Friday, 17 June 2016

The Banned in Shanghai Tour: a tour of censorship

This performance has been made and remade in nine locations now and I was starting to wonder if it was becoming safe and, within the context of China, over-accommodating of the authorities. It was a surprise to learn after the eleventh of the thirteen scheduled performances that the last two shows were cancelled on the order of the city's cultural censor. The reason I was given was that I presented Shanghai in a negative light. Being cancelled by the authorities did not, however, stop the show, it only made it in into an unofficial, underground performance!

The organs of censorship were slow and acted in two stages. First, on the day before the show opened I gave a try-out show to which this man and an official from the local district government turned up. I had not invited them, they arrived unannounced with the festival team. I was also informed that my plan to use flags would not be possible and that I should change it. The next day I was told to make an adjustment to the show: do not mention the boy urinating on the tour bus. Several days then passed before this charmer turned up again with a phone in hand recording the show start to finish. This was presumably played to his boss with a translator assisting the two of them and the decision then made to pull the show. I can only imagine it took them this long to come to a decision because their English was not so good and they had plenty of other shows to consider cancelling too.

This is the first time I have had a work of mine censored by authorities since the age of nineteen when a picture I had in my Foundation Fine Art end of year show was mysteriously taken down and thrown in the skip. I found it, cleaned it off and put it back up. That, too, was my approach to the tour. I gave the final two shows to invited audiences, bypassing the festival ticketing system, playing it low-key and changing the nature of the show. This new tour was the uncut performance that included not only the peeing boy but also the things I had not included in the first place in order to get the show to initially pass the censor. This site was a case in point. On the normal tour I neither stopped at nor said anything about the most important tourist attraction in Xintiandi: the location of the first congress of the communist part of China. On this uncut tour I stopped and explained why it was impossible to say anything here without it potentially causing problems as the party's narrative is not there for everyone to use and repeat as they see fit. Even though the show was not negative about the party, any reference to it here could well lead to the show being stopped out of fear it might be misinterpreted. Officials don't like to take chances, as their job is on the line, so the higher up the food chain one goes, the more likely it is that caution will prevail.

Another example of a thing I was unable to talk about on the normal tour was this ripped picture that I saw in Hangkou. It was part of the Jewish refugee heritage trail put up around the neighbourhood. I did not know the reason why it and several other related pictures, had been slashed. Here it was possible to ask the question and see if my audience knew if this was due to anti-semitic vandalism, if it was related to the redevelopment plans in the area which will see many thousands forcibly moved from their homes or something else entirely. It prompted a real discussion. 

It was shocking that by far the greater degree of censorship I talked about was self-censorship. I'd say that accounted for around 95% of the things that I talked about on the tour. It is not that I would ordinarily (i.e. outside China) include all of this material, but it would all be in circulation and quite possibly find a way into the show in one form or another.

When one of the people on the uncut tour told me that it was very different to the orthodox tour, which she had also seen, it led me to question the wisdom of self-censorship. If I had not been pushed into this situation by unusually conservative city censors, I would not have gone about making this unofficial tour. That said, the standard performance that I made was one that did get people thinking and seeing the area differently. I know this because several told me so. I think it right that art stretches the boundaries of what people think and say in both private and public and that to reach a significant number of people is valuable. I also see that there are some lines it is not possible to cross: if the authorities only want positive tourist marketing, this show will never provide that, it is far too objective. I therefore feel it best to operate on both sides of the line: official and unofficial.

It is ironic that I was able, by performing this piece guerrilla style on the sidelines of the rest of the festival, to actually provide a quite genuine Fringe festival experience here in China. It is also ironic that by censoring the show in order to preserve the neat image of world-class Shanghai, the authorities' efforts were counter-productive. Not only did I do the show anyway and focus on all the negative things I had previously left out, they also revealed themselves to be artistically out of touch conservatives doing their small part in holding the city back from truly becoming China's artistic hub.

Friday, 3 June 2016

The K11 Art Tour: a contemporary art shopping mall in Shanghai

K11 Shanghai is a seriously upmarket property development in the Xintiandi district of the city; an unholy alliance of offices towering above, a mall sandwiched in the middle and a contemporary art space stuffed below, into the basement. If you're idea of sophistication is shopping for luxury brands followed by art and international dining, this might just be your sort of heaven. As an artist, however, I found it a not so very seductive, soft cell version of hell. 

First stop on the tour were the videos. This Warholian homage by a Korean artist was introduced to us by our guide, a youngish lady with an acne problem bubbling away under a thick layer of foundation. Her commentary was brief and she kept to the script. I started to have the sinking feeling that neither the art nor the tour were going to be quite as good as the shopping opportunities.

We wandered past a few China flagship stores then came to these two works: an oversized bronze pillow on the floor and a series of wall mounted ceramic drips by the same artist. She explained how it was the artist's idea that his art could also be practical thus the pillow functioned not only as a sculpture but also as a public seat, not that many people were using it. When I asked why, then, was there a rope in front of the other piece, she was unable to answer. I wasn't particularly trying to be a nuisance, I simply wanted to see if she could come up with an answer that was not part of her script.

We left that one hanging and went up to the centrepiece of their collection, the Hirst. The main thing that she had to say about it was how expensive it was and how, in spite of the price, they insisted on not having it under glass as it is important to be able to really see the work and feel close to it. The last time I saw his work live was a few years ago at the opening of his diamond skull folly at White Cube in London. That occasion struck me as being primarily about the aura of money and the free bar. This statue was a throwaway budget version of the scull, of which many, many thousands now litter private collections and museums around the world, the sub-prime of the art world.

We stopped at a bed of conspicuously planted herbs where Louis Vuitton handbags should rightfully have been on display. I am all in favour of organic farming and re-connecting with nature instead of growing foodstuffs in toxic slurry, as can happen. What is a pity is that this should be a luxury taste one acquires in a high-end mall and not a more general strengthening of food safety across the board. While practices have to start somewhere, when they start so very high, how long will it be before they make their way down to the everyday lives of common people? Touring the art of K11, I felt I was in a bubble far removed from normal life: what happens here stays here. I felt distant, even, from K11's own backstage, which is very carefully concealed. The nearest I got to seeing the backstage workings of the place was in the Family Mart supermarket round the back of the building, where some of the staff eat their lunch while playing on their phones. 

Onwards and upwards we went till we came to an interactive video installation. It showed a young woman out shopping, her hands full of bags bearing brand names. The video invited me to call her and, when I did, the number rang and the woman in the video looked for her phone. I then received a message on my phone, "What is it, darling?" The best thing I can say about this piece is that it was well matched to K11.

A final decorative video piece waited for us in the lift. This seemed to be how K11 liked its art: a catalyst to consumption and status symbol of a luxury lifestyle. This tour, it slowly dawned on me, was about grooming the next generation of art loving consumers. The guide told me that the tour is frequently given to children, hence, I realised, the simplistic content matter of her explanations. I'm guessing the commercial logic underpinning it is, once the kids become accustomed to the mall they will return with mum and dad (and wallet and purse) in tow. No doubt, there is some genuine love of art behind this collection and public display; if it were purely commercially motivated then every mall would feature art. The infuriating thing is the financial hubris that drips off the artworks and second-rate nature of the collection. That would not matter if K11 were just a rich person's plaything but they are significant players in promoting Chinese contemporary art nationally and internationally. Last year, for example, they were behind Zhang Ding's appearance at the ICA in London for Frieze. 

Stepping out of the lift and saying goodbye to our guide, I looked back at the directory on the wall from which it was not hard to see that this place has some serious money flowing through it. The next day we received a phone call from K11 asking about the tour. Naturally they asked about the quality of the guide, the comfort of the tour and such things and fortunately for them it was my wife who took the call and not me so the answers remained civil. At the end came the most important question, "Did you spend more time shopping around K11 afterwards?" They were smart enough not to directly ask, "How much money did you part with during your visit?" but the meaning was clear. They got the polite but vague answer they deserved but the real answer, which they didn't receive, was this, "Not a single RMB. I couldn't get to the exit too quickly!"