When the Saudi government recently decreed that it was now necessary for their citizens to apply for a permit to upload videos to Youtube, the founder and director of Saudi online channel U-Turn Entertainment, Abdullah Mando, said: “You can paint a beautiful picture on any size of canvas. We just want to know how large the canvas is.” He showed both his frustration with the irrational and constantly shifting nature of censorship, but also a sentiment that creativity flourishes no matter what.
On a recent tour to China with my theatre company, Clout Theatre, we performed our award-winning show How a Man Crumbled at the Beijing Fringe and Hangzhou International Festival. The experience was fascinating and bizarre in many ways, but I would like to focus on one facet (not to belittle how positive an experience it was): censorship.
We were touched by the tentacles of totalitarian cultural control, even if it was only a gentle tickle. Our show includes offal (a lung being heaved out of a chest forms part of the finale), and whilst we usually opt for lamb’s lung, we were informed that the Beijing People’s Art Theatre does not allow animal parts on its premises. What to do? With a few hours until the show we decided to buy a giant pink grapefruit (known as a pomelo) and paint it blood red. The result caused greater delight and disgust than we have ever experienced with real meat.
This made me think about a frequently touted idea that censorship can actually bring about greater creativity – that it forces one to find subtler ways round – and that our show is based on a writer, Daniil Kharms, who wrote under one of the most despotic and totalitarian dictators to have ever existed: Joseph Stalin. I reflected that one could argue that the presence of censorship meant that Kharms wrote about disappearances through the camouflage of absurdity and slapstick. Russia in the 1920s and 30s produced some formidable pieces of art: Bulgakov’s The Master and Margarita, Shostakovich’s ‘Lady Macbeth of the Mtsensk District’, Mayakovsky’s ‘The Bedbug’ … the list goes on. Why, we must ask, was such artistic expression able to blossom in a such a repressed environment? Was it perhaps the repression itself that brought about the blossoming? Like a tree that must be pruned to grow more beautifully.
Ai Wei Wei woke up one morning to find that a CCTV camera had been placed outside his Beijing studio. What did he do? He went and bought hundreds of web cams and set them up all around his house: his bedroom, his toilet, everywhere. He then created a website and allowed the world to watch him. Repression and control can indeed inspire the most witty and creative responses.
Is something comparable to the flourishing of art in the 1920s and 30s Soviet Union happening in China today? The Hayward’s 2013 exhibition ‘Art of Change: New Directions From China’ would imply it is. The ‘Civilisation Pillar’ by Sun Yuan and Peng Yu (a glistening tower of liposuction fat) is not something I will forget in a hurry. The work coming out of the country seems to be radical and pointed. A frustration with the status quo has made Chinese work feel urgent. Does this have anything to do with constraint and repression breeding creativity?
While staying in a Beijing warehouse and residency centre Beigao A01, run by another Lecoq alumni, Benjamin Teare, I proposed this idea to his neighbour, prominent documentary maker Zhao Liang. Here’s what he said:
“Would you rather write sitting at a comfortable desk or on the dirty wall of a prison?” My pallid face sinking a couple of shades paler, I argued on. “But what about Bulgakov?! and Shostakovich?! … metaphor … symbolism?!” He was having none of it. “Of course many artists have taken allegorical or symbolic approaches, but perhaps not well developed enough.”
Posing the same question to his friend and neighbour Wang Ningde, a photographer who creates oneiric images of rare subtlety and beauty, he said the following: “In my opinion, Beijing’s art scene is not ‘booming’ enough. For such a large country, going by proportions, there should be more artists – or should I say, there should be more artists doing contemporary art, there should be more people using their own way to express themselves.”
Of course Zhao and Wang are right. Censorship has nothing to do with art. It is there to keep people ignorant. It is there to oppress, to uphold ideas of harmonious societies where we all hold hands and butterflies fill the air. Zhao has had plenty of his own dealings with the government, with his work banned in China until 2010. “I have lost the Chinese market, and therefore this art cannot connect with my own people.” His 2009 film Petition: The Court of The Complainants was created over the course of 12 years and documents the lives of petitioners who come to Beijing from all over China to dispute court rulings: peasants thrown off their land, workers from factories that have gone into liquidation, small homeowners who have seen their houses demolished but received no compensation. His film Paper Aiplane looks at heroin addicts in Beijing in the 90s and features China’s first punk band, Brain Failure.
“These people know nothing about art, they are bureaucrats,” Zhao said of the censors. And you can feel it. Fellow Lecoq alumni and powerful all-female ensemble Remote Control, who also came to perform at the Beijing Fringe, had their own minor brush with censorship. “They told us we couldn’t show nudity, however, much more overt sexual scenes without nudity were not cut,” said Petra Casale, one of the founders of the company, adding, “and there was an amusing dispute over some jam on a face: we had to persuade them it was just jam and nothing more sinister. The whole thing smacked of a clown show.”
Where are the lines drawn? It becomes an absurd farce in its own right. Vaclav Havel, the great Czech absurdist playwright, dissident and later the first president of the Czech Republic, documents this absurdity astutely in his play Memorandum. Joseph Gross, the director of an unnamed organisation, arrives one day at the office to find a memorandum in an incomprehensible language. He then enters a rabbit hole of infuriating bureaucracy which culminates in everyone going for lunch (a common Kharms trope, although in Kharms they often get run over on their way there). This brings us back to Mando: how big is the canvas? How can we paint it if it not only keeps changing size, but also turns into a shoe box, then a cat, then a steamboat?
The truth of the matter is that Daniil Kharms not only died at the hands of totalitarianism and censorship, but it also prevented his work from getting to some of the people who it would have meant the most to: Russians who lived under Stalin. None of the stories that our show is based on came into print until at least the 1970s. They are still, to this day, barely known in Russia, and he is better known for the children’s literature with which he made his living. Despite the fact that Kharms declared he was “only interested in that which is mysterious, incomprehensible and absurd”, there is great poignance in his slapstick treatments of disappearances. Art is a great medicine, and for those who, like Kharms, suffered at the hands of Stalinism, these stories could have meant a great deal, but powers outside of his control prevented this from happening.
As a young artist and theatre-maker, these questions are ripe: Do we need limitation? Would my work be better if I lived under an oppressive regime? Should I put myself through unpleasant experiences to be more alive? The late great tragi-comedic American poet John Berryman once said: “The artist is extremely lucky who is presented with the worst possible ordeal which will not actually kill him. At that point, he’s in business.” But life is full of ordeals, whether we are living in Soviet Russia, contemporary China or 1960s America. Death is inevitable, mental illness affects us whether we are rich or poor, and we stumble from day to day, taking on the assault of life, blind as to what might be next.
And are we in the West as free to express as we think? When the Russian punk turned politician Eduard Limonov returned from his time in New York in the 70s (where he befriended the likes of Patti Smith and Richard Hell) he observed that oppression was just as rife in the US. It was simply more advanced and subtler than that of the USSR. The clever thing about capitalism is that it becomes its own opposition. Highly politicised art is sponsored by oil companies: Ai Wei Wei’s sunflower seed installation at the Tate Turbine Hall was, of course, sponsored by BP. You can make anything you like, but if you want to make a living you will need to compromise on some level: become a funding junky, accept corporate sponsorship, or make your work more commercial.
Suffering and hardship may sometimes create good conditions for artistic expression, but to fetishise censorship is to belittle its drastically negative effects. It is one thing for a visiting theatre company to have to paint some fruit, but for artists to be prevented from speaking to their own people is an unnecessary evil. As Wang Ningde put it, “For my part, creativity comes from instinct and inner need; I have no need of these restraints.”
George Ramsay is one of the members of Clout Theatre, who will be performing all of their shows in London in November. More details can be found on their website.