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“Art spies” said to be on look out for non-approved events

Conflict between government and arts organisers at Shanghai World Expo

Shanghai

With Shanghai’s World Expo underway, the organisers’ original prediction of hundreds of thousands of visitors a day has proved correct, despite some organisational glitches at the start, and various crowd control issues.

But the Chinese government, which wants to present a coherent, non-controversial, urbanist theme, is coming into conflict with local arts organisers, as well as some pavilion organisers, and with the visiting crowds themselves. Saudi Arabia’s extremely popular flight simulation, Switzerland’s cable car ride around the roof of the pavilion, and Holland’s Van Gogh’s gold plated hair exhibit, have all proved a big hit with Expo visitors. Some pavilions have fenced off the art in their pavilions, with countries such as France and Germany restricting art viewing to VIP visitors. This has partly been due to concerns over crowd behaviour issues. In one incident, a disgruntled crowd queuing to get into the German Pavilion started chanting “Nazis” at pavilion staff, while earlier on those queueing for the UK pavilion started throwing rubble. Queues can be several hours long for popular pavilions. Both the German and Czech Pavilions sent letters to the Expo organisers complaining about numerous organisational issues. These letters were leaked to the foreign press.

There was further controversy when a performance on the Expo’s “Czech Day”, by Chinese artist Huang Rui, was cancelled. Huang explained: “I performed my piece at Moganshan Road [the M50 art district in Shanghai], it was approved by authorities, it is about an audience of 64 people, over 64 minutes, it relates to the I Ching. The security office at the Expo linked it to 4 June [the Tiananmen massacre], but it is the number of the I Ching, you cannot change that.”

With the Expo, there is an increased pressure on Shanghai’s censorship system, with a multitude of art shows happening in the city itself, away from the far more managed Expo site. Relying on informers, the censorship system waits for reports of controversial work, then intervenes.

A Shanghai art scene insider, who asked to remain anonymous, explained: “In Shanghai, there are three main ‘art spies’ known colloquially as ‘chang chang dou’ (meaning ‘the people who go to everything’). Local artists don’t talk to them, but foreign or Beijing artists may talk to them unwittingly.”