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Censoring of Chinese Art at Home and Abroad

Since October of last year, all five boroughs of NYC have been taken-over with more than 300 works by beloved Chinese artist Ai Weiwei in a project called “Good Fences Make Good Neighbors.” Anchoring the works is an installation of a large cage placed underneath Washington Square Arch. Other installations for the project include a gilded cage at one of the main entrances of Central Park and two-hundred lamppost banners. These purposefully obtrusive “interventions” have been lauded for capturing the way in which many physical and metaphorical barriers go unnoticed in everyday life. Most clearly, they have been praised for tapping into the more concrete reality of new physical barriers being constructed by the U.S.

Importantly, Ai Weiwei’s own refugee status in the U.S. informs the project. He sought asylum after he was imprisoned for 81 days in his home country, China, on dubious political charges. For a country as large and politically complex as China, Ai Weiwei is surprisingly one of the few contemporary Chinese artists currently receiving mainstream attention in the U.S. The Guggenheim Museum took notice of this phenomenon and ambitiously curated the largest U.S. based exhibition of contemporary Chinese art in the past twenty years. The exhibition, Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World, featured 71 artists and 150 primarily conceptual artworks. Split into two distinct periods, the chronology started with the 1989 crackdown on pro-democracy protesters in Tiananmen Square and the political repression that ensued. The second period of the exhibition covered the economic boom in the 2000s and ended with the 2008 Beijing Olympic Games.

Theatre of the World, the exhibition’s subtitle, came from an installation in the show by artist Huang Young Ping. The work was a cage-like structure meant to house live reptiles and insects coexisting in a “natural cycle of life.” Intentionally, the installation allowed some creatures to be devoured, leaving only the larger reptiles to survive at the end of the three-month installation. Theatre of the World was positively reviewed by The New York Times in a preview of the exhibition, “[the installation] sums up a sense of oppression the artists felt from 1989 to 2008, as they were making these works.” Animal-rights activists, however, immediately criticized the work for the cruel nature of the piece. Additionally, two other works received critical attention from animal rights groups: one a video featuring two heavily tattooed pigs mating before an audience and another a video showing pit bulls attempting to fight each other while restrained to non-motorized treadmills,.

Within a day of Guggenheim’s exhibition announcement, the museum was forced to issue a public statement defending the pieces. In the statement, the Museum attempted to urge the public to think more critically by reflecting on the work’s insight on “social conditions of globalization and the complex nature of the world we share.” Within five days, a petition gained over 600,000 signatures and further negative media caused the museum to remove the three works from the show. Meanwhile, Ai Weiwei defended the exhibition, framing the protests as harming freedom of speech and noting that “pressuring museums to pull down artwork shows a narrow understanding about not only animal rights but also human rights.”

Undoubtedly, the works are unsettling, if not outright shocking. However, the backlash to the works, and larger exhibition, is deeply troubling because it failed to properly engage with potential cultural differences of Chinese art. Most disturbingly, the eventual outright censorship of these works perpetuates a censorship and culture of domination that these very works were created to resist. While some animal rights advocates equate universal human rights with universal animal rights, such a stance fails to consider that the notion of animal rights is an incredibly new concept. In the U.S., it wasn’t really until the 1970s that it became accepted that “animals have a right to life [and] that it is immoral to exploit them.” By no means should works harming animals be actively supported, but activists missed a crucial opportunity to consider these artworks as mediating political and cultural nuances between the U.S. and China.

Analysis of the insight and power of Theatre of the World reflects the immense potential it holds as a piece of contemporary Chinese art. The name of the work is derived from the idea of the panopticon, a prison model designed by Jeremy Bentham in the late 1700s to facilitate and perfect inmate surveillance. In the 1960s, Michel Foucault famously expanded the panopticon model to serve as a metaphor for the controlling mechanisms of modernism that lead to hegemonic systems of power. Through the work, Huang Yong Ping aimed to question systems and dominating ideologies, especially those found in his birth country, China. The shocking nature of the work can be seen to represent the brutality the artist witnessed throughout his life in China, and in a broader sense, modern life. American animal rights advocates rightly point out that it may not be necessary to actually brutalize living creatures to convey this message. However, it seems American animal rights advocates entirely failed to engage with the underlying intentions and cultural vantage of the work instead hegemonically placing their own standards upon the word. Ai Weiwei makes this claim strongly by arguing that “any show… without concern for an artist’s need for honest self-expression, will inevitably lead to the wrong conclusion.”

America is still fairly unique in its hypersensitivity to animal rights issues given its highly industrialized food industry. Such industrialization has mostly allowed Americans to eat without much attention paid to livestock conditions and the act of slaughter behind their daily food consumption. In viewing the art and animal rights standards of different countries, it is important to remember that the U.S. had to go through its own formation of animal rights. It still negotiates how strongly these animal rights should be applied – including in its art. One of many examples includes a work shown at the Jewish Museum in 1970, in which a collective from MIT utilized gerbils to explore the relationship between humans and computers. While in 2016, New York artist Duke Riley’s work fixed small LED lights to the legs of a flock of pigeons and received protest from animal rights groups, but was still able to go through with his project.

It is important to remember that in 2003, China was still in the early stages in adopting Western notions of animal rights. Peter Li, China policy specialist at Humane Society International, notes that these improvements in animal rights are “because of rising living standards, people are no longer obsessed with getting food on the  dinner table.” This, he notes, is one of the major motivations behind the decline in dog meat markets in the country. The importance of pet ownership in motivating animals rights is also important, and thus, cultural differences around the dog as a pet are worth fleshing out. Beijing notably banned pet dogs after a rabies epidemic from 1980 to 1990. It was only in 1993 that the ban on dog ownership was lifted; yet, even then dogs were banned from being walked on the street after 7 pm. Countries hold their own standards based on their unique religions and food supply demands, the U.S.’s standards should not be blindly heralded as the gold standard.

Americans must truly ask themselves if they take Weiwei’s sentiment regarding barriers seriously. It seems a massive barrier to Chinese art has been constructed if it must first rigorously pass American cultural standards. Perhaps the reason Weiwei remains “China’s only artist” is not because of the Chinese Government’s censorship programs, but American’s own cultural apprehensions. There also may be an urge to only view China in romanticized depictions, as the MET did in 2015. Regardless, Chinese art needs a more accepting and sympathetic platform in the United States–otherwise it has no platform at all. China should be given the opportunity to develop and negotiate its conception of animal rights on its own terms. PETA should not be the most feared art critic. Instead, open debate and inquiry into the political, cultural, formal, and social roles of a work should be explored. Art could be the perfect venue to explore and critique animal rights differences across cultures. It seems misguided to point towards art as independently instigating animal rights abuses.

About the Author

Tristan Harris '20 is the Associate Section Manager for the Culture Section of the Brown Political Review. Tristan can be reached at