Art and Subversive Humor

The New York Times Magazine published an excellent article about artists and activists in China who evade censors by coding their critiques of the government in humor and satire.  The article is full of examples of beautiful – and effective – artistic activist gestures.  What I loved was the article’s depiction of the diversity of the work and the ingenuity of the artists.  You should read the article, but consider this piece by Wen Yunchao, an artist/activist who considers humor a ‘weapon of the weak’:

“Not long ago, Wen even dared to target China’s most unassailable icon: Mao Zedong. The chairman has been dead for 35 years, but his massive portrait still presides over Tienanmen Square. It is just one sign of what Wen calls the “awful influence” wielded by the founder of the People’s Republic. Ridiculing Mao is almost unthinkable in China today. Even so, on the anniversary of Mao’s death in 2009, Wen urged his online followers to join a devious “de-Maoification” campaign. Since “mao” is also the Chinese word for “hair,” he suggested posting before-and-after shots of shaved body parts — people literally “getting rid of mao.”

Wen is a beer-bellied man with a thick Abraham Lincoln-style beard. Among the hundreds of images of shorn beards and hair-free legs that flashed across the Web that day was Wen’s own contribution: a photo of his rotund belly with its hair in a topiary of the “t” of the Twitter logo. Wen’s abdominal salute was funny, but it was also a manifesto for a more open China — and a dangerous move in his showdown with Chinese authorities.”

Highly censored communist countries produce huge cannons of dark, political jokes – there are so many from Soviet Russia that they merit their own taxonomy.  Jokes simultaneously highlight and subvert hegemonic structures by drawing attention to their absurdity.  They de-naturalize elements of daily life that oppress most effectively when they are assumed to be ‘normal’.  But they also draw people together, forging camaraderie through a shared language reserved for the underdog.  This is activist art at its finest.

What is so interesting about the case of China is that, even in spite of The Great Firewall, use of the internet has enabled the dissemination of visual humor.  Even though a written description of Wen’s shaved belly is pretty funny to me, I have a feeling that seeing the image would have had me in stitches (if you can get your hands on any of these, send them our way).

I can’t talk about activist humor in China, however, without balancing it with an acknowledgement of the serious danger faced by activists there.  The energy of their work derives from the tension created as artists toe the line between playfulness and outright criticism of the government.  Consider another excerpt from the same Times magazine article:

“ “The government’s primary means of control is the fuzzy line,” says David Bandurski, a researcher at the China Media Project at Hong Kong University. “No one ever knows exactly where the line is. The control apparatus is built on uncertainty and self-censorship, on creating this atmosphere of fear.”

Wen felt the line shift a year ago, after judges in Oslo awarded the Nobel Peace Prize to the jailed Chinese writer Liu Xiaobo. Few Chinese had ever heard of the man behindCharter 08, the human-rights declaration that, like Liu’s name, was banned inside the Great Firewall. But the government was apoplectic. Chinese officials smeared the “criminal” Liu in the press, pressured foreign countries to boycott the ceremony and blocked a raft of new words on the Internet, even “Norway” and “Nobel.”

When the banned words extended to the phrase “empty chair” — the most conspicuous sign of Liu’s absence at the Nobel ceremony — Wen hit on an idea. If the words were not allowed, why not post photos of empty chairs as a tribute to Liu? “Everyone has an empty chair,” Wen pleaded with his 40,000-plus followers on Twitter and Weibo. “If we only watch, then one day might appear by your family’s dining table as well.” At his urging, bloggers posted dozens of seemingly innocuous pictures online, from an empty chair in a Van Gogh painting to a magazine ad for an Ikea lounger. The censors eventually caught on to the joke, but not before Wen had turned a bit of microblog mischief into a human rights statement.

Three months later came the broad crackdown seeming to stem from Beijing’s paranoia about the possible domestic repercussions from the uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. Wen was visiting Hong Kong when he received an e-mail warning from Chinese public-security agents: “Don’t come home. You’ll be arrested before you even see your wife and son.” His was now the empty chair. Wen decided to wait out the threats in Hong Kong, which is governed by different laws than the rest of China. Wen’s absence may have spared him detention or prison, but now he was in limbo.”

Here, the seriousness of the government’s response underscores the fact that often, it is the mischief-makers, jokesters and artists who depict the world most honestly.

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