[UN]FORBIDDEN CITY: an underground exhibit made in China

Text by Elena Pinnen art Editor

[UN]FORBIDDEN CITY: an underground exhibit made in China


Chang Lei, Country of Swamp, No. 1, 2010, 362 x 120 cm

Opened at MACRO (Rome) on January 25th [UN]FORBIDDEN CITY. The post-revolution of new Chinese art, original exhibit about latest underground trends in Chinese art. Curated by Simona Rossi and Dominique Lora, in collaboration with artists Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang, the display belongs to Vie della Seta (Silk Roads), the ongoing International Biennale of Culture organized in Rome by the Ministry of Foreign Affairs and Italian Ministry of Culture, dedicated to Middle and Far Easter countries.

Home to more than 1.3 billion people and second only to the United States in economic production and GDP, China is a giant growing up at a stunning pace. But who really knows it? And, above all, who and how really lives in there? Those were the questions which led contemporary MACRO TESTACCIO – in one of the most multicultural and young neighborhoods in Rome – to devote an exhibition to the unforbidden – and uncensored – side of such Superpower.

To be on show till March 4th are works by ten Chinese artists who variously belong to the underground culture born after the Tienanmen Square protests of 1989. Pieces of art recounting the story of a globalized contemporary China, facing enormous social contradictions and capable to devour its memory entirely, while developing furiously.

Scarcely known in their own homeland, where indeed they are often obstructed by the regime, these outsider artists like using the human body and experimenting hybrid forms of arts – such as photography, installation, performance, video art – to express their political and existential urges.

Maybe one of the most astounding artworks featured in the exhibit is the big photo titled Outer space – Project n. 7, transforming the geographic map of the Popular Republic of China into a claustrophobic honeycomb with no center, but just full of drifting common people. Such an impressive metaphor of our homogenized contemporary society was ideated in 2008 by the Gao Brothers, pseudonym of the two show’s co-curators, Gao Zhen and Gao Qiang. Famous all around the world, the Gao Brothers were blacklisted by regime, not allowed to leave the country for fourteen years as they signed in favor of the dissident Wei Jingsheng in 1989. As a result, they could not join the Venice Biennale in 2001, with their “The Utopia of Hugging for 20 Minutes”. A great performance – consisting in a mass embrace between strangers – which they finally staged in Rome’s Piazza del Popolo on January 27th.

Among the other artists on view at MACRO also Wu Xiaojun, with his installation I Want to say. A mix of recycled bins, hundreds of light bulbs and an obsessive soundtrack depicting the empty post-ideological era following the fall of Mao.

Simpler, but not less meaningful, the sperm stained sheets by Sun Ping titled Wet Dreams. Conceived in 1989, when he was still in army, the work “involved the collection of sheets stained with ejaculations (both my own and those of other soldiers)”, as a “metaphor of the spiritual apathy resulting from decades of political repression in China”, commented the artist.

Worthy of remark also the canvas The Country of Swamp by the rockstar, singer and writer Chang Lei, representing an elephant plunged into a dark disgusting marsh. “Xiang in Chinese means elephant.” – explained Chang Lei. “Due to its big size, no one can have a whole view of it with one look.” Furthermore “the extended meaning of ‘Xiang’ is ‘the origin of all things”, he added. A suggestive way to say that in overpopulated China on and on the Truth is being sucked by a swamp of falsity.

Bound by a common vision and sensitivity, most of the artists on view at MACRO moved to Beijing in the 90’s, creating a sort of city inside the city. It deals with the famous 798 District, an autarchic area born on a largely abandoned military electronics complex and inspired to the model of Bauhaus, today comparable to New York’s Greenwith Village or SoHo.

And it’s to that (Un)forbidden resilient China that Italian museum MACRO has decided to pay a tribute of, with a totally independent exhibit not supported by any Chinese authorities. A golden opportunity to discover a still unknown world, as seen by some finally uncensored points of view.


Gao Brothers, Outerspace, project n.7, 2008, photograph, 300 x 240 cm


Sun Ping, Wet Dream, Installation, 1989-1991, bed, sperm-stained bed sheets, mixed media, 200 x 150 cm, 150 x 130 cm


Xinmo Li, Lanscape on water 1, 2, 3, Opelia’s Dream, 2010, photograph, 100 x 150 cm.

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