TV UK, 3 January
Waldemar Januszczak began Bejing Swing (Channel 4 on Thursday) by warning us that the art we were about to see was radical stuff. It might be a problem, he said, if this were about our taste, but it was about somebody else’s.
Apart from being a tad presumptuous, this comment neatly summarised Januszczak’s dubious thesis on the subject. He argued that contemporary Chinese ‘body art’, with its concern with cycles of life and death, has more in common with ancient Chinese civilisation than it does with contemporary Western art. If it is not to our taste, it is because it is the product of a radically different culture.
In fact the revelation for most of us was surely that China produces the kind of provocative ‘shock art’ that we assumed was unique to the West. The programme’s headline-grabber was Zhu Yu, who ate a stillborn baby as a piece of performance art (1). Yes, Januszczak was able to point to the traditional Chinese fondness for superstitious rituals and for eating odd things, but really this strikes me as little more than Young British Art gone mad.
The artists prattled on about the need to challenge our fear of death and embrace it as part of life, much as many British commentators commended Gunther von Hagen’s notorious televised autopsy – also on Channel 4 – in November 2002 (2). This is not remotely transgressive of contemporary Western values. What is peculiar is the extent to which the artists are able to get away with their outrageous antics in such a politically repressive country as China.
What frankly unimpressive intimidation they do suffer allowed Januszczak to present body art as a brave and authentic movement against the state’s attempts to modernise and sanitise China. This made for an odd combination of bohemian radicalism and folksy nostalgia, but Bejing Swing at least showed us something strange and thought-provoking about contemporary China.
Mao’s Children, by contrast, shown the same evening as part of Channel 4’s Chinese season, was a phoney exposé of the regime, supposed to enlighten those of us who thought that China was a modern paradise. Marcel Theroux, Louis’ earnest brother, snuck around pompously talking to various victims of the state’s repression and brutality, but this approach requires more shocking revelation than Theroux was able to provide, and if anything the film made China seem freer than it probably is.
To return to another cultural comparison, Serious and Organised (ITV1, Thursdays at 9pm) is a more respectable British reply to the American cop show than Midsomer Murders, largely because it tries less hard to be British. In fact Serious and Organised is The Shield transplanted to the East End of London, complete with maverick beat-’em-up detectives and a politically savvy ethnic minority boss.
The programme is from the same production company that made the BBC’s dodgy spy drama Spooks, but judging from the opening episode, there is enough tension within the squad to keep things interesting, even if the music is not to my taste. Or anybody else’s.
Dolan Cummings is publications editor at the Institute of Ideas, and editor of Culture Wars. He is also the editor of Reality TV: How Real Is Real?, Hodder Murray, 2002 (buy this book from Amazon (UK) or Amazon (USA)).
(1) ‘Baby-eating’ artist sparks TV row, BBC News, 30 December 2002
(2) See TV UK, 21 November
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