Society

Meet China's Most Famous Artist Not In Custody

With eminent artist-activist Ai Weiwei whisked away by an increasingly repressive regime in Beijing, star performance artist Zhang Huan shows how to be careful with his words, but fearless in his work.

Florence de Changy

MACAO - Dressed in the bluish-green uniform worn in old factories, sporting sneakers and a cap on which sit a pair of hip designer sunglasses, Zhang Huan gives himself over without hesitation to the requirements of being the star that he is.

During the opening of his latest show "East Wind, West Wind," which occupies the second floor of Macao's Louis Vuitton store, he smiles a satisfied smile before his monumental statues of Christ and Buddha made from compressed ash. Zhang poses with one arm up and one arm down with a group of super chic visitors in front of a wall of photographers for the show, which runs through June 19. The artist is serene, determined, energetic. One quickly realizes he is one of the greats.

"In the West, all eyes are on China, but in China, we look at what is happening in the West. If I put Buddha and Christ face to face under the same roof, it is because I believe they have things to say to each other," Zhang tells us. He is a Buddhist, a fervent one. Hence his preferred medium in recent years: the ash from incense sticks used in temples, which he uses for both statues and paintings.

"The ashes symbolize hope for the future, since death for a Buddhist is rebirth. It is turning humanity toward its future while paying homage to the past. Reconstituting it through ashes is a work of remembrance," Zhang says. Conceptual art is not yet easy to propose to the Chinese, who are at the moment crazy about ‘Mao pop," a sweet non-challenge of sorts.

Born in 1965 in Henan province, Zhang Huan started as a teacher of art history. Eventually he would begin using his body, mostly naked, as a canvas, as a brush, as a language toward the world. In 1994, he covered himself with honey and fish oil and offered himself up to the flies in public bathrooms in his Beijing neighborhood.

In 1998, at the age of 33, he took the "new Silk Road" from the Pacific toward the United States. A series of stunning photographs immortalize his work during that time.

Performance art that lasts

"Zhang Huan is certainly the greatest performance artist," writes the exhibit's curator and art critic William Zhao. "He integrates his established work into his performance and, inversely, transforms his performance into enduring work."

On April 3, a few days before the Macao show opened, the artist and blogger Ai Weiwei was arrested by Chinese authorities as he tried to board a plane. His family says the famous artist has not been heard from since.

Upon mention of his fellow artist's plight, Zhang smiles before an oblique reply. "If you are the president of a large country and you have an enormous scar on your face, a scar that you see every single day when you wake up and with which everyone identifies you, do you really need someone to constantly point it out for you?"

He says that he does not feel at all threatened. Zhang says he is like "a fish in water because the earth is my earth." He adds, weighing his words, "I don't know of any country in the world where people are freer than China." He explains that anything that is banned exists underground and that the government is perfectly aware of it. "We may never have had so much freedom as now."

Zhang knows Ai Weiwei, eight years his senior, very well. "Like Ai Weiwei and like all Chinese artists, we love our country. And in spite of all the bad events of the past, we hope to build a better world. It is this which we must keep in mind, not only a better China."

What they share

The two artists have much in common. Both left their native lands for the United States. Both delight in the "artistic concept" brilliantly. Both work on the theme of memory and remembrance. Both chose to return to China where they are less well known. And both are wealthy.

Zhang Huan, for his part, could hardly be anything but rich. He is one of the artists of choice for two great patrons, French billionaires Bernard Arnault and François Pinault. For the moment, he is no longer complicating his life. If he has an idea for a piece that he knows will please one of his patrons, Zhang will make something similar for the other.

In his immense three-hectare workshop outside Shanghai, he employs nearly 200 people. "The masters of the Renaissance who filled orders from around the four corners of Europe operated the same way," says gallery owner Edouard Malingue, who will host the artist at the end of May in Hong Kong.

But it is the future of humanity that Zhang Huan mines for material. "Man is facing an amusing dilemma: He would like to live longer and does much to this end, but at the same time, and much more efficiently, he destroys what could guarantee his survival," he says. "How is man only able to spend so little time on the planet? Is he too stupid or too smart?"

Photo - Steve Punter

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Geopolitics

How Thailand's Lèse-Majesté Law Is Used To Stifle All Protest

Once meant to protect the royal family, the century-old law has become a tool for the military-led government in Bangkok to stamp out all dissent. A new report outlines the abuses.

Pro-Democracy protest at The Criminal Court in Bangkok, Thailand

Laura Valentina Cortés Sierra

"We need to reform the institution of the monarchy in Thailand. It is the root of the problem." Those words, from Thai student activist Juthatip Sirikan, are a clear expression of the growing youth-led movement that is challenging the legitimacy of the government and demanding deep political changes in the Southeast Asian nation. Yet those very same words could also send Sirikan to jail.

Thailand's Criminal Code 'Lèse-Majesté' Article 112 imposes jail terms for defaming, insulting, or threatening the monarchy, with sentences of three to 15 years. This law has been present in Thai politics since 1908, though applied sparingly, only when direct verbal or written attacks against members of the royal family.


But after the May 2014 military coup d'état, Thailand experienced the first wave of lèse-majesté arrests, prosecutions, and detentions of at least 127 individuals arrested in a much wider interpretation of the law.

The recent report 'Second Wave: The Return of Lèse-Majesté in Thailand', documents how the Thai government has "used and abused Article 112 of the Criminal Code to target pro-democracy activists and protesters in relation to their online political expression and participation in peaceful pro-democracy demonstrations."

Criticism of any 'royal project'

The investigation shows 124 individuals, including at least eight minors, have been charged with lèse-majesté between November 2020 and August 2021. Nineteen of them served jail time. The new wave of charges is cited as a response to the rising pro-democracy protests across Thailand over the past year.

Juthatip Sirikan explains that the law is now being applied in such a broad way that people are not allowed to question government budgets and expenditure if they have any relationship with the royal family, which stifles criticism of the most basic government decision-making since there are an estimated 5,000 ongoing "royal" projects. "Article 112 of lèse-majesté could be the key (factor) in Thailand's political problems" the young activist argues.

In 2020 the Move Forward opposition party questioned royal spending paid by government departments, including nearly 3 billion baht (89,874,174 USD) from the Defense Ministry and Thai police for royal security, and 7 billion baht budgeted for royal development projects, as well as 38 planes and helicopters for the monarchy. Previously, on June 16, 2018, it was revealed that Thailand's Crown Property Bureau transferred its entire portfolio to the new King Maha Vajiralongkorn.

photo of graffiti of 112 crossed out on sidewalk

Protestors In Bangkok Call For Political Prisoner Release

Peerapon Boonyakiat/SOPA Images via ZUMA Wire

Freedom of speech at stake

"Article 112 shuts down all freedom of speech in this country", says Sirikan. "Even the political parties fear to touch the subject, so it blocks most things. This country cannot move anywhere if we still have this law."

The student activist herself was charged with lèse-majesté in September 2020, after simply citing a list of public documents that refer to royal family expenditure. Sirikan comes from a family that has faced the consequences of decades of political repression. Her grandfather, Tiang Sirikhan was a journalist and politician who openly protested against Thailand's involvement in World War II. He was accused of being a Communist and abducted in 1952. According to Sirikhan's family, he was killed by the state.

The new report was conducted by The International Federation for Human Rights (FIDH), Thai Lawyer for Human Rights (TLHR), and Internet Law Reform Dialogue (iLaw). It accuses Thai authorities of an increasingly broad interpretation of Article 112, to the point of "absurdity," including charges against people for criticizing the government's COVID-19 vaccine management, wearing crop tops, insulting the previous monarch, or quoting a United Nations statement about Article 112.

Juthatip Sirikan speaks in front of democracy monument.

Shift to social media

While in the past the Article was only used against people who spoke about the royals, it's now being used as an alibi for more general political repression — which has also spurred more open campaigning to abolish it. Sirikan recounts recent cases of police charging people for spreading paint near the picture of the king during a protest, or even just for having a picture of the king as phone wallpaper.

The more than a century-old law is now largely playing out online, where much of today's protest takes place in Thailand. Sirikan says people are willing to go further on social media to expose information such as how the king intervenes in politics and the monarchy's accumulation of wealth, information the mainstream media rarely reports on them.

Not surprisingly, however, social media is heavily monitored and the military is involved in Intelligence operations and cyber attacks against human rights defenders and critics of any kind. In October 2020, Twitter took down 926 accounts, linked to the army and the government, which promoted themselves and attacked political opposition, and this June, Google removed two Maps with pictures, names, and addresses, of more than 400 people who were accused of insulting the Thai monarchy. "They are trying to control the internet as well," Sirikan says. "They are trying to censor every content that they find a threat".

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