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.

Although meeting with Western media is not without its dangers, Zhao Zhao doesn't hesitate for a second. It takes him 40 minutes to get from his studio on the outskirts of Beijing to the downtown gallery showing his work, and Zhao arrives punctually.

Stepping through the modern wooden door that opens onto an idyllic courtyard in front of the gallery, he points wordlessly to the entrance, then leads the way with a quick step. Zhao doesn't come off as a person who is afraid, but as a young man who's in a hurry and knows what he's doing. It may well be this very self-assurance that so aggravates China's state police.

Zhao, 30, is one of China's most promising 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 last year. Zhao worked as his assistant for seven years. Ai, now 54, is of a different generation of artists than Zhao, yet the two have much in common. Both grew up far from Beijing, because earlier generations of their families had been exiled to the deserts of northwestern China. And both men possess both talent and courage.

There's plenty that suggests Zhao will one day become just as famous as his mentor. But the Chinese government doesn't want another Ai, another globally admired rebel artist. It would rather the young artist Zhao simply fade into oblivion. Zhao isn't afraid of those in power, but those in power seem to be afraid of Zhao.

Not Art

Zhao was supposed to have a major solo exhibition in New York this year, at a gallery owned by Christophe Mao, an art dealer active in both Beijing and New York. For Zhao the exhibition would have been an important step toward making a name for himself internationally. He packed up a large number of his works to be shipped by sea -- but the shipment never left the northern port of Tianjin. China's powerful customs police confiscated the cargo.

One of the items seized was a sculpture of Zhao's that consists of the shattered pieces of a concrete statue, a figure of an enormous police officer. The number on the officer's uniform is the date on which Ai Weiwei was arrested in 2011. Zhao made the sculpture during Ai's imprisonment, and constructed it from the start as a ruin.

Zhao showed the work publicly for the first time in October 2011, at Mao's Beijing gallery. At the time, the authorities didn't yet seem interested in Zhao. It wasn't until a later exhibition that police showed up at Mao's gallery a few days before the opening and ordered Zhao's sculpture removed from the group show. Their rationale: It wasn't art.

Working Under Fear

Standing in the courtyard of his gallery, Christophe Mao plucks at the leaves of a small tree and laughs bitterly. Mao was born in China, but now holds American citizenship. He opened a gallery of Chinese art in New York in 2000. He was a pioneer in the field, and he was successful. His Beijing branch came seven years later. Mao seems American in many ways, for example the sporty clothing he's wearing on this day. Then there's his somewhat loud and laughing self-confident manner, a certain nonchalance and an unmistakable mind for business. Still it quickly becomes clear that here in China, his home country, Mao is not free from fear.

It's understandable. There are plenty of stories, lately, of visa applications being rejected. Mao only travels to Beijing six times a year, but these trips are important, and he doesn't want to risk his business here.

Mao has benefitted from the enormous international demand for Chinese art in recent years. In New York, he's located in the middle of Manhattan's art district, and he expanded his exhibition space considerably three years ago. His Beijing gallery is in an extensive complex designed by Ai Weiwei, and he's acquainted with well-known collectors such as Uli Sigg, the former Swiss ambassador to China.

Mao sells works by artists who represent modern China, unquestionably an artistically demanding place. Masters of multimedia art are among them. He also works with many artists held in high regard by the state. Mao himself has made a point of maintaining a good relationship with the government. In 2005, his gallery sponsored China's first pavilion at the Venice Biennale.

Carrying On

Zhao is the most provocative artist Mao represents. The artist is good for Mao's prestige in the West, but he could also cause the gallerist difficulties in China given the current atmosphere. Mao seems truly at a loss. 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.

Zhao relates that after his art shipment was confiscated, he was informed 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.

If Zhao had his way, he would accept that offer and attempt to document this encounter with his work, with his artistic life up to now. The only problem is that he doesn't have the 300,000 yuan he would need to pay the fine.

Zhao, with his close-cropped hair and earnest face, says he was expecting the authorities to come calling. It wouldn't be the first time. But afraid? No, he says, he's not afraid. "They couldn't do anything worse to me," he says, as if it weren't bad enough that he was supposed to disappear. Zhao has every reason to be as bitter and nervous as gallery owner Mao, but instead he's chosen simply to carry on.

Acute Situation

In July, he had an exhibition at a Beijing gallery belonging to German art dealer Alexander Ochs. Zhao, Ochs says, is just as uncompromising as Ai Weiwei, "and that makes him one of the most at-risk people in the country."

Zhao exhibited six small paintings -- bleak, melancholy pictures, nearly abstract, painted in tones of brown and black. Before the exhibition, he had all the interior walls torn down and the room darkened completely. Visitors who wanted to see Zhao's paintings needed a flashlight, lighter or smartphone to illuminate them.

No one knows why it was still possible for Zhao to exhibit new works so officially, not even gallery owner Ochs. Perhaps it has something to do with the fact that at the same time, Ochs organized an exhibition on European constructivism for the National Art Museum of China, a politically harmless show that pleased the Chinese government.

But Ochs too has started to wonder whether he should scale back his involvement in China. He says he was one of the first Europeans to put effort into the country's contemporary art scene, "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 says the situation has grown more acute just within the last few months. Ai Weiwei, for example, was promised that he would get his passport back at the end of June, after it was taken from him last year. But that never happened, and travel abroad remains impossible for Ai. This development was seen within Beijing's art scene as a warning to all artists critical of the regime. Then there's the bill being charged to Zhao for the destruction of his artwork. "These are methods we know from Fascism, and I won't support them," Ochs says.

Constant Intimidation

Despite decreasing sales, the market for art in China remains massive. Though it seems set to flourish once again, the government is making sure that under no circumstances will art produce critical voices.

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 -- or at least, says Ochs, those are the rumors one hears in Beijing.

The business of art has become a risky one. One German art transporter is currently banned from leaving China and has been told to remain available for so-called "questioning." Before this, he was imprisoned for four months, again for supposed tax offenses. No one knows the real reason.

Zhao Zhao has never allowed himself to be deterred. In 2007, he made a video that shows him walking around at night with a camera. People mistake him for a secret police agent, and throw stones at him. He enters a police station and, finding no one there, sets one of the police caps on his head -- his way of demonstrating for the Chinese government the pressure it creates. He filmed all this and titled it "Happening," although it was simply reality.

Avoiding Caution

One of Zhao's recent works is a photorealistic painting modeled after a photograph Zhao took for Ai Weiwei two years ago that shows the artist with four women, all of them naked. It's a harmless picture, yet the government took it as a challenge and Ai is now being investigated for pornography.

Zhao turned that image into a large-format painting. When Ochs offered the work at an art fair in Singapore, not a single Chinese newspaper reported on the painting and its history, "although we received many inquiries about it beforehand," Ochs says. "That can't be coincidence." The painting is now in the possession of a European collector.

At the moment, Zhao is preparing for an exhibition in Hong Kong. He says he would like to live there for a few months, but he's not sure whether he would be allowed to return to Beijing afterward -- "whether they'll let me back into my city."

At the opening of the exhibition at Ochs' gallery, Zhao handed out CDs of himself singing sad-sounding Chinese folk songs. Once again, it's a symbol -- being heard can help to protect him. And he will need that protection.

"I don't want to become cautious," Zhao Zhao says.

Translated from the German by Ella Ornstein
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