As China turns 60, its artists are venturing into areas that were once taboo. In conversation with Ananth Krishnan, Sheng Qi, one of China’s most daring contemporary artists, talks about why he revels in taking on subjects his colleagues don’t touch.

They took away three paintings: a nude posing with an AK-47 in front a portrait of Mao Zedong, a Chinese policeman displaying a 100 Yuan bill (which features Mao’s face) and a young Mao showing the middle-finger. But they left on display a dozen other paintings, some invoking the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989, still very much a taboo topic in China today.

China’s censors can be hard to read. On occasion, they find the most harmless paintings objectionable, and on others, leave on public display such strong criticisms of the Chinese government that stun foreign visitors who expect to see bland, safe art here.

Behind the seeming arbitrariness of China’s censors is a growing confusion of where boundaries lie. And, behind this confusion are an increasing number of Chinese artists, filmmakers and journalists who are pushing the limits of expression in China, cleverly working in the grey areas between what is acceptable and what is not. For once, the censors are being asked the hard questions.

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“Sheng Qi”, in Mandarin Chinese, means “getting angry.” Sheng Qi, the artist, has always been angry. On June 5, 1989, the day after the violence on Tiananmen Square, Sheng, in a fit of rage and frustration, grabbed a knife and severed the little finger off his left hand and buried it in a flower pot. The next day, still angry, Sheng left China for Europe, promising to never come back. He did. Ten years after working tables in Rome, and eventually, getting to London to study art, Sheng returned, an accomplished artist, determined to change the way his Chinese colleagues did art. But the anger hasn’t subsided.

Engaging but complex

Sheng, now regarded as one of China’s most daring contemporary artists, revels in taking on subjects his colleagues don’t touch, from the country’s growing HIV problem and the rising hyper-nationalism he sees in his countrymen to the sensitive legacy of 1989. These themes were evident in his latest project — perhaps his most daring coming a month before China marked its politically sensitive sixtieth anniversary on October 1 — which went on public display last month. “The Power of the People” explores an engaging but complex question: What does China mean to its people today?

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I meet Sheng at a Starbucks a five-minute drive away from his studio, which is located in Beijing’s expansive 798 art district, where much of China’s most progressive art can be found. For an artist known for the anger of his work — all his paintings drip eerily with paint. Or is it blood? — he is surprisingly soft-spoken and calm. Dressed in a brown t-shirt and jeans, with his left hand firmly in his pocket, Sheng jumps into the seat of a silver Mercedes convertible. He drives only with his right hand. His studio, like others in 798, is an old military factory warehouse, with blue walls, a tin roof and a vast interior space filled with paintings and statues — he sculpts too.

Sheng’s work is driven by two simple objectives: to change the direction of where he sees Chinese contemporary art heading, and simply, to ask questions. “The way I look at art, and others disagree, I see no point if you don’t have a message,” Sheng says. “And when I look around me, so many artists here simply don’t have anything to say with their work. I look at Chinese contemporary art and no one asks questions, criticises social issues, looks at our environmental problems or human rights. It is too separate from the day to day lives of people.”

“The Power of the People”, his latest series, features provocative themes. They were partly inspired by the events of 1989, and also by what Sheng sees as a worrying spurt in what he calls “narrow-minded nationalism”, most evident during the Olympics of last year and again in recent weeks as the country celebrated its 60th anniversary. He sees a society, and its art, growing too intolerant of ideas, rejecting debate and discussion. “It bothers me a lot that China is becoming extremely nationalistic,” he says. “Every nation is proud of itself, yes, but when it becomes too much, it’s dangerous. You then have a society with no debate, no discussion.”

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China is far more open today than it was a decade ago — artists can take on provocative issues, journalists can expose local officials for corruption. But many subjects still remain off-limits — usually, anything that directly questions Beijing’s authority. The challenge, for journalists and artists, is that there is seemingly no well-defined line between what is acceptable and what isn’t.

Choices

Artists and journalists seemingly face three choices: operating well within this line and playing it safe; moving abroad and becoming a critic from outside; or, operating in the always-changing grey area along the official line of acceptability. For those that choose the third option, the risk is obviously great, but so is the reward.

Successfully walking this line means they are in the forefront of shaping public opinion in China today, as unlike voices from outside, they are in touch with and have direct access to mainstream Chinese society. But doing so involves at least two aspects: having good ‘guanxi’, or relationships with the government that you can rely on to bail you out, and more importantly, having the intrinsic ability to read where this hazy dividing line runs.

The few that have succeeded in doing so have emerged as China’s most influential voices. Like Hu Shuli, the brave editor of the excellent Caijing magazine, one of Chinese journalism’s most influential independent voices. Caijing breaks stories and raises issues other papers don’t go near. Or Fu Jianfeng, the editor of the Southern Weekend newspaper, another intrepid journalist who has, through his sensitive stories, incurred the wrath of Chinese authorities on a dozen occasions, yet managed to keep his paper going while dozens of others have been shut down. Sheng too has seemingly discovered the secret to walking this line.

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Sheng describes his art as “ugly”. He says most artists in China focus on high technique, which appeals to refined Chinese tastes that value form over content. “Their’s is high cuisine,” he says. “I serve rice and water.” One painting shows a nude woman brandishing a gun, posing in front of Chairman Mao, China’s revered founding leader. Another shows a sea of troops massed in front of Beijing’s Olympic stadium, critiquing the Olympics hysteria. Another shows dozens of young people camped out on Tiananmen Square, subtly invoking the days of ’89.

Sheng says he wanted “to get people to think, to push their boundaries and get them to ask questions.” The dozen or so paintings attracted a lot of attention in Beijing, coming at a sensitive time for the country. The exhibition opened bang in the middle of two important anniversaries — the 20th anniversary of the June 4 Tiananmen Square incident, and the People’s Republic of China’s 60th anniversary celebrated on October 1. On the second day, censors removed three of the paintings. But they let the rest of the exhibition go on. The officials made their point; they were watching. But then, so did Sheng.