Liu Xiaobo

Artist behind daring tribute to late dissident Liu Xiaobo out of contact in China

French-Chinese artist seen being led away after his depiction of Liu’s empty chair at Nobel Prize ceremony was covered up in Shenzhen

PUBLISHED : Saturday, 16 December, 2017, 2:04pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 17 December, 2017, 6:03pm

A French-Chinese artist’s tribute to late Chinese dissident and Nobel laureate Liu Xiaobo survived the first day of a public exhibition in Shenzhen; many would say miraculously.

The miracle proved short-lived, however. By nightfall, authorities had covered the work with a promotional banner. An organiser told the South China Morning Post police were investigating the case as there were “political problems” with the artwork.

The artist Hu Jiamin and his wife, who said they were French nationals, were seen being taken away by plain clothes police on Friday night from the event, Hong Kong newspaper Ming Pao reported. It was not known if the couple were still under detention.

An empty blue chair and a row of red iron bars amid an idyllic traditional Chinese landscape were among the images Hu Jiamin had painted at the centre of his triptych mural that was on display at the Shenzhen-Hong Kong Biennale of Urbanism Architecture, which opened on Friday.

Those details were highly symbolic. Liu, who had dedicated his life to advocating democracy in China, was behind bars in December 2010 when his Nobel Peace Prize was quietly placed on the seat of an empty, blue chair at the Oslo ceremony. Liu died of liver cancer in state custody in July.

“I have been very upset since I heard about Liu’s passing away,” Hu told the Post on Friday. “I’ve always wanted to do something but it seemed like there was nothing I could do, particularly because I’m deeply disappointed by the way China has gone these past years.”

He was referring to the government’s increasing control over most aspects of life in China, he explained.

Hu and his wife, a French national, had flown to Shenzhen from Lyon, where they now live. The couple moved to the city in late 2015, after getting fed up with the tightening political control in Beijing, where they had lived for three years.

Hu had said he was not overly worried about the consequences of his work.

“I’m not a radical person, nor am I an activist … I painted the chair to express my personal commemoration and grief towards Mr Liu, but it’s not a manifesto to the public,” he said.

He had hoped the painting would be allowed to remain on view a little longer so more people could see it.

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“I’m afraid that once the word is spread, the chair might have to be wiped out, or at least be changed into a different colour,” Hu said, peering at it from under his grey flat cap.

However, he had thought he could avoid serious consequences because he no longer lives in China.

“I live in France now, so I don’t feel it’s likely that anything would happen to me. But even if I lived in China, I would not worry too much because I think a lot of fear comes from people’s imagination,” he said on Friday afternoon, appearing quietly confident as he spoke.

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But by nightfall, the authorities went into action, covering up the painting with a large, crude banner carrying a lengthy introduction to the exhibition. No reason for the move was given.

Hu’s wife, Marine Brossard, broke into tears when she and Hu hurried to the scene and saw the mural blocked up. They were then taken away separately by plain clothes police, despite their strong protests, Ming Pao reported.

An organiser of the event told the South China Morning Post on Saturday morning that police had launched an investigation into the display of the mural.

“People who are involved in this are all under investigation, including me, because I am in charge of Hu’s mural project,” she said.

Hu could not be reached on Saturday, and his mobile phone was switched off on Sunday.

An hour after he was taken away, he sent a brief message to say that he was fine, but the Post was unable to independently verify if the message was sent of his free will or under duress.

The 34-year-old spent more than two weeks painting on the outer wall of a temple on the edge of the historic town of Nantou, where the exhibition is held.

The mural, titled Time Discrepancy, consists of three connected rooms incorporating a linear perspective and confectionery colours.

Many of the objects depicted make a political statement by insinuation: surveillance cameras peek from the corners of the rooms; a cordon lies loose on the floor; and Mao Zedong’s famous slogan “Serve the People” fades on the wall.

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But Hu said his piece was not all about politics; in fact, he insisted, it contained many artistic elements and had multiple possible interpretations.

“A good artwork needs to contain different dimensions of meanings,” he said. “I won’t work on something that is purely for expressing my political views. I think art is very limited in that regard.”

The mural stood at the exhibition’s entrance, with Liu’s blue chair expressing quiet defiance for the benefit of patrolling police officers and security guards.

But most people brushing past the work were oblivious to the symbolism behind the empty chair.

News of Liu’s arrest, incarceration and death was strictly censored in mainland China. There, the media, the internet and civil life have been subject to the ruling Communist Party’s ever-tightening control, especially in the era of President Xi Jinping, who took power five years ago.

Still, the mural inspired people to take photos. A young woman in black walked up to the wall, leaned against it and took a selfie.

“I thought the painting was very pretty and just wanted to take a photo with it … I have no idea what the chair stands for,” the 24-year-old saleswoman said.

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When asked about Liu, she looked bewildered. “I’ve never heard of him,” she said with wide-eyed innocence.

But for Ye Du, a dissident poet and friend of Liu, it was both surprising and deeply moving to spot the blue chair on Hu’s mural arriving at the exhibition on Friday morning.

“I was shocked the moment I saw it,” said Ye, who had travelled from his home in Guangzhou for the exhibition. “Isn’t that an outright tribute to Xiaobo?

“Perhaps it was the government’s all-too-successful censorship that has enabled the blue chair to go on display in the first place,” he said. “That’s so ironic.”

Ye said he had “total respect for the artist who painted it. It is exceptionally courageous of him to openly express his tribute to Liu”.

Numerous Chinese rights advocates who held mainland memorial ceremonies for Liu were harassed, detained or interrogated by police, including seven on the Guangdong province seashore who held a memorial to mark the passing of the seventh day after Liu’s death.