via NYTimes, 5/13/06:
China Orders Art Galleries to Remove Paintings With Political Themes
By DAVID BARBOZA
Published: May 13, 2006
BEIJING — Several galleries in this city's thriving arts district were recently ordered by government officials to remove more than 20 paintings, apparently because they dealt with political themes, artists and gallery directors here said.
The works, some of which featured radical portrayals of Mao and references to the Tiananmen Square uprising in 1989, were taken down just before one of the city's biggest art festivals, which opened on April 30.
"A group of men came and ordered the workers to take it down," said Huang Rui, an artist and arts organizer here who had one of his works removed. "We had to do it. The workers in the gallery were scared."
In addition to Mr. Huang's own Cultural Revolution-era representation of a slogan with Chinese characters made up of 10,000-yuan bills (each bearing Mao's portrait), the removed works included a Gao Qiang portrait of a sickly-looking Mao swimming in a blood-red Yangtze River and a painting by Wu Wenjian showing tanks in Tiananmen Square.
No one is sure who ordered the paintings taken away. But the move came on the eve of the third annual Dashanzi International Art Festival, which runs through May 21 and, as expected, has drawn many foreign visitors. The contemporary-art scene in China is sizzling, and some of the leading avant-garde artists have recently become millionaires.
Western collectors and Chinese real estate tycoons are helping drive up the prices of works by artists like Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang, Fang Lijun and Yue Minjun. Many got their start in the late 1980's with sometimes not-so-subtle political themes. In March one of Mr. Zhang's paintings sold at a Sotheby's auction in New York for nearly $1 million.
Through much of the 1990's, many avant-garde artists were restricted from showing their works in China, partly because they were associated with the 1989 Tiananmen protests, which ended in a bloody military crackdown. But today they are like pop stars at home, with major exhibitions here and huge international followings.
Some collectors and gallery owners here said they were surprised by the order to remove the works but did not expect a broader crackdown on artistic freedom.
Over the last few years, they said, artists in China have been increasingly free to deal with social and political topics, as long as they do not portray anything too overtly anti-government.
"I personally don't think there's anything in the wind," said Brian Wallace, who has been in China for about 20 years and is the founder of the Red Gate Gallery in Beijing. "No one is really worried there's a big crackdown coming."
But others fear that a few galleries in a popular section of Beijing, the Dashanzi district, also known as the Factory 798 area, may have gone too far in testing what the Chinese government deems permissible.
The government, after all, has cracked down sharply on dissent in the news media and on the Internet over the last few years. And the Tiananmen Square demonstrations and their suppression are still virtually banned from public discussion.
Mr. Wu, for instance, said he may have been a target of the authorities because he served nearly seven years in prison for participating in the 1989 protests. Five of his works, which were featured in a show called "Ash Red," were removed.
Banknote by Huang Rui.
Representatives of the government came and said, "This is too much," he said he was told by gallery officials who took down his works. A dealer, Chen Xindong, said he had been told by police officers to remove two works from his gallery: one that portrayed Chinese officials, including President Hu Jintao, and another featuring Mao.
"It's a pity we couldn't show them," Mr. Chen said. But he added: "Such things happen. I don't think it's news. The condition of contemporary art in China is much better than before."
Mr. Huang is one of the directors of the Dashanzi Arts Festival and a pioneer of the avant-garde movement in the 1980's. Since those days, he said, the government has become more accepting of experimental work.
Asked if he thought his own work had gone too far, he said: "Yes. So we took it down." But he added: "I have to do this kind of work. That's the dream of all contemporary artists."
Chinese artists cross the red line, via we make money not art, 4/26/06
China strikes back as modern artists push boundaries, by Robert Marquand | Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor, 4/27/06