How Gay Art Survives in Beijing, as Censors Tighten Grip

From the outside, the facade of Destination (a prominent Beijing venue that expressly welcomes gay people) is downright drab. But inside this four-story cultural center on the east side of the city, the works in the nonprofit art gallery can push boundaries.

This is no easy feat as censorship restrictions have been tightening in China under President Xi Jinping. And, although same-sex relations were decriminalized in 1997, gay Beijingers say they continue to face discrimination.

They look longingly to Taiwan, where a recent decision to legalize same-sex marriage on the self-ruled island of 24 million is being celebrated throughout the world. Taiwan has long been the heart of gay Asia.

In mainland China, acceptance of same-sex couples has progressed at a glacial rate. Many gay Chinese will never come out to their family, and there are still gay conversion centers around the country.

However, there is a quietly present gay community in Beijing. Destination, which opened 15 years ago as a nightclub and has since expanded to become a cultural center, is one of the few places where gay men can be open about their sexual orientation, according to observers.

Since the center’s opening, its clientele has remained mostly gay men, but it’s more than just a place to find a date. The center provides anonymous H.I.V. testing, practice rooms for a men’s choir, yoga and dance classes. And on the third floor, the art gallery, ART. Des, provides a window into the current state of gay art in Beijing.

On a recent visit to ART. Des, the center of the gallery was dominated by a bronze sculpture of a dozen sinuous men, clean shaven and nude, beating drums. On the wall hung a mural depicting a group of male companions, casually dressed in boxer shorts; in the lower corner was an image of one hand gently grasping another. Another work depicted a deeper level of intimacy. As two toned torsos lean into each other, both clad in only white briefs, one man cups the weight of the other’s groin.

Very few art galleries in China are willing to show works by gay artists, or art that addresses homosexuality, said Gao Jianxiang, a sculptor and painter in his mid-20s whose work is shown at ART.Des. Because of this, he said, most artists will “paint from the closet” to have their works gain wider acceptance.

But by doing so, Mr. Gao said, artists become complicit in the discrimination against gay people. “Destination is providing an important platform, in that it will allow works that portray same-sex relations, and its door is open to out artists,” he added.

The curator of ART. Des, is Pierre Alivon, a French photographer who has lived in Beijing for four years. The gallery, like other cultural organizations in Beijing, may receive directives from the local cultural bureau, one of many government entities that can influence, or sometimes even dictate, what kind of artwork should not be shown.

All galleries must operate within Chinese law. This includes adhering to censorship guidelines. For example, nudity is generally not allowed. While censorship in China dates to long before Mr. Xi, it has ramped up under his rule. In 2014, Mr. Xi gave a now well-circulated speech warning that salacious art results in “cultural garbage.” Now, whenever Mr. Xi reiterates that art should “serve the people” and be rooted in a Marxist consciousness, there have been recurring crackdowns on content across all mediums.

However, the boundaries of censorship are difficult to define. Particularly with visual works, deciding whether a work is salacious or vulgar can be subjective, leaving gray areas for artists to work in.

Case in point: a large watercolor piece on display at ART. Des (which secured all necessary approvals for its exhibit) is a figure drawing of a young man who is nude save for a well-placed leaf. In theory, given the censorship, this painting typically would not be allowed at any gallery. Yet this same watercolor was shown at the Beijing International Art Biennale, organized by the capital’s municipal government. All artwork for the event had government approval.

Another artist, who asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitive nature of gay rights and art censorship, paints Victorian-style portraits, some of which occasionally feature nude figures. His works have been displayed at ART.Des. He recognizes that his style would not pass muster with Chinese censors.

Despite this, he pointed out that “one can still be a great artist,” even if artwork is not displayed at galleries in line with the government’s stance. “To me, that shows there is freedom, despite what outsiders imagine,” he said. But what about limiting the subject matter that art can address? He cast a long gaze, and said, “Yes, perhaps it’s not as free as the West; but it’s not as closed as people think, either. We’re not North Korea.”

Mr. Gao, the young sculptor, sees things differently. He says artists do not feel free to create works that reflect gay subject matter, because of the pressures of “widespread misunderstanding and disapproval.”

Indeed, most gay artists create works without being open about their homosexuality. A study jointly conducted by the United Nations Development Programme, Peking University and the Beijing L.G.B.T. Center found that only five percent of “sexual and gender minority people” are “willing to live their diversity openly” in China.

The more politically aware will use their art to “fight for social equity, reduce misunderstanding and discrimination” Mr. Gao said.

There have been a few openly gay artists in China, including the photographer Ren Hang, who rose to international fame with provocative work that was sexually explicit.

Even so, Mr. Alivon has heard of gay artists having difficulty in selling their artwork, not because of the work’s aesthetics, but because the artist is known to be gay.

“Other people may wonder why he or she purchased artwork by a gay artist — then people may wonder if the buyer is gay themselves,” Mr. Alivon said.

That is part of the reason ART. Des plays such an important role for gay artists. It offers a space to have work shown to the public, in an effort to reduce misconceptions, as well as provide a venue where potential buyers can view artwork.

But hope springs eternal. Zhao Keyuan, a sculptor whose work has been displayed at the gallery, suggests that as the government leadership gets younger, “the situation will gradually improve.”

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