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China's Modern Artists Push Political, Commercial Boundaries


This month Beijing's 798 contemporary art district hosts the third annual Dashanzi international art festival. China's modern art has been fetching record prices on the auction block and getting the eye of government censors. Before the festival had even started, Chinese authorities ordered more than 20 works removed from galleries because they were considered too politically sensitive. However, China's modern artists continue to push political and commercial boundaries.

Beijing's 798 art district began just a few years ago as a loose collection of galleries in a run down former munitions factory. Now is the trendy, modern art area in the city.

Hundreds of China's modern artists display their paintings, sculptures, video installations, and performance art in this gritty, industrial environment. Coffee shops, restaurants, boutiques and bars have also moved into the old factory spaces to capitalize on an increasing numbers of visitors.

For the last three years this area has hosted Beijing's largest modern art festival-this year's show is expected to attract more than 100,000 people.

It is also attracting official Communist censors. Just before the festival opened, Chinese culture authorities ordered gallery owners to remove works they considered politically sensitive from public display.

Huang Rui, an artist and one of the organizers of the festival, says certain themes are off limits.

"Some officials don't like artworks with themes of leaders since Mao, or thoughts of the leaders, or the Tiananmen Incident," Huang says. "These, for them, are very sensitive. In fact, these factors are like a spring. If there is any restriction, it is actually an incentive for artists to create."

But artists and Chinese art experts agree the government is beginning to ease controls on artistic expression. In the past, they say, authorities would simply shut down whole exhibitions. Now they are more likely to just order specific artworks removed from public view.

Thirty four-year-old artist Wang Mai has been displaying his work in the 798 district since 2003.

One of his paintings displayed on the first day of the festival showed a Chinese worker about to smash 19th century socialist philosopher Karl Marx's severed head with a large hammer. Wang says it is a commentary on Marxism's effect on Chinese workers and the growing gap between the rich and poor.

Another depicts a government leader shaking hands with workers - a frequent propaganda image in Chinese media - while an elephant steps on a worker in the background and China's middle class prays to the mirage-like scene. Wang says the figures form a ridiculous relationship.

After the first day of the festival, Wang says Chinese authorities ordered his two paintings removed.

"I think my works are quite tough in conveying messages. So I think they understand the messages," Wang says. "But it is not a big deal for me that my works have been pulled off the wall, because I have expressed myself. They have not stopped me from painting."

Wang says he would like the government to give more support to artists but he is uneasy about government involvement in the arts.

"We do not know if the government is going to intervene into the creation of the artists. If they do intervene, it will be very bad," he says.

Art critics say there are fewer constraints on Chinese artists' freedom as modern art here evolves from being explicitly anti-government into more types of expression.

Karen Smith is a writer and modern art critic based in Beijing. She says there is more to Chinese modern art than those who push political boundaries.

"You see a lot of artists who just want attention, who use the very obvious routes, and of course that's the easiest thing for the government to respond to," she says. "But, if you want to find real quality, real powerful art…there's some great statements being made. And those artists, really I don't think they're being constrained in any way from saying what they want to say."

Smith says one of the defining marks of the Chinese art world is capitalism - where money is the measure of success.

"You don't really have the museum world, you don't have the foundation world," she says. "You don't have the people who are really working with art in a non-commercial way. So, success becomes measured by how well you sell and the price at which you sell."

China's modern art appears to be gaining success fetching record prices on the international market. In March, Sotheby's auction house in New York sold a collection of Chinese modern works for more than $13 million. One painting -by Chinese artist Zhang Xiaogang - brought in nearly $1 million - the highest price ever for a single piece of Chinese modern art.

China's art world appears very much like the country itself - a mix of communist politics and capitalist aspirations.

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