Ten Questions for Authors: Contemporary Queer Chinese Art

‘If a tree falls in a forest and no one is around to hear it, does it make a sound?’ This is a well-known philosophical question about observation and perception. While there are no actual trees falling in Contemporary Queer Chinese Art, the question remains pertinent: If no one knows about the existence of queer artists and artworks, can they still be said to exist? Do they still matter? As the first edited collection on the topic, Contemporary Queer Chinese Art opens a window on a fascinating queer Chinese art world. How does the book help us perceive, and imagine, the possibilities of queer life, culture and hope in contemporary China and the Chinese diaspora? In this conversation, Ari Heinrich, Professor of Chinese literature and media at The Australian National University, and Dr Hongwei Bao, one of the co-editors of the book, muse on the sound, reverberation and impact resulting from the fall of a ‘queer tree’.

Q1. You and you fellow editors have created a wonderful volume on contemporary queer Chinese art that is otherwise almost invisible in English (and suppressed or with compromised visibility in Chinese contexts). What was it like to curate a volume that included contributors and subjects ranging from film-makers like Shi Tou 石頭 and Fan Popo 範坡坡 (who are also artists and activists), to kink practitioners, performance artists, artists like Ma Liuming 馬六明 working with trans motifs, ‘neuroqueer’ artists, and seasoned curators like Si Han 思漢?  

Thank you for your very kind words, Ari. The book is a labour of love and an outcome of collaborative work between editors and numerous artists, activists, curators, and scholars. We are indebted to so many people. Without their generous help and support, this book wouldn’t have been possible.

You are spot-on about the sheer diversity of the book. From the outset, we didn’t want to make this a conventional academic book. We wanted to challenge the conventional categories of cultural forms (e.g. fine art, traditional art, media and film, installation, and performance art) as well as the distinctions between and hierarchies of professions. We would like to make the book more interesting, diverse, and inclusive, by including the voices of artists, curators, critics, activists, and scholars – many of these categories overlap for our contributors, anyway.

Linguistic and cultural translation was an integral part of the project. Many artists and scholars are based in China and are more comfortable expressing themselves in Mandarin, and this fact partly contributed to their marginality and obscurity in the Anglophone world. We think it is important to showcase their work outside China. We therefore translated their essays from Mandarin Chinese to English. In some cases, we transcribed their online talk verbatim and then translated the transcript into English. Kudos to our editors and translators. The translation process was a two-way dialogue between editors, translators, and artists. We often had to ask the artists for clarification and elaboration of key points, and the artists frequently challenged our understandings of queer Chinese art. Some chapters read like a person’s conversation with friends. We are pleased that we were able to preserve the verbatim, dialogical, and intimate quality of the intellectual exchange. This makes the book more reader friendly.

What draws all these chapters together is the broad concept of art (art as technique, as expression, as social intervention, as a way of life, and more) and how they can be queered, or practiced non-normatively. We ask: What if we see art practice as research, academic work as curation, and everyone as activists promoting a more capacious understanding of gender, sexuality, and human expression? We hope this book can be found in university libraries, museums, and art galleries as well as in ordinary people’s homes. It’s beautifully designed and richly illustrated, with eighty-seven colour images, and can be used as a coffee table book – well, for me at least.

Q2. In the Introduction, you note that it was in the context of ‘queer Chinese culture and activism…[facing] serious challenges in the middle of a global pandemic and under constant government crackdowns on civil society’ that the book was put together ‘as an effort to document fast disappearing and resurging queer history and culture, reflect upon what has happened and what has been achieved in the past decades and consider what we can learn from this important history’ (p.6).  

The book project started as a research workshop co-organized by our co-editor Diyi Mergenthaler at the University of Zurich in May 2021. As an invited speaker, I was overwhelmed by the fantastic work presented at the workshop. When Diyi asked my advice for the next step, I brought myself and Dr Jamie Jing Zhao (from City University of Hong Kong) on board to help turn the workshop papers into a book. We were able to list the book as the first title in a new book series called ‘Queering China: Transnational Genders and Sexualities’ published by Bloomsbury Academic.

While we were preparing the book launch in May 2023, the sad news of the forced closure of the Beijing LGBT Centre arrived and everyone fell into silence. Queer Chinese community lost another important community space. Beijing LGBT Centre was not only a community space; it also hosted a community archive. With the loss of another important part of queer history, the work of preserving that history seems ever more important and urgent. We hope this book can function as a queer art archive to celebrate the strength, resilience, and creativity of the queer Chinese community globally.

Q3. You also mention that the book gives a ‘special focus…to the lived experiences, stories and memories inscribed in these contemporary artworks and practices’ (p.5). How do the four subthemes of the book relate to this effort to capture the ebb and flow of queer cultural production in contemporary Chinese settings, as well as the lived experiences of its producers?  

The book is divided into four sections, each dealing with a separate subtheme. The first section is dedicated to the discussion of ‘queer forms’: from traditional papercut and kinbaku (rope bondage) to children’s drawings and paintings. Many of these art forms are not traditionally seen as queer; it is the artists’ intentionality and the audience’s interpretation that lend them to queerness. They have ‘queered’ the art form or created queer art forms, so to speak. In this section, we also draw attention to issues of materials and materiality – be they paper, or rope, or acrylic paint. Access to and use of these materials ‘matters’ – both significant and pertaining to issues of materiality – to queer art. Queer cultural analysis traditionally focuses on issues of representation – that is, signs, symbols, and meanings – at the expense of objects and materiality. For queer people, physical access to these objects, materials, skills, spaces and opportunities is as important as the content of representation. Through these artworks, we hope to demonstrate that although many traditions are often seen to be queer-unfriendly or queer-insensitive, they embody enormous potential for queer use and appropriation. After all, traditions are not static; they can be queered and queer. Xiyadie’s 西亞蝶 creative use of the traditional papercut form is a good example. Papercuts are traditionally used in rural China in festive occasions such as weddings and the lunar new year to celebrate a heteronormative imagination of happiness. Xiyadie’s works boldly depict his homoerotic desires; the also document rural queer life and urban queer cruising scene, both of which have received very little scholarly attention to date.

We also wanted to draw attention to the intersection between sexuality and gender, demonstrated by the cross-fertilisation of queer and feminist movements in contemporary China. The second section of the book includes a diverse body of works that place women’s experience at the centre of their artistic and political expression. These works also highlight the role of female same-sex intimacy in helping to conceptualise women’s bodies and desires. Although not all artists identify as feminist and queer, their works manage to articulate a distinct queer feminist politics. For example, Ma Yanhong’s 馬延紅 paintings depicting male and female nudity are often seen to depict same-sex intimacy, although the characters’ sexuality is unknown. These paintings raise the issue of queer spectatorship as well as the politics of gaze: what would it be like for a female Chinese artist to paint the nude bodies of two European men, instead of the other way around? What if queerness is a way of looking at things against normative scripts of gender, sexuality, and race?

The third section engages with the emerging and exciting subfield of curatorial studies. It lays bare curators’ creative and affective work as well as the hidden power relations that structure the exhibition and labelling of artworks. We present four instances of how curators and critics translate their feminist, queer and trans politics into the way they select, interpret and exhibit artworks. Banying 半影curators Jiete Li and Claire Ping introduce how they organized the Women’s Arts Festival in Beijing in the middle of the COVID-19 pandemic in 2021; their concept of turning the whole city into a ‘fluid museum’ functions as a creative feminist curatorial practice against dominant, institutionalized, and male-centred curatorial practice. Studies of two major queer Asian art exhibitions, Secret Love that took place in Stockholm in 2012 and Spectrosynthesis that took place in Taipei in 2017, demonstrate how curatorial strategies work to produce queerness and how curatorial contexts shaped these strategies. The legendary work Fen-Ma Liuming 芬·馬六明 also manifests the role of historical contexts and discursive frameworks in shaping the reception and interpretation of artworks.

The last section of the book places queer Chinese art in a transnational and diasporic context. London-based performance artist Burong Zeng 曾不容and Berlin-based filmmaker Popo Fan 範坡坡introduce their recent artworks and practices in Europe, especially during the Covid pandemic. Their works have interrogated themes such as Chineseness, orientalism and pandemic racism that many queer Chinese people encounter in the diasporic context. The book concludes with my own chapter, a discussion of the wonderful Imagining Queer Bandung project, a series of filmmaking and podcasting workshops for queer people of colour living in Europe in 2021. What is important about the project is the queer of colour solidarity centring around the political imaginary of ‘Queer Bandung’, which not only queers the hegemonic historical Bandung discourse but also articulates a queer of colour solidarity in a European context that marginalizes them.

Q4. Why do you think there has been so little work on queer Chinese art in English, given what could be understood as a proliferation—or at least the emergence of a small field—of queer Sinophone literature and cultural studies? Given how ‘queer’ contemporary Western art has been (you could even say that queerness is in its DNA), how do you explain the lack of attention to queer Chinese art in contemporary Western-language visual culture studies? 

This is an interesting question for sure. The marginality of queer Chinese art in Anglophone scholarship can result from many reasons. First of all, queer topics are considered marginal in the study of Chinese society and culture. Inside the People’s Republic of China (PRC), this is understandable as queer topics are seen as taboo topics, especially in recent years, stigmatising researchers and even putting a scholar’s career at risk. In the Anglophone world, queer researchers do not face the same degree of stigmatisation, but they are certainly marginalised institutionally. People often consider queer studies scholars to be EDI (equality, diversity, and inclusion) hires whose work may not be the best, or who only know a niche field of study and therefore cannot be hired to teach ‘bigger’ issues. Besides, although queer studies scholars often take pride in interdisciplinarity, the academia (and the academic job recruitment) is still structured by rigid disciplinary boundaries. I can’t think of many universities that advertise a position in queer studies, let alone in Chinese queer studies. Because of these discriminatory institutional structures and practices, it is extremely difficult for a queer researcher to find a long-term academic job to sustain their research.

Secondly, queer art research is marginalised in queer studies overall. Despite the proliferation of queer scholars trained in social sciences, arts and humanities scholars, especially art historians, are relatively few in number. This probably says something about the status quo of arts and humanities in neoliberal universities and in society overall as about the stubborn and often exclusionary tradition of art history as a field of study. Despite laudable decolonisation initiatives in recent years, art history is still heavily dominated by the study of white, European art history, to the exclusion of other cultures and traditions. In media and cultural studies in which I am situated, an obsession with the ‘new’, the popular and the digital does not dovetail with art historical research. The popular misconception that art is high and elite culture does not help bring media and cultural studies scholar closer to art research, either.

Thirdly, the study of contemporary Chinese art follows the art market closely and the market has certain stereotypes and conventions. As contemporary Chinese artists such as Ai Weiwei 艾未未 and Xu Bing 徐冰 made their names in the international art market, a certain style, or aesthetics, is expected of contemporary Chinese art from curators and art critics: those openly critical of the Chinese state and those reproducing stereotypical images of Chineseness are valued. Most queer Chinese art does not sell, and most are made by young and budding artists; most do not follow a particular convention or style. These are hardly appealing to curators and art critics. The idea that queerness is about transgression, about crossing boundaries, about challenging norms and perceptions, does not translate well in an international art world that sees ‘Chineseness’ in a rigid and stereotypical way.

Also importantly, there is a lack of art critics, curators, and historians from queer Chinese backgrounds or who are familiar with queer Chinese art. Art critics, curators and historians are gatekeepers in the art world and academic world. Their job is to select artists, evaluate artworks, and introduce them to the public. If they do not see the existence of queer art, or see its value and importance, how can queer art enter museums, art galleries, and history books? Some see queer art as a ‘niche’ thing that do not speak to the ‘universal’ experience, others see queer art lacking in aesthetic and artistic value. But whose ‘universal’ experience does art speak to and who sets up the criteria for such a value judgment?

Q5. The word ‘China’ vs. ‘Sinophone’ carries different weights and histories vis-à-vis the queer. You and contributors refer to Petrus Liu’s work and acknowledge some of these other discursive universes.  How do you see the contributions in this volume in relation to these larger debates about what counts as ‘Chinese’, as ‘Sinophone’, or indeed as queer? 

We are aware of the discussion of China and the Sinophone. While some scholars see the two as binary opposites that are mutually exclusive, we see them as related and complementary categories. We share with Sinophone scholars the desire to deconstruct and decentre an essentialised notion of ‘Chineseness’. As Sinophone scholars do this from the outside, we do it from within. We contend that it is important to see the subversive and resistant potential of queer and feminist work within the PRC to deconstruct a hegemonic, heteropatriarchal construction of ‘Chineseness’. Aware of the heated scholarly debates, we would also like to bypass the debate, as well as the political and ideological divisions, between China and the Sinophone altogether. This is because most of the artists discussed in this book come from and are currently based in the PRC, and most of them identify more with a critical use of ‘Chineseness’ than an uncritical use of the term ‘Sinophone’. Also, if the concept of Sinophone focuses primarily on written language and phonetic sounds, most of the artworks discussed in the book are not based on written words or phonetic sounds. Focusing on the openness of the visual, the tactile, the sensorial as well as the worldmaking potential of artworks allows us to think about both queerness and Chineseness in a more capacious way, one that is not anchored to language, sound and nation states, but opening up borders, boundaries and spaces.

Q6. Your own essay on ‘Imagining Queer Bandung’ breaks new ground by using ‘participatory action research’ (p.203) to organise online public forums after the ‘Queering Bandung’ project—a film festival, podcasting workshop, and filmmaking workshop that took place over eight days in Berlin in 2021.  As you note, ‘[t]he title of the project references the first Asia-Africa Conference—also known as the Bandung Conference—that took place in Bandung, Indonesia, in 1955, which once marked the height of Third World Solidarity’ (p.203), and the events—including the ones you organised afterward—offer ‘a good example of the queer people of colour’s transnational solidarity and decolonization enacted at a grassroots level outside the purview of nation states” (p.201).  For our readers, can you say more about ‘Queer Bandung’?  What inspired you to organise follow-on events?  How did you learn about the project originally? 

Imagining Queer Banding is a fantastic project. Thanks go to the organisers and participants who have made the filmmaking and podcasting workshops possible. I first heard about the project from queer filmmaker Fan Popo, who also contributed a chapter to the book, in 2021, in the middle of the global pandemic. Fan, together with other diasporic queer filmmakers living in Berlin, organised a series of filmmaking and podcasting workshops, together with a film festival, to foster and celebrate queer people of colour solidarity. This was particularly important at the time because the COVID-19 pandemic made everyone vulnerable, queer people of colour living in diasporic contexts especially so. Their vulnerability lay not only in the racism they experienced in a white, European society, but also the precarity of jobs in white-centred creative and cultural industries. But vulnerability can also be a form of strength, an opportunity to build coalition and solidarity. So I contacted them and invited them to talk about their projects in two online, public events. I also managed to get some funding to pay them an honorarium. I saw these online events as a form of social activism to raise people’s awareness of queer people of colour’s existence and experience, to bring to public attention issues of racism and marginalisation, and to showcase the brilliant work of these wonderful artists.

Since the pandemic started, I have organised a series of events, both online and in-person, with diasporic queer Chinese communities, including the Queer Art of Surviving the Pandemic Workshop, the Queer Arts in the Pandemic Festival, Queer Zine-Making Workshops, and Drag Up! I am in a privileged position of having a stable academic job and having access to some university resources, in a way many artists and community members do not. How to make use of these resources to help queer Chinese communities and promote social justice is a question I’ve constantly been exploring.

Q7. The curator Si Han makes the point that the artworks included in his exhibit Secret Love, while displayed openly in Sweden, can’t be shown in China, (p.148); and in the Introduction you share the insight that ‘a variety of forms only become available to the eyes in transcultural encounters’ (p.7). Si Han also frames this as an almost existential question when he observes that ‘[t]he fear of the visual and its power often leads to the harshest censorship of pictorial art and all forms of visual culture as something threatening. If you cannot be seen, you do not exist’ (p.146) (does a queer tree fall in a forest?). And, referring to the work of Shi Tou, you note that one of the artist’s paintings (Female Friends, 1997) ‘documents not only the feelings of feminist sisterhood, but also the existence of female same-sex intimacy in the 1990s’ (p.10). To what extent is contemporary queer Chinese art only ‘creatable’ either in secret or outside China? Do you see parallels between this kind of paradox and the challenges of dissident art more generally?   

I like the question ‘does a queer tree fall in a forest?’ although I don’t have an answer to this intriguing question. I can think of reasons for both positive and negative answers. Visibility is important, not only in terms of representation but also in terms of access to resources and right to existence. That’s why queer people have constantly been fighting against invisibility and marginalization, and that’s also why we did this book, to make a declaration that queer people and their artworks do exist. However, there is also a value for being invisible, opaque, ambiguous, and not having a name, as in the case of same-sex intimacy in premodern China. There are caveats, though: firstly, the premodern conditions of invisibility do not apply today. We live in a society where the modern epistemologies of visibility and rights have powerfully structured how we see ourselves and others, often through naming and categorizing. Secondly, there should be options, or multiple and contingent approaches, instead of a universal solution for all. Visibility and invisibility should be seen as a choice, not completely free from social conditions. But such a choice is not always available to many people.

Now in answer to your question: contemporary queer Chinese art is not, and should not, be ‘creatable’ only in secret or only outside China. Many of our contributors are based in China, and many – although not all of them – understand their artworks in terms of queer art. In a globalised world, to demarcate between what is inside and what is outside China is a difficult task. Many of our artists have read books, either in Chinese or in English, on queer theory, and some have held exhibitions internationally. Contemporary queer Chinese art should be seen as a continent assemblage that brings together people, ideas, technologies, materials, representations, and affects globally. Binary oppositions such as ‘secret/open’ and ‘in/outside’ risk obscuring the complexity of the global queer art ecology of which queer Chinese art is a part.

On the other hand, it is exactly what happens in China that makes queer art – and a particular expression of queer art – possible in the first place. This includes China’s political and cultural censorship. In this light, being secret, or doing things secretly, should not be merely seen as a constraint, but also as a condition, an enabling factor that encourages queer art production and creativity in a particular way, and that continues to shape queer Chinese art as it is today.

Q8. Premodern art and literature could be understood to have aspects we might interpret retroactively as expressions of gender diversity and queerness. In the book, traditional opera (involving cross-dressing) is mentioned, for example, and of course I always think about Dream of the Red Chamber 紅樓夢 as a work which really ‘queers’ boyhood and sexuality in so many profound ways, even though that was not the book’s ‘agenda’ per se. How do you see the relationship, if any, between contemporary queer Chinese art such as that you have included in this volume, and expressions of gender and sexual diversity from the past?

This is a great question. Dream of the Red Chamber, as well as many other premodern Chinese art and literary works, certainly embodies a lot of queer potential, not least because these works contain depiction of same-sex intimacy, but also because they reveal to us a fascinating world full of queer and trans potential before the modern, Western epistemologies of gender and sexuality took hold. It may be naïve to think about contemporary Chinese art to be a continuation of that history of gender and sexual plurality, but it would be equally problematic to deny the impact of these historical memories, or traces, on contemporary cultural production. Besides traditional Chinese opera, the book also presents the queer use of the Republican era New Year Calendars, as in Shi Tou and Ming Ming’s 明明 artworks. An advantage about thinking of queerness through art is that artworks rely on visual, embodied and affective expressions that are more ambiguous, polysemic and open-ended than written or spoken language that denotes rigid identity categories. As such, artworks are conducive to queer readings; it is useful to think about queerness through art, situated in historical contexts.

Q9. And an impossible question, just for fun: Why art? Why is art important for queer theory and activism?

I started my research into queer Chinese culture by documenting organized forms of queer activism. In the writing up of the book, I realised that there are more ways to do activism than pride parades, street protests or demanding change in legislation; engaging with art and culture is one of them. This has been a key argument of my recent work. Art and culture shouldn’t be seen as peripheral or insignificant. They should be taken seriously for their roles to help people express themselves, bring communities together, and imagine social change. They also help us see beyond the quagmires of the present and open our imaginations to an unknown but more habitable future.

I have always been thinking about what art can do. For me, art is not simply about objectively depicting an already existing world: it is also about creating an image, or imaginary, of a world that can be and that is yet to come. Understanding this is important, because we are no longer confined to an already existing world; we live in a world in constant formation and transformation. For queer people, that also means to believe in social change and have faith in hope. Art is an important part of that queer world-making process. For both queer theorisation and queer activism, this means to reject the self-assured certainty in our knowledge and to embrace the unknown, the open and the fantastic.

Q10. Finally, how can interested readers access additional works or materials on the artists, activists, and curators introduced in the book? Can you recommend them to any other resources, whether in English or Chinese? Other films, events, productions, or artworks to look forward to?

I encourage readers who are interested in the topic to read my books, including Queer Comrades, Queer China, Queer Media in China, Contemporary Chinese Queer Performance, and Contemporary Queer Chinese Art. They are complementary and they all document Chinese queer history and culture from different perspectives. I also encourage readers to read my author’s page on the Routledge website and my Queer Lens column on the Chinese Independent Film Archive website, both of which host some teaching and learning resources on queer Chinese culture.

Unfortunately, there is not a single queer art archive, as queer artworks are scattered everywhere, from individual artists’ homes to art galleries. This highlights the necessity and urgency of creating a more sustainable queer art archive. Interested readers can explore the websites of queer art exhibitions such as Queer Chinese Art Festival, Secret Love, and Spectrosynthesis. For those who are interested in following up the Women’s Arts Festival introduced in the Contemporary Queer Chinese Art book, curator Jiete Li discussed the second iteration of the festival held in Yunnan in this interview. Individual artists’ websites and social media are worth following too. Our book has only scratched the surface of the topic, a fantastic queer Chinese art world is there to be unfolded.