WASHINGTON - If I cant tell the truth, I will keep my mouth shut for a month, thats 720 hours.
Meet Beijing-based Chinese performance artist Brother Nut. Born in Shenzhen in 1981, hes internationally known only by his pseudonym.
From 4 p.m. June 1, until 4 p.m. July 1, he barely opened his mouth. Thats part of his project Shut Up for 30 Days, which is designed to spotlight Chinas shrinking space for freedom of speech, particularly regarding the coronavirus pandemic.
He sealed his lips in different ways, using metal clamps, gloves and a surgical face mask inscribed with shut up. He also wore packing tape marked with the characters Error 404, in reference to Chinas Great Internet Firewall.
During a telephone interview with VOA from Beijing, he said there were a few times when he slipped up and uttered a comment. On those rare occasions, he said he slapped himself 16 times and ate only white rice for all three meals after that.
Self-punishment, you know, he said, just like if the authority asks you to shut up and you fail to do so, you will be punished.
He named himself Brother Nut 10 years ago when he began his performance arts.
Nut, in English, it means someone whos weird and hard to deal with, the 39-year-old told VOA. I think it represents my attitude perfectly.
Living up to that name, he has done quite a few crazy and weird things over the past 10 years.
In 2015, he launched Project Dust, in which he created a brick made entirely from dust he vacuumed out of the heavily polluted Beijing city air over 100 days. The project highlighted Beijings air pollution problems at a time when China sought to recast itself as an environmentally aware nation.
In 2018, he made headlines with project Nongfu Spring Market, in which he filled 9,000 water bottles with cloudy and contaminated water from a village in Shaanxi, in northwestern China, and exhibited them in Beijings art district, 798 Art Zone, to showcase the countrys water problems.
In 2019, he collected 400 dolls from the children of migrant workers in Shenzhen in southeastern China, and he used an excavator to throw all the dolls into the air, advocating for the kids who lost the opportunity to get an education because of land seizures back home.
Brother Nut says that in a country like China, art is a symbol of resistance.
In the past two months, he has launched several projects regarding freedom of speech.
In addition to Shut Up for 30 Days, he has set up the truth award to salute journalists who dare to speak out during the countrys battle with COVID-19.
Brother Nut raised just short of $3,000 from 73 netizens, and he gave the award and money to Gong Jingqi, a journalist from Chinas People Magazine. She wrote a bombshell feature story on whistleblower doctor Ai Fen, the director of the emergency department at Wuhan Central Hospital, one of the hospitals most directly affected by COVID-19. The original piece was quickly deleted from Chinas tightly controlled social media, yet its copy was widely circulated online.
His project Error 404 invited netizens to list sensitive words banned on Chinas internet. More than 100 netizens participated, listing roughly 1,000 words as the most sensitive words in 2020. These included National Security Law, Soviet Union has died and raise your hand if you disagree.
Brother Nut said people are so used to Error 404 they feel indifferent when they see the words. These banned phrases are the epitaph of our time, he told VOA.
From air pollution, water pollution and migrant workers, to freedom of speech, he said hes inching closer to the dangerous red line.
But this red line can move, you know. Maybe instead of me moving closer to the red line, it is the red line drawing closer to everybody, he shrugged.
He was taken away by Chinas secret police for tea drinking, which is an unofficial way of interrogating and intimidating anyone who dares to voice different opinions. The first thing they told me were artists are garbage. I was pretty shocked, he said.
Last year, he was detained for 10 days for a project he undertook on financial fraud.
After his release from prison, Brother Nut continued his performance art. Im on this land, so Im focusing on the things happening here, he said.
Chinas shrinking creative space has made it hard for artists, but Brother Nut said he wants to do something to create change.
We have to believe theres a future for us.
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