When Protest Becomes Art

French-Chinese artist Hao Guang protests against his Beijing landlords, but in an artistic way.

In Oddly Enough by William Andrews 2009-03-16

Visitors to Beijing, especially those interested in art, will know of the 798 district, which now houses some four hundred galleries and studios. Though many say its bubble has collapsed, the Chinese contemporary art market has boomed and many of the artists who shot to fame did it here in old factory buildings.

The area is now a rather chic and plush place, and being in fashion carries a price, quite literally. As many of the original habitants are being forced to re-located in the face of ever-increasing costs, some are not going quietly. Hao Guang is one such example. The French-Chinese painter is unable to pay rent for the space he has rented for over five years but he says the amount is unjustified.

“If in 798 I can’t get the respect as a human being, then I will become an animal.” This protest appears in both Chinese and French on the window of Hao’s studio. And he is quite serious. Behind his glass-window he will live just like an animal to show the world to what levels the management have apparently reduced artists.

His protest-cum-performance-art has already attracted attention from visitors and residents, many of whom have come to watch him through the glass window. Apparently Hao is silent but continues to paint in darkness. It is unknown the degree of success his protest will bring, nor to what extent it is simply a publicity stunt, but he has already attracted the attention of the world press.

Meanwhile, in Hong Kong at the annual charity art event ArtWalk 2009, one gallery has tried to draw attention to the working poor by transporting into the exhibition a real “cage home” tenement where many of HK’s residents really do live, crammed into tiny, squalid living quarters, subsisting on $641 a month. Whether it is art, political statement, performance art or just simply ‘evidence’ is debatable. Its ability to chill and affect is undeniable, however, even perhaps at the swanky reception party, where genuine “cage people” were on hand to answer questions. Gilbert and George, eat your heart out.

As people warn of growing social disparity in Japan and glamorous urbanites strut past the homeless, perhaps Tokyo galleries should follow suit by erecting cardboard houses in their ubiquitous white cubes, and asking visitors to squat down in them to see how the other half live.

To read more on the “cage people” exhibition, see here.

William Andrews

William Andrews. William Andrews came to Japan in 2004. He first lived in Osaka, where he was a translator for Kansai Art Beat. Arriving in Tokyo in 2008, he now works as an writer, editor and translator. He writes a blog about Japanese radicalism and counterculture (ThrowOutYourBooks.wordpress.com) and one about Tokyo contemporary theatre (TokyoStages.wordpress.com). He is the author of Dissenting Japan: A History of Japanese Radicalism and Counterculture, from 1945 to Fukushima. » See other writings


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