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CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE CHINESE STATE

Implementing and Avoiding


Control: Contemporary Art and
the Chinese State
Taru SALMENKARI

This article investigates how the legalisation and economic


privatisation processes taking place in China since the late 1970s
have contributed to the formation of autonomous public spheres. It
explores how unofficial artists have worked to create a space for
innovative elite culture outside both state-promoted official culture
and market-driven popular culture. Unofficial artists have found their
own sphere by counting on non-interference from the state and
by risking punishment if the state decided to interfere. This strategy
requires non-state resources available through the market economy.
The artists strategy fits with the liberal conception of private economy
facilitating social freedom, but questions the universality of the
relationship between social freedom and legal limits for the state.

The conventional, and all too often untested, Western


assumption is that a political system is all the freer if it has legally delimited
state interference in society and if there is freedom for private economic
enterprise to support a relatively autonomous civil society. Not accidentally,
these are central aspects of the ideal model for liberal democracy. As a
result, political systems functioning with a different logic of social and
political control appear less free. This article attempts to test these assumptions

ABOUT THE AUTHOR


Taru Salmenkari (taru.salmenkari@helsinki.fi) wrote her MA thesis on Mainland Chinese
conceptions of democracy at the University of Helsinki. She is currently working
towards a PhD (same university) on political influencing through the Chinese press.
Her main research interest is public self-expression on the Mainland.

CHINA: AN INTERNATIONAL JOURNAL 2, 2 (SEP. 2004): 235 261 235


TARU SALMENKARI

in the light of empirical evidence from China, specifically, the unofficial


contemporary art scene in Beijing which relies on horizontal cooperation
and networking while trying to avoid vertical dependency on the state and
its resources.1 To use Sheldon Lus conceptualisation, it strives to establish a
critical intellectual public sphere in which to preserve an enclave of free
thinking when both state and market contend for control of the public
sphere.2
The first hypothesis supposes that increasing economic freedom will create
more social and political freedom.3 Perhaps increasing economic power will
increase state receptivity to taxpayers demands; or perhaps economic wealth simply
creates alternative means and routes for pursuing ones goals. Whether the market
economy increases bargaining power vis--vis the state or lessens dependence on
state resources, the result should be more space for individual choice and social
activities.
The second hypothesis is more value-laden. It sees social freedom as
requiring transparent and commonly agreed limits for legitimate action.
Laws, preferably resulting from majority decisions by an elected legislature,
check state as well as social and individual actors. This means that individuals
and social actors have legal protection for their activities within legal

1
There are three different spheres of art in contemporary China. Official art is monitored
through official organs such as artists associations, publications and exhibition halls.
Non-official art is created for markets or private consumption and does not go through
official channels but is non-offending in the eyes of the authorities. Unofficial art is
problematic for the authorities either because of its content, distribution channels,
uncontrolled origin or comparable reasons.
2
Sheldon Hsiao-peng Lu, Global POSTmodernIZATION, in Postmodernism and China,
eds. Arif Dirlik and Xudong Zhang (Durham: Duke University Press, 2000), p. 152 (the
irregular capitalisation is Lus).
3
This argument is familiar from comparative political studies. For some central views, see
Sylvia Chan, Liberalism, Democracy and Development (Cambridge: Cambridge University
Press, 2002). After China accepted economic liberalisation, many Western scholars eagerly
expected Western-style political liberalisation to follow. This viewpoint is so prevalent
that most serious academic discussions about Chinese democratisation and civil society
have had to ponder this question, although most found the results of economic liberalisation
much more mixed than expected. See for example, Timothy Brook and B. Michael Frolic,
eds., Civil Society in China (Armonk: M.E. Sharpe, 1997); Shaohua Hu, Explaining Chinese
Democratization (Westport: Praeger, 2000); Thomas Lum, Problems of Democratization in
China (New York: Garland Publishing, 2000).

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CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE CHINESE STATE

limits.4 The expectation is that legal and transparent state regulation makes
an individual or group freer than does sporadic, particularistic state intrusion,
however often or seldom it takes place. This kind of legal regulation is
continuous, but its consequences are predictable. In contrast, state intrusion is
unpredictable, but leaves some uncontrolled or socially controlled periods or
areas. However, when the state decides to intrude, its methods may sometimes
seem harsh compared to continuous state regulation, not least because states
unable or unwilling to maintain continuous but legally limited regulation usually
want to make use of the cases in which they intrude to discourage others during
times of non-intrusion.
Two forms of control are distinguished here because there seems to have
been confusion between them in China Studies. The totalitarian paradigm
interprets that states using harsh methods of intrusion also have the ability to
control pervasively through continuous regulation. It is legitimate to hypothesise
just the opposite: states unable to maintain continuous control need to resort to
harsh forms of intrusion such as political campaigns and exemplary arrests of
those endangering political or social order. Whether or not socialist China falls
(or fell during the Mao era) under the latter category remains to be debated.5
However, sporadic state intrusion was the method used by the state to control
the unofficial art scene in the 1990s.
Logically speaking, there seems to be some confusion in equalising a form
of control vis--vis the degree of freedom. Western democracies can monitor
and limit many individual and social activities effectively through bureaucracy
and legal systems, while some pre-modern or developing states, despite dictatorial
central power, have been able to intervene in only a small portion of social events.
Even well-known Western political theorists have been cautious about democratic

4
In other words this hypothesis is about the state recognising individuals rights. The
human rights question has been central in post-1989 discourse about China, both in
Western scholarship and media. See for example, Michael Davis, ed., Human Rights
and Chinese Values (Hong Kong: Oxford University Press, 1995) and Stephen Angle,
Human Rights and Chinese Thought (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2002).
5
A famous debate about state control took place between Vivienne Shue, Reach of the State
(Stanford: Stanford University Press, 1988) and Jonathan Unger, State and Peasant in
Post-Revolution China, The Journal of Peasant Studies 17 (Oct. 1989). However, it seems
that while Shue holds that during Maos era the socialist state was unable to maintain
continuous regulation, Unger believes the state was strong enough to intrude whenever it
saw fit. There is not necessarily any contradiction between these two arguments.

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TARU SALMENKARI

decision-making exactly because the legitimacy of democratic process facilitates


the legal limitation of individual freedoms.6 Presumably this legitimacy makes
evasion of policies more difficult, while in systems resorting mainly to state
intrusion, evasion is an understandable strategy to create spaces for free non-
regulated activities. If the state has either the will or capacity to intrude very
rarely, there may be relatively long periods or large areas in which it does not
limit evasive activities.

Methodology and Sample


Of the many publications about unofficial art in China, most are exhibition
catalogues. Of the Western language treatises dealing with the social and
political environment for unofficial art in China, many are based on fieldwork
conducted in the first half of the 1990s. Thus, recent development of the rapidly
changing situation has not been sufficiently covered in Western languages.7 Apart
from updating information, this article strives to introduce artists own
understanding of their situation. Its main contribution, however, is to use Chinese
unofficial art to test seldom-tested Western assumptions about social freedom. It
measures freedom vis--vis the state within those areas of professional freedom
that artists seek collectively, namely, freedom of artistic creation, publicity and
professional linkages. The less any outside force dictates what can be created,
whether and how something can be exhibited or published, and what kind of
associations are permitted, the freer artists are in their professional pursuits.
Freedoms thus defined mean more social space for artists. In the 1990s, freedom
in the above-mentioned areas was more or less contested by the state.
In gathering materials, the author used the methods of social anthropology.
She used her personal experience, observations and discussions as sources for this
article. The author was involved in the Beijing unofficial contemporary art scene
between 1997 and 2002 when participating in the making of Cross Pressures, an
exhibition of contemporary Beijing photography for the Oulu City Art Museum
and Finnish Museum of Photography.8 Artists welcomed the author to join in

6
Alexis de Tocqueville, Democracy in America, vol. 2, book 4 (New York: Alfred A.
Knopf, 1991); F.A. Hayek, The Constitution of Liberty (London: Routledge & Kegan
Paul, 1960).
7
A recommendable introduction to the latest trends in Chinese contemporary art in English
is Wu Hung, ed., Reinterpretation (Guangzhou: Guangzhou Museum of Art, 2002). Most
of the authors informants appear in it.
8
See its catalogue Cross Pressures (Helsinki: Finnish Museum of Photography, 2001).

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their social lives inside artists circles including common dinners, gatherings
at homes and visits to curators and visited many unofficial exhibitions. They
eagerly apprised her of those exhibitions that took place when she was not in
Beijing. Since 1997, she met over a hundred artists and a dozen independent
curators but held no formal interviews, and seldom even asked questions.
Sometimes the artists told the author what they thought would interest her as a
curator. More often, information came from comments made in casual
conversations, sometimes between the author and artists, but usually between
artists in her presence.
As for their age, birthplace and sex, the artists cited in this article are typical
representatives of the unofficial artists network in Beijing. They were born in the
1960s or early 1970s. (The older unofficial artists, already active in the 1980s,
have mostly emigrated and younger artists have not yet found a position in art
circles.) Most are from the north, although several southerners were among them.
They are more likely to work in media other than painting and are more established
and renowned than the average member of unofficial art circles. Only three female
artists are cited, reflecting male dominance in unofficial art. Engaging in
photography, video, installations and performances, they have chosen not only to
experiment with the officially abhorred postmodern influences but also with
controversial media.9 What is atypical about this group is that it contains half a
dozen artists who have acted as a curator for at least one influential exhibition in
Beijing. In addition, the author uses the comments of two full-time curator-
critics and one gallery owner.

Artist Networks
The contemporary art scene has developed differently in various parts of
China. Due to strict political control in the capital, artists experimenting with
contemporary styles of Western origin in Beijing have been exceptionally isolated
from political and economic power. In Shanghai and Guangdong, contemporary
artists have sought some commercial backing, while in inland centres of
contemporary art, such as Sichuan, they have closer links with official art.
Artistically, social isolation encouraged pursuing uncompromisingly artistic and
therefore elitist standards.
Isolation has motivated many unofficial artists in Beijing to organise
themselves, albeit in a very loose and informal sense. This study is about one kind

9
Of these, official culture has used only photography, which in China is not a neutral,
but highly propagandistic medium.

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TARU SALMENKARI

of society-originated informal organisation created by artists to enlarge the public


space available to experimental art.10 These artists maintain a loose leaderless
network in a conscious effort to avoid the state co-opting and guidance of the
official art associations as well as state repression of anti-governmental associations.
Artists themselves call their network quanzi (the circle). Networking became the
strategy to circulate influence, protect artistic expression, finance activities and
create public spaces. Network-based public spaces depend on members in their
capacities as both exhibitors and audience. The result is that artists have renewed
their relations to colleagues at exhibitions these have thus helped maintain
cohesion within the contemporary artists network. Unlike formal organisations,
the artist network has blurred boundaries allowing new people to enter and old
members to drop out. As the art circle has never been the only network that
artists have maintained, even successful artists could inactivate their relationship
with the art circle, especially if they had opportunities only abroad. All artists
used their personal networks inside and outside of the art world for professional
advancement.
Horizontal linking has quite naturally compensated for the inability to rely
on the resources and opportunities distributed through the hierarchical state-run
artist organisations. Julia Andrews and Gao Minglu explain that in the 1980s
artists formed groups in order to diffuse the risk connected with unofficial
exhibiting. Having several responsible persons involved made it unlikely that any
individual would be singled out for punishment. Groups also provided emotional
backing and inspired exchanges of ideas among like-minded people. In addition,
groups made exhibiting economically possible for participants by pooling costs
among them.11 The rationale for horizontal linking has remained the same, but

10
Gus classification distinguishes between state-generated public space, society-
originated but officially backed public space, societal public space and dissident public
space. See Edward Gu, Cultural Intellectuals and the Politics of the Cultural Public
Space in Communist China, Journal of Asian Studies 58 (May 1999): 391. Unofficial
arts form a typically societal public space because in the 1990s there was seldom any
official backing available and thus it was not sought after either. Unofficial artists
have sometimes felt sympathy for dissidents and their cause, but their professionally
meaningful target has been to create more non-official public space, not to engage in
anti-establishment activities.
11
Julia Andrews and Gao Minglu, The Avant-gardes Challenge to Official Art, in Urban
Spaces in Contemporary China, ed. Deborah Davis, Richard Kraus, Barry Naughton and
Elizabeth Perry (Washington: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 1995), pp. 2368.

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its form has changed in the 1990s. Instead of artist groups, new links have been
less formalised. Even when a group of artists has organised an exhibition together,
there has been no group name. These new networks have fluctuating memberships
and artists can freely choose among the connections they use. Connections are
typically formed between those who share the same neighbourhood, schooling
or media. Artists gathering in artists villages form connections based on residence,
while graduates of a certain art school rely on the friendships forged during their
years there. People sharing the same media, such as photography or performance,
also tend to establish their own networks.
Gathering together in artists villages has helped to spread artistic influences.
Books about foreign art circulate conveniently and artists can see what other
artists are doing. Simultaneously, togetherness encourages alternative lifestyles
of unemployed and unaffiliated artists. In the early 1990s, the population in general
was still tied to work units which often provided apartments and social services.
In villages, artists depended on markets for subsistence, apartments and services.
At the time, their alternative lifestyles perhaps appeared youthfully romantic and
artistic, but they were viewed with suspicion. Although the authorities did not
interfere in artistic creation, the biggest artist village in Yuanmingyuan saw some
massive arrests before important official occasions. This village was closed down
in 1995. Similar kinds of arrests and closures took place in migrant villages.12
Especially before national and international events, the authorities regularly
arrested and deported members of groups that official China and people attached
to work units equated with the dubious side of society. Consequently, even street
vendors were required to close their shops during major official events.13 This
indicates that the authorities saw the artist village at Yuanmingyuan more as
signifying social disorder, and less a political or artistic threat.
The artists villages in Tongxian, farther away from central Beijing, have
avoided any substantial harassment by the authorities. Nevertheless, the authorities
continued to control unofficial artists by intrusive methods. In the late 1990s,
there were a few cases each year of police visits or even house searches. Short
arrests for investigation, always ending in release, were even rarer. State control

12
Reflecting the social and political atmosphere of the time, the famous Zhejiang Village,
a centre of migrant textile industry in Beijing, was also closed down in 1995. For
details, see Jong-Ho Jeong, Shifting Central-Local Relations in Post-Reform China,
Development and Society 31 ( Jun. 2002).
13
Jonathan Unger, Bridges: Private Business, the Chinese Government and the Rise of
New Associations, China Quarterly 147 (Sep. 1996): 801.

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through intrusion was also evident in cases when officials had issued all necessary
licenses for an exhibition, which was nevertheless closed down, as happened to
the Its Me exhibition in 1998.14

Politicisation of Arts
The governments perception of unofficial art as a potential threat to its rule
arises partly from the Chinese tradition in which art was seldom taken as a form
of simple self-expression. According to official Chinese ideologies, an important
aspect of art is its reflecting of social and political reality. Confucianism interpreted
art as a means for subtle appraisal, even censure, of the government.15 Similarly,
Mao Zedong demanded in his famous Talks at the Yanan Forum on Literature
and Art that art must serve society and the Marxist ideological cause.16
Not only the government, but also many contemporary artists themselves
see their art as political. They have internalised Mao Zedongs notion that good
art has a social or even political dimension. For example, the political pop or
cynicism styles of the early 1990s were direct comments on the social climate
following the quelling of the 1989 political protests. Even consumerist symbols
in art are not nonpolitical when the government promotes market values. Many
nonpolitical artists, in their pursuit of more personal freedom and self-expression,
have clearly recognised the contradiction between their artistic creation and official
expectations.17
The government has also been particularly alert to contemporary art because
the most interesting works have often emerged from unofficial circles. Since these
artists are not members of official artist associations, they are not within reach of
the ideological education communicated through official associations. The state
could not find the means to co-opt this scene and use the conventional methods
of control distribution of resources, opportunities and promotions that it

14
Informant E, May 2003.
15
Although Confucian aesthetics did have a strong emotional aspect, the Confucian school
linked these emotions with social and political reality. Li Zehou, The Path of Beauty (Beijing:
Morning Glory Publishers, 1988), pp. 6876.
16
Selected Works of Mao Tse-tung, vol. III (Peking: Foreign Language Press, 1967), pp. 69
98.
17
Though performance artists themselves may believe there is nothing political about
performing nude, they have been forced to recognise public nudity as a political act. Some
regret this (informant I, Dec. 1998), while others find this contradiction makes their art
more powerful (informant N, Feb. 2001).

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used to make establishment artists obey official demands. Not being within reach
of these soft methods of continuous regulation brings more artistic freedom, but
also causes the authorities to use harsher methods of intrusion to control the
unofficial art scene. Instead of state-managed organisation, unofficial art circles
offer a venue for association and horizontal linking outside of state control.
At times this horizontal linking has involved political dissidents. In the late
1970s unofficial art used the same unauthorised publications as the democracy
activists.18 It was even rumoured that dissident Wei Jingshengs connections to
the Yuanmingyuan artists village probably contributed to the expelling of villagers
in 1995. As the political protests and unofficial exhibitions in the 1980s followed
the same cycle of ideologically more- and less-controlled periods, visible artistic
triumphs and political protests often coincided. For example, a controversial avant-
garde exhibition at the Zhongguo meishuguan (National Art Gallery) preceded
the 1989 student demonstrations.
Western scholarship pays attention to horizontal social relations and ponders
how they threaten vertical, hierarchical and departmentalised organisation taken
as a standard for social organisation by totalitarian or corporatist states.19 For the
Chinese authorities, however, the more central concern in unofficial art is probably
ideological. Lu Peng remarks that, from the point of view of its ideological
hegemony, the state has tried to defend ideology and control unofficial art circles,
having engaged in a mission to limit ideological control and enlarge the
ideologically acceptable public sphere.20 Likewise, Sheldon Lu notices that by
virtue of being iconoclastic, unofficial arts make a political gesture regardless of
contents.21
As the authorities are uneasy with unofficial contemporary art, they try to
find methods to control this scene and the content of artworks made public. In
the 1990s, with respect for a private sphere, there were no restrictions on private
artistic creation. For example, the authorities had little interest in paintings kept
in homes or studios. At the same time, the state regulated organisation and
publicity by interfering with association and exhibiting. However, some art forms

18
Maria Galikowski, Art and Politics in China (Hong Kong: The Chinese University
Press, 1998), p. 188.
19
For a description of these vertical structures for political influencing, see Anita Chan,
Revolution or Corporatism?, Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, no. 29 ( Jan. 1993)
and Tony Saich, Negotiating the State, China Quarterly 161 (Mar. 2000).
20
Lu Peng, 90s Art China (Changsha: Hunan Fine Arts Publishing House, 2000), p. 416.
21
Lu, Global POSTmodernIZATION, p. 155.

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are necessarily public, including the process of creation. This is one reason for the
authorities intolerance towards performance art, leading to the arrests of
prominent performance artists and closure of an artist village in the East Village.22
Artists encounter the state most often through individual authorities, i.e.,
mainly the police, implementing state policies in the fields of ideology, art and
social order. They do not make very clear distinctions between the different levels
of the state. In one sense, any intrusion seems like state intrusion to artists. The
author never heard unofficial artists say that some art policy was more effective
or restrictive, let alone that it influenced their artistic choices because it originated
from a certain level of bureaucracy. In practice, the local state has influenced
artists choices more than the central state because it is how policy is implemented
that is important, not its origin or wording. For example, there were more
performances in the mid-1990s, when brevity and easily-removed equipment
made performance a practicable means of public exhibition outside permanent
venues generally not open to unofficial art. Likewise, many artists changed media
when the authorities began arresting performance artists. At the same time, in
seeking resources and licenses from the authorities, the artists have taken into
account the horizontal borders between local governments. They are well aware
of the different implementation of policies in different parts of the country and
have utilised this knowledge to organise activities in less risky or more cooperative
areas than Beijing.

Short History up to 1998


The countercultural contemporary art scene appeared very soon after the Cultural
Revolution ended. Small independent artist groups were already mushrooming
in the late 1970s. When China became more open to foreign influences, these
groups experimented with several Western styles. The following years saw dozens
of independent exhibitions, some immediately closed but some even touring
several cities. Several independent exhibitions attracted tens of thousands of
visitors. Some had official permission, but most were not subjected to an official
evaluation beforehand or the artists simply refused to comply with the instructions
given. One group of artists, through a public sit-in protest, even pressured officials
to appoint them an exhibition venue. Some unofficial artworks, even those

22
For details about the East Village and performance art in Beijing, see Rong Rong and
Wu Hong, Rong Rongs East Village 1993-1998 (Beijing, 2003) (printed privately by
the artist himself ).

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originally shown in exhibitions closed by the authorities, received publicity in


sympathetic official magazines. Apart from official publications, contemporary
art reached readers through unofficial art journals, some of which were even printed
with official printing facilities. Several campaigns in the 1980s against Western
influences targeted unofficial art as well. Campaigns criticised or even banned
certain types of art, such as abstract painting, or activities like independent group
exhibitions. In times of lesser constraint, however, unofficial artists revived
exhibiting.23
The 1990s began in a more repressive atmosphere. Unofficial artists had
utilised the exceptional openness preceding the massive student demonstrations
of 1989 to organise a national avant-garde exhibition at the National Art Gallery.
Police closed the exhibition twice due to daring performances. In the repression
following the quelling of the political protest movements, the providers of publicity
for controversial arts suffered too. The National Art Gallery was closed and
publications sympathetic to unofficial art were disciplined.24 When the Gallery
opened again, the showing of controversial forms of art such as installations or
videos was strictly prohibited.25
Unofficial artists were generally left without domestic channels for publicising
their work and therefore developed three strategies to combat this situation. One
was private exhibitions for invited guests, often in foreigners homes or artists
villages. Another was to circulate printed or video-recorded versions of the
artworks. By showing these in private, artists were able to circumvent the inevitable
problems of public gatherings taking place at exhibitions. The third strategy was
to seek access to exhibitions abroad.
For some years, unofficial artists yearning for international exhibitions and
art markets depended on a few curators. Having so much at stake, both in the
sense of economic opportunities and artistic recognition, relations with providers
of these opportunities evolved into clientelist relationships. Artists used flattery,
gossip, dinners and favours to receive curators attention and divert it away from
potential competitors. This was a serious game. One artist, for example, said that
artists kept secret from others how to contact the esteemed curator and art critic

23
Most of the authors informants were not active in the 1970s and 1980s. Thus, the
history of pre-1990s unofficial arts relies on Andrews and Gao, The Avant-gardes
Challenge; Joan Lebold Cohen, The New Chinese Painting (New York: Harry N.
Abrams, 1987), pp. 5089; and Galikowski, Art and Politics in China, ch. 4.
24
Ibid.
25
Informant Q, Jun. 1999.

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Li Xianting. When this artist finally got Lis telephone number, he was too thrilled
to speak and had to hang up the phone.26 The author witnessed the last moments
of clientelism in 1997. Her first visit to Li was memorable in all of its nuanced
hints of status and reverence. It was an impressive display of some very traditional
Chinese indicators of hierarchy. Artists gathered to Li, who played their humble
master, downplaying his own achievements in order to make others underline his
significance.
In the 1990s, contemporary art appeared in some commercial galleries in
Beijing, mostly run by foreigners. These galleries created channels mainly for
unofficial artists who explored themes easy to sell to foreign tastes, such as abstract
art or paintings about Chinese lifestyles. In the course of time, some galleries and
art dealers developed a more ambitious exhibition scheme. Of the Chinese public,
contemporary art was mainly of interest to intellectual audiences. Institutions of
higher learning became enclaves of contemporary art. Throughout the 1990s,
some universities hosted contemporary art conferences. Some art schools and
universities invited experimental art into their galleries.27 Intellectual backing for
contemporary art was also available from journalists. The newspaper Beijing
qingnian bao (Beijing Youth Daily) was not only already interviewing
contemporary artists in the early 1990s thaw in the cultural political climate, but
it also organised an officially sanctioned exhibition featuring unofficial artists in
1991.28
Sometimes artists used their own spaces in artist villages to organise events.
In public spaces, they engaged in guerrilla tactics to occupy places briefly for
performances unbeknownst to the authorities which were always already finished
by the time the authorities got to know about them.29 Often artists staged events
in suburbs or small inland cities, where the authorities were not alert to
contemporary art. Around 1997, unofficial exhibitions of scale and standing had
reappeared in Beijing, though few attempts to hold an exhibition succeeded. One
artist said an official gallery allowed his artworks to be exhibited because the
curator had skilfully introduced them to the authorities as modern pieces of
porcelain.30 In January 1998, the author visited her first exhibition on the outskirts

26
Informant W, May 2001.
27
Even Yuanmingyuan artists had an exceptional opportunity to exhibit at Beijing University
in 1992. Lu, 90s Art China, p. 381.
28
Lu, 90s Art China, p. 76.
29
For an impressive list of such performances, see Lu, 90s Art China, pp. 2428.
30
Informant Y, May 1998.

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of Beijing. It was erected inside a courtyard rented from peasants and had a
private bus connection.

The Exhibition Peak of 19989


From November 1998 to January 1999, Beijing witnessed an astonishingly busy
period of unofficial exhibitions, most of which the author visited. The recent
establishment of commercial galleries and possibility of renting non-official space
no longer made it necessary to rely on official venues. Artists usually succeeded
in exhibiting their work if they planned how to respond to official efforts to limit
their activities. Yet, there was no guarantee that anticipated measures would be
enough to prevent state interference which appeared arbitrary and often unfair
to artists. Coping with possible state interference required conscious strategies
which were not simply automatic.
Unlike official galleries, where art officials monitored artists work before
allocating space for their exhibitions, in non-official venues the official inspection
often took place just before opening. In unofficial exhibitions it could even occur
after an exhibition was already on. Last minute inspections served the authorities
by making it too late to change the exhibition arena if the artworks failed to pass.
When these inspections took place, the artists were given a chance to explain
their works. As art has multiple interpretations, artists and curators usually found
words to introduce the works so as to pass official criteria, unless a closure order
had already been issued from above. However, sometimes even non-problematic
works of art did not pass inspection because some closures were simply the result
of an artists or curators personal record.31
One way to avoid censorship was to arrange exhibitions privately or outside
galleries. Some took place in rented houses or cellars. Although the date may
have been known within art circles much earlier, the location and exact time of
the opening were kept secret until the last moment. Invitations were usually sent
out only three days before, leaving little time for leakage to the authorities.
Mobile phones shortened the interval between announcement of the exhibition

31
Since the police never gave reasons when closing an exhibition, it is impossible to
ascertain their motivations. With exhibitions abroad, however, there is explicit evidence
of a connection between personal record and an official permit to exhibit. Sometimes
the authorities denied cooperation to exhibitions and art festivals having unwanted
artists participating. Informant T ( Jan. 2001) related that even an article in a catalogue
written by an unofficial curator could cause the Chinese embassy to refuse cooperation
with the exhibition.

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site and guests arrival. Sometimes the venue was announced only the very same
morning.
The authorities were less concerned with meting out punishment after
the damage was done than with maintaining social order and harmony. An
exhibition is a single event unlikely to cause future disturbance. Thus, if the
authorities failed to prevent it, it was not likely that any direct consequences
would follow afterwards. Any action taken could affect artists records and, as a
result, complicate future activities but generally brought no punishment. It was
not even certain whether any further consequences would ever eventuate. The
next exhibition might fall under different authorities, which in China often
coordinate their activities poorly. For the final opening order, individual
judgement could have more influence than any record. An illuminating example
was a solo exhibition by an artist who had participated the day before in the
Post-Sensibility exhibition displaying human embryos and corpses. Obviously,
the police had orders from above to close this solo exhibition, but they found
no problem with its contents. As a result, they first ordered the exhibition closed,
but after taking the affair to the district, they phoned to decree that the exhibition
could be opened.32
When facing the closure of an exhibition, Chinese-style bargaining began.
Apart from negotiating, artists and curators used personal connections to
pressure the authorities to permit the opening. They called the superiors of the
authorities sent to investigate or sought some other influential support. Even if
the authorities closed the exhibition, the guests at the opening ceremony could
usually see it privately after the authorities had left. If the exhibition was already
open by the time the authorities discovered it, they usually avoided direct
confrontation. They instead waited for guests to leave before announcing that
the exhibition was thereafter closed down. For example, the Post-Sensibility
exhibition was inspected by several police squads, which nevertheless had limited
authority to use their own judgement and wanted to avoid offending numerous
spectators.
Artists cleverly appealed publicly to put pressure on the authorities. Many
contemporary artists were engaged in video art, and by 1998 even the national
media reported some contemporary art exhibitions. This meant the presence of
video equipment in almost every exhibition, either operated by a television crew
or the artists themselves. If the authorities prepared to close an exhibition, video
cameras carefully recorded the situation.

32
Informant Q, Jan. 1999.

248
CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE CHINESE STATE

Foreigners attendance was another factor diminishing the authorities will


to intervene in the art scene. Foreigners have provided enclaves for unofficial art
in their homes, embassies and galleries specifically catering to foreign tastes. Art
lovers in Beijing even include some ambassadors who regularly visit commercial
and even unofficial exhibitions.
In order to minimise the harm caused by possible closure, catalogues have
been an important form of exhibiting. An exhibition was generally open from one
to three days, not least due to the costs of exhibiting. If the authorities closed it, all
the preparations may have been in vain. Thus, an exhibition gained much wider
audiences through its catalogues. For the Its Me exhibition, the author heard
comments that the exhibition was a practical success despite never being opened,
since it provided an arena for people to meet (an important objective of exhibitions)
and because it published a catalogue. She later learned that on the basis of this
catalogue, some critiques were written which even evaluated the exhibition.33
Through these unofficial methods of exhibiting, both the authorities and
artists were able to attain their aims. The artists were able to exhibit their work
and gain professional merit for their creation. In addition, they gained in less
obvious ways by building or maintaining social links, which defined their position
in Beijing art circles and increased their future possibilities for exhibiting both in
China and abroad. Unofficial artists networks and exhibitions constituted a public
sphere outside of state control leaving space for artists to spread values not accepted
by the authorities.
Although the authorities failed to prevent unofficial exhibitions, they tried to
keep this public space limited in scope. As there could be no public advertising
beforehand, the visitors to the exhibition were mostly members of art circles. The
authorities also preserved the right to intervene any time they saw necessary. Those
participating in this public space recognised the potential of state intervention and
planned their actions accordingly. Thus, both parties were relatively successful in
their aims: the government was able to keep all potentially threatening actions
small and from the wider public, while contemporary art circles could practise
artistic creation and also gain limited attention for their artworks.

Between 1998 and 2002


Along with the generally freer social atmosphere, official restrictions on
contemporary art were relaxing all the time. This was evident in the holding of
more frequent, open and larger exhibitions in more established arenas, as well as

33
Informant R cited these critiques.

249
TARU SALMENKARI

in giving new publicity to contemporary art in art publications and media. This
development accorded with the cultural officials lessening monopoly over printed
and spatial venues for publicity. The market economy had opened both exhibiting
and printing to market forces.
Now artists were free to choose among many available exhibitions or organise
an exhibition by themselves. Foreign curators came to see the works personally,
and even if they relied on connections with curators inside China, artists were
sought according to foreign curators own tastes. Local curators, therefore, could
not dictate the selection. One artist, for example, was selected for the Venice
Biennale from a catalogue of an exhibition organised by artists themselves.34 When
artists were not dependent on any particular channel for exhibiting, clientelism
was over. This did not mean, however, a declining position for established curators.
Some have maintained their position because of their professionalism,
trustworthiness and wide knowledge of contemporary arts. What has changed is
that the curators now depend on their networks of artists for their professional
status while artists are no longer dependent on any particular curator.
Since late 1999 it has been possible to organise, with official permission,
huge contemporary exhibitions outside the capital.35 Places like Shenyang,
Shanghai and Chengdu had big independently organised events. Some curators
of these exhibitions managed to publish catalogues with contact addresses and
advertisements. The officially-organised Shanghai Biennale in late 2000 focused
on contemporary art. The capital, though, had to wait until the spring of 2002
for the first sizable and officially-sanctioned exhibition.
The link between artists and the media has strengthened. Already in 1997,
a Beijingese graffiti artist fearing arrest sought progressive art reporters to support
his claim that his graffiti was art and not sabotage.36 As a result he not only
remained free, but also became famous through the local papers, which have
subsequently published interviews with him. Since 1998, contemporary Beijing
artworks have appeared in art magazines, first in those edited outside Beijing. As
one of the first artists to have his photographs published said, the first conceptual

34
Informant R, May 2000.
35
This was not the first time provincial centres provided opportunities for unofficial artists
from Beijing regardless of the more restrictive climate in the capital. For example,
Guangzhou hosted the 1990s Art Biennale in 1992, which even exhibited works painted
in political pop style. Zou Yuejin, A History of Chinese Fine Arts: 19492000 (Changsha:
Hunan Arts Press, 2002), pp. 2907.
36
AK-47, Jan. 2001.

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CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE CHINESE STATE

photographs published were such that the editor could explain them from the point
of view of official politics.37 Quite soon non-political unofficial works of art began
to appear in newspapers as well: it made news when a Chinese artists football
painting was selected for the exhibition to celebrate the World Cup in France.
Soon after, television reporters visited one unofficial exhibition and even made a
programme about the people photographed for one of its artworks.38 Another artist
began to write about the contemporary art scene for Nanfang zhoumo (Southern
Weekend), the most daring newspaper at the time, which by spring 1999 even
reported underground events in Beijing. By 2002, magazines about contemporary
lifestyles regularly introduced contemporary artists as personages because they were
seen to be of interest to the readers.39 Art and photographic magazines, nowadays,
naturally include some contemporary art as well.
Strictly speaking, the authorities controlled mainly how the Chinese language
press reported unofficial art. The media for foreigners in Beijing, such as Beijing
Scene, have been less restricted in introducing unofficial art. Some clearly unofficial
exhibitions, such as the Corruptionists exhibition in November 1998, were even
advertised in tabloids published in English, without leading to closure or even
visits by police. Similarly, contemporary art internet sites took off first in English,
though around year 2000, many comprehensive Chinese-language websites for
Chinese contemporary art had also appeared.
During this period, the officials began to use legal concepts when they
controlled the unofficial art scene. In 2000, officials closed some exhibitions on
the basis of their having no official permission.40 As such permission was not
granted to unofficial artists, this kind of argument meant actual denial of their
right to exhibit. However, it is interesting that rejection was expressed using legal
language instead of referring to social order or the content of the artwork. May
2001 saw new regulations when the Cultural Ministry delivered a document
explicitly forbidding artwork of a violent or sexual nature.41 The curator of an

37
Informant Y, May 1998.
38
Informant J, Nov. 1998.
39
Informant A, May 2002.
40
Informant A, Dec. 2000.
41
The contents of this document were published on many Chinese art-related non-official
web-pages. The guidelines concerning art followed more transparent and legally enforceable
rules issued in 2000 for non-publishable matters in media in place of former political
guidance and arbitrary intrusion. See Suzanne Ogden, Inklings of Democracy in China
(Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2002), pp. 1434.

251
TARU SALMENKARI

unofficial shadow exhibition at the time of the official Shanghai Biennale was
rumoured to face an eight-year prison sentence for having violated this rule.42
The possibility of inviting legal consequences was most unexpected for artists
who were not used to imprisonment on legal grounds, even if they found nothing
extraordinary in short-term arrests for the investigation of controversial activities.
Yet, state-promoted legal discourse was already rooted in artists own conceptions
of the proper way to regulate activities. For example, one artist censured an
installation displaying a corpse in the Post-Sensibility exhibition, saying that such
an action would be illegal abroad.43
Unofficial artists have gained status all the time. The distinction between
artists engaged in establishment arts, popular culture or unofficial arts has
diminished. In foreign exhibitions, the authorities no longer refuse to exhibit
official art together with pieces from unofficial circles.44 Some unofficial artists
appeared with the group of well-known artists who had gathered to sing a pop
song for TV during the celebrations marking the return of Macao to Chinese
rule. Other artists were uncomfortable seeing unofficial artists cooperating with
the official realm with its structures of status and power. One commented that it
was not appropriate when the majority of Chinese were still facing problems
such as unemployment.45 Another artist had a more positive view of this
development. He recalled how, in the past, unofficial artists unaffiliated lifestyles
had appeared strange when everyone else had depended on work units for a living.
But now, when there was considerable downsizing of work-unit employment
and social security, many people were now living in insecurity, while artists had
noticeably profited from the new situation.46

Spring 2002
By spring 2002, Chinese contemporary art had finally gained official recognition.
The first officially-sanctioned unofficial exhibition in more than a decade was
held in the capital. Its organiser noted that it remained open for the full 20 days
as planned and had been advertised in the press. The authorities did not object to

42
Informant G, May 2001.
43
Informant W, Jan. 1999.
44
An example of more relaxed official criteria for exhibitions abroad is the rejection in 2000
by the authorities of some works only when a photographic exhibition already held in the
US was later displayed in Shanghai and Beijing. Informant J, May 2001.
45
Informant U, Jan. 2000.
46
Informant Y, May 1998.

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CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE CHINESE STATE

any of the works of art though some had sexual or socially critical content.47
According to artists own explanations, the official relaxation of art policies
occurred not only because the authorities had begun to see that art does not
actually threaten the state, but also because they had prioritised developing China
into one of the most progressive countries in the world not only economically
but also culturally.48 Indeed, one of the represents of President Jiang Zemins
Three Represents theory is to represent the most advanced culture, seemingly
including contemporary art.49
However, freedom to publish artworks has brought mixed blessings to artists.
Official recognition has caused a moral dilemma for those who chose unofficial
art to make a conscious anti-governmental statement. Now they need to decide
how to answer possible official invitations to exhibit.50 Worse for those who have
already made a name in the West, is the authorities gaining of the upper hand
in the selection process for exhibitions abroad. Unlike before, when Western
exhibitors came to look for unofficial art through well-known independent
curators, they now find it easier to let the Chinese art bureaucracy select works of
art, even when the official art bureaucracy has no expertise in contemporary art.51
One artist had heard that some artists had already looked for contacts with the
official art bureaucracy.52 If this prediction turns out to be true, contemporary art
may see a new type of clientelism in the making, now depending on state patronage.
At least inclusion seems to have brought about self-censorship. Artists lament
that the new opportunities for curators to participate in the arranging of official
exhibitions have caused some to censor the artworks in the unofficial exhibitions
they organise.53
Even if the general atmosphere has loosened, the authorities have by no
means stopped monitoring the contemporary art scene. The May 2001 regulations
prohibiting violent or sexual art have been implemented more or less systematically.
Chinese customs has confiscated works of art in which genitals have been visible.54
After a performance festival in Sichuan, the press highlighted its only violent

47
Informant Z, May 2002.
48
Informant A, May 2002.
49
Informant X, May 2002.
50
Informant D, May 2003.
51
Several statements in May 2002.
52
Informant W, May 2002.
53
Informants G and C, May 2003.
54
Informant L, Jun. 2002.

253
TARU SALMENKARI

scene. This publicity resulted in the dismissal of two editors of a commercially-


published art magazine, who had curated this festival. Although the owners of
the magazine did not dare oppose the Cultural Ministry, the magazine itself
continued to appear, changing its focus to student life instead of art. Moreover,
the curators in question proceeded with arranging art exhibitions elsewhere, even
with the blessings of local authorities.55 Still in 2003, the authorities have censored
artworks on political grounds. For example, a painting about former President
Jiang Zemin playing the erhu-violin was censored from an exhibition because of
the political pun it contained.56

Significance of Market Opportunities


The answer to whether or not the market economy has increased freedom for
artistic expression in China is affirmative. Commercialisation benefited unofficial
artists by making alternative resources available when official distribution was
mainly closed to them. When the state distributed work and apartments, even
the opportunities for alternative lifestyles were limited. The possibility for
unofficial artistic creation itself depends on resources available in the market.
Reasonably priced materials and more variation among the available art books
and magazines are important gains of the market.
Markets have been useful to unofficial artists by providing new outlets and
venues for artworks which do not meet official standards. The availability of
rentable space has made it possible to exhibit outside official venues. Profit-driven
publishing houses have printed, at a negotiable price, unofficial catalogues, even
those lacking an official permit. The multiplication of journals and newspapers
has diversified publishable contents, offering more outlets for contemporary art.
Commercialisation, however, has not provided alternative sources of income
through marketing or sponsoring to many artists. Julia Andrews and Gao Minglu
have analytically separated unofficial art from both official and commercial forms
of art. They classify unofficial art as elite culture pursuing its own aesthetic and

55
Informant S, May and Jun. 2002. The authorities method for pressuring a danwei
(work unit) in this matter belonged rather to the old-style administrative regulations
and did not constitute legal punishment. Yet, the pressure was based on violating
publicly-known regulations issued by a ministry. This duality is a telling example of
the transitional period through which Chinese legality is now going.
56
Informants C and X, May 2003. Allusion to President Hu Jintao (erhu can also be read as
second Hu) was evident to older artists remembering the Cultural Revolution, while
younger artists found such visual puns unintelligible.

254
CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE CHINESE STATE

philosophical aims.57 Artists serious about creating artistically novel and esteemed
work have to prioritise aspects difficult to sell, especially when potential domestic
buyers have not even grown accustomed to many contemporary styles, including
postmodernism. Many of the influential works of art within Beijing unofficial
art circles, such as performances or installations using rotting materials like flesh,
are virtually impossible to sell.
Unlike establishment artists to whom the market economy has brought new
uncertainties, unofficial artists, never having had a share in the official system of
rewards, are not afraid of markets.58 They hope for success in the market. However,
the market economy has created extra-artistic criteria for measuring artwork.
Some artists evaluate successful art in terms of yearly incomes and apartments
owned. Since many Chinese artists measure success in terms of price tags, their
artworks tend to be overpriced, sometimes even for international markets, not to
mention domestic buyers.59 As a result, artists regret that there is not yet a healthy
domestic contemporary art market. Many unofficial artists are actually dependent
on odd jobs, loans and networks. Networks in artists villages are also a form of
safety net for artists, who can depend on dinner invitations from fellow artists
until their luck turns and it is their turn to invite others. To date, the low living
costs in Beijing have contributed to the flourishing unofficial art scene there.
Even if most contemporary artists have not been able to make a regular
income from their art, the market economy has made it possible for them to
make a living without officially-distributed work. The market economy has opened
both regular and odd jobs requiring artists skills. Some of these have required
compromising their artistic ambitions, but many others, such as an editors job
for an art journal or a cameramans post in shooting a film, have not.
Ideologically, commercialisation of the art scene has aroused frustration,
puzzlement and disgust among artists and art critics.60 In a politicised society,
even official artists can communicate their aesthetic visions to the public and
participate in discussion about political lines and standards for artistic creation.

57
Andrews and Gao, The Avant-gardes Challenge, pp. 2758.
58
For a discussion pertaining to the establishment artists situation, see Richard Kraus,
Chinas Artists between Plan and Market, in Urban Spaces in Contemporary China, ed.
Davis et al., pp. 1838.
59
Informant Y, May 2002.
60
For some critical views on how commercialisation challenges serious arts, see Geremie
Barm, The Revolution of Resistance, in Chinese Society, ed. Elizabeth Perry and Mark
Selden (London: Routledge, 2000), pp. 2056.

255
TARU SALMENKARI

Reacting to political power, unofficial artists consciously established a counterculture.


In commercial society, artists have had problems mapping themselves into the
context of new commercialised power structures which seem to operate with a
rationale that neither verbal nor visual arguments can change. Unofficial artists
have reacted to commercialisation in various ways. In the mid-1990s the
contemporary art scene in Beijing even had a school of artists whose principle it
was to refuse to sell their artworks. Some artists have created artworks which question
official commercial values. On the other hand, the author has also heard others
seriously discussing the possibility of finding commercial sponsoring.
If politics has shaped and limited the contents of and outlets for artworks,
markets have guided artistic creativity as well. For example, in the early 1990s,
when exhibition venues and art collectors were located almost exclusively abroad,
the contents of the artworks were often planned for Western audiences. At that
time, the Chineseness in the artworks was usually very shallow. Installations with
Chinese calligraphy or silkworms, or pop paintings of Mao Zedong, used symbols
of Chineseness obvious to even those who knew hardly anything about China,
and combined them with Western art forms. The social and identity problems of
contemporary China, such as chaotic urban change and prostitution, became a
motive for contemporary art only in the late 1990s, about the same time that
exhibiting inside China began.
There are two logical strategies to pursue as a result of the reduced dependence
on state resources, namely greater independence or influence. The first involves
using alternative resources in order to create independence from the state or even
evade state policies. The second involves using ones independently accumulated
resources to voice ones demands vis--vis the state and bargain with the state
to create even more favourable conditions for ones activities. Both of these
strategies have been in use in China during the economic reforms. For example,
David Wank has argued that small enterprises tended to rely on evasion of
state interference, while big businesses have sought clientelist relationships with
local decision-makers to achieve their particularistic gain.61 Groups having
ambiguous status have usually chosen evasion as their strategy, but some, such as
migrants, due to their sheer number and combined economic power, have at
times been able to engage in negotiations with local or even central state power.62

61
David Wank, Private Business, Bureaucracy, and Political Alliance in a Chinese City,
Australian Journal of Chinese Affairs, no. 33 ( Jan. 1995): 678.
62
Hein Mallee, Migration, Hukou and Resistance in Reform China, in Chinese Society,
ed. Perry and Selden.

256
CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE CHINESE STATE

Unofficial artists, as a small social group without recognised status and resources
other than cultural capital and international networks, have understandably
pursued independence, even evasion. Perhaps they are not strong enough to bargain
with the state even though they obviously have been able to use their status as
intellectuals to negotiate with the state for their independence, partly, paradoxically,
because they have not formed any formidable force to challenge the state.
Unofficial artists, perhaps because of their attempt to avoid any limits to creativity
or perhaps due to complex human relations within unofficial circles, have not
tried to organise themselves. This marginality was a strength in the attempt to
use evasive strategies against state intervention.
Since 2003, unofficial artists have tried to capitalise on their customary
organisation model. They themselves initiated the idea of an art centre and
established one in an old factory area in Dashanzi, now with official permission.
Apart from galleries, publishing houses and bars, the area includes an artist village
and studios. Earlier forms of network-based publicity are still alive in this design.
However, sceptics already predict that the final winners in this plan are not the
artists but construction firms using artists to enliven the area and raise its status.
The resulting increase in land prices will, in the long run, make the area too
expensive for artists to live in.63

Considerations about Legality


When evaluating whether or not the first Chinese steps towards the rule of law
have brought more freedom for social activities in the field of contemporary
art, the results seem mixed. During the Cultural Revolution, when the
legal system was in disarray and the main standard for art was ideological,
self-expression was restricted and could even prove dangerous.64 It is obvious
that such lawlessness did not serve self-expression. Legislation provides
transparent limits for permitted activities, protecting activities falling within
legal limits. However, laws also can, and actually do in most countries, put
legal limits on self-expression, since art often seeks to test socially acceptable
limits. Therefore, some works of art have been banned even in the West
because the artist in question has consciously or accidentally overstepped legal
limits for religious or sexual propriety, or the legally accepted use of national or
racial symbols.

63
Informant H, Jun. 2003.
64
For examples, see Galikowski, Art and Politics in China, pp. 1414, 15863.

257
TARU SALMENKARI

State interference in artistic activities is not illegal in China. Quite the


opposite, it accords not only with the laws and practices of China but also, in the
experience of the author, with the general publics sense of justice.65 To avoid
subjective decisions, the authorities have even consulted art professionals before
trying artists. For example, the arrests of artists accused of exhibiting pornography
in 1995 in the East Village were more a reflection of the inability of the elderly
official art professors consulted to understand modern performance art than any
arbitrariness on the part of the police.66 It is possible that the contestability of
proper artistic criteria has protected artists from serious consequences, and made
the police unwilling to pursue such cases after the immediate threat to stability
is over.
Laws usually sanction activities overstepping legal limits. New regulations
issued by the Cultural Ministry in May 2001 limiting artistic expression are a
good example of this new reality. They facilitate the meting out of legal sanctions
even after the occasion. However, laws bring predictability. Now it is possible to
apply in advance for permission for an exhibition instead of trying ones luck in a
cat and mouse game in which exhibitors try to outwit policemen.
For a long time, the Chinese counterculture sought, not legal protection,
but evasion of state control. It found its own sphere by counting on non-
interference by the state and risking punishment if the state decided to interfere.
Evasion was perhaps a necessary strategy in the post-1989 situation, which severed
unofficial artists links with the authorities. Following the subsequent restrictions
and intellectual purge, artists found that they had no contacts inside official art
outlets. In addition, the authorities efficiently stopped early attempts to create
links with entrepreneurial China, such as arranging a cultural event in a
McDonalds in 1993.67 There were not many other paths left but evasion.

65
One of her Chinese acquaintances ( Jan. 2000) was confident that the authorities
would not interfere in unofficial art without reason, i.e., deemed having pornographic,
violent or political content. Proper standards in these fields are matters of judgement.
The author could not think, then, of any occasion where disciplinary action could not
have been interpreted as belonging under one of these areas, and for which a commoner
such as her acquaintance felt it proper that the state maintain control.
66
A former East Village resident, informant O ( Jan. 1998), said that when elderly art
professors were asked by police for their opinions, they classified nude performances as
pornography, not art.
67
Gao Minglu, Toward a Transnational Modernity, in Inside Out, ed. Gao Minglu
(Berkeley: University of California Press, 1998).

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CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE CHINESE STATE

However, evasion may have been a conscious choice on the part of artists, because
independence benefits freedom of artistic creativity. No doubt a decision to reject
some official limits for artistic creation was the reason to join the unofficial art
scene. The author was also told that some artists chose their profession not for
making art, but to enjoy the artists unconstrained lifestyle.68 Obviously the ideal
of freedom has played some part in shaping unofficial artists independence-
seeking strategy.
In the 1990s, the unofficial contemporary art scene developed workable
strategies to maximise non-interference and, thus, freedom. Now, facing legal
norms with legal sanctions attached, artists feel their artistic freedom is threatened.
There may be resistance to change by those who are accustomed to, or have
benefited from the older practices when the overall result may still be more
freedom. However, the point is not that any particular type of state control brings
more freedom, but that a legally-regulated state limits artistic creation in ways
that the casually-interfering one does not. That is, the type of state control itself
does not provide more freedom in all respects.
The new, more permissible atmosphere for contemporary art in China
means wider social space. However, there are losers in this game. Those who ally
themselves with the official structures will again be successful while the social
capital gathered by alternative circles is now less effective. Connections to artist
networks, curators and foreigners are less useful when even foreign curators
increasingly turn to official channels. One no longer needs networks to arrange
an exhibition or publish a catalogue, except perhaps for sharing costs. There is a
danger that wider space also means emptier space; at least it means more
competition, and in this competition traditional inner-circle networks may prove
outdated. Most probably this competition will no longer be measured only on
the basis of artistic criteria which were still central in the late 1990s unofficial art
circles, but will require compromises vis--vis both official and popular culture.

Closing Remarks
Art circles are but one social group devising strategies to enlarge permissible
activity space in present-day China. Various individuals and groups have used
diverse strategies suitable for their situation, and there may also be a considerable
difference among the strategies of the individual members of each group. Some
groups seek linkages to the state, either in officially licensed forms or in

68
Informant M, Dec. 1997.

259
TARU SALMENKARI

personalistic and corrupt forms.69 Others try to minimise contact with the state.
Different strategies produce differing mixes of benefits arising from economic
liberalisation and improved legislation. Thus, the freedom pursued by unofficial
artists in the 1990s through economic independence and evasion of state controls
is only one strategy used. It fits with the Western liberal democratic conception
of private economy facilitating social freedom but questions the universality of
the relationship between social freedom and legal limits for the state. It is even
conceivable that some individuals, groups or strata may actually lose some freedom
in the dismantling of the state-run economy. Certainly, some groups will gain
from the enhanced legal protection.
Social freedom can be sought by adopting several strategies. It is common
sense to assume that strategies aimed at ensuring legal protection would be more
effective when the state controls society through continuous regulation, while
evasive strategies would be effective against state intrusion. Yet, perhaps the mode
of state control itself does not define, although it certainly shapes, strategies chosen
by social groups. The Chinese state left few alternatives for some groups, which
then chose evasive strategies. As it was illegal to move without official permits
and because these were difficult to obtain legally, part of the floating population
chose to migrate illegally and try to evade state control. Similarly, it was virtually
impossible to get licenses to exhibit certain kinds of artworks, so contemporary
art circles in Beijing were left with the choice of either not exhibiting locally or
exhibiting without authorisation and, thus, evading state control.
However, evasion itself is not the goal of the artists. Instead, they want to
improve the environment for artistic creation and publicity. Evasion itself is
costless. Materials and tools for creating works of art have fixed prices regardless
of the officialness or unofficialness of the work. Only services may cost extra, for
example, for an artist printing photographs with sexual content that are illegal by
definition. Even maintaining an artist network requires only social inputs.
Financial investment in togetherness, such as in food and drink, does not greatly
exceed the costs of eating alone when Beijing-based artists usually prefer
economical choices and shared costs. What requires financial resources is publicity.
Renting exhibition space and printing catalogues are costly. Therefore, the strategy

69
Such licensed solutions include corporatist forms of interest representation and
officially recognised NGOs affiliated to state organs, the Communist Party or
universities. See Jude Howell, Organizing around Women and Labour in China,
Communist and Post-Communist Studies 33 (2000); Ding Yijiang, Chinese Democracy
after Tiananmen (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2001), ch. 4.

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CONTEMPORARY ART AND THE CHINESE STATE

of the unofficial artists to attain maximum professional freedom requires non-


state financial resources available through the market economy and private capital.
A combination of economic independence and evasion of control is thus a rational
strategy for increasing social freedom.

261