Following public outrage over the exhibition of a video work that ranked women “from the prettiest to the ugliest,” OCAT Shanghai, a nonprofit art gallery, has closed indefinitely. In a statement dated June 18, OCAT Shanghai said that “omissions in due diligence” had led to the work’s inclusion in a group exhibition and apologized to any visitors who had been “disturbed, hurt and left feeling uncomfortable” by the video.
For the 2013 work, titled Uglier and Uglier, artist Song Ta filmed some 5,000 female college students at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, the artist’s alma mater, and compiled the footage into an eight-hour video. The controversial piece had been on display since April in the group show “The Circular Impact: Video Art 21,” which featured 21 artists and was organized by Dai Zhuoqun, an independent curator based in Beijing. (The exhibition was slated to run until July 11.)
In his artist statement, Song recommended visitors arrive early to the gallery, as the video begins with the women he found most attractive. “So if you want to see the campus queen, you have to go to the museum as early as possible,” Song wrote. “Otherwise, when the dusk comes, it will become a living hell in this place.”
On Thursday night, a Weibo post by user Sanaya One criticizing the piece was shared on Twitter by Afra Wang, a co-host of the Mandarin-language podcast Chinese Murmurs. One user on the Chinese blogging platform Weibo said the show’s curator was “unable to distinguish between modern art and trash,” while others called said the video infringed on the women’s legal rights. By Friday afternoon, OCAT Shanghai took the piece off view—and subsequently closed altogether.
“After receiving criticism, we re-evaluated the content of this artwork and the artist’s explanation, we found it disrespected women, and the way it was shot has copyright infringement issues,” the museum said in a statement on Weibo. “Thank you for your concern, criticism and oversight. OCAT Shanghai will reflect upon the public issues and social concerns arising from this incident. As a museum supporting the concept of diversity, we will take this as an admonition to show more empathy towards all.”
In a 2019 interview with Vice China, Song said he had a female assistant help film the women to appear “less creepy.” His team then digitally organized the images under titles such as “forgivably ugly” and “unforgivably ugly.” In the interview he defended the work, saying, “I think I have the right to tell the truth.”
Song originally produced the piece in 2012, and it was included the following year at the UCCA Beijing’s “On | Off: China’s Young Artists in Theory and Practice,” which presented the work of 50 emerging Chinese artists. The museum later invited Song to give a talk on his art, which it described in a statement as “unambiguously humorous” and “often calling into question established societal codes of conduct.” In a similar performance work also from 2013, Song reportedly ranked 30 women volunteers by attractiveness and then had them walk down a runway in that order.