Written by Emily Hartley-Skudder, b. 1988, Tāmaki Makaurau, Aotearoa. Visual artist.
Eroticized, naturalized, and done to death, rape is a lark, a metaphor, and a trope; it’s an art-historical subject in a world where its traditional victims are not, and cannot be, artists. Over the past four decades, feminists have struggled with the representational dilemmas presented by an act that has been easily and frequently depicted by men, in all available media, for at least two thousand years.
– Johanna Fateman [i]
I am a female visual artist based in Te Whanganui-a-Tara/Wellington, Aotearoa/New Zealand. I was awarded the Wellington Asia Residency Exchange (WARE) for 2018 by Wellington City Council and the Asia New Zealand Foundation. This award sent me to 厦门 Xiamen, 中国 China, for a three month residency at Chinese European Art Center (CEAC) from September to November, 2018.
My residency experience was overshadowed by the presence of Pedro Bakker, the only other artist on the residency for the first month. Bakker is a Dutch artist who has made some significant autobiographical work in the past drawing from his traumatic upbringing, in the form of large-scale paintings and drawings on paper. However, he has more recently unveiled his obsessive interest in Chinese women and girls, and the topic of sexual abuse. Bakker also fancies himself as a performance artist. It is necessary to outline his demographic as it is significant in the work he is now making: he is in his late sixties, married, white, and university educated. He is forceful, loud, tall, and self-important. We cannot separate Bakker and his intentions from the work he produces.
Bakker was on residency at CEAC for four months. Two of those four months crossed over with my residency, and I began to feel very unsafe as the time unfolded. My partner and I attended his artist talk and book launch within our second week of arriving. In this talk, Bakker happily explained that in 2014, on his eight-month residency in Chongqing, China, he developed an infatuation with a young woman, 倩茜 Qianxi, whom he was paying as his Chinese translator. He said he was obsessed with her, had sexual fantasies about her and became her stalker. This was the context set by Bakker himself, and it now inescapably informs any work he makes. I later discovered that his obsession with young Chinese women is unnervingly recurring, as outlined in art writer 张芳 Zhang Fang’s essay.[ii]
… Bakker hired a young, female, Chinese dancer and developed a performance that re-enacted various stories of sexual abuse
Artists on residency with CEAC are expected to work towards an exhibition to be presented in the organisation’s gallery. For his exhibition, Bakker hired a young, female, Chinese dancer and developed a performance that re-enacted various stories of sexual abuse. The dancer, 韵可 Wan Yunke, was dressed as a child and then as a schoolgirl. She played the victim and Bakker the perpetrator. During this performance, Bakker appropriated the #MeToo movement. He referenced the stories of two female characters, Qingwen and You Sanjie, in the classical Chinese novel The Dream of the Red Chamber (1791). He was “inspired” by Stanley Kubrick’s Lolita (1963). Bakker argues the performance was a ‘collaboration’, yet the nature of the working arrangement and the wording in his press release strongly indicate otherwise. Quoting the press release; “To create a layered stage setting, he has replaced the girl Lolita by a young female, Chinese dancer”.
The title of the exhibition 棋子 Chess Qizi and the content of the last section of the performance was taken from a true story of a young Chinese woman Bakker met. Through WeChat, she told him of her experience of being assaulted by her high school teacher. Bakker ham-fistedly adapted this personal #MeToo story in the performance, following 韵可 Yunke around the gallery attempting to grab her. Bakker, as the ‘teacher’, then offered to help with her studies in exchange for sexual favours. The performance ended with them on the ground, Bakker arching over 韵可 Yunke, forcibly clutching her as she pulled away. This strongly alluded to the female character then being raped. Bakker argued that this treatment left things ‘open ended’ and that the young female character had a ‘choice’. This argument is deeply offensive as it undermines a true story of sexual violence and thus undermines other #MeToo stories. It also suggests that there is supposedly no power imbalance in these situations (acted or in real life). It suggests that difference in physical size, age, status, or race is not a factor, and the victim can ‘just say no’.
I’ve thought about this argument in terms of viewing art performances – could the viewers ‘just leave’? No, they couldn’t during this performance. The doorway was obstructed due to the crowd of people, and the performance ended right by the exit. Also, in an intimate art performance, how easy is it to actually walk out, even if the exit isn’t blocked? Here, there was no trigger warning and no option of discussion afterwards. The audience was completely deprived of their voices and left to suffer the consequences.
… this artist is blatantly reducing an entire demographic of people down to an exotic, fetish product that he calls “China girls”
The toxic masculinity in the air was palpable after Bakker’s performance. This was only noticeable in the older, white men who were present. They flaunted their Western imperialist arrogance. Societal structures benefit those in power, and in China, it was this demographic taking advantage of the cultural differences and exploiting their undeniable white privilege. This was made glaringly obvious by Bakker’s behaviour.
Bakker refers to Chinese women as “China girls” in the exhibition’s email invite and press release that CEAC disseminated.[iii] Here is an excerpt:
“And the teacher, who is he? Is the figure of the teacher Pedro himself?
Several friends asked me why I am interested in China girls and their experiences of sexual harassment. First of all, I have to confess to the fact that I love China girls. But who is she? She’s not my girlfriend and she’s even not among my WeChat friends. I realize I love a type of a China girl, a form or an idea of beauty.
My project TO SCRRRROOOLLL is also about me and the China girl. I am the lover and the beloved China girl offers the beauty of her soul. I am a visual artist who is university educated as a philosopher. The dialogues of Plato on love are always in the back of my head. The older and a bit ugly Socrates loves the young beautiful men. Socrates also is beloved because of his wisdom. To ascend to the beautiful body of knowledge and wisdom begins with the love of the form of the flesh of the face, the hands, the feet, the nails etc. etc. We have to make it up on the ladder of love and to leave the really physical beyond to appreciate the beautiful souls, their attitudes, their desires and their friendships.”
I was shocked and still am: this artist is blatantly reducing an entire demographic of people down to an exotic, fetish product that he calls “China girls” and supposedly getting away with it under the guise of art. His performance was openly about sexual abuse, yet here, Bakker also writes it is about him as the “lover” and the “China Girl” offering him the “beauty of her soul”. He says this is justified because he is a “visual artist who is university trained as a philosopher”. And… don’t you know Plato? How did an international arts organisation in China – The Chinese European Art Center – think it was appropriate to send this to their entire mailing list and share it on their public WeChat (social media) account?
When questioned by two Chinese women – art writer 张芳 Zhang Fang and the manager of CEAC – about his use of the term “China girl”, Bakker got very angry and insisted they did not understand what he meant, nor did they understand Western philosophy. I did not think that we would still have to discuss why this kind of attitude is belittling and deeply insulting. If the content and words you are using refer to an ethnic or gender group that you do not belong to, and you are questioned by people who do belong to that ethnic and/or gender group, it is not up to you to decide whether or not it is problematic. If a Chinese woman says she does not like the way you are using the slur “China Girl”, it is not up for debate.
Bakker’s brazen appropriation of the #MeToo movement to provide timely ‘relevance’ and ‘controversy’ to his work is even more disrespectful due to the specific challenges faced in Mainland China by survivors trying to share their stories. #MeToo is in China, but its use is largely censored by the government. #MeToo in China now operates under multiple hashtags to evade censorship, such as the he homophone hashtag #RiceBunny, #米兔 and #🍚🐰. Bakker used imagery crudely appropriating this activist hashtag. His performance began with the Chinese dancer dressed as a child, lying on the floor in the fetal position, clutching a soft toy bunny rabbit as Bakker poured a large bag of rice over her.
… with Bakker himself in the role of artist, director and perpetrator, it showed the real potential for sexual violence
A problem a lot of us are grappling with now, is what we do with the art of people who have done bad things throughout history. It’s hard. These things are part of our history. And yes, some would argue that ‘good’ art has been made at the expense of others’ suffering. But the go-to examples that so often get thrown around (Caravaggio, Picasso, Lucien Freud etc.) are from times where only a very particular demographic (of men) were in the uniquely privileged position to become an artist. We now know that artists can make fantastic art without abusing others! We’ve discovered that, given the chance, women, indigenous peoples, people of colour, LGBTQI+ etc. etc. can also make very good art! Bakker’s use of Chinese women is a glaring example of why the historical cliché of the male artist’s ‘muse’ needs to be questioned. Harmful artists do not need to be given a platform anymore, and China should not be an exception.
I was distraught to experience Bakker’s behaviour, especially when I hope that things are progressing. Bakker is making art about sexual abuse against young Chinese women by old men. He himself also openly admitted stalking a young Chinese woman. Bakker gleefully indulges his position as the predator. In 棋子 Chess Qizi, the audience saw their own/their family’s/their friends’ experiences of sexual abuse crudely acted out in front of them by a male artist who was obviously enjoying himself. It was an embarrassingly amateurish performance, but with Bakker himself in the role of artist, director and perpetrator, it showed the real potential for sexual violence. This was about power and intimidation. This was abuse disguised as art.
I became scared of leaving the studio/apartment incase I would see him around the complex. I could not escape the awful feelings he had triggered and their physical symptoms. People ask me if I had the chance to confront him in person in the weeks after his performance. Part of me thought maybe that could be good – but anytime I came close to encountering him, I fell apart. No, Bakker did not rape me. And no, Bakker did not literally rape the dancer he was working with. 韵可 Yunke was fine. She took it on as a job working with an international artist. She was paid and she used it for her CV. 韵可 Yunke said she was scared at times during rehearsals but that she could use the fear to help her performance.[iv] There is a large space in between being an entitled misogynist and being a rapist, but this grey area is frightening. I am terrified of it, and I was terrified of Bakker.
How do we distinguish the problematic in art-making from that which is simply not OK at all, and should be stopped?
This grey area is something that the art world has been grappling with, especially in the time of #MeToo. How do we distinguish the problematic in art-making from that which is simply not OK at all, and should be stopped? I truly believe Bakker should have been prevented from performing this work. That is a big call – I knew that would act as another form of censorship to the people of China. We cannot speak lightly of censorship, especially when considering this Mainland Chinese context. Many things are censored or completely banned. The claim of protecting ‘freedom of speech’ is too often used in Western countries as an excuse for racism, sexism, homophobia etc. (i.e. hate speech). This claim is absurd when you think about China, where freedom of speech actually doesn’t exist.
I felt victimised and silenced by Bakker and his supporters, yet I was in another country with very different social structures of criticism and gender. I personally was not his specific target or ‘taste’, as I am not a Chinese woman. But I was hurting and I was scared. To me, this represented something much bigger. When can your own core values as an individual override cultural consideration? I was acutely aware that I was a white woman coming to this country and trying to explain that what had happened was not OK. I could not speak for Chinese women, or fully understand the layers of our cultural differences. I clung to the belief that there are universal aspects to women’s experiences that transcend cultural differences. I was desperate to find others that agreed with me. I had to accept that I was ‘pushing my own agenda’, but maybe that was OK in this case. Bakker is a Western artist, and CEAC is a Western organisation.
My partner and I approached CEAC multiple times with our concerns about Bakker and his behaviour. I told them that what had happened was very triggering and I was struggling with my mental and emotional health, and my feeling of safety. This was the first time I had spoken out about something like this, and it was hard to admit. CEAC’s attitude was dismissive. The manager listened, but explained that Bakker was a ‘hot item’ in China at the moment and his exhibition was getting people to talk about the hard topic of sexual abuse, so it was ultimately a ‘good thing’. I said I was in contact with people about writing responses to the exhibition. The manager said they would do the same, and then collected gallery visitors’ comments as they came in. These brief comments were sadly taken by Bakker as an affirmation of his brilliance, and as I later discovered, passed on to him by CEAC as a resource for him to make another book. These overly polite remarks from some gallery visitors were then used by CEAC to disprove any complaints about the exhibition.
CEAC should not be excused for providing a platform for a male artist making rape-art, and then trying to disprove the people who were harmed by it
My partner and I then had a conversation with Ineke Gudmundsson, Dutch founder and director of CEAC, who had returned from the Netherlands a week into Bakker’s exhibition. She had been away for over five months. Sitting in the CEAC gallery amongst Bakker’s exhibition, we were shocked to hear her plainly state that she had not provided Bakker with a platform. Yet, she is the director of the organisation and her name signs off every email. Gudmundsson said she did not think anyone was harmed. This was hard to hear, as I personally was harmed and had made my concerns clear to CEAC. She said my partner and I were making a bigger deal out of the situation that it was, and we were making it worse by giving Bakker more attention. Gudmundsson then stated that Bakker would not have been able to do this in Europe, but ‘probably could have got away with it anywhere in Asia’. She added that there wouldn’t be any repercussions for CEAC, and that she didn’t want to talk about it anymore. This was a cowardly strategy to avoid any accountability for what had happened, and a blatant refusal to acknowledge the impact of supporting and exhibiting Bakker’s work.
These excuses and deflections are sadly very familiar. Due to lack of regulations, it feels like many residencies simply operate as businesses and aren’t equipped to make artistic or ethical calls about who they accept and what their gallery exhibits. This unavoidably lowers the quality of the artists accepted. Some residencies would propose they simply provide a service and are not responsible for what they exhibit, and what information they distribute. This is concerning. The conduct that I experienced by CEAC indicates they are one of these organisations. I understand that there are cultural differences and language barriers, but this should not be something that Western residency organisations in Asia hide behind. CEAC should not be excused for providing a platform for a male artist making rape-art, and then trying to disprove the people who were harmed by it.
Gudmundsson changed her tune as I was leaving, and said she was angry about what Bakker had done for his exhibition and performance at CEAC. She told me they were cutting contact with him. Yet, a month later, he was in a group show jointly organised and curated by CEAC. Even if it was not CEAC that specifically included him, that excuse, and the inability to have a critical conversation with the co-curator, is not acceptable as an international arts platform. Potential residency artists and funding bodies: think carefully before putting in an application to CEAC.
My voice did not count in this situation in China – yours could have
Perhaps one of the most troubling things is the apparent acceptance of Bakker’s work in the Netherlands. The Mondriaan Fund’s logo is on all of Bakker’s press releases and posters. Bakker was awarded the ‘Stipendium for Established Artists’ by the Mondriaan Fund, which is a grant of €38,000. Part of me is jealous of the amount of funding available to Dutch artists, but that’s also an awful lot of money to give to someone who is making work perpetuating sexual abuse. I wrote to the Mondriaan Fund and sent them a copy of the publication I made during my time in China and 张芳 Zhang Fang’s essay on Bakker’s work. I have yet to receive a response. I wanted to know if they still considered Bakker as an appropriate artist to give public money and to represent the Netherlands on an international stage. To my dismay, I have since found out that the Mondriaan Fund gave him more money to return to China in December 2018, just a little over a month after he left his residency at CEAC. This was to attend an opening for a large group show in Nanjing, and, distressingly, to re-stage his performance at another venue in Xiamen.
To the male Dutch and English artists who I met in Xiamen who were angry about what Bakker was doing and who heartily agreed with me, but also made excuses for CEAC and went on to participate in the same group show as Bakker: simply agreeing with women and survivors in these situations is not enough. Your inaction reinforces that you are part of the problem. My voice did not count in this situation in China – yours could have.
It insinuates that if you happen to be triggered, re-victimised and silenced by artists like Bakker, we as an art community, and as a society, do not care
My residency in Xiamen was an incredible experience and it will unavoidably inform my practice for years to come. China is an amazing place. I miss it and I miss the friends I made. I want to go back. But, I still feel a sense of emptiness or failure, and also shame. I feel ashamed that I was so messed up by someone who did not literally assault me. It still hurts that I was trying so hard to reclaim the voice of women and survivors, yet I was only supported by very few. It hurts that some people only saw me as a troublemaker or as a little girl who didn’t know anything about art.
Yes, this essay is a critique of one artist – it is specifically calling Bakker out. But, what happened in China represents much more than just one artist making problematic work. This is about the culture and the organisations that allow artists like Bakker to continue, and in the case of the Mondriaan Fund, actually pay for this harmful work to be made. Bakker is a symptom of a much larger societal problem. It is symbolic that Bakker, as a confident, forceful, aged, white man, continues to be handed public money by a national organisation who largely determines which artists are worthy of a voice. To me, this act of funding such an artist says that it is completely fine for people from privileged demographics to appropriate other cultures and use others’ stories of pain and suffering for their own gain, without any consequences. To me, this act says that we’re not even capable of telling our own stories, even (and especially) when our stories are ones of abuse at the hands of those more powerful than ourselves. It insinuates that if you happen to be triggered, re-victimised and silenced by artists like Bakker, we as an art community, and as a society, do not care. It is clear that perpetuating the problem is easier than admitting that there is a problem.
If this essay is seen as a ‘take down’, so be it. A serious discussion needs to be had. Repercussions for one artist and the institutions that support them can speak volumes and can be symbolic of change. Difficult and often triggering topics do need to continue to be explored in art, but no longer by people who are simply perpetuating the harm. We all need to make sure that their time is up.
[i] Fateman, Johanna, Fully Loaded: Power and Sexual Violence, Artforum, 2018
[ii] Read 张芳 Zhang Fang’s 2018 essay ‘About Chess Qizi’ here.
[iii] Read Pedro Bakker’s full press release/email invite for 棋子 Chess Qizi here.
[iv] Read 韵可 Wan Yunke’s description of her experience of working with Pedro Bakker here. She sent this to CEAC and also allowed me to publish it in the publication I made in conjunction with my exhibition, Pussy Bow at CEAC, 2018.
NB. Wellington City Council and the Asia New Zealand Foundation will no longer be sending Wellington Asia Residency Exchange (WARE) recipients to the Chinese European Art Center (CEAC).