Is there a lack of LGBT art in Beijing?

A look at why the Chinese market is so cagey about queerdom

While some Beijing LGBT artists are bringing gay themes to a global audience, many more find themselves ignored by local galleries. Jack Smith asks why the Chinese market is so cagey about queerdom

Beijing-born artist Yan Xing has no shortage of fans. His success is partly down to his ability to skirt around the system. A basic rule he seems to follow is never labelling his work as ‘gay’, even when pressed to in interviews. He rejects the label even though a glance at any of this openly gay artist’s works reveals a tacit exploration of homoeroticism, particularly the dimly lit male nudes which evoke Robert Mapplethorpe’s work. What Yan calls an ‘insane stubbornness’ against being pigeonholed has allowed him a degree of commercial success without sacrificing his appeal.

Tellingly, however, it is in Europe and America that Yan has found widespread acceptance. The touring exhibition featuring some of his signature works, My Generation: Young Chinese Artists, will run in the US until next year. The LA Motion Picture Academy just screened a selection of Yan’s video art and he also has works on display at the Lin & Lin Gallery in Taipei.

Back home in China, however, queer-identified artists continue to struggle with censorship, both the State- and self-inflicted varieties, as well as the sensitivity of professional art spaces and a lack of public interest. A collection of queer artworks entitled Conditions, featuring pieces from a wide range of international LGBT artists, was recently exhibited in Beijing. It wasn’t at a gallery, but rather the popular nightclub Destination.

Exhibition curator Li Qi, of Leap art magazine, acknowledged that despite the high-profile names included in the exhibition, such as photographer Trevor Yeung, gender-bending Chinese art collective Double Fly Art Center and Shanghai-based psychedelic tableau artist Chen Tianzhuo, the only place in Beijing that could provide a viable space for such an exhibition was a gay club. Even the exhibition’s promotional material contained no reference to queer themes.

Philip Pearson, a British art lover who managed the former Zen Foto Gallery off Fangjia Hutong, discovered during his time in Beijing that even for Chinese art lovers, queer themes were new and controversial territory.

‘The issue homosexuality faces in China isn’t active negative discrimination, but indifference and ignorance,’ he comments, citing an exhibition of photography by a young local artist he curated that included depictions of same-sex intimacy. During the exhibition’s short run, he noted that ‘it did seem to be the case that a few people hadn’t really considered that “gay” is a thing.’

Ambivalence and ignorance on the part of consumers, however, are only part of the reason why mainstream galleries are often reluctant to exhibit works containing overt or even implied homoerotic material. Jason Maddock, a US-born ceramics artist who established the Shanghai contemporary art group 露Lou 露Lou with his Chinese partner Lulu, has experienced this first-hand.

‘[We’re] a gay couple and gay artists working together – that has been its own adventure right there,’ he says. ‘In March of 2014 we put up an exhibition that expressed our newfound confidence in art and our “outness” as a couple. However, the whole process was laced with obstacles. Tackling this issue head-on churned up irrational fears that at times were paralysing. Lulu does believe that art can change things, but the current situation can wear you down, especially when you love your parents and family.

The couple’s works – traditionally fired ceramics, abstract canvases and multimedia installations that are spectacular by any measure – have been exhibited at a number of galleries, but the queer context has generally been left out of the conversation. According to Maddock, venues are happy to show their work – unless they raise their sexuality during negotiations.

‘When we hid our orientation we would get exhibitions, but when we were explicit as to the work’s content being gay, the galleries would say no and give no reason. We always wondered if our work was substandard or if it was “too gay”.’

Maddock’s partner Lulu has his own perspective on the challenges faced by queer-identified artists, even those who wish to leave their sexuality out of the discussion.

‘Highly creative artists producing works that embody universal values are getting a good reception in China, but those with a sharply critical spirit can be equally well-respected and their works just as well received,’ he says. ‘For tongzhi[queer] artists, on the other hand, the road is far less navigable.’

‘If you don’t mention “the gay thing” when approaching a gallery, they’ll happily discuss collaborating. But if you disclose, they’ll not even look at your works. Sometimes you get an “Oh, we understand, but we can’t promote you,” but we never get an explanation as to why.’

Something approaching an answer to these questions may lie in regulations enforced by the Ministry of Culture and its policy of ‘Three Nos’ concerning LGBT-themed cultural products. These three nos roughly equate to ‘no promotion, no condemnation and no acknowledgement’, a negatory policy which is particularly harshly enforced in cinema, theatre and the visual arts.

‘It seems that when it comes to gay artists a roadblock has been set up,’ says Lulu. ‘But your art must be informed by your inner self. At its root, art is pure, but it’s intertwined with so many complex elements. I hope to preserve this purity, but I feel that current social circumstances in China won’t allow me the opportunity.'

Yan Xing’s selected works are on permanent display at Urs Meile Gallery. Go to www.loulouart.com for more on 露Lou 露Lou.

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