Ahead of a recent exhibition at the prestigious modern art museum OCAT Shanghai, the artist Song Ta described the process of creating his multimedia piece “Uglier and Uglier.” After secretly filming thousands of unsuspecting female college students, Song and three assistants painstakingly ranked them by their perceived attractiveness; those deemed most appealing featured early in the show, with the women on display getting progressively “uglier” as the day went on. By dusk, Song claimed that visitors to the exhibit would be greeted by “a living hell.”
Song debuted “Uglier and Uglier” in 2013, but, with the exception of a brief controversy over a misogynistic 2019 interview, it largely flew under the radar prior to its showing at OCAT, when an online post about the show and Song’s introduction to it attracted widespread criticism on social media. Critics blasted Song for objectifying women and infringing on their privacy, leading OCAT Shanghai to take down the piece. In a public apology, the museum acknowledged that “the artist’s intentions and the work’s English title were disrespectful and offensive to women” and promised to do a better job screening works in the future. (The piece’s Chinese title, “Campus Flower,” is a term used to describe attractive female students.)
Left: Song Ta; Right: A view of Song’s since-suspended exhibiton at OCAT Shanghai. From Art-Ba-Ba
To Song’s champions, and there are still many, he is a boundary-pushing artist whose work challenges political correctness and staid social norms. As they see it, “Uglier and Uglier” wasn’t an exercise in misogyny, but a critique of the politically correct idea that no person can be judged objectively more beautiful than anyone else and that beauty is societally determined rather than genetic. Detractors, on the other hand, found the piece crass and demeaning. Some said that Song’s next work should involve him finding the women he secretly filmed and apologizing to them.
Arguably more interesting than the controversy over “Uglier and Uglier,” however, is what it says about the politics of contemporary Chinese art. OCAT Shanghai is among the most prestigious art institutions in China. The same goes for the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, which first exhibited the piece in 2013. Together, they wield enormous power over the boundaries of what constitutes “acceptable” art in the country, making their insensitivity to gender issues all the more significant, even if those values generally reflect what is found in both domestic and global artistic circles.
Top: Details of Song’s ranking system; Bottom: Screenshots of the exhibition. From Art-Ba-Ba, Artron, and Vice
The origins of contemporary Chinese art can be traced to 1980s Beijing, where a small circle of experimental artists flourished under patronage from largely foreign diplomats, journalists, and students. As early as 1993, when a group of Chinese artists exhibited at the world-famous Venice Biennale, contemporary Chinese art had already established its reputation and marketability worldwide.
The Chinese works brought to Venice that year fit the model of what art scholar Li Xianting calls “Political Pop” or “Cynical Realism.” Mirroring the enthusiasm for contemporary art in the post-Soviet Eastern bloc, much of the interest in contemporary Chinese art, especially abroad, was tied to its more rebellious aspects, such as the way the artists deconstructed authority, subverted collectivist aesthetics, and forged “underground” identities. The most successful and sought-after artists were rebels known as much for their bad boy dissident posturing as the quality of their work.
As the anthropologist Sasha Su-Ling Welland notes in her book “Experimental Beijing: Gender and Globalization in Chinese Contemporary Art,” the “bad boy” stereotype in reform-era China was reflected in the skewed gender ratio of its early experimental art scene and reinforced by global art aficionados’ wholehearted embrace of the aesthetic. For example, Welland describes a major contemporary Chinese art show in San Francisco in which only six of the 70 artists were women. In 1996, when protestors confronted the head of Germany’s Bonn Museum of Modern Art for failing to include female artists in an exhibition of Chinese works, he blithely insisted that it was because there were no women artists in China.
In her essay “Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?” art historian Linda Nochlin attributed art’s pervasive gender imbalance to social factors such as education and family values rather than a difference in talent between the sexes. Chinese critics have themselves noted that the country’s mainstream art circles silo women off into “women’s art,” characterized by gendered terms like “private” and “emotional,” as opposed to the supposedly more political work of their male peers.
In China, the international love affair with bad boy dissidents has only exacerbated the social factors contributing to women artists’ marginalization. Ironically, the bad boy stereotype misses the fact that women, although long sidelined in contemporary Chinese art circles, have nonetheless been some of its loudest and most important voices — quite literally in the case of Xiao Lu, a young female artist arrested for firing two bullets at her installation during a larger 1989 show. Xiao’s gunshots came to symbolize the energy of China’s landmark first exhibition of contemporary art and a powerful summation of that era’s hopes and turbulence. Yet, for all her bravado, Xiao never achieved the lasting fame enjoyed by her male contemporaries.
A Xiao Lu piece from 2003. From Art-Ba-Ba
The second problem with the “bad boy” narrative is that it often makes the false assumption that rebellious male artists are by nature more “progressive” than their less ostentatious counterparts. This oversimplification, in which rebellion against the established order is equated with a progressive yearning for a more liberal society, has posed a serious challenge to Western understandings of reform-era China. In fact, the old system’s discontents exist on a broad spectrum, from progressives and liberals to religious conservatives as well as what could be termed the “alt-right.”
Context also matters. In 1979, when Yuan Yunsheng painted nude female figures into a mural for the Beijing Capital International Airport, he was hailed for breaking China’s taboo on nudity and challenging the Mao-era’s de-sexualization of women. However, four decades on, there has been a resurgence in traditional gender norms, and sexualized depictions of women are everywhere. The idea Song sought to critique in “Uglier and Uglier” — that women’s bodies are all fundamentally the same and beauty is unimportant — isn’t that different from the target of Yuan’s attack, which focused on the state-sanctioned erasure of femininity. But while Yuan was undoubtedly taking on “authority,” the power dynamics between a successful, celebrated male artist and millions of women tired of being objectified and hypersexualized are murkier.
More important than an individual artist’s position on the ideological spectrum is how the male-dominated art establishment affects the portrayal of — as well as the creative possibilities enjoyed by — women. In the early 2000s, as China and its newly minted elite sought international cultural recognition and capital, the rebels of the 1990s were embraced by the establishment. They became icons and were hired as curators or professors at fine arts colleges. This only solidified the Chinese art world’s gender hierarchy, as the bad boy dissidents became a bad boy club, lording over an art scene that on every other level is composed primarily of women. Walk into any Chinese art institution today and it’s likely that women will comprise the majority of staff, volunteers, and visitors, but the curators and artists who determine what gets shown, who has value, and which ideas are acceptable are overwhelmingly male.
The irony is, for the amount China’s bad boy artists are celebrated for questioning and deconstructing authority, some seem largely incapable of self-reflection about their own privilege and power. If women had a say in exhibitions commensurate with their contributions and participation in the art world, it’s likely that shows such as “Uglier and Uglier” would receive more scrutiny in the planning stage.
Thankfully, there are some signs that this situation is starting to change. A number of female artists, curators, and researchers have risen to prominence in recent years, and OCAT Shanghai and UCCA organized solo exhibitions by Yang Yuanyuan and Cao Fei, respectively. While these shows were headlined by women artists and included reflections on gender issues, neither fit neatly into the category of “women’s art”: Yang is known for documenting the struggles of the Chinese diaspora in America, while Cao uses virtual and augmented reality to interrogate our increasingly digital lives.
Real criticism doesn’t always require rebellion. Sometimes, it’s enough to delve into complexities of the past, present, and future to bring to light fragments that have been overlooked by the establishment. That, and not brash “bad boy” posturing, is where the future of Chinese art lies.
Translator: David Ball; editor: Kilian O’Donnell.
(Header image: Roy Scott/Ikon Images/People Visual)