To the artist’s critics, it was bad enough that he had secretly filmed thousands of female students on a Chinese university campus.
But then he proceeded to rank the women “from the prettiest to the ugliest,” stringing together around 5,000 grainy clips into a nearly eight-hour-long video with numbers at the bottom of each image to indicate the woman’s ranking.
To top it off, he gave the piece an unambiguous English title: “Uglier and Uglier.”
The work, by the Chinese artist Song Ta, barely caused a ripple when it was exhibited in 2013 at a prominent art space in Beijing. But when the video was recently shown again as part of a group show on contemporary Chinese video art at OCAT Shanghai, a nonprofit museum, it set off a furor in China.
Many called the artwork, titled “Campus Flowers” in Chinese, a fundamental violation of privacy and a misogynistic affront to women. Since the uproar began last week, the hashtag “Song Ta Campus Flowers” has been viewed 100 million times on Chinese social media.
The contrasting reactions to Mr. Song’s piece in the space of eight years underlines both the changing perceptions of feminism in China and the evolving role of museums in a country where art and its consumption are no longer confined to the rarefied elite.
Art museums and galleries in China have long been accustomed to living under the prying eyes of government censors, and they have developed over the years many strategies to cope with or circumvent such pressures.
Now, more and more, such institutions also have to contend with the growing force of public opinion.
Around the world, museums are grappling with how to respond to issues like Black Lives Matter, #MeToo and the legacy of colonialism. In China, too, museums must account for social currents in a new way, as a booming array of art institutions serves a rapidly growing middle class, relying on social media to promote themselves to these new audiences.
At the same time, feminist ideas have slowly become more mainstream in China, helping to explain why a work that few found objectionable in 2013 could now be seen by many as a repugnant example of the pure objectification of women.
“What kind of environmental forces are cultivating and condoning such shameless people?” Zhang Ling, a Chinese film scholar who teaches at Purchase College of the State University of New York, wrote on Weibo, a popular Chinese social media platform. “The so-called ‘freedom of speech’ and ‘art creation’ should not be used as a fig leaf for the despicable.”
On Friday, OCAT Shanghai issued an apology, saying it was withdrawing the work and temporarily shutting down the exhibition so that it could take some time to “reflect” on its mistakes. Curated by Dai Zhuoqun, the exhibition, titled “The Circular Impact: Video Art 21,” featured works from 21 Chinese video artists spanning the past 21 years. The show had been scheduled to run from April 28 to July 11.
“After receiving criticism from everyone, we immediately re-examined the content of the work and the artist’s explanation,” the museum said. “We found that the concept of the work and its English title were disrespectful and offensive to women.”
Within China’s art circles, opinions were mixed. Some raised concerns about OCAT Shanghai’s handling of the case, contending that the museum could have done more to defend the artist or at least facilitate a discussion between Mr. Song and his critics. Others said that misogyny was a deep-rooted issue in the art world, and that the museum should not have given a platform to amplify Mr. Song’s work from the start.
None of those reached on Monday were willing to speak on the record, given the sensitivity of the issue and also general wariness about the Western news media in China. OCAT Shanghai, Mr. Song and Mr. Dai did not respond to requests for comment.
The Guangzhou-born Mr. Song, who is in his early 30s, is known as a provocateur — a “bad boy” of sorts. His work often pokes fun at the political bureaucracy, and on at least one occasion censors pulled a piece of his from a government-backed show.
In one critically praised video installation, called “Who Is the Loveliest Guy?” (2014), Mr. Song persuades Chinese naval officers to ride a roller coaster and records their efforts to stay serious and composed. The installation was included in the New Museum’s Triennial in 2018.
Like many artists, Mr. Song has sought to challenge notions of what he sees as political correctness. In a 2013 performance art piece titled “One Is Not as Good as the Other,” he ranked 30 young female volunteers from “beautiful to ugly” and had them walk down a runway before an audience in that order. The work was part of a broader project by Mr. Song called “The Origin of Inequality.”
In a 2019 interview with the Chinese-language edition of Vice, Mr. Song described the process of creating “Uglier and Uglier” (2012). He said he had hired three assistants to help him with the arduous task of sorting the footage into folders ranging from “most beautiful” to “absolutely unforgivably” ugly.
The final cut did not include the two women he deemed to be the most beautiful; he had saved those for himself to enjoy, he said. To the accusation that he was objectifying women, he responded by saying that everyone objectifies everyone else, regardless of gender. He also said he saw himself as a feminist, though he admitted to not fully understanding “women’s issues.”
Few objected when “Uglier and Uglier” was exhibited in Beijing as part of the UCCA Center for Contemporary Art’s 2013 show “On | Off,” a large-scale group exhibition featuring the work of 50 young Chinese artists.
One of the few people to raise concerns at the time was the curator Tang Zehui. In a review of the UCCA show for The New York Times’ Chinese-language website, Ms. Tang called out Mr. Song for using his camera as a “weapon” of power. She pointed out that the women he photographed had no chance to defend themselves, and had thus become victims of his work.
“It is indeed annoying that art is too obsessed with political correctness,” Ms. Tang wrote in 2013. “But when it comes to following the basic values of human universality, artists have no immunity.”