Let’s talk about race and art.
A few days ago, the Shanghai-based artist, Alexandre Ouairy, revealed that he had been making, selling and exhibiting art under the Chinese name of Tao Hongjing. Notably, Alexandre is a French national, and presumably has a majority of French or some sort of European ancestry.
Ouairy’s personal website refers to his time under this identity as the “Tao Hongjing Project”, taking place from 2005–2014. “Hongjing” even has his own artist page, where Hongjing claims he has “been channeling his oriental identity to create innovative and stylish art that cheekily reflects and critiques the concrete paradise of opportunity and prosperity that is China”. Although currently down, you can access the an archived version of the old website of Hongjing through archive.org.
A brief look on through the llmart profile of Ouairy’s art as Hongjing reveals his use of vibrant colors from paintings of Buddhist Amitabha, which he applies to steel mandala, using car paint, as a (simplistic) joking at, perhaps, China’s Buddhist aspects and China’s drive towards economic dominance. Other pictures are reproductions of pictures on the back of Chinese Yuan bills, sculptures of Buddha, and a neon sign with the quote “To get rich is glorious”, which the artist has attributed to late Chinese leader Deng Xiaoping (as a note, the veracity of this quote is contested). In 2012, Ouairy stated that the sign resembles billboards along city roads in China, and that “[these signs are ] a common sight in China, and [reflect] the economic boom of the moment.” Questionably used quotes from Xiaoping and romantic and nostalgic notions of a Chinese cityscape aside, in the same 2012 article, Ouairy states that
“I gave myself this Chinese name to show my respect for Chinese culture, and as a way of quickly fitting in with the local community.”
As of November 2015, the recent articles on Telegraph and Yahoo say otherwise, showing that the situation of Ouairy adopting a Chinese identity evolved not out of wanting to fit into Chinese culture, but because none of his artwork would sell due to a market where “the collectors were primarily foreigners and they wanted to buy Chinese work, because for them it was a good investment.”
The French artist changed his public identity in the early 2000s because he faced discrimination in the Shanghai contemporary art market. Recently, Ouairy abandoned the identity, stating “he felt he had exhausted its potential,” and that “having intended at first to “play on the market and stereotypes”, he said, he no longer needed Tao to open up a dialogue. He also added that he was “sufficiently well known” now, in addition mentioning that in 2015, foreign artists face less discrimination by art collectors perusing China’s contemporary art.
There’s nothing wrong with taking on a new name when you move, in order to better fit the local culture, but his statements about exhausting the identity shed doubt on his “respect” for China and his desire to fit in. Rather, they point towards the adopting of a racial identity for primarily financial gain, an identity, that eventually he would ‘exhaust’ the ‘potential’ from, and toss off.
In a race by Chinese contemporary art collectors to collect the most authentically Chinese art, it is now possible for a ethnically French man to pretend to be Chinese, and sell flashy, sophomoric-themed art about the state of China. His ability to sell such art demonstrates that the predominantly Western-centered art world still seeks out images and symbols about complex topics such as China that are feel-good and easy to digest. The art market shows that it is still in fashion to see a Chinese name next to “Chinese” images of grand landscapes, Buddha heads, imagined quotes from a dead leader, and vibrant colors. In Ouairy’s art, then, complicated multiplicities of living experiences and situations within China become simplified into an easily marketable package. Then, the product of America and Europe’s views of “The East” are not just embarrassing artifacts, prints, and statues located in big cities’ gaudy hotels, but a continuing reality.
Ouairy used a surrogate identity to get ahead in a market where he had trouble gaining a foothold. By creating a Chinese persona — one which his Chinese gallerist would occasionally role play as at his exhibition openings — he contributes to the essentialization of China into these few images, signs, and ideas. By passing off his art as created by a Chinese native who is “looking to his Oriental past,” he implies that the ideas he tries to express through the art represent a (nonexistent) notion of ‘authentically Chinese’. He has found a flaw in the art industry’s system, and taken advantage of it for financial gain, rather than do something about it. Yet, because he does not inhabit a body which has been viewed as special and exotic, he is able to make a simplification of Chinese culture without having to live with any of the consequences that exoticization brings, to not just Chinese, but anyone who has had to live with the label of “Asian”.
He does not face the varieties of cultural stereotyping that Asians face abroad, he does not face the exoticization and sexualization of bodies that Asian women face by the popular culture of the West, he does not face the reality of having to define himself with a word, Asian, that was not even created by the cultures to which it refers. He does not experience the often forgotten economic hardship that billions of people, who do not fit into the exoticized image of “Asia”, face every day, working to in part make it a reality for Ouairy to fly to, live, and struggle in China, and borrow a racial identity.
Of course, anyone could have made such art, even someone who is traditionally viewed as Chinese. I believe that a “white” person can move to China and make meaningful art, given the right decisions — let it be made clear that I do not buy into any notion that there exists a “authentic Chineseness” which Chinese artists draw upon in art-making. But because Ouairy is not living in a body that lived through the experiences that can come due to perceived Chineseness, Ouairy has the ability to pretend to be Chinese, and then say “ta-da! I’m not Chinese!”, and use that as both press release and as an “art project”, in specific, his “The Tao Hongjing” project.
By taking up space in Chinese galleries, one of the fastest growing art markets, Ouairy takes away platforms from artists who have had to deal with lifelong experiences living in China — artists without the ability to stop being Chinese at will, without the ability to pass off their bodies as a ‘project’ — artists who could stand to benefit from having the venue for press and representation within a country they are not able to live outside of.
And though Ouairy had initially faced discrimination in the Shanghai art market, it’s hard to be upset when historically, France has been the center of the art world, and to an extent, still is. It’s hard to be upset when he occupies a body that is likely to be welcome in almost any art market of the world, one which is representative of a culture which is well-represented within the canon of “Great Artists”. What drives someone to wear the body of another in order to seek some kind of twisted financial equality in a market where historically-perceived ‘Others’ finally have a platform in, then, feels a bit distasteful. One can argue for “equality!” all they like, but in a world where race has material consequence, perhaps it’s okay to have an art market that discriminates against a group occupying the apex of potential for artistic power.
Ouairy brushes off any responsibility from damages, saying that the “Chinese [are] appreciative that he is keen to understand their culture and Westerners [are] “amused.” This much is not surprising, given the typical response of something that increases a country’s soft power — e.g., ‘well, if it makes China more powerful, it sure must be fine.’
Though he mentions the market is now more equal in China, it is still the case that he has the chance to open a dialogue about issues of posing oneself as another race, or perhaps, problems with his actions, or maybe, giving platforms to marginalized artists. But instead, he kicked off a new exhibition where he sells work for up to $30,000 a piece.
Beyond whatever points about China Ouairy’s art seeks to make, it passively approves of a world where people originating from the ethnic majority groups of superpowers are free to use any means necessary to claim financial dominance wherever they desire.
Then, we should challenge and be outraged not over just the distastefulness of pretending to be another race, but focus and bring light to the the systems of oppression these actions stem from, and continue to perpetuate.
Sean HTCH (韓谷陳H), a Taiwanese, Japanese, and Irish-American Game Designer and Artist
(As another note, the name Tao Hongjing has historical significance — another layer I did not go into but is an avenue for thought.)