The List

Cultural Revolutionaries

Ai Weiwei isn't the only contemporary Chinese artist pushing the boundaries -- and making Beijing nervous.

On June 22, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was released on bail after nearly three months in prison. Ai was charged with tax evasion, though supporter believe his arrest was motivated by his outspoken criticism of the Chinese government.* Ai's imprisonment shocked the international art world and highlighted the increasingly repressive tactics of the Chinese state's censorship regime, which has clamped down on even the faintest hint of protests in the wake of the democratic revolutions in the Arab world. Ai's politically confrontational work is something of an outlier in China, where most high-profile artists steer clear of explicitly political material. But he's not the only one who has pushed the boundaries with his work -- and paid the price.

*This article was updated on June 22.


Art: The 57-year-old Beijing-based performance artist Cheng Li was little known internationally until March 20 when he shocked the sensibilities of Chinese authorities and earned himself a year in a labor camp with a provocative performance at Beijing's Museum of Contemporary Art. During the performance, titled Art Whore, Cheng had sex with a woman on a balcony and in a basement of the exhibition hall while patrons looked on. According to Cheng, the piece was meant to show that "the popular trend of commercializing art is nothing but a trade of sex for commercial benefits." 

Another performance artist who viewed the performance said that Cheng was "using his art to criticize the current situation in the art circle, where people seem to lose their principles. It is his way of expressing irony that art today is overcommercialized."

Consequences: Cheng was arrested on March 24 and sentenced in May to one year of "re-education through labor" for his performance. The fate of the woman, who was also arrested, isn't known. In the formal charge against Cheng, the Administrative Commission for Re-education through Labor wrote that his act had "attracted multiple people to look on and caused public [dis]order in chaos." His supporters have countered that the audience was made up of other artists and critics who were "prepared mentally for what they were going to see and were very quiet during the process."

Cheng's lawyer has filed an appeal and demanded that legal scholars "clearly define the relationship between the arts and the law." As for Cheng himself, he tells his lawyer that he is being treated well so far but is "a little bored these days." 



Art: If Mao Zedong is something of an obsession for the two Jinan-born brothers -- both in their 50s -- they certainly have their reasons. Their father, a factory worker, was arrested during the Cultural Revolution and sent to the countryside for "re-education." A short time later, the family was told he had committed suicide.

The brothers have exacted a certain level of revenge on the Chairman, depicting him in their work alternately as a kneeling penitent, with giant breasts, a detachable head, and in one of their most famous works, as a firing squad of clones about to execute Jesus Christ.  

"It's something I hope all Chinese people will one day be able to accept and understand," Gao Zhen told the New York Times in 2009. "We wanted to portray him as a human being, a regular person confessing for the wrongs he's committed."

Consequences: Not surprisingly, while the brothers have won a devoted following overseas, it's not easy for them to show their work in China. Over the years, authorities have raided their exhibitions, confiscated their work, and turned off the electricity to their studio. Until 2003, they were forbidden from leaving mainland China.

Prohibited from showing in gallery spaces and museums, the Gaos hold several "parties" every year where fans can come view their work in private homes. The locations of the exhibitions are revealed several hours beforehand and spread via word of mouth and text message.

Despite their incendiary reputation, the Gaos insist their work is more personal than political. "I don't consider myself a dissident at all," Gao Qiang told the Los Angeles Times last year. "I never even think about this question. I just use art to express what I want to express."  



Art: Guo Gai's body of work in photography, sculpture, and performance comments on what he sees as the increasing materialism and spiritual decline of Chinese culture as the country transitions from communism to an authoritarian form of capitalism. According a statement accompanying the work, the set of photographs, Chinese Jesus Triptych, is a commentary on how "faith in communism" has eroded in China thanks to the pursuit of materialism, while at the same time "Christian faith, and religious faith in general, has been developing rapidly."

A new work which will be displayed in August at the Soap Factory in Minneapolis, Minnesota, is a ten-part vocal performance using only "expressive syllables and feelings outpoured in sound" to comment on 10 incidents in China in 2008, including the Beijing Olympics and the Tibet riots, during which 12 people were killed. The piece aims to "comfort the souls that suffered, and to voice complaint about the lot of ordinary people."

Consequences: Guo was arrested by Beijing police on March 24 at the Beijing Museum of Contemporary Art -- just a few days after Cheng Li's controversial performance there -- for taking photos at an exhibition that included work commenting on the crackdown on freedom of expression following the stillborn Chinese pro-democracy movement dubbed the "Jasmine Revolution." Guo was released a month later in "reasonable health" but has been legally barred from leaving China -- or Beijing -- for any reason, meaning he won't be able to attend the exhibition of his work in Minneapolis this summer. The exact reason for his detention remains unclear. 



Art: Ou's best-known works consist of photographs of himself doing push-ups naked in front of famous Chinese landmarks. "I love my country. I also love my body," blogged the artist, who has described the photos as an effort to "mark events of historical importance and to link these events, which may seem random, to make people aware, and to help them understand that critical thought about these events is very important."

Ou's work includes well-known monuments like the Forbidden City and the "Bird's Nest" stadium in Beijing, but others are a bit more politically touchy. He photographed himself in front of Tibet's Potala Palace on the anniversary of the 2008 riots and near the Wangjialing coal mine, where 38 workers were killed in a flood in 2010.

There has also been speculation that Ou's push-ups may refer to the highly publicized death of a teenager in the city of Weng'an in 2008. The police report into the case, which the authorities described as a drowning but the victim's family says was a rape and murder, included a seemingly non-sequitur reference to the victim's friend -- with her at the time, so the report claims -- doing push-ups. The phrase became a kind of codeword for Chinese Internet users to discuss the case. Despite the speculation, however, Ou has never explicitly referenced the matter in any of his public statements about this work.   

Consequences: Ou, whose work has been exhibited alongside Ai Weiwei's, has been arrested several times for public nudity and had his cameras confiscated, but has never been held for an extended period of time. It may help that he was already something of a celebrity as a television host in Guangdong before he became an artist and that he intentionally leaves the significance of his work open to interpretation, as opposed to more blatant provocations like Ai's.    

Nonetheless, Ou is aware that his art is risky in China and takes precautions, telling China Daily in 2009: "Every time I go out to shoot, my family worries about me. ... I write 'help' messages on my cell phone beforehand and inform my friends they should get ready to rescue me if I get into any trouble." 



Art: Over the last decade, Sun and Peng have emerged as enfants terribles of installation art, not just in their own country, but internationally. They first gained notoriety in 1998 for an installation called Honey in which a (real) cadaver of an old man was buried beneath a bed of ice, with the corpse of an infant lying next his exposed face. In another piece, the two gave blood transfusions to infant corpses. They've also constructed a column out of human fat and chained pit bulls to treadmills.

Their work occasionally verges on the political. Old People's Home featured realistic-looking sculptures of decrepit old men resembling world leaders puttering around the gallery in motorized wheelchairs. In a 2009 work called "Freedom," a gushing fire hose flails about in an empty room -- a piece that some critics interpreted as a reference to the Tiananmen Square crackdown, 20 years earlier.

Consequences: Despite the deliberately confrontational (and gruesome) nature of much of their work, Sun and Peng haven't yet fallen afoul of the Chinese legal system. In their late 30s, the two are seen as part of a new generation of Chinese artists who came of age after the era of rigid censorship during which figures like Ai Weiwei and the well-known contemporary artist Zhang Huan cut their teeth. Authorities have been far more willing to tolerate boundary-pushing material that would have earned a jail sentence during the 1980s, so long as the content is not explicitly political. With contemporary Chinese art exploding as one of the most profitable commodities in the international market, most artists have been willing to take the deal. 


Lead photo: MIKE CLARKE/AFP/Getty Images

The List

What Else Happened This Week?

What the world missed as it fixated on Osama bin Laden.

Syria continues its crackdown

The Syrian regime tried this week to gain the upper hand against its restive population, arresting hundreds of people suspected of participating in recent protests. According to reports, as many as 300 alleged demonstrators were indiscriminately seized from their homes and hauled away. Together with the imposition of martial law upon several cities across the country and the killing of several hundred protesters, the sweeping arrests seem to have somewhat dampened the seven-week long uprising against the Assad regime: this Friday's protest was markedly smaller than previous iterations -- though protesters still numbered in the thousands in cities across the country. Sixteen civilians were reportedly killed in the town of Homs.

Meanwhile, the international community has intensified its sanctions against the regime: on Friday, the European Union agreed to impose a travel ban and a freeze of assets on 14 Syrian officials, though President Bashar al-Assad was excluded.

Turkish Prime Minister survives assassination attempt

One policeman was killed and another injured in an attack targeting Turkish Prime Minister Recep Tayyip Erdogan who was en route to a campaign rally in northern Turkey. Luckily, Erdogan was not in the convoy at the time and was airlifted to the rally in a helicopter. A bomb exploded in front of the police convoy escorting his official bus.

The separatist Kurdistan Worker's Party (PKK) claimed responsibility for the attack. The bombing follows riots in Istanbul last month over a controversial decision by Turkey's election board to ban several Kurdish politicians from running for office. The decision was later reversed. More than 30,000 people have been killed in the conflict between the PKK and the Turkish state since the early 1980s.

Victor's justice in Egypt

Former Egyptian Interior Minister Habib el-Adly was sentenced to 12 years in prison and fined $4 million, setting a precedent for the trial of dozens of former Mubarak regime officials on corruption charges. Adly was arguably Mubarak's most powerful cabinet minister; he commanded a security force of 40,000, focused exclusively on suppressing dissent and unrest. The security police were blamed for much of the violence and disorder that took place during the popular uprising that pushed Mubarak from power. Adly also stood of accused illegally profiting from his office.

Egypt has also extended the detention of Mubarak's sons, Gamal and Alaa, for another 15 days. The former president himself, who is reportedly too ill to be jailed, will be transferred to a military hospital. Egypt's new justice minister says Mubarak could face the death penalty if he is convicted of ordering troops to kill protesters during this year's demonstrations.  

South Sudan's fragile peace threatened

Sudan's President Omar al-Bashir this week threatened not to recognize the new state of Southern Sudan if the new country claims control over the Abyei region when it formally declares independence in July. Now, a mere two months before the new country of Southern Sudan is scheduled to announce its official separation, the tenuous détente between north and south threatens to erupt.

Long the most contested enclave along the north-south border, Abyei has significant oil wealth, and both halves of the country claim it. This week, after Bashir's comments, northern troops moved into the town -- violating a 2005 peace agreement -- to prove their point.

Unfinished business for new Ivory Coast president

On Friday, Ivorian President Alassane Ouattara was finally scheduled to take the oath of office -- after five months of being prevented from doing so by outgoing President Laurent Gbagbo, who refused to step down. But things in the Ivory Coast have hardly calmed. In recent days, dozens of people have died in the commercial capital of Abidjan as Ouattara's troops have worked to root out pro-Gbagbo militias. Despite improvements in security, humanitarian groups still worry that tens of thousands of people are in dire need of food and water in rural areas.

Already, the new president is under pressure to answer for crimes allegedly committed by forces loyal to him in March, particularly a large-scale massacre in the western city of Duekoue. Ouattara has announced the creation of a truth and reconciliation commission. But he's also moving forward with prosecution of Gbagbo, a move that many of the former president's supporters say is nothing but victor's justice. Gbagbo's Paris-based lawyers claim they were prohibited from entering the Ivory Coast to attend Gbagbo's first testimony this week.

A breakthrough at Fukushima

Workers entered one of the reactor buildings at Japan's Fukushima Daiichi nuclear plant for the first time since the March 11 earthquake and tsunami. Working in shifts of 10 minutes, a team of 12 engineers installed a ventilation system to filter out radioactive material from the air. If successful, the ventilation system will allow more workers to enter the building and install a cooling system to control the overheated fuel rods. The plant's owner, Tepco, says it hopes to permanently shut down the plant by the end of the year, though some think that's unrealistic.

The political fallout from the disaster continued as well. Prime Minsiter Naoto Kan's top nuclear safety advisor quit, criticizing the government for ineffective decision-making and for not imposing tighter limits on human activity around the plant. Kan was grilled by members of his own party in Parliament over the resignation. The lower house of the Parliament passed a $49 billion emergency budget to begin the recovery effort. (With an estimated $300 billion in damages, the disaster is already the most expensive in history.) The construction of three new nuclear reactors has also been halted.

Portugal agrees to economic bailout

Portugal became the third member of the European Union -- after Greece and Ireland -- to accept a bailout to patch up its massive debt problems. Final terms of the deal have yet to be announced, but officials say that it will be worth $115 billion -- pending approval from all 17 countries that use the euro currency. That's no sure thing, however: Finland's parliament has recently seen an influx of hardened Euro-skeptics.

Still unclear are the terms that Portugal's European neighbors may set as a condition for lending the money. Prime Minister José Sócrates already handed in his resignation last month -- an election is scheduled for June 5 -- when the public balked at his proposals for austerity measures. Sócrates says that he has bargained for a "good deal, one that safeguards Portugal," but Europe's previous bailouts don't bode well. Greece is still struggling to curb debt, nearly one year after negotiating its bailout deal.

Oil's flash crash

After rising 35 percent from February to reach $114 per barrel last week, oil prices fell rapidly this week, hitting $97 as of Friday. A number of factors contributed to the drop, including a weak U.S. jobs report that raised fears that demand for oil would sink the world's largest economy, and a strengthening U.S. dollar, which makes the commodity more expensive for traders using other currencies. Political unrest in the Middle East may yet reverse the trend.

Gasoline prices, however, have not yet declined, though they will likely see a fall over the next few days. Other commodities -- including gold, silver, coffee, corn, cotton, and soybeans -- also dropped, potentially indicating that a months-long run-up in commodity prices may have hit a peak.   

Swiss banks clean house

Switzerland provided more details this week on the roughly $1 billion in assets it has frozen from the bank accounts of people connected to Muammar al-Qaddafi, Hosni Mubarak, and Zine al-Abidine Ben Ali, giving a clearer picture of just how much money the three North African strongmen had stashed abroad. A total of $467 million was frozen from accounts connected to Mubarak's inner circle; $410 million for Qaddafi; and $69 billion for Ben Ali. While substantial, the amounts are thought to be just a fraction of the total funds the three leaders had deposited in various foreign bank accounts.

The revelations are part of a larger process of house cleaning for Switzerland's notoriously secretive banking system. Swiss authorities also announced that they had seized $81 million connected to former Ivory Coast strongman Laurent Gbagbo and began proceedings to return the assets of former Haitian dictator Jean-Claude "Baby Doc" Duvalier to the Haitian government.

Iranian clerics escalate power struggle with Ahmadinejad

Infighting in the Islamic Republic reached a new crescendo this week, as several aides to President Mahmoud Ahmadinejad were arrested on apparent charges of witchcraft. The arrests come after several weeks of sniping between Ahmadinejad and Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei -- a proxy power struggle between the regime's clerical establishment and its secular hardliners. One of Ahmadinejad's closest and longest-standing advisors, Esfandiar Mashaei, is especially reviled by powerful theocrats, who suggest he is promoting an "Islam without clerics" -- not least by downplaying religion in favor of promoting the country's pre-Islamic past.

The argument between Ahmadinejad and Khamenei began in earnest on April 17, when the president tried to fire his intelligence minister, the cleric Heydar Moslehi. Khamenei weighed in several hours later, overruling the dismissal. In response, Ahmadinejad refused to attend scheduled cabinet meetings. The president ended his boycott on Sunday, but this week's arrests suggest that Khamenei and the clerical establishments are intent on escalating the fight.

A sad Cinco de Mayo

It was a somber Cinco de Mayo celebration in Mexico City as President Felipe Calderon took to the air waves to defend his government's four-year-old drug war, which has resulted in over 34,000 deaths. "We must redouble our efforts because if we stop fighting they will kidnap, rob, and kill all over the country," Calderon said. His remarks came as hundreds of anti-drug war protesters began a three-day march to the capital, which will culminate in a massive rally on Sunday.

The Mexican army discovered another 25 bodies in mass graves in the northern city of Durango on Friday, increasing the number of bodies found in the north since last month to 146. 

A new day for Canada

Monday's election constituted a seismic shift in Canadian politics, with Prime Minister Stephen Harper's Conservative Party solidifying its grip on power with 40 percent of the vote -- enough to finally form a majority government. The Liberal Party came in a humiliating third place for the first time in the party's history. The 19 percent result is a devastating setback for the center-left party that ruled Canada as a virtual one-party state for the vast majority of its history; party leader Michael Ignatieff stepped down to return to academia.

The Liberals' humiliation had less to do with the popularity of the Conservatives than the surprising rise of the left-wing New Democratic Party, which campaigned as an alternative to the bitter partisanship of the two major parties and came in second, with 31 percent of the vote. The nationalist Bloc Quebecois also lost big, seeing its representation in Parliament drop from 47 seats to 4 seats, thus ending, for now, the long debate over Quebec independence.

Libyan leader may face war crimes charges

Muammar al-Qaddafi's forces continued their assault on the port of Misrata, preventing much needed food and supplies from reaching the city and disrupting efforts to evacuate thousands of migrant workers still trapped there. International Criminal Court prosecutor Luis Moreno-Ocampo said in a report to the U.N. Security Council that his investigators have found "reasonable grounds" to charge Qaddafi with war crimes and crimes against humanity for his attacks against civilians.

Earlier this week, Qaddafi's youngest son, Saif al-Arab, was buried near Tripoli after he was killed in a NATO airstrike over the weekend. Qaddafi loyalists responded to the attack by ransacking the U.S., British, and Italian embassies. U.N. personnel were evacuated from the city following the attacks.

At a meeting in Rome, the international contact group on Libya, which includes representatives of NATO states and Arab countries involved in the intervention, agreed to set up a fund to assist rebel forces.

Crowded planet

A new United Nations report projects that the world's population may hit 10.1 billion by the year 2100, reversing early projections that growth would stabilize around 9 billion at the middle of this century. The global population is expected to pass 7 billion this October.

The reason for the upward revision is that fertility rates are not falling as fast as expected in the developing world. This is particularly evident in Africa, where the population is expected to more than triple, rising from 1 billion to 3.6 billion. The world's most populous country, China, is projected to join the ranks of countries with declining population -- peaking at 1.4 billion in the coming decades, then falling to 941 million by 2100.

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