Chinese artist hits back at party censorship with trashy performance

Australia-based Xiao Lu's exhibit 'Junk' highlights Beijing's 'red lines' that extend far beyond its borders.
By Lionel TC for RFA Mandarin
Chinese artist hits back at party censorship with trashy performance Chinese artist Xiao Lu at the opening of her performance art exhibit at Sydney’s Passage Gallery, June 14, 2024.
Lionel TC/RFA

A Chinese artist is hitting back at the Communist Party's ongoing attempts to censor cultural expression even far beyond China's borders with an exhibit in Sydney depicting the kind of "garbage" that gets produced when artists agree to stay within the government's "red lines."

As part of her performance art exhibit at Sydney's Passage Gallery — titled "Junk," which runs through July 19 – Xiao Lu creates artwork live, but within a pattern of red neon strips, before crumpling it up and tossing it away like trash.

"The whole of the Passage Gallery exhibition hall is set up as a black space,"  Xiao told RFA Mandarin at the launch of her exhibit. "There are red lights that represent China's censorship of art exhibitions and free speech."

"In Chinese, we use the phrase 'red lines' to denote lines that can't be crossed," Xiao said. "If you cross them, something bad will happen."

She said it's not just in China that Beijing stifles creativity, however.

"Self-censorship by art institutions invades everyone's soul," Xiao said, adding that even exhibition venues in Australia can be wary of annoying the Chinese government.

"Even here, it's rare to see an exhibit that truly reflects the reality of China," she said.

It's not that Australia lacks work by Chinese artists. In Sydney alone, small and large venues alike run frequent shows year round that are lavishly sponsored by Chinese companies.

"Most of those exhibits focus on work with 'Chinese characteristics' that is overwhelmingly unrelated to political and social reality in China today," she said.

Chinese artist Xiao Lu’s performance art exhibit at Sydney’s Passage Gallery, June 14, 2024. (Lionel TC/RFA)

"This is increasingly similar to what's happening in China, where most of the works I see are devoid of content," Xiao said. "Contemporary art shouldn't be about eulogizing something, or focusing on superficial form."

"It should face up to the problems of the age it is living in, and raise questions about them," she said. "I don't see this kind of work in China, but I only see it rarely in Australia, which is a problem."

‘Soft-power infiltration’

Xiao cites an example of Sydney's Vermilion Art gallery, which invited her to write an article about the situation in China during the stringent restrictions of the zero-COVID era.

"I was still in China when I received a call from a gallery asking me to write an article about the situation in China," Xiao said. "It was during the pandemic [restrictions], and I wrote an article about lockdown. But the gallery didn't dare to publish it."

Radio Free Asia approached Vermilion Art and invited them to respond to Xiao's allegations, but no reply had been received by the time of publication.

Taiwan-based artist Kacey Wong, who went to art school in Australia, agreed with Xiao's assessment that Beijing is packaging approved forms of art to be shown in overseas galleries.

"They take ancient Chinese culture and add various Communist Party-influenced elements to it, then export it as a form of soft-power infiltration and soft-power confrontation," Wong said.

"The Chinese Communist Party turns every walk of life into a battlefield," he said.

In January, Xiao boycotted an exhibition of Chinese art linked to former Australian Ambassador Geoff Raby, saying he had been lauded by the Communist Party newspaper the People's Daily in December 2019 for his uncritical attitude to Beijing.

In February, she held an exhibit in Melbourne which hit back at Beijing's suppression of the 2019 Hong Kong protests and its clearance operations targeting the low-income population in the Chinese capital.

Translated by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Malcolm Foster.


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