Tolerated in China, censored in France

Ko Siu Lan © T. Joly
Ko Siu Lan is a politically and socially committed Chinese artist who shares her time between Beijing and Paris. She creates her work by playing on political slogans and propaganda. Well known in China, she now exhibits and performs all over the world.

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Ko Siu Lan
Ko Siu Lan is a performer and designer of installations. She is among the breed of politically engaged Chinese artists who refuse to shy away from tackling sensitive subjects. Every year, she creates pieces that commemorate the Tiananmen Square massacre in her own particular way. For instance, in 2006, in a busy Hong Kong street, she performed “Memory of Air” in which, blindfolded, she drew the numbers “6” and “4” in the air with her right index finger. In 2009, still in the same city, she presented an installation / performance called “Lie down revolution”.

© Ko Siu Lan
 A recognized artist
In spite of her activism, she is tolerated by the authorities and, at the age of 32, she is now a recognized artist in China and exhibits and performs all over the world. To begin with, however, she did not have any formal artistic training. She worked for NGOs after graduating in social sciences and sociology and specialized in rural development from 2000 to 2007. It was only in 2002 that she started to perform. “But my mother is a dancer, so I have always done various types of dance and theatre/body training”, she explains. Then, in 2007, she was selected to take part in the “La Seine” research programme at the Paris Ecole Nationale des Beaux Arts and lived for two years in the capital. Today, she lives mainly in China, but still comes to Paris regularly for her work and because she is married to a Frenchman.
It was through this connection that she was invited to participate in the “Seven-day weekend” collective exhibition held in February at the Beaux-arts, which exhibits works by students of the “La Seine” program.

© Ko Siu Lan
 The star of the show
As it happens, she unintentionally became the star of the show. Her work was mounted on the building’s façade and was taken down after only a few hours on the school director’s orders, probably to avoid rankling the French President. Ko Siu Lan’s crime was to have played on one of Nicolas Sarkozy’s trademark campaign slogans: “Work more to earn more”. “As French people are known for going on strike and not liking work, I came up with the idea of playing around with this sentence”, she explains. The four banners in her installation displayed the words "earn", "less", "work" and "more” and, depending on what way you viewed them, produced varying sentences, such as “Work less to earn more”, “Work more to earn less”, ….. “I only wanted make people react and I didn’t imagine it would cause so much trouble”, adds Ko Siu Lan, dumbfounded to find herself censored in France while spared such a fate in China.

© Ko Siu Lan
 Tweaking slogans
“Especially by an art school that is supposed to defend artists and freedom of speech. I knew conservatism was on the rise again in this country, but not to such an extent”.
Luckily, the scandal sparked off by the affair mushroomed to such a scale that the Culture Minister Frédéric Mitterrand quickly ordered the banners to be remounted on the building. This allowed Parisians to continue enjoying the installation, which is perfectly representative of Ko Siu Lan’s work. She is an enthusiast of signs, words and ideograms and loves to play with, tweak and manipulate slogans to force people into thinking about their meaning. “I try to create situations or works that have multiple possible readings/interpretations based on chance, audience participation, the space, etc. Situations where meaning is in constant flux depending on who, how, when, where you are.

© Ko Siu Lan
 Like everyday objects
“I am not looking to convey a specific message, but I hope people will ask more questions rather than just accepting the world as it is”. In 2008, she designed Rubik’s Cubes bearing the words One, Nation, Family, Child, Husband, System, Country, World, Party, Voice that gave multiple combinations. In 2009, she invited the audience to wear a t-shirt bearing the Chinese ideograms for “you”, “me”, “good / very”, “empty / space”, “rich / develop”. Depending on the spontaneous action of the audience, sentences of poetry, jokes, common sense, political statements, philosophy, biology and nonsense would be created. “I don’t want my pieces to look too much like works of art. I want them to be just like everyday objects, because it is usually these everyday banal messages that shape our thinking and behaviour. So the choice of the medium is very important and that’s why I use everyday objects such as t-shirts, banners, Rubik’s Cubes, and so on.”

April 03, 2010
Thierry Joly