkey King, by Beijing-based artist Chi Peng, on show with Shanghai based M97 gallery. Another work, a large c-print, Outer Space Project 7 by the controversial Gao Brothers, also fell foul, although it had been previously approved by a government committee several weeks before the fair. “IFA Gallery, and several other art galleries, experienced particularly strict censorship,” says Alexis Kouzmine-Karavaïeff, the director of the Shanghai-based IFA Gallery.

“Outer Space Project 7 was banned, because it represented a map of China, shown as a beehive, with cells with people, depicting the contemporary society,” he says, adding another work with the same concept but in the shape of a human heart, “caused no concern at all”. Because the Gao Brothers work and the piece by Chi Peng had been published in the fair catalogue, “ it could not be released, and the organizers had to republish thousands of copies” Kouzmine- Karavaïeff adds  The problem appears to have been a combination of the timing around the party congress and the use of national symbols. “Most of the works in other galleries had these issues with national symbolism… (such as) Chairman Mao’s portrait obscured by a soldier and a gorilla at the Forbidden City, (and a) He Yongxing portrait with the watermark of a 10 Yuan note including the Mao portrait at Art+Shanghai, and others,’ Karavaïeff said.

Undeterred, Karavaïeff says that IFA Gallery will soon present a show entitled “sensor ship”, in 2013 presenting research on this topic. He tends to believe that the change of leadership will make little difference for gallerists in China: “It is very difficult to say what will be the changes in the art scene in China, if there will be any, during Xi Jinping era. Xi is considered to be a reformer and more in the liberal trend, in line with general developments in China since Deng Xiaoping. But, as in the past, there is an ongoing struggle between conservatives and reformers, and it may be that there is a need to satisfy the conservative, nationalist factions (by censoring sensitive topics in art ),” he says.

Gao Qiang, one of the controversial artist duo the Gao brothers, agrees. “I am not going to pay much attention to the leadership change, if the system doesn’t change a change of leadership makes no difference,” saying he intended to carry on regardless. But he also added he didn’t understand the censorship at the art fair. “I’ve showed the same work recently in Beijing without any problems, so I don’t see what was the issue in Shanghai.”

Infrastructure/government support

The irony, of course, is that it is China’s economic miracle that has allowed China’s contemporary art scene to flourish. In the decade since Hu Jintao took over as president in 2002, China’s economy has quadrupled, to become second only to that of the US. In the same period, China has grown from the world’s fifth-largest exporter to its biggest—and from a medium-powered player to an international superpower.

As the economy has grown, the arts and culture industries have received rapidly increasing government support, especially in the last few years as the Chinese government has been building up cultural infrastructure. Massive art museums are springing up all over the country, and new projects are announced almost every week. For example, in Shanghai alone, besides the recent massive new Shanghai Art Museum and Shanghai Contemorary, Shanghai will also have several new art museums in its Xuhui Riviera area opening in late 2013, such as the Dragon Contemporary Art Museum, the Yuz Museum, and the Minsheng Art Museum will also move to this area. The Dragon Museum published a budget of 200-300 million RMB (USD 32-48 m). There is also the nearby large Suzhou Jinji Lake Art Musuem which opened in May 2012.

The ongoing and relentless building of art infrastructure follows central government directives to officials to build creative industries, and wean off the dependence on OEm manufacturing.

The problem, as some argue is that the authorities’ relationship to the arts is ambiguous. Ai Wei Wei says ‘the officials building these structures could just as easily be building hospitals or highways- they are fulfilling their instructions.’ The actual content of these museums is usually safe, approved work, or non existent. In China a visit to an art museum can often be frustrating as you are confronted by closed doors. Officials will occasionally make sure there is a big show if national leaders are on an inspection tour. When TAN visited the new SuzhouArt Museum the doors where firmly closed on the massive complex, and a disgruntled door guard in his slippers waved your correspondent away, earlier this year.

There is a lot of money in Chinese government budgets to commission art, in practice this means safe, non critical work, that essentially won’t get officials into hot water, and some artists are happy to meet this criteria. Luther Spree, an award winning German documentarian, who recently made a documentary on the October 2012 population of Kassel with Chinese public art, commented that he was surprised how the artists behaved who receive government commissions, . ‘I asked them how many stainless steel scholar rocks can they make? They just shrugged. They have no interest in the direction of their work. They are all quite wealthy from this business, they have nice cars and big studios.’

Gary Sigeley, Professor of Asian Studies at the University of Western Australia, says: “The Chinese authorities want to have their cake and eat when it comes to culture and the arts. The Communist Party and the government have invested billions in developing a modern cultural industry. They see the production of high quality material—films, books, [museums?]—as a way of keeping the people informed and entertained. Yet on the other hand they place many restrictions on the kind of content and forms that such cultural products can take thereby severely limiting creativity. This [dichotomy] is also in turn limiting the Party’s ambition to produce cultural material that will appeal to foreigners as part of its efforts to strengthen its cultural ‘soft power”,” Sigeley adds.

And there is little doubt that China sees value in “soft power”. In the international arena the country has set up its own version of the British Council or Goethe Institute, called the Confucious Institute, and has offices across the globe. Similarly the country has thousands of foreign language speaking journalists creating TV channels, newspapers and websites that all follow the party line, besides the more obvious examples such as the grandiose new National Museum in Beijing.

“I don’t expect any major shifts in the current position on cultural policy and the arts, at least not from the Party and Government itself. However the interesting dimension in China is that with the so-called ‘’digital revolution’ and continuing development of the internet, the people themselves are beginning to create their own content and also by ‘voting with their feet’ in viewing foreign products—including from Hong Kong and Taiwan, which are readily available as pirated DVDs and on the internet.” Ai Weiwei was a prolific blogger until his efforts were shut down. Many others continue to use, and play games with the censors there- for instance when Ai Weiwei was arrested his name was taboo, but many people posted they were ‘looking for the fat man.’

China’s rapid modernisation, urbanisation and economic growth—with the populations of cities such as Beijing and Shanghai doubling to more than 20 million each over a decade—has seen an explosion in the size of the art market, even for contemporary, international-style art (although this remains a minority category—both fine art and traditional art lead auction sales figures within China, according to the Hurun report, China’s version of the Forbes rich list.

The Chinese art market was announced at RMB 210.8 billion (USD 6.2 bln) for 2011 by the Chinese Minitry of Culture, yoy 24% growth. 97.5 bln RMB at auction, 35.1 rmb billion from art agents, galleries and art fairs, art exports rmb 3 bln, online transactions rmb 1.2 bln. The definition of art modern and contemporary original artwork and crafts was rmb 59 billion. .

However, keeping the economic miracle going is a key challenge for President Xi: the drop in exports to the struggling western economies and Japan has seen a lower growth rate.The real estate market is floundering: a Chinese debt collector surnamed Lu told The Art Newspaper his business was good, as many have defaulted on loans to buy property. ‘There are many, many properties in this situation now,” Lu said. The economic slowdown is also having an impact on the art market:overall the local Beijing Spring art auctions saw a 43% fall in turnover and a 23% fall in profits, according to a local newspaper.

News website 10cent Financial News, gave some examples -China Guardian Auction turnover was 60% down compared to 2011 Spring in the Spring 2012 auctions and 40% down on the previous Autumn. Poly was 50% down on Spring, 48% down on Autumn. Beijing Consul 37% down on Spring 30% down autumn, Rongbao was 49% and 43% down respectively. The fall is partly attributed to stricter enforcement of tax and custom duties.

The roller coaster growth in the art market—and simply the changing times—is also having an effect on art and artists themselves. To categorize Chinese art, or art produced in China, the following categories would be a good reference point: Chinese contemporary art can be split between those who follow western art traditions with a local twist and have been seen as rebels for the last two decades: Ai Weiwei, Zhang Huan, Fang Lijun, Feng Mengbo, and many more. Then there are others, a much larger group, such as Mi Qiu, now art director for the Dragon Tower (which will be China’s tallest building when finished)  who had western exposure but are now working purely within the local context, often using government funds, and do not look to western exposure. A third group of contemporary artists are emerging, a younger generation, often with western art education under their belts, who switch happily between both worlds, these are usually within the sphere of influence of curators such as Gao Shiming, now head of New Media at the China Art Academy. Besides these groupings there are maverick groups, such as foreign artists, non-Han Chinese artists, and even many female artists would fall into this maverick group in China’s still very male dominated art scene. Aside from contemporary there are two very strong groupings of artists who are very powerful in China’s art establishment—fine artists and traditional Chinese art practioners. The deceased curator Hans van Dyk, who set up China’s first contemporary art archive with Ai Wei Wei, created one more category: the artist Ding Yi, who had a category all to himself as he was an early champion of abstraction, a not particularly well understood art form in China.

With the arrest of Ai Wei Wei, and the sidelining of others such as Zhang Peili (who was shunted out of his department head at the China Art Academy – leaders of the rebel artist group in China, the contemporary Chinese art scene itself appears directionless and confused. With no obvious leadership the old rebels are slowly integrating into the second group of government sponsored artists. It is slowly emerging how influential Ai actually has been over the years, and his absence has left a vacuum. Ai himself is scathing.

China is one country where you can meet right wing(ultra-nationalist) artists a Shanghai based German gallerist commented. In an editorial Yishu Dandai (a leading Chinese art magazine) said, discussing the new problems facing Chinese contemporary art, that ‘with the economic success of art, it is losing its cultural value, because contemporary art used to represent real issues, but with the economic involvement, artists are losing independence and freedom of expression is diminished. As China has become the world’s second largest economy, people’s life quality has increased, but political system has not developed accordingly. Law, freedom of speech, and the market are all under the control of politics. The artists, who are already economically successful, are pandering to the politicians.’

Dr Sigeley says: ‘As for subversive artists like Ai Weiwei, there is not much chance of loosening up. China is entering a leadership transition and so we can usually expect stability to be the main objective. But even after the leadership transition takes place (give it at least a year to settle) I don’t hold out much hope for further meaningful reform as China is entering
a period of uncertainty (including economic slowdown) and growing instability. Unless the leadership can unify around the need for meaningful reform it is not likely they will want to change the status.’

Foreign relations

The other issue for the Chinese art world is that the power of the market, and of government, is not counterweighted by a strong institutional sector of museums and public galleries, nor by academic and critical writing. Most critical writing on Chinese art is written by foreigners, meanwhile artists pay to receive the blessing of a museum, and many respected commercial galleries are run by foreigners. But as Chinese nationalism increases—witness the ongoing territorial dispute with Japan over the Diaoyu islands, the nationalist demonstrations taking place across the country, and the “testing” of air raid sirens in cities such as Shanghai—foreigners are feeling increasingly uncomfortable, while China-based gallerists talk of parachutes and setting up bases elsewhere in Asia or other locations.

Mark Kitto, a well known foreign resident in China wrote an editorial piece that was widely discussed recently [be more precise: who is Mark Kitto, when exactly was the piece written etc], following its publication in the Chinese version of the New York Times. He wrote, under the headline “Why I am leaving China: “The Communist Party of China has, from its very inception, encouraged strong anti-foreign sentiment. Fevered nationalism is one of its cornerstones. . . The alternative scenario to a world dominated by an aggrieved China is hardly less bleak and illustrates how China already dominates the world and its economy. That is the increasing likelihood that there will be upheaval in China within the next few years, sparked by that property crash. When it happens it will be sudden, like all such events.”

Art scene/government

So what about the new President Xi himself? In the theatre that is Chinese politics, The Art Newspaper had what the government officials described as a jian mian hui- literally translated as a see the face meeting, with Xi Jinping. This was during the now newly anointed President’s brief reign as Party Secretary of Shanghai. Xi appeared on stage in front of Shanghai’s assembled foreign press, recited a few lines from former president Jiang Zemin’s ‘Three represents’ theories on political development, smiled like a Cheshire cat and then exited stage left.

We are seeing China’s most open period since the voyages of the Ming Dynasty treasure fleets of the 14th Century. The voyages saw Chinese influence spreading as far as Africa. But a displeased incoming Ming Emperor decided China should have no further contact with the world and burnt the fleets, and all records of their travels, beginning centuries of isolation. With Xi we are not seeing an incoming hardliner, and it would appear he is already fighting against corruption. We can only hope Xi will further open the doors -and is not likely to bring them crashing shut, but if  he opens them a bit faster it will be a relief for China’s struggling artists.

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