First it was nixing dog meat (BusinessWeek.com, 7/14/08) from Beijing restaurants during the Olympics. Now China's cultural commissars have refused to allow an exhibition of works by Andy Warhol to be shown during next month's Games. The exhibit, Andy Warhol Portraits: Sports, Stars, and Society, was to have opened on July 26 and run through Aug. 21 at Faurschou Gallery, a space in the city's trendy 798 Art District. However the Ministry of Culture has refused to grant a license on the grounds that it was inappropriate to allow an exhibition of works by a foreign artist during the Olympics, according to Kai Heinze, the Danish director of the gallery.
The ban on Warhol's works is the latest sign of what is amounting to a lockdown of the city in the final days before the Games. A virtual cordon around Beijing keeps out non-Beijing residents and vehicles. Hundreds of sniffer dogs are patrolling the subways. And in at least one case, a reporter from the Hong Kong newspaper Apple Daily was turned back at the Beijing airport despite having received proper accreditation to cover the Games. Nothing, it seems, will be left to chance as Beijing hosts its big coming-out party.
Chinese Artworks Only?
But while most measures have been implemented in the name of security against terrorist attacks, such worries clearly don't explain the Warhol ban. Instead, the move is a result of Chinese cultural protectionism, alleges Heinze. The 798 District—an area in northeastern Beijing that takes its name from a former military factory and now houses art galleries, cafés, and shops—is a top tourist draw, and with so many visitors in town for the Games, Heinze says, the government wants to showcase local artists. "We have received information that a resolution has been passed that only Chinese works are supposed to be on show as more than 40 different heads of state will be touring 798 during the Olympics," he says.
Among the dignitaries scheduled to visit the district were Denmark's Crown Prince Frederik and his wife, Crown Princess Mary, who had booked a private tour of Faurschou. But on July 14, Heinze learned the show would not go forward because the Ministry of Culture had not issued the gallery a permit and Chinese customs officials therefore would not release the works of art. Because the cancellation of the show would cause a disruption to the royal couple's schedule, the Danish Embassy made an appeal to the ministry on the gallery's behalf, but to no avail. "This is a huge inconvenience and a very sad situation in terms of publicity at the dawn of the Olympics," Heinze says.
For its part, the Ministry denies any official policy barring foreign works from being shown during the Olympics. "This accusation is false," says Cai Lian, an official with the ministry's Office of European Affairs responsible for working with the gallery. "We did deny them permission from holding the exhibit but not for the reasons that Faurschou mentioned. It was illegal for the gallery to import works before the exhibition was registered. We are doing the registration now, but it has not been approved."
Tried to Be Culturally Sensitive
In response, Heinze says the gallery was told by a ministry official on July 14 that permission had been denied "for reasons that have to do with the Olympic Games."
The gallery had tried to curate the show with China's sensitivities in mind. For example, Warhol's famous silkscreen portraits of Chairman Mao were not part of the 18-piece collection. The works include portraits of tennis star Chris Evert, soccer legend Pelé, baseball Hall of Famer Tom Seaver, and boxing great Muhammad Ali, as well as images of Michael Jackson, Sitting Bull, and crime boss John Gotti.
Faurschou Beijing, which is a branch of Copenhagen-based Galleri Faurschou, has hosted several exhibitions of foreign artists since opening its doors last December, including a highly successful show featuring the works of Robert Rauschenberg. Warhol's works have shown on the mainland as well, most recently at an exhibition entitled "The King of Pop Art" Art+Shanghai space which closed on June 18.
Heinze says he is confident that once the Paralympics end Sept. 20, the show will be able to go ahead. In the meantime Warhol's works will spend the Olympics in a customs warehouse, at a cost of $200 per day for storage—billed to the gallery.