Wuzhen, a picturesque village lined with canals 90 miles inland from Shanghai, has come to be associated with Chinese censorship. For two years running, it has hosted China’s “World Internet Conference”, during which the government tries to persuade an international audience of the virtues of strictly policing all online content. But visitors to Wuzhen over the next three months will behold a very different scene, one showing that creative ferment remains vigorous in China, straining against limits on free expression.
Scattered around the village’s old alleyways and elegant new exhibition halls are sculptures, installations and multimedia works that form the inaugural Art Wuzhen festival. Their messages – of ubiquitous surveillance, the futility of ideology and official hypocrisy – are ones that, expressed overtly, would be stopped by censors. In more abstract forms, they make it through the filters.
The festival does not set out to be controversial. The local government is supporting it. Municipal officials spoke at the opening ceremony. Organisers want it to be a commercial success and generally stay on the safe side of sensitive topics. An installation featuring a globe was touched up to make Taiwan the same colour as China, in line with government policy that they are one country. A piece by Ai Weiwei, known globally for his dissent as much as his art, is on display, but his name is absent from most Chinese coverage of the festival.
Works by international stars, including Damien Hirst and Marina Abramović, are also featured prominently; that a first-time village festival could get them is a sign of China’s growing muscle in the art world, which will please the country’s culture czars.
And much of the art made for the show is visually arresting but hardly dangerous. Florentijn Hofman, a Dutch artist who attracted a big Chinese following with his oversized yellow rubber duck bobbing in harbours in recent years, is back with an oversized multicoloured fish, floating above a pond. Small replicas will no doubt be on sale in Wuzhen’s tourist shops before long.
Yet given the context of the times, it is hard to avoid detecting political undercurrents. Xi Jinping, who is seen by many as China’s most powerful leader since Mao, is waging a campaign to bring the unruly art world to heel. He has called on artists to stop exaggerating “the dark side” of society and instead produce works that serve the people. His crackdown on dissent has also sent a chill through the art world, some likening it to a throwback to Mao’s rule.
It is striking therefore to see the range of critical pieces at Art Wuzhen. Some are quite blunt. “Tools” by Mao Tongqiang is a heap of 30,000 broken, rusting hammers and sickles that fill a room (the curators say they reflect the lives of ordinary workers and farmers, an idea that apparently satisfied the officials who approved the piece for display).
“Avenue square” by Song Dong depicts a typical street. Standing in the middle is a lamp post laden with more than a dozen security cameras pointed every which way; perhaps the officials thought this was their kind of orderly public space. In “Bleaching”, Jaffa Lam uses bleached clothing, including some worn by street protesters, as a canvas to project images. Photoshopped advertisements for Chinese cities flitter past as audio feeds from newscasts describe their atrocious air pollution.
Others are subtler. “Herds of Ants” (top image) is a metal sculpture by Chen Zhiguang of large ants swarming up a hill. Are they moving together to a greater good? Or are they meekly accepting their fate and liable to be crushed? Ai Weiwei has assembled the framework of a traditional Beijing wooden courtyard home, painting the beams in bright colours. Looked at quickly, it seems fun, almost playful; looked at more closely, the deeper impression is of China’s haste to urbanise, to coat the past in garish colours. Whatever the interpretation, it is remarkable to see Mr Ai’s work in China at all. After four years under modified house arrest, when his art was only shown internationally, he re-emerged with a series of solo exhibitions at commercial galleries in Beijing last year. But this appears to be the first time since his detention that his work has been shown at a government-backed exhibition.
The theme of the festival is “utopia/heterotopia”, a reference to the idea that the pursuit of the perfect can yield disorienting outcomes. Wuzhen is a fitting backdrop. Dating back 1,000 years, its alleyways, homes and shops have received a major facelift over the last decade; investors have rebuilt nearly half of them entirely, transforming the village into a magnet for tourists. Yet it is also witness to the ways in which past political movements have wrought havoc on the arts. Mu Xin, a writer and artist, was Wuzhen’s best-known figure of the 20th century. In 1971, when Mao’s Cultural Revolution was in full swing, he was imprisoned, his writings banned and his family estate destroyed. Last year Wuzhen opened a museum dedicated to him. It, for one, does not want to turn back the clocks.