Today, the Guggenheim exhibit “Art and China after 1989: Theater of the World” closes here in New York City.
I did not go expecting to see any works of great beauty. To be sure, there were none. But so, too, did I not expect to see a view of China’s artists straining so mightily—and exclusively—under the weight of the CCP regime. That is the singular narrative. Portrait after portrait, list after list, needle after needle, video after video: oppression. I wondered: could there not be even just one alternate voice, one perspective from a slightly different angle that had turned its head not to the sun but, instead, toward the sky?
“This is a true story,” a security guard said to my friend and me as we stood briefly watching a video of a woman trying to thread a needle. “All these workers worked for decades to produce shoes and clothes for America. None of them got paid. The filmmaker is trying to show their struggle. She’s helping them to move the case forward.”
We tried to watch the close-up shots of the quivering thread, the slender eye of the needle, the aged and wrinkled fingers. The security guard kept talking, explaining the significance of the video at length. We walked away.
Is this art? Is this for the Guggenheim? Could this not—equally if not more so—have found a home along the gallery walls of the UN? But that would mean the Chinese officials who make up one fifth of the permanent members of the Security Council would have to walk by that work from time to time, possibly fielding uncomfortable questions. No go.
Years ago, as a young research reporter for the New York Times’ Beijing bureau, I traveled with a Chinese colleague by train out to neighboring Henan province to visit the AIDS activist Gao Yaojie. The activist Hu Jia was there. The four of us bundled up books that Gao was planning to mail to various libraries around the country. I write in a very scattered way about the memory here.
How we were followed! How we were filmed! How the police, both plain clothed and uniformed, made their presence known! It is possible to be imprisoned in wide-open spaces. You do not need walls. You can lock people up with the force of your mind. China taught me that. Taught me so well that, apologizing profusely to my Times colleague and offering her all best wishes for her ongoing research, I turned right around at the end of that day and boarded the next train back to Beijing. That night, I triple locked my door. But the next week, at a party in the capital, I had the gall to describe the trip at length to the approving nod of many foreign heads. Further confirming my cowardice, I omitted my cowardice.
On November 17, 2017, the Guggenheim screened the film Prisoners in Freedom City, a documentary film about his own four years of house arrest that Hu Jia shot. “My original goal in picking up the camera was to document the everyday rights violations being perpetrated by the police surveilling us in such close proximity,” Hu Jia told the Guggenheim of his film. “Gradually, however, the camera became an outlet for my pent-up solitude. Watchers and prisoners alike have been confined to the same narrow space, both trapped in an autocratic system, waiting day in and day out for their own Godot.” What brought the project to a sudden close, in 2008, was Hu’s arrest and three and a half years of true imprisonment.
Maybe there can be no other artistic view of China now because everyone who dares show any other view, any alternate perspective, might be accused of missing the point or—worse—belittling the truth. I don’t know. We walked out of a Guggenheim dominated by Chinese political repression and response, stomping in the cold and blinking our eyes to adjust to the light in Trump’s America.
I do not know.