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China: Provocative artists intimidated with seizures and imprisonment

4 September 2012

Issue 34 of the German magazine Der Spiegel contains a long article about how authorities in China allegedly intimidate provocative artists with tax laws, seizures, and imprisonment as tools to repress dissident voices.

The article is primarily based on interviews with two gallery owners and the 30-year-old artist Zhao Zhao who has been Ai Weiwei’s assistant for seven years. It was published on 20 August 2012.

“The optimism of the days just before the turn of the millennium has given way to fear. No one seems to know in what direction the market, or the country as a whole, will develop,” wrote Der Spiegel’s journalist Ulrike Knöfel.

She quoted a German gallery owner, Ochs, who told her the situation has grown more acute just within the last few months. He was one of the first Europeans to put effort into China’s contemporary art scene in the 1980s, “and now, almost 30 years later, I’m forced to recognize that we’re not able to create even the smallest of free spaces for our artists,” he told Der Spiegel.

“China’s tax laws have long been opaque, a deliberate gray zone, and now they’re being used as an instrument of arbitrary whim, and of constant intimidation. It’s said that members of China’s state police even visit the opening receptions of Chinese artists who show their work at New York galleries,” Ulrike Knöfel reported.
Art pieces seized and destroyed
In her article in Der Spiegel, Ulrike Knöfel described Zhao Zhao as one of China’s most promising and provocative young artists: “His paintings, sculptures and videos address realities in his country, as well as documenting his life and those of his friends. One of those friends happens to be Ai Weiwei, the world famous artist who was imprisoned for two and a half months…”

At an exhibition in Beijing in 2011 police showed up at the gallery a few days before the opening and ordered one of Zhao’s sculptures removed from the group show. “It wasn’t art,” they said. The sculpture consisted of shattered pieces of a concrete statue, a figure of an enormous police officer, where the number on the officer’s uniform is the date on which Ai Weiwei was arrested in 2011. (See photo above).

Ulrike Knöfel reported that Zhao was supposed to have a major solo exhibition at a gallery in New York this year:

“He packed up a large number of his works to be shipped by sea, including the sculpture of the police officer — but the shipment never left the northern port of Tianjin. China’s powerful customs police confiscated the cargo and informed him he had to pay a fine of 300,000 yuan, the equivalent of €38,000 ($48,000).

It was penalty imposed for no crime, when in fact the authorities had simply refused to export his works. It could well be that Zhao will eventually be accused of tax fraud as well — supposed tax evasion is a favorite with Chinese authorities, and Ai Weiwei has been accused of the same.

Zhao says that he was further informed that even after paying the fine, he would not get his work back — but he would be allowed to view it one last time before it is destroyed.”
Der Spiegel – 28 August 2012:
Risky Business: China Cracks Down on Ai Wei Wei Protege Zhao Zhao
Life for modern artists in China is not easy. Imprisonment, hefty fines and travel bans are just some of the intimidation tactics the state police use to silence those critical of the regime. But Beijing artist Zhao Zhao, once an assistant to artist Ai Weiwei, refuses to bend to the pressure. By Ulrike Knöfel
Der Spiegel – August 2012:
Photo Gallery: Risky Business for Chinese Artists
Zhao Zhao’s profile on Art Link Art

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