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Bird's Nest Painting Banned

August 9, 2008

[Chinese / 中文] 

Bird's Nest, in the Style of Cubist
36 X 48 inch
Oil on canvas

On July 3, Chinese customs officers seized a painting by noted China-born, New York-based artist Zhang Hongtu, which depicts the National Stadium in Beijing, popularly referred to as the Bird's Nest. Titled "Bird's Nest, in the Style of Cubism," the painting incorporates images of the stadium design; the Chinese characters for the "Sacred Olympic Torch," "One world, One dream" (the Olympic slogan) and "Family, Joy, Happiness"; the Arabic numeral "8" in repetition; and the English words, "TIBET" and "HUMAN RIGHT." 

"I feel that the Olympic Games are a good opportunity to make this world a global village. It is a big party for all the people to get together without regard to national boundaries. 'Bird's Nest' was created with that thought in mind," Zhang told Human Rights in China. 

Customs officials told Zhang that the painting could not enter China because it contains "unacceptable" wording, the depiction of the stadium "isn't good enough," and the colors are "too dark and dull."

The painting was bound for an exhibition at the German Embassy, Go Game, Beijing!, which opened on August 6 and includes works by other well-known China-born artists such as Xu Bing and the Luo Brothers.

In addition to its physical seizure by Chinese officials, "Bird's Nest" was also banned from a Chinese magazine. Vogue China, the Chinese edition of the fashion magazine, had planned to reprint the painting to accompany an article about Zhang in its August issue. The editor later informed Zhang that the article was killed by China Pictorial, a state-owned journal which has editorial oversight. "The reason your painting could not be reprinted is that it has political overtone, particularly during the Olympics," the editor wrote in an email to Zhang.

In late July, according to Zhang, the Chinese customs released the painting, for fear of being reported by other government agencies that it was harboring politically sensitive images. The painting is now on its way back to New York.

Zhang was born in Gansu province, and immigrated to the United States in 1982, and has lived and worked in New York since. Many of his earlier works made use of the iconic image of Chairman Mao. In recent years, the theme of crossing national boundaries dominates Zhang works, such as a rendering of a traditional Chinese painting in the unmistakable Van Gogh style and a Ming vase in the shape of a Coke bottle. Zhang works in a variety of forms, including painting (sometimes in soy sauce), ceramics, and sculpture, and his works have been exhibited worldwide.

Zhang Hongtu's official website:


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