Censorship and Mockery: Chinese Contemporary Art in French Eyes

Here on this website, we have tossed off a few missives in the past about Sino-French relations and the role played of  looted art therein.  And why not?  Since even before the shock of the Opium War and its awful sequel, France has played an important role in Chinese images of the West, and in building Chinese modernity.

For confirmation of this notion, think no further than Zhou Enlai and Deng Xiaoping; the former spent three years in France from 1921-1924, sharing air with Maurice Ravel and my-later-next-door-neighbor-Monfort Dunn (all were in Paris at the time) and getting a good long gulp of French visions of modernity, empire, and postwar recovery.

(In fact, Zhou Enlai was in Paris at the same time that future Unit 731 mastermind Ishii Shiro was prowling European cities and research institutes to add to his gigantic bibliographies of bacteriological weapons research.  Let the conspiracy theories rise!)

And, more importantly, from the contemporary U.S. point of view, Sino-French frictions matter because they remind us, very simply, that China has to deal with all manner of critiques (and soft-power drives) that do not emanate from Washington, D.C. or Tokyo, but rather from European capitols.  Just because these things sometimes bear repeating.  Because they bear repeating.

Thus!  To the art coverage.  Liberation carried a long article recently about the Ullens Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing, describing how the Dutch aesthetic entrepreneurs are now “on the cutting edge of a world in mutation.”  Another page describes how Asian manga swept a number of awards at the big annual Anglomeme bande desinee conference after the new year.

But far more interesting than the notion of exploding prices for Chinese contemporary art (which, I suppose, certainly has developed its own orthodox rhetorical strategies) or the victory of Chinese manhua is the notion of Chinese artists outside of China pushing the boundaries of censorship.

Because this is an idea and a practice which has something very concrete to do with Chinese views of the world, and how the West understands China.  Which brings us to the main event.

Liberation‘s Philippe Grangereau, who has published books about North Korea and is the newspaper’s Northeast Asia correspondent, recently published a fascinating story regarding French government censorship of a Chinese artist:

Philippe Grangereau, “Aux Beaux-Arts, pas d’expo lèse-Sarko [At Beaux-Arts, No Exhibition of Lese-Majesty against Sarkozy],” Libération, 12 Feb. 2010 [translation by Adam Cathcart].

// Censure. Jugée provocante envers le Président, une installation de Siu-lan Ko a été retirée de la façade.

Censored: Judged to be a provocation against the President, an installation of Siu-lan Ko is taken down from a facade.

Siu-lan Ko, une artiste chinoise, a été censurée pour une œuvre jugée trop provocatrice à l’encontre de Nicolas Sarkozy. Son installation, composée de banderoles géantes, avait été mise en place mercredi matin sur la façade de l’Ecole nationale supérieure des beaux-arts de Paris, qui donne sur le quai Malaquais. Elle a été retirée d’autorité pendant la journée. On pouvait y lire quatre mots : «travailler», «gagner», «plus», «moins».

Siu-lan Ko, a Chinese artist, has been censored for a work judged to be too provative in its opposition to [French President] Nicholas Sarkozy.  Her installation, composed of giant banners, was unfurled [in early February] on the facade of the Beaux-Arts School in Paris (ENSBA) along the Quai Malaquais.  It was removed by the authorities that same day.  On the banners one can read four words: “work,” “win/make,” “more,” “less.”

Démission.«Selon l’angle de vision, ce slogan de Sarkozy peut être vu différemment, explique l’artiste, qui a conçu et réalisé son œuvre à Pékin. Les Beaux-Arts avaient donné sans ambiguïté leur accord à l’installation, qui était prévue depuis décembre, selon l’artiste, qui exposait dans le cadre d’un projet artistique intitulé «Week-end de sept jours» – réunissant des étudiants du programme de recherche La Seine, du Royal College of Art de Londres et du Lassalle College of the Arts de Singapour. Bien que la commissaire de l’exposition se soit opposée à l’enlèvement de l’installation, et sans que l’artiste ait été consultée, la décision de décrocher les banderoles a été prise dans l’après-midi de mercredi.

La censure a été décidée par le directeur des Beaux-Arts, Henry-Claude Cousseau, rapporte la commissaire, Clare Carolin, du Royal College of Art de Londres. «Pour toute explication, il m’a dit que cette œuvre se moquait du président français.» En quinze ans de carrière, Carolin dit n’avoir jamais été confrontée à ce genre de «censure». Pour protester, elle a décidé de remettre sa démission et de repartir à Londres samedi. «Je me sens insultée, et je ne veux pas être associée avec cette censure». Selon Ko, «l’œuvre gênait des personnalités du ministère de l’Education, ce qui est malvenu car ce ministère doit bientôt décider du budget annuel de l’Ecole des beaux-arts.» Contacté hier par Libération afin d’obtenir une explication, le secrétariat de Cousseau s’est contenté de promettre un communiqué. La direction justifierait son geste en faisant passer Siu-lan Ko pour «une étudiante»

“According to the angle of vision, this Sarkozy slogan can perhaps be seen differently,” explains the artist, who conceived of and produced her work in Beijing.  The Beaux-Arts gave their unambiguous permission for the installation, which was previewed the previous December, according to the artist, who displayed the outlines of her project “Seven-Day Weekend” with students of a research program at La Seine, the Royal College of Art in London, and at the Lassalle College of the Arts in Singapore.

The censorship was decided upon by the director of Beaux-Arts, Henry-Claude Cosseau, reports the commissioner [of the exposition], Clare Caroline of the Royal College of Art in London.  “For every explanation, he told me that this work mocked the President of France.”  In the fifteen years of her career, Caroline said she had never been confronted with this type of “censorship.”  To protest, she decided to resign and go back to London on Sunday.  “I was insulted; I don’t want to be associated with this censorship.”  According to Ko, “the work annoys the Minister of Education, the minister who may soon decide on the annual budget of the Beaux-Arts.”  Contacted yesterday by Liberation in order to obtain an explanation, Cousseau’s secretary was content to send a communique.  The direction suggested they regarded Siu-lan Ko as “a student.”

Propagande. Siu-lan Ko, 33 ans, qui vit entre Hong-kong et Pékin, est pourtant une routière des expositions internationales. Ko s’intéresse au phénomène de la propagande, elle a d’ailleurs récemment réalisé une installation en Chine. «Ne pensez pas trop», disait une de ses banderoles.

«Venant de Chine, je ne comprends pas cette censure brutale en France, et surtout dans l’une de ses écoles d’art les plus anciennes, qui est supposée encourager la liberté d’expression. Cela montre le degré de conservatisme du climat politique et le degré de peur qu’inspire Sarkozy», proteste l’artiste, qui dit envisager un recours en justice si son œuvre n’est pas restaurée avant le vernissage de «Week-end de sept jours», prévu vendredi.

Propaganda.  Siu-lan Ko, age 33, moves between Hong Kong and Beijing, along the route of international expositions.  She interests herself in the phenomenon of propaganda, a theme about which she recently staged an installation in China.  “Don’t Think Too Much,” said one of her banners.

“Coming from China, I cannot comprehend this brutal censorship in France, and especially in one of the oldest schools of art which itself is supposed to encourage freedom of expression.  This action testifies to the degree of conservativsm in the political climate as well as the degree of fear which is inspired by Sarkozy,” protested the artist, who spoke of envisioning a recourse to legal action if her work was not restored before the private opening of “Seven-Day Weekend.”

***

This story hardly made a dent in the Chinese news media, indicating that the CCP had no need to rake French hypocricy over the coals, but also that the Party is perpetually in no mood to discuss censorship of art, as opposed to the Internet.  However, there was quite a large response on the French internet, as these 364 comments suggest, including lamentations that France needs foreign artists to criticize Sarkozy.  (Some good commentary also exists on this little Le Figaro item on the expansion of the Chinese defense budget.)

But Ko’s work might also raise some questions about Chinese techniques of rule.  On April 27 in Les Halles, she will exhibit:

White Clouds and Blue Sky Forever / Siu Lan Ko (Chine)

L’artiste chinoise aborde la question du Tibet dans un acte critique, mêlant faits économiques, écologiques et politiques, prière traditionnelle, risque tangible et implication des spectateurs présents.

And Le Post carries a good question/post on the Ko case.  Is it possible for us to censor a Chinese artist in France? the author asks.   Another author criticizes her work as charlatanism politics.  Ko has done work with crazy Hamburg performance artists as well, indicating the scope of her career exceeds France and China.

Finally, just because it’s fun, here is a little Japanese random sculpture/performance art for your Monday, via Le Figaro’s Suivez le Geek blog:

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