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  Beijing Scene

Beijing Scene, Volume 6, Issue 9, December 10 - 16

Performance Artist Sheng Qi
Ties Up Deadly Ignorance With Red Ribbons

On December 1 - known to some as International AIDS Day - a small crowd of onlookers and photographers watched Beijing performance artist Sheng Qi take a stand in front of the National Art Gallery. He once cut off the pinky finger of his own left hand in solemn protest at repression of the arts. But today, dressed in a sober black Chinese jacket, his most violent act is to pin small red ribbons on willing passersby. A motley group of Tibetan peddlers stand next to him. They are dressed in yak skin coats and carry knives and trinkets for sale.

"Have you heard about AIDS?" says the performance artist as he pins a red ribbon onto one of the Tibetans. "I don't know" shrugs the Tibetan, grinning broadly, before pointing to the foot bones and claws of a tiger strapped to his belt and asking if anyone wants to buy them.

On the same day, an equally bizarre event transpires. The State Administration for Industry and Commerce bans safe sex advertisements as a violation of advertising "sexual aids." The decision unceremoniously ends China's first ever nationally-televised public awareness campaign promoting condom use. The television spot was not at all explicit - it depicted a cartoon condom fighting off attacks of the HIV virus and other sexually transmitted diseases.

The first cases of HIV infection were reported in China in the early 1980s. Nobody knows how many people are infected: figures range from recent Xinhua New Agency fictions as low as 15,000, to estimates by some health experts as high as one million or more.

The public attitude in China toward AIDS is one of fear fueled by ignorance. Many well-educated city dwellers believe hearsay about the disease - that it can be passed on by shaking hands, or that it only comes from foreigners or homosexuals. People are afraid to know whether they are HIV-positive because of the social stigma that results if anyone finds out. The lack of a coherent official attitude doesn't help. The bizarre decision to ban condom advertisements on International AIDS Day is a bitterly ironic indication of how far the authorities are from a sober policy to address what could be China's biggest public health issue in the coming century.

Despite other more positive signs such as a report in the Beijing Morning Post (Beijing Chen Bao) debating whether condoms should be handed out at schools, HIV and AIDS are still taboo subjects for most of society.

The 33 year-old performance artist Sheng Qi is attempting to eradicate this stigma with a socially-oriented project that involves handing out small red ribbons - the international symbol of AIDS awareness - as well as leaflets about a United Nations HIV website. Red ribbons also feature in much of his current art work with photo-collages, paintings on mirrors, and prints made with his four-fingered hand onto red silk.

Sheng Qi came to public attention in 1985 as a key members of China's "New Art Movement." The cnacle organized a series of collective performance events under the title Concept 21. Most of these involved the participants painting their bodies or wrapping themselves in white cloth while running on the Great Wall, cycling, doing martial arts and other symbol-laden activities. The end of the 1980s was not a happy time for performance art in China, and Sheng left Beijing for Europe where he stayed for eight years. He left some of himself behind though - in a ceremony marking his departure, he cut off the small finger of his left hand and buried it in a flower pot. Since then he has earned a master's degree from London's prestigious St. Martin's Academy of Art and Design, and participated in exhibitions in Europe, Mexico and the United States, including the much-hyped (1998) Inside-Out exhibition in New York that showcased contemporary Chinese art. His performance works as well as his photo-collages and paintings center around issues of identity, sexuality and communication.

Many of his recent photos feature the artist himself wearing a military shirt (pinned with a red ribbon), his head covered in red silk, and a bird or butterfly attached by a string to his penis which is bound in white bandages. Another common feature of his work involves asking people to shake his mutilated left hand. Common reactions are misunderstanding and horror - more or less the same as when he hands out red ribbons and HIV education pamphlets.

"Most people don't know how important this problem is going to be," he sighs. "At least 90 percent of people don't know what the red ribbon is. They just don't understand its meaning and they don't know how to protect themselves.

On International AIDS Day, public reaction to Sheng Qi in front of the National Art Gallery is mixed. Many people steer clear of the artist, unwilling to be associated with such a taboo subject or even to find out what his message is. It is the reaction Sheng expects. "I was just trying to draw more attention to this problem. Most people don't take it very seriously, although some well-educated people responded enthusiastically." With every ribbon and leaflet handed out, the crowd thins and even the Tibetans lose interest. Two patrol cops walk past nonchalantly, without even noticing the small gathering. But the event creates small ripples: the next day's issue of the Beijing Youth Daily (Beijing Qingnian Bao) carries a small photograph and description of the activity.


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