Badiucao, the dissident Chinese artist, speaks: 'let's go back to making art connected to people'

Interview with Badiucao, the Chinese dissident artist on display in Brescia until Feb. 13, 2022, about his activities and art.

He calls himself “Badiucao,” but no one knows his name. He is the Chinese artist who defies censorship by the government of China, which is why he is forced to live in Australia, in exile. Until Feb. 13, 2022, he is the protagonist of the exhibition China (not) is Near, his first European solo show, running at the Santa Giulia Museum in Brescia. An exhibition that has been under pressure from China, and has even been vandalized recently (in fact, all the posters of the exhibition posted in the city were damaged). Who is Badiucao and what does he do? How does an artist forced into exile live, how do his days unfold? Where does the urge to express himself through art come from, and what is the message of the works? We caught up with Badiucao, who told us a lot about himself in this interview by Federico Giannini. For a detailed profile of the artist you can instead read this article by Ilaria Baratta.


FG. The exhibition “China (not) is Near” is Your first solo show in Europe. What does it mean to you to make your work known on our continent (despite China’s pressure to hinder the exhibition)?

B. It has an important personal significance. Because, to be honest, for me to do any exhibition is an extreme challenge, as you can clearly see: even for this exhibition we have been subjected to all kinds of harassment and sabotage by the Chinese government and those who are manipulated by the Chinese government. So I’m really happy that this exhibition has finally materialized-I had to cancel an exhibition in Hong Kong in 2018, and after that I hardly had any opportunities to do proper exhibitions besides showing my work online. It is therefore a rare and exciting opportunity. I think with an exhibition you can speak to a different audience and thus spark different kinds of conversation than when you post things online. When you are online you are talking to a group of people, but when you hold an exhibition in a physical space, then you are automatically building a very close relationship with the local community, which is, in this case, the community of Brescia, but you could also extend it because there are many people in Italy who are actually traveling to come to Brescia in order to visit the exhibition. All of this is quite unique and new for me, and of course it’s a challenge for me as well, because probably before this big exhibition I was more recognized as a political cartoonist who was active online, but my practice has always gone beyond social media work, I’ve done for example installations, performances, oil paintings. So this exhibition also gives me a chance to convince myself that I have much more to show the world beyond political cartoons. And I’m really happy that the message has been conveyed, through this great space in the Santa Giulia Museum, to a wide audience and to have received extremely positive and interesting responses and feedback from audiences all over Italy.

I’m really pleased about that. And so how did the public react to the exhibition?

I think if we look at the very title of the exhibition (“China (is) not near”), probably everyone in Italy has a vague idea of what China is. However, it might also be only a superficial idea, or a stereotypical idea, firstly because the geographical distance is great, and secondly also because the propaganda and censorship of the Chinese government is actually reaching every corner of the world, including Italy, but I think this exhibition is definitely creating an important dialogue with the local audience, and from a lot of feedback I have received, I have realized that the audience never knows those stories that I am trying to tell within the works. With an exhibition you can really offer a better visual through your artistic expression, you can give the opportunity to know more with something concrete. So in this way, I think my art has become a kind of bridge that brings the audience in Brescia and Italy much closer to the reality of China. It’s really an honor for me to be able to achieve that. And of course I think there are differences that people need to be aware of, but in the end you always find a connection: for example, even though visitors may not be familiar with the struggle of people in China, they can still always relate to their history. I mean the history of Italy, when at the time of World War II people were familiar with censorship and political persecution, and this is especially true with older generations. There were many people in the audience of the exhibition who let me know that they directly experienced this when they were young, or that their parents experienced a very oppressive government. So even though we are separated by decades apart, somehow we manage to make that connection to make people understand and feel empathy and emotion towards the Chinese people, and that is really important.

Badiucao, Meng (Sogno) (2016; letto a basso costo e 4000 matite made in China, dimensioni variabili)
Badiucao, Meng (Dream) (2016; cheap bed and 4,000 pencils made in China, dimensions variable)
Badiucao, Winnie the Trophies (2017; stampa digitale, 115 x 150 cm)
Badiucao, Winnie the Trophies (2017; digital print, 115 x 150 cm)

Just to provide an example of the topics we are talking about, we could introduce works about the 2022 Beijing Winter Olympics, which deal with propaganda and abuses by the Chinese government. Can you tell us about this work? Incidentally, soon the work on the Olympics will be turned into NFT....

Yes, it is a work that is dealing with the theme of the Beijing Winter Olympics, and in fact we are also exhibiting it at the Brescia exhibition. But the new part is a work that I’m going to launch as an NFT project, because I think definitely NFTs are something that art will talk a lot about. I was at Miami Art Basel this year and NFTs were definitely the theme of the whole fair, they were being talked about among the major galleries and among the artists. But everyone is talking about how much money they make by investing in this new form of digital arts ownership-what’s really missing is a discussion about the potential of NFTs to defend human rights in the form of art, but also in the form of cryptocurrency or even simply as blockchain technology itself. I want to say that my enemy is censorship: in China my work is always withdrawn instantly, and there seems to be no way to stop the Chinese government from doing that, other than continuing to make new work. NFTs, on the other hand, are new to the censorship system, and I think blockchain has the potential to put some information on the Internet that is impossible to remove, and this feature is actually underestimated, if not overlooked, by the whole NFT ecosystem. And that’s one reason why I want to launch my own project in NFTs and say there are other ways to use this technology, there are more meaningful things to launch than, for example, those meaningless Monkey Acts, and we can actually use NFTs to launch social campaigns within this art form and also provide buyers or collectors with the ability to leave information on the blockchain with the purchase of artwork, so that you are not only collecting but also interacting, and you are also involved in the process of releasing our information on the Internet.

Speaking of censorship, what is life like for an artist like you who is openly outspoken against the Chinese regime? How do you spend your days, what do you have to look out for, how do you work?

As you can see, we have tasted the full menu of harassment and censorship by government structures, such as the Chinese embassy, then when I organize exhibitions or public meetings, in Brescia as well as in Bologna and other cities, there are Chinese ultranationalists who are manipulated and sent to those places to try to do sabotage. There have been people who have come to me and told me that since I was in Italy, I could be killed in Italy at any time, so I should leave as soon as possible. The most recent thing I saw was on the posters and billboards we put up in Brescia all over the city. Many of these posters have been vandalized, but not in ways that are typical, for example, of teenagers playing with spray cans. The coverage of the posters was very carefully designed to cover only the information about the exhibition, such as the dates, the venue, the location. This is all part of my daily life and I have to deal with it all the time, not to mention all the death threats I get on social media every day. So basically I’m very addicted to the Internet, because my art focuses mainly on human rights abuses and problems in China, but I’ve been away from China for a long time. It is definitely very difficult for any artist. If I want my artwork to remain relevant, sincere, and close to reality, I have to constantly see what is really happening in China, and more importantly, I have to talk to people who are in China through social media such as Twitter, even though those platforms are banned in China (there are still a lot of people using VPNs though, circumventing the Great Firewall, which is the censorship system of the Chinese internet). So I still have the opportunity to talk to those people to get first-hand information, and every day I spend a lot of time on social media to gather material, to look for sources of inspiration, to see what happenings are worth talking about and what I need to respond to. For example, I recently received [Dec. 29, ed.] some very bad news, where the Stand News, which is one of the most important news outlets in Hong Kong, was shut down, and six different people who were associated with this news medium were arrested, including a close friend, musician and artist Denise Ho. Right now I am actually working on a new work that advocates for their freedom and expresses my concern about the death of free speech and press freedom in Hong Kong. So every day this is the pattern of my life: I wake up, check my phone, see what concerns me the most and try to turn it into art.

Badiucao, Medical Prints (2020; stampa plastificata, 30 x 21 cm)
Badiucao, Medical Prints (2020; plasticized print, 30 x 21 cm)
Badiucao, No I Canít, No I Donít Understand, Covid Portraits for Dr. Li (2020; stampa digitale su carta di riso, 150 x 150 cm)
Badiucao, No I Cant, No I Dont Understand, Covid Portraits for Dr. Li (2020; digital print on rice paper, 150 x 150 cm)

Speaking of freedom of expression, the works on the Covid-19 pandemic stand out in the exhibition’s itinerary, which are among those that impressed the audience the most. In your opinion, in what ways has the Chinese government failed in its handling of the emergency? What do you intend to bring out with your works?

Whenever this topic is mentioned, I feel extremely sad, because before the whole world could understand the terrible consequences of this virus, I myself had been informed by a few people, maybe one or two months before even any national internet media talked about it, and that’s how this experience is reflected in the Wuhan Diaries, which are on display in the exhibition. But the Chinese government was arresting the doctors who were trying to get the information through, like Li Wenliang, and was therefore preventing people from being informed: as a result, the international community was not informed about how serious the situation was. I have full confidence that if the Chinese government had acted from the very beginning, instead of arresting the people who were issuing the warnings, the outbreak could have been limited to Wuhan or stayed at the regional level, and it would not necessarily have become a plague capable of harming the whole of humanity for years, so much so that we are still struggling with the virus now. Millions of people have died, so many families have lost their loved ones even in Italy, and all of this could have been avoided and stopped from the beginning if the Chinese government had been more transparent, accountable and also respectful of the opinion of doctors instead of just following political decisions or the so-called stability of society, and that’s the problem that I always want to emphasize with my artwork, it’s a situation for which the whole world should hold China and the Chinese government accountable.

Still on the theme of freedom of expression, other works that have struck a chord with the public are those dedicated to the poet Liu Xiaobo: why is this figure so important to you? Also, you have paid homage to him by revisiting some works from Western art history: what are the reasons behind this choice?

Liu Xiaobo is an imposing figure: if one needs to point to a figure who represents a spirit of nonviolent protest, then this would certainly be Liu Xiaobo. He has a long history of protest and political leadership, for example in the drafting of Charter 08 (the manifesto for China’s new constitution), he was active from the very beginning in the Tiananmen movement (he was also there to lead the students out of the square, preventing many more boys from being killed that night), and he went to prison for it, got out, continued his democratic movement within the entire intellectual community in China, then proposed Charter 08 to seek a nonviolent way to reform China internally and to give the authorities a chance to improve themselves. However, all this was not accepted by the Chinese government, in fact they locked him up several times in prison, so much so that he died tragically (during his period of freedom he had developed liver cancer that was apparently the result of torture and neglect during his imprisonment), and even after his death the government would not give him the chance to be buried in the ground according to Chinese tradition: instead they forced his family to scatter his ashes in the sea, so there will be no cemetery for him (and therefore no memorial place that can remind people how great and important his life was, and consequently how inspiring people can be). All of this makes me extremely sad, but it also prompted me to make art for him and his widow Liu Xia. Human rights are something I talk about often in my art, and the most important feature of human rights is that they are not a privilege that belongs only to one group, one culture-the most important thing about human rights is that they are universal rights. So there has to be a connection between different cultures, and that’s one of the motivations for me to adapt famous works from Western art history to create a work for Liu Xia during the time when she was still under house arrest, but of course it’s not only Western art that I tried to refer to. I also choose for example many famous images from the art history of Asia. The other very important reason is that my constant enemy is censorship in China. And I find that one way to beat censorship is when you connect an image that is considered a taboo by politics with images that are very popular, well-liked and beloved, such as famous paintings that come from Western, Asian or Eastern cultures or history. So this is why I want to combine these two elements together: when people see these artworks, they will automatically associate them with Liu Xiaobo or Liu Xia. So the message will be delivered regardless of Chinese censorship, and also it might create difficulties for Chinese censorship, because if they have to censor that much-loved and famous image for political reasons, they will just force people to ask more questions. A similarity can also be drawn for the work that juxtaposes Winnie the Pooh with Xi Jinping. Even if Winnie the Pooh is not a famous work of art, he is still as loved and well-liked as the Mona Lisa, as Frida Kahlo, as the Girl with the Pearl Earring, because people recognize him, because he is part of our daily lives. So when you link these two images you definitely make life very difficult for the censorship system, because once they censor a famous image, people will ask why such a harmless image was removed.

Badiucao, Who Is Liu Xia / Frida, dalla serie Art for Liu Xia (2018; stampa digitale su bandiera, 170 x 130 cm)
adiucao, Who Is Liu Xia / Frida, from the series Art for Liu Xia (2018; digital flag print, 170 x 130 cm)
Badiucao, Who Is Liu Xia / Mona Lisa, dalla serie Art for Liu Xia (2018; stampa digitale su bandiera, 170 x 130 cm)
adiucao, Who Is Liu Xia / Mona Lisa, from the series Art for Liu Xia (2018; digital print on flag, 170 x 130 cm)
Badiucao, Who Is Liu Xia / Modigliani, dalla serie Art for Liu Xia (2018; stampa digitale su bandiera, 170 x 130 cm)
adiucao, Who Is Liu Xia / Modigliani, from the series Art for Liu Xia (2018; digital print on flag, 170 x 130 cm)

In recent years, several Chinese artists have exhibited in the West, achieving success: what can you tell us about your country’s art scene?

I think it is necessary to examine each artist individually. Certainly Ai Weiwei’s is a case in itself. I actually admire him a lot: he is an important model for my personal life and for my artistic practice. His success is showing that there are still people in the world who care about human rights, care about the struggle of the Chinese people, and are giving support to Ai Weiwei by elevating him to an important artist that the whole world celebrates. But there are other artists who are perhaps famous in the art world or in the Western world, and their work is worth millions of dollars. For example, Cai Guo-Qiang, the artist who designed the fireworks for the 2008 Beijing Olympics (and will now do the same for the Winter Olympics). I think right now he is doing a great exhibition, tour or installation, which talks about dialogue between Eastern and Western culture. I think that behind his success is China itself, which is constantly gathering different artists in order to promote themselves through their artworks, allowing them to create expensive works that moreover are also very beautiful, but in return there is silence from these artists, there is collaboration with this corrupt government and silence on any important social issues. Instead, we live in a parallel world, and unfortunately there are more Cai Guo-Qiang than Ai Weiwei right now, and it is really problematic for me. In my personal experience this exhibition in Italy is a very rare occurrence: most of the times that my work is proposed to a gallery or museum the opportunity is denied to me because many are concerned about threats and pressure from China, or even the risk of ruining relationships, many galleries for example are concerned because they fear that my work will hurt business interests in China (i.e. buying Chinese works or having Chinese clients buy the gallery’s works). This is what I think about the Chinese scenario, and I must say that it is quite disappointing for me to see the current situation.

The story of many Chinese artists and dissidents is also a story of exile. How much does it weigh on you not being able to return to your country and having to spend a life as an exile?

No one would want to leave their home or country of origin if they had a choice, and this is especially true for artists. China is the land I care about most, its people are the people I care about most. And if I could be in China and live among those people and have firsthand experience of their struggle, certainly I could also improve my art to make it more authentic. However, because of this situation, if I were in China making the same artwork that I am making now, the period of creation would be very short and the period of service in prison would be very long. So in the end this is not feasible or possible. Of course I then miss all the connections with friends in China and Chinese culture. But that is something I cannot have if I also want to express my concern about political issues, human rights issues in China. So sometimes you just have to give up something and take all the risks to preserve who you are as an artist to tell the truth.

One last question. What is art for you?

I think art is something that cannot be defined. It is a process, something that keeps involving you, and any attempt to enroll art within a category will be a failure. However, what keeps art true is that something that allows it to continue to evolve and to try to break its own rules, going on to engage an ever-widening society, territory, culture or audience. For me, in essence, art is something that keeps evolving and growing. What I then want to point out concretely is that contemporary art right now seems to be content to stay within its own ivory tower and to remain so ambiguous that it cuts almost all connections with the general public. So, however, art becomes something else, it becomes something for which the public can, for example, exchange a pile of trash on a gallery floor for a work of contemporary art waiting to be revealed. I think it is time for artists to get out of the comfort zone of the white cube and start making art that is able to connect to ordinary people, art that is rooted in our reality and talks back to people, art that is not made just for artists: we need to make sure that the work contains the ability to communicate directly with the audience, because usually, when you go into a gallery, you see a work of art but you’re not able to understand it unless there’s someone who interprets it for you and tells you what it really means. Of course, I think these modalities certainly have value because they stretch people’s imaginations, but when this mechanism is pushed too far, it only demonstrates the inability of artists to communicate through works of art, to the point where they have to seek outside help from people to explain them. I think, therefore, that art is a dialogue. It is something that makes people talk, communicate and think. Now contemporary art is commodity, profit, decoration, it serves for people’s reputation or ambition. So I hope more artists will see these problems and bring art back to its true essence. It is about communication, it is about breaking one’s own rules. We are facing so many important issues today: not only the Chinese government’s aggression on the world, but issues like climate change, the decline of democracy in the Western world, the constant war and hatred in the Middle East, poverty in Africa -- all very important issues. I hope there will be more art on these issues, and I hope artists will be able to step out of their comfort zone to have a real impact, beyond the artwork itself.