Tiananmen 20 years on: An artist speaks out

[Editor's note: June 4th is the 20th anniversary of the Tiananmen Square crackdown. For more GlobalPost coverage, read what dissidents think about the event, how one museum fits into China's patriotic landscape, the thoughts of a former student protest leader now in Taiwan, and what a leading artist makes of it all, below.]

BEIJING — Leaning against a wall of the F2 Gallery in the east end of Beijing's Dashanzi art district is a painting of an attractive Chinese public security official. She has an austere pale beauty, accentuated by the image's black and grey coloring, but the real kicker is the bright-red 100-yuan bill she coyly holds in front of her crotch.

Sheng Qi's "Most Wanted" is part of five series of works created between 2006 and 2009 the artist is showing in an exhibition that, deliberately or not, coincides with the 20th anniversary of the event with which he is most often associated.

It's implicit criticism of official corruption suggests Sheng has lost none of his desire to remind his audience of the Tiananmen Square tragedy since he severed the pinkie finger of his left hand in a symbol of protest following the event. The gesture has informed his most famous work, from sculptures of waving Chinese astronauts to photos and paintings that frame images of modern China in the palm of his dismembered hand.

So as China's Internet censors clamp down on everything from Hotmail to Twitter in the run-up to the June 4th anniversary, the tensions in Beijing's 798 art district are high.

GlobalPost: Are you worried about the consequences of showing your work at such a sensitive time?

Sheng Qi: I'm a little bit worried. I'm going to show some dead bodies — a young girl dead, killed, her face and her body beaten (the picture is conspicuous by its absence from the portfolio passed to the press here). Before I couldn't show that. It's too violent. I used to have a small space here (in 798) that was showing my work for a couple of months until the management asked me to take it out. If it was 10 years ago, I would be in big trouble and I still get nervous, but now they just ask me to take the work down. To be honest I didn't know what was going to happen next, but so far it's been OK. The people who make these judgments don't really know about art. Even the Central Academy of Fine Arts don't know, so how people can come and look at a showing and make a judgement is beyond me.

What are you you trying to show with this collection?

Most of it has never been shown before. I paint images, I select images that have meaning for me and a wider audience. They are public images that have been shown in many places —  on websites or in newspapers. I'm just reconsidering them using my dripping technique. It expresses a kind of sadness or suppressed anger. It's about violence, bleeding, crying or sadness. It's about the past. The past is often very sad, even the good memories. When you think back, about your first love, you're sad. You had a good time but are still sad.

Do you expect anything substantial will happen on the June 4 anniversary?

I don't think anything will happen this June. The past has been washed out. That's why my painting uses the dripping, it's like a washing —  it can be brain washing, or washing dirty clothes white. The washing can make things clean or it can make them even dirtier. It depends what you use to do the washing — water or polluted water (laughs). For example, no Chinese are interested in my work, it's mostly Europeans. I think they're more concerned with history, it surrounds you everywhere in Europe. You know who lived somewhere before, you feel part of a continuum. In China, I don't really know where we are, there's no connection. Beijing is like a fake city. Ping An Avenue (the section of roads that runs through the center of Beijing) is like a stage, it feels fake.

Is China's emphasis on looking forward rather than back sustainable?

All the media in China is about advertising. If you want to be a real man, you have to drive this car. If you're a pretty woman, you have to use have to buy this or that product. These messages will make you think of yourself as foolish or powerless if you can't access this lifestyle. Most people still want to chase a better life — buy the car, buy the gold car, buy a house, buy a bigger house. It's never-ending. The education Chinese people receive through the media pushes them in that direction. It does not offer or suggest that there is another way to live.

Last year a number of academics and intellectuals put their names to Charter 08 (a document calling for greater freedom of expression and a move towards a more democratic political process). Did you ever think about signing?

I looked into it but I couldn't access the website. So many websites are blocked, I didn't even know what it said. I know Liu Xiaobo (a leading Chinese literary critic and human rights advocate who was arrested after the charter was released) organized it. You see, all of China is closed. I met an American Chinese specialist who asked me why I publish my catalogue in English not Chinese. She is an ancient China expert, but she doesn't know the reality of China now. If I publish a catalogue in Chinese I would get in trouble. But there is a limited English readership in China, so the government, even if they knew what I was talking about, don't really care. As long as you are not setting up a community or a group or issuing a statement of beliefs you will be fine because they don't believe one individual can do anything. But if you are a group you will have problems.

What are your thoughts on the current state of Chinese art?

Most young artists care too much about their own opinions, their own personal feelings. Of course I do, too. But when you transfer personal feelings to the canvas, camera or video, any art form, your work will be shown in a public space so it's not only about showing your own view. It's too narrow. The bubble in Chinese art prices bursting was a very good thing. Last year, I met couple of people who had never done art before. Then they wanted to be artists — they thought they could suddenly become rich! Many Chinese artists who call themselves artists aren't serious. They keep away from politics and never talk about, but it I don't think you can ever really separate art and politics, except for maybe abstract art, like Damien Hirst's paintings with colorful dots (laughs).

What do you make of this particular neighborhood of Beijing, and what does it say about art in modern China?

798 has become an "official art area." It's really expensive and they spent a lot of money to protect it. There's now a police station here when before there was none. It's typically Chinese. In the art world there are so many things we still can't talk about. But it's like a box, when you put something inside it will squeeze its way out. The Chinese art world is searching for something new, fresh, modern. They're not interested in history because it has a lot of troubles attached to it. I am one of the only ones looking back. Most Chinese artists are about looking forward.

Looking forward, how optimistic are you about China's future?

I don't really know about China's future. Beijing and Shanghai are not real China, that's what I understand. In Europe people have a similar lifestyle, a similar quality of life. But if you go south 50 kilometers from Tiananmen Square you find a totally different world. The conditions people live in are shocking. It makes me sad because I don't think they have a bright future. Rich people can be very rich here, but it's only for the few. If someone's father or grandfather worked for the government in a high position they will have money. It's red capitalism, red nepotism. They're just performing a role. I don't think ordinary people really have an opportunity to enjoy this "bright future" we are supposed to look forward to. I was excited to come back to China (after time spent in Italy and England). I thought I'd see things I was never able to see before and be able to compare with Western culture, to look at Chinese daily life with a bit of a Western eye. It was a good feeling. But I don't really feel I belong here any more. I don't really feel I belong to anywhere. It's like I'm homeless.

Sheng Qi's solo exhibition Power of the People is on show at the F2 Gallery in Beijing's 798 art district until August 17.

More on the Tiananmen Square anniversary:

Tiananmen 20 years on: Dissident voices

Tiananmen 20 years on: A real "Party" song