Translator’s note: The Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture — a prominent international exhibition of visual art, sculpture, murals, installations, architectural proposals, urban thought experiments, and events — opened on December 15, 2017, and was struck by controversy the following day, when organizers removed a piece of artwork by the well-known young artist Jiang Zhi 蒋志. The piece reappeared two weeks later in the main exhibition hall, only to be removed again a few days afterward in advance of a tour by local Shenzhen officials.
More than 200 exhibits under the main theme “Cities, Grow in Difference” are still offered around the city, with the primary exhibition site located in Nantou Old Town, a historic “urban village” of the kind that has been systematically demolished over the last two decades. Although an introduction to Jiang’s work can still be found on the website (in both the English and Chinese versions), his physical artwork remains unavailable to viewers. Below is a statement that Jiang wrote in response to the situation. The remaining exhibitions will be on display until March 15. —Eleanor Goodman
All text in brackets  signal editor’s notes.
How has something that was “safe” become unsafe?
I was having lunch at a Shantou rice-noodle restaurant next to my hotel when I learned my work had been pulled from the exhibition. I got a WeChat message from a staff member of the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Architecture saying that he had some bad news. I wondered what had happened as I ate. I’d ordered the same thing as a few days before, a three-course set meal: rice-noodle rolls, soup, and stir-fried greens. A woman around 50 wearing a red factory worker uniform sat down across from me with a rice-noodle roll stuffed with egg. She muttered to herself, “Ten yuan [$1.50] for such a tiny portion!” I felt uncomfortable, since I’d ordered so much more than she had. I struck up a conversation and learned that she had been working at a pharmaceutical factory in Shenzhen for close to 20 years. The factory offered a pension, and she’d lived in the area for a long time. Thinking of what had just taken place in Beijing [eviction of migrant workers], I felt moved by how Shenzhen accepts workers from elsewhere with relative congeniality. She had a cheerful manner that I liked, and I invited her to share the fish ball soup that I had deliberately left untouched. She seemed a bit embarrassed, but then graciously agreed. She finished in a hurry, saying she had to get back to work, and thanked me before she left.
After I’d eaten, I wrote back to the biennale staff member, and he finally informed me that my work had been pulled. The work involved a photo taken a decade earlier in 2007 of a “nail household” [钉子户 dīngzi hù] (I’m just using the common parlance here), and what had been exhibited this time was the image airbrushed onto a piece of plywood propped up by a steel frame. I was astonished: At the opening just the night before, the work sat untouched below the windowsill of the old repurposed building. Moreover, for a decade, this work has been shown many times in China (yes, inside China), and I had assumed it was a work with a high “safety factor.”
This is all hardly worth mentioning; I have almost no experience with works being pulled from exhibitions. I had even nearly convinced myself that this was a random personal event, up until someone told me that it was “certain” to occur. At that point, I felt things were more serious than I imagined, and there was nothing “personal” about it.
How has something that was “safe” become unsafe? I know that asking why will not elicit a response from the authorities. Everyone knows why, but it is difficult to say aloud, and instead it’s said that it’s only “natural.” The “naturalness” of something being there one second becomes the “naturalness” of something being removed the next. “Natural” implies a result that has come about because of the irresistible power of our collective thought, which molds our thoughts and feelings, while simultaneously molding our patterns of behavior. In this way, it becomes destined to be our “natural” fate.
But if we never know what is considered a “safe” image, doesn’t that mean that we find ourselves in a pretty lamentable situation? “We” of course also includes officials, since we are an integral whole, existing in the same space.
A decade-old image that has been seen widely across different kinds of media suddenly becomes unsafe; an empty chair suddenly becomes unsafe — what other images and words will be next? As soon as someone says that an image has a particular implication, will it really necessarily be seen that way? Do such claims really have the power to take precedence in the thoughts of a certain portion of the population? Someone once complained that the poetic line “cool breezes cannot read” cast aspersions upon the Qing government, and the author was put to death. Wang Luobin wrote a “safe” ode called “Salaam, Chairman Mao,” but some said that sounded too much like “Slam Chairman Mao” and he was sentenced to 15 years in prison… What I fear is that these dangerous historical cases are not too far from where we are now.
Is the worst-case scenario approaching? Will the image of a bouquet of flowers, a gesture, a particular kind of smile, an umbrella, a hat, and so on suddenly become forbidden? Does this not stem from a bizarre and ridiculous sort of fear? Most fear comes from a childish lack of knowledge. If one’s fear combines with selfishness to create terrible violence, it is a tragedy for humankind.
Later I went back to the exhibition site, along with many other people who had come to the grand opening, and I once again began to feel some optimism. It’s not easy to hold this sort of exhibition in Shenzhen, and thousands of young people thronged the venue, taking selfies and bursting with excitement.
When I checked out the spot where my art had originally appeared, it really was gone, leaving no trace. But the scenery out the window was beautiful, and I saw it with fresh eyes. I went to the window to look outside, and saw a stand of trees with dense green leaves. Several buildings stood nearby, and one household had hung two lavender sheets over the windowsill to dry in the sun. I started to imagine the life of that family. I think if my artwork hadn’t been removed, I probably wouldn’t have taken the time to look out at the world beyond the window.
The corner of the room seemed quite open and empty, and when I looked at the wall that had been covered by my art, to my amusement I noticed that someone had written in white chalk “Yeah yeah yeah yeah” (爷野也夜), and suddenly there was a tune in my head and I couldn’t help but start to sing: Yeah yeah yeah yeah…yeah yeah yeah yeah…
Translation by Eleanor Goodman