OCAT Shanghai Shuts Down after Sexist Showing Sparks Outrage

June 22nd, 2021

Independent art space OCAT Shanghai has closed indefinitely amid a firestorm of anger ignited by its display of Song Ta’s 2013 work Uglier and Uglier. The seven-plus-hour video is made up of surreptitiously shot footage showing young women crossing a college campus in China. Each of the five thousand women is ranked by the artist in order of attractiveness and awarded a number, which appears as a caption beneath her image. Categories into which Song sorts the women include “barely forgivably ugly,” “unforgivably ugly,” and “absolutely unforgivably ugly.”

The work, whose Chinese title translates to Campus Flower, has been on display since April 28 at OCAT Shanghai in the group exhibition “The Circular Impact: Video Art 21.” Organized by independent curator Dai Zhuoqun, the show was scheduled to run through July 11. On June 17, however, the museum published a now-deleted WeChat post in which Song wrote, “You will see them show up accordingly from [the] prettiest to the ugliest. So if you want to see the campus queen, you have to go to the museum as early as possible. Otherwise, when the dusk comes, it will be a living hell in this place.” Hours later, Weibo user Sanaya One published a post criticizing the video and Song’s text; art critic and podcast host Afra Wang amplified the post on Twitter, and by noon the next day, the topic was the eleventh hottest on the Chinese microblogging platform. It has since received more than 100,000 views and the attention of media around the world, including China’s state-owned Beijing Youth Daily, Weibo parent Sina.com, Newsweek, CNN, and the BBC. Chinese news outlet Radii on Saturday noted that the hashtag “#male artist sorts 5000 candid shots of women from prettiest to ugliest#” had been read more than three million times on Weibo.

ArtAsiaPacific points out that this is not the first time the work has generated controversy. Its debut, at the 2013 group exhibition “ON | OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice” at Beijing’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art, prompted a negative review from New York Times critic Tang Zehui, who pointed out that “the women in the video have no chance to defend themselves, becoming the victim of the artist’s work.” In a 2019 interview with BIE (previously known as Vice China), the artist noted that he engaged female assistants to shoot the work, as that seemed “less creepy.” “All people objectify others, regardless of gender,” he told the news outlet. “I objectify you with all my heart—this too is a kind of respect.”

Fort its part, OCAT said in a June 18 Weibo post that it had “re-evaluated the content of this artwork and the artist’s explanation, [and] found that it disrespected women and that the way it was shot raises copyright infringement issues.” That afternoon, the museum closed its doors, its only announcement regarding its intentions a Chinese-language sign on its door reading, “Dear guests: As of 18 June OCAT Shanghai is closed temporarily. We apologize for any inconvenience.”