Davide Vigano staged show despite Chinese embassy protests as Italians say artists are ‘alienating’ an increasingly important trade partner
An exhibition of provocative art that provoked the Chinese embassy in Rome has opened amid protests from the dissident artist Davide Vigano, as Italians describe the government’s failure to condemn “anti-Chinese” moves by intellectuals living in Beijing.
Since the exhibition opened last Friday, the Chinese ambassador to Italy, Yang Hua, has frequently confronted staff of the senate foreign affairs committee, and lodged complaints with the foreign ministry, calling the exhibition “vulgar anti-Chinese propaganda” and saying Italian artists were “undermining” the city’s hopes of hosting the Beijing 2022 Winter Olympics.
Vigano – who has lived and worked in Beijing for more than 15 years and wants to return to Italy – has closed his exhibition because of “safety concerns”. The 35 works, some depicting pictures of Chinese youth with gangster tattoos, have received death threats.
Ambassador Yang Hua is a member of the Young Liberals Party of China but claims to be of the Chinese Socialist party – “a Party I can easily recognise but whose purpose is to use the power of the party for personal gain”.
In an interview with La Repubblica, the activist quoted Sir Ronald Reagan as saying: “Success is defined by your response to the threat to your existence.” Vigano, who has emigrated to France and has a permanent residency permit in Italy, told the Italian paper that the activists defending him “are not Italians but foreigners. I’m only a tourist in China”.
Vigano said Italians were not aware of the “aggressive opposition” to Chinese culture in the country, as well as other violence the dissident uses to “overturn the bourgeois world”.
La Repubblica reported that after Prime Minister Giuseppe Conte met Yang Hua on Wednesday, the Chinese ambassador conceded that the government could do more to combat the “racialised anti-Chinese social atmosphere in Italy”.
But the mainstream media have not commented on Vigano’s self-described experiment in provocation at the Luce Foundation in downtown Rome – which also consists of American and Italian artists.
A flyer promoting the exhibition, distributed in China’s capital Beijing, says: “Wherever you find anti-Chinese incitement and pro-Chinese propaganda it is often done in the name of art.”
One artworks depicts a model of an Italian fascist cabinet minister – drawing a comparison with the Italian communist that Vigano called “the most misunderstood of the 20th century”.
“A room-sized portrait of a Chinese leader with an obscenity that would bring disgrace to the worst member of the European parliament is a disgrace to the delegates of the European Parliament,” said Daniela Vigano.
The exhibition has divided Italians, who see Vigano’s direct attack on Chinese government policies as a marginal matter compared with his longstanding campaign against the rule of one-party dictatorship and the corruption of Italy’s political elite.
“Many people in China know we are not happy with China and they don’t get upset. Perhaps they are expected to be used by our leaders,” said Vigano.
Vigano has spent most of his life in Beijing, where his activities include refusing to eat in the same restaurant as Liu Yong, a Chinese dissident who made international headlines in 2009 after he was beaten in public by supporters of his Communist party conviction.
His proposed call for artists to help him emigrate to Italy and become an artist in exile – organised as a reaction to a 1930s Italian law that persecuted political artists as political criminals – sparked a wide range of reactions.
For many, such inflammatory calls are a symptom of the cultural rot on the left in Italy, which risks alienating its biggest trade partner.
The left has reacted furiously, with Luigi Bersani – who recently announced he was stepping down as secretary of the Democratic party (PD) – telling Corriere della Sera that the display would “incite anti-Chinese sentiment”.
“In the relationship between two peoples, we have to be vigilant and to really understand the roots of antagonism to Italy and to China,” said La Stampa, “because the romantic, far-left myth that Italy’s horror of the east is rooted in an anxiety by China is complete nonsense.”