Yaxue Cao, October 18, 2018
Bard College in Annandale-on-Hudson, New York, is a small liberal arts college with around 2500 students. The Campus Center is the central meeting place with a bookstore, a cafe, a post office, computer terminals, a small auditorium, lounge areas and art exhibit space. On October 1, a photo exhibit was mounted along the hallways of the center. It is called, adopting a well-known Mao Zedong quote, “Weightier Than Mount Tai, Lighter Than a Feather: Human Rights Experience of Chinese Contemporary Art.”
Featuring ten artists (all but two lived in China), the exhibit includes photographs, conceptual compositions, negative images of Tiananmen Square in 1989, and photographs that depict a wide range of life in China: the student movement in Beijing, migrant workers in the slums outside Beijing, prostitutes and homesexuals. Photographs of the Umbrella Movement in Hong Kong in 2014 and the Sunflower Movement in Taiwan the same year are also on display. It is a traveling exhibit and was first shown at John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. It ends on October 19 at Bard.
On October 3, Siyuan Min (闵思渊), who goes by the name ‘Frederick S. Min,’ a political science major and chair of the Chinese Student Organization on campus, wrote a long letter to one of the two curators of the exhibit, Patricia Keretzky. Keretzky is Oskar Munsterberg Lecturer in Art History and author of more than 10 books about Chinese art, religious and secular, medieval and contemporary. From his letter, we gathered that the exhibit stirred quite a bit of sentiment from a WeChat group that consisted of current Chinese students at Bard, recent graduates and visiting scholars from China. In his letter to Ms. Keretzy, Mr. Min summed up this “vibrant and highly intellectual conversation” on WeChat, China’s popular but heavily censored and surveilled online messaging platform.
The community of Chinese students (currently over 100) and scholars at Bard took issue with the exhibit on three points: the topic, the date and the offensiveness of it.
They objected to the sensitive nature of the topic, singling out “the images of protests,” “an armed person waving a gun in front of Mao Zedong,” and “a Statue of Liberty photoshopped to be on Tiananmen Square where the Monument to the People’s Heroes actually stand(s),” the last of which implying that the two symbols of struggle contravene each other.
They took issue with the date. Why launch the exhibit on October 1, our National Day, “the equivalent of July 4th”? When “a rather reckless man insisted on attending a military drill” on the Serbian national day, he said, a diplomatic crisis ensued causing World War I. He then walked back a little bit from the parallel between Archduke Franz Ferdinand causing World War I with his assassination and the two curators provoking Chinese students at Bard, but we get the idea: it’s a grievous provocation.
Mr. Min went on conveying how Chinese students felt: they feel ‘ambushed’ by such an exhibit at the student center; they feel embarrassed when asked questions by their curious American friends; their pride in their nationality is hurt; they feel “a certain sense of betrayal” because at Bard the atmosphere has been “pluralistic yet always respectful.”
So the photo exhibit is a deviation from the pluralistic and respectful atmosphere at Bard according to this junior. When Chinese students at the University of California San Diego opposed the Dalai Lama giving the commencement speech, they applied the same awkward, brain teaser logic.
Because of the exhibit, the Chinese students and scholars feel, Min went on, judged by “our nationality, our ethnics, the history of our country or the policies of our government.”
But isn’t it the case that the Chinese students and scholars have all these hurt feelings precisely because they themselves identify with the repressive regime, with the policies of the Chinese government and its political sensibilities? They do not seem to recognize that each and every Chinese citizen has the right not to identify with the government. As a political science student, young Mr. Min should know better.
In reply, Ms. Keretzky invited the junior and the Chinese students to come to the screening of dissident films by Chinese artists and a roundtable discussion afterward on Saturday at the Campus Center. None of them came. She also ask Mr. Min to post her response on WeChat. I don’t know whether this has been done. I doubt it, because the words ‘human rights’ and the name ‘Liu Xiaobo’ will not pass through the censorship, even if Min tries to. I doubt he would try in the first place.
“I want to have a dialogue with the Chinese students on campus,” Wu Yuren (吴玉仁), a participating artist, said on Saturday at Bard. “This is a serious exhibit. In 2015, Patricia met with us in Beijing and we had a discussion about it. We know why we do this. Today’s China is undergoing a massive transformation, and artists have the acutest sense it. As freedom of speech is being choked off and art creation faces more and more restriction, it’s only natural that artists are going to express such repression.”
I asked Mr. Wu what would happen to these artists living in China, he said, they are used to regular police summons known as ‘drinking tea,’ forced evictions, and shutdowns of exhibits. “Under dictatorship, artists who explore its manifestations face big dangers.” Wu Yuren himself was detained for ten months in 2010 for using what they called the “rights defense performance art” to oppose forced demolition of art districts in Beijing where he and hundreds of artists had their studios.
“By the way,” he said at Bard, “I want to state a common sense here: October 1st is not the birthday of our motherland.”
Yaxue Cao edits this website. Follow her on Twitter @yaxuecao, or follow China Change @chinachange_org