In China, performance art feels the chill from official disapproval

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Macao-based performance artist Noah Ng Fong Chao performs his piece “Meaningless” at the OPEN international performance art festival in the Songzhuang art colony outside Beijing. (Reuters)
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Chinese performance artist Han Bing poses for German photographer Katharina Hesse during a shoot at the outskirts of Beijing. (Reuters)
Updated 04 October 2017
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In China, performance art feels the chill from official disapproval

BEIJING: One woman, a performance artist from Taiwan, tied herself up with bras, but left her nipples exposed. Another artist, a Romanian woman in a bathing suit, had someone write the Chinese characters for “control” and “art” across her buttocks.
But, for the most part, the annual OPEN international performance art festival, held in a secret venue in Beijing out of sight of China’s increasingly active censors, was a relatively tame and quiet affair this year.
Only 15 acts performed last month at the long-running festival, which drew an audience of just around 40 people, most of them the artists themselves or event staff.
The reason was a lack of publicity for the two-day event. The organizer, Chen Jin, said he had been concerned about police raids, knowing that the timing of the festival, ahead of a major Communist Party congress, was just too sensitive.
“Performance art is the freest art form. It doesn’t have any rules, and this might have scared them the most,” Chen said, referring to the authorities.
At its peak in 2009, Chen said, the festival had an eight-week run with more than 300 Chinese and foreign artists. But it has waned in recent years, mostly due to fears of a backlash from censors.
Last year, the event was forced to cancel halfway through due to repeated police raids, Chen said.
Performance artists had been in the vanguard of China’s art scene as it opened up to Western ideas and values in the 1980s, testing the limits of the law and social norms.
But increased pressure on many forms of art, which comes as President Xi Jinping has been shoring up Communist Party control over all aspects of society, has had a chilling effect on the performance art scene in particular.
In 2014, Xi urged all artists to “carry forward the banner of socialist core values”.
Xi, who is expected to consolidate his power during the congress in October, said artists should “use real-life images to tell people what should be confirmed and applauded, and what must be opposed and denied”.
Madeleine O’Dea, author of a new book on dissident artists in modern China, said the country’s contemporary art scene was now experiencing a period of retrenchment.
“I definitely feel like things are getting worse and worse,” O’Dea said at a book-signing in Beijing last month.
In 2015, an art exhibition on feminism in Beijing was banned. The year before, the 11th Beijing Independent Film Festival was shut down on its opening day.
China’s culture ministry declined to comment.
Chen’s quiet festival stands in contrast to the “Art and China after 1989” exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York City, due to kick off on Oct 6.
The exhibition will feature the works of about 70 artists, most of them born in China, including the dissident artist Ai Weiwei, and delve into what would be considered sensitive topics in China – from civil rights to disillusioned coal miners.
Ai, whose work spans everything from sculpture to architecture, is also known for his performance art — notably the dropping and smashing of an ancient Chinese urn.
Other significant Chinese performance artists in the last two decades include Zhu Yu, whose act featured him biting into a stillborn human baby, and Ma Liuming, whose explicit explorations into sexual identity ran counter to a ban on public nudity.
In contrast, full nudity was noticeably absent at this year’s OPEN festival — even behind closed doors.
Beate Linne, 50, a German artist whose work often features nudity, said she stayed covered up because of the timing of the festival.
“It’s not nice to the organizers because there might be some consequences,” said Linne.
One aspiring performance artist whose work went viral in July — a dildo placed on top of a flagpole at the art school he was attending — has apparently felt some of those consequence.
The 27-year-old artist, Ge Yulu, lost a job offer at a university because of his act, according to friends who requested anonymity because of the sensitivity of the situation. Ge declined to be interviewed.
Ge’s act sparked spirited discussion online about whether it was a tasteless prank, or real art. One veteran performance artist, however, deemed it worthy.
“It was a brave attempt from a young student that came with consequences,” said He Yunchang, a 51-year-old Beijing-based artist.
He Yunchang in 2010 allowed a medical doctor to make a meter-long incision from his neck to his thigh in a performance called “One-Meter Democracy” in which the majority of the audience voted for the procedure.
He said he was resigned to the government crackdown. When asked if he planned to stage performances in the future, he smiled and said, “I am already dead inside.”


Kyrgyz singer receives death threats over feminist video

Updated 21 September 2018
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Kyrgyz singer receives death threats over feminist video

  • Zere Asylbek’s music video ‘Kyz’ became a sensation in the Central Asian country following its release last week
  • In the video Asylbek sings that ‘a time will come when nobody will tell me: Don’t wear it, don’t do it’

BISHKEK, Kyrgyzstan: A 19-year-old singer in Kyrgyzstan has filed a complaint with police after receiving death threats over a music video she released targeting gender discrimination in the ex-Soviet republic.
Zere Asylbek’s music video “Kyz” became a sensation in the Central Asian country following its release last week but has angered conservatives who say it insults national values, focusing on the singer’s visible underwear.
Asylbek said that she had filed reports with police in the capital Bishkek after receiving numerous threats of physical violence including several death threats.
One threat posted by an anonymous Facebook profile to a group on the social media platform threatened to kill her if the video was not deleted.
Another user whose post Asylbek sent as a screenshot to AFP wrote that they “would gladly join” the first commentator, and “rip your head off.”
“Kyz,” which means girl in the Kyrgyz language had had more than 217,000 views on YouTube by Friday and is Asylbek’s first released song.
Asylbek said on Thursday that the video’s main message was to “respect the person you really are” while also “respecting the choices, opinions and ways of life of others.”
The video features Asylbek dressed in a suit jacket and skirt with a purple bra underneath, a woman wearing a hijab, a woman wearing a Kyrgzy-style headscarf and a woman with a partly shaved head, showing Kyrgyz society’s diversity.
In the video Asylbek sings that “a time will come when nobody will tell me: Don’t wear it, don’t do it.”
She also calls on the other women featured in the clip to “join me, create our own freedom.”
Asylbek said that she had expected her choice of different women representing different facets of society to be understood as provocative but was surprised at the online attention devoted to her purple bra.
In a Facebook post her father Asylbek Zhoodonbekov voiced support, calling his daughter “a free-thinking daughter of a free Kyrgyzstan.”
He said she had grown more politically conscious after a recent incident in which a man killed a young woman in a police station after attempting to abduct her for a forced marriage.
The murder in May sparked protests in Kyrgyzstan, a poor, majority-Muslim country where thousands of women are kidnapped for marriage every year in a practice dating back to the country’s nomadic past while law enforcement is accused of ignoring the problem.