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’ or ‘queer’, even when he’s pressed during interviews. While a glance at any of this openly gay artist’s works reveals a tacit exploration of homoeroticism (particularly the dimly lit, Mapplethorpe-esque male nude), what Yan calls his ‘insane stubbornness’ to being pigeonholed has allowed him a degree of commercial acknowledgement without sacrificing his trademark controversial 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 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 in popular nightclub Destination.
Exhibition curator Li Qi, of Leap magazine, acknowledged that, despite the high-profile names included in the exhibition, such as photographer Trevor Yeung, Chinese art collective Double Fly Art Center, and Shanghai-based artist Chen Tianzhuo, the only place in Beijing that could provide a viable space for such an exhibition was a gay club. 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 very often fell within new and controversial territory.
‘The issue homosexuality faces in China isn’t actively negative discrimination, but rather indifference and ignorance,’ he recalls, 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 claims ‘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, is only part of the reason why mainstream galleries are often reluctant to exhibit works containing overt or even implied homoerotic material. Jason Maddock, who established the Shanghai-based art group 露Lou 露Lou with his Chinese partner Lulu, has experienced this first-hand.
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 the 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 have been exhibited at a number of galleries, but the queer context has been generally left out of the conversation. According to Maddock, venues are happy to show their work – unless they raise their sexuality during negotiations.
Lulu has his own perspective on the challenges, saying, ‘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.’ 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.’
Something approaching an answer to these questions may lie in regulations enforced by the Ministry of Culture and its policy of ‘Three No’s’ concerning LGBT themed cultural products. These three no’s roughly equate to: ‘no promotion, no condemnation and no acknowledgement’, a policy particularly harshly enforced when it comes to cinema, theatre and the visual arts.
‘It seems that when it comes to gay artists, unless they hide their sexuality entirely, a roadblock has been set up,’ Lulu remarks. ‘But your art must, by definition, 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.’