Eccentric student a litmus test for Chinese society's tolerance for performance art

Source:Global Times Published: 2017/8/3 19:35:33

Urban management officers dismantle Ge's street sign on July 13. Photo: CFP


Ge Yulu Photo: Central Academy of Fine Arts

It was one of the few roads in Beijing named after a person. It was also one of the most short-lived names that a road has ever had.

The street was "Geyu Lu," a four-kilometer stretch near an affluent neighborhood in Beijing's Chaoyang district. It's also the name of Ge Yulu, a 27-year-old art student hailing from Hubei Province who successfully fooled Baidu and Google maps and Chinese road authorities into naming a road after him by sticking fake street signs on unnamed streets in Beijing.

Ge, whose name coincidentally ends with the character "lu," which means "street" in Chinese, carried out the project as part of his thesis as a graduate student at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. The street sign project garnered him overnight fame after it was documented on Zhihu, a major Chinese Q&A website. It also infuriated China's road authorities, who dismantled his fake road sign only four days after the post went viral.

In an interview with a campus publication, the young artist said he had hoped to explore "gaps in governance" through the project. But in China, where public performance art is rare, Ge's creative and sometimes defiant artworks sparked heated discussions online. Many people said they couldn't understand how a violation of public order could be called art. But others admired his imagination, boldness and humor, some even going so far as to call him a genius.

Fooling Apple and Baidu

Although Ge's street sign project earned him overnight fame, the project really started four years earlier, when Ge, freshly graduated from the Hubei Institute of Fine Arts, arrived in the capital.

"I had just arrived in Beijing, hadn't yet been admitted to the grad school at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and was living in one of those urban villages. One day, I was checking online maps and found that the main road in the village didn't have a name. I thought, can I call it Geyu Lu? Geyu Lu might be able to … become a reality in the nooks of the ignorance of human governance. This is the basic idea behind the work," Ge told the campus publication.

He then printed out dozens of road signs and checked online maps to see if there were any unnamed roads nearby whenever he went somewhere. If there was, he'd bring a street sign and stick it there, Ge told Everyday People, an online magazine.

Some of these blue street signs, a simple version of Beijing's official street signs, would be immediately torn down by chengguan, or urban management officers, and some would survive a few days. Ge said he never even bothered to check their fate until one day in 2014, when Ge's friend spotted a street called Geyu Lu while checking locations in a food delivery app. Ge's scheme had worked.

The map service that included Ge's road was AutoNavi, a Chinese mapping and navigation services provider which also provides Chinese mapping data for Apple Maps. In 2015, other mapping services such as Baidu Maps and Google Maps followed suit, and even Beijing's road authorities used the name Geyu Lu when they installed street lamps on the road.

After his road was "recognized," Ge studied the design of Beijing's official street signs and made something more authentic-looking using materials bought on In a small "christening" ceremony, he erected the new street sign on the road, which he recorded in a video.

"I don't want to own a road. I just want to provide a space full of imagination. No matter what the real world is like, we can always discover fun in a boring city and create a space of our own," Ge told the media.

Fame and controversy

The road was little known in the three years of its existence, until a post on Zhihu, documenting his project, went viral. So far, the post has been viewed over 11 million times, given 18,000 upvotes and received over 1,400 comments.

Before him, only three people had had the honor of having roads named after them in Beijing, and all of them are war heroes from over half a century ago, according to Chinese media. They include Zhang Zizhong, a Chinese general and martyr who died in the Anti-Japanese War in 1940.

Many netizens marveled at Ge's humor, creativity and the significance behind his artwork. Bai Yansong, a famous media personality, commented, "As a young art student, Ge Yulu's performance art … provided convenience for people on the street when they needed to, say, have food delivered. Now that the sign has been dismantled, regulators should also reflect on their inaction. Are there any other unnamed roads like this one?"

"Ge is such an interesting person. Very few students who have taken Chinese education can have the same imagination as he has," said netizen called Xiong Puchi.

If the street sign project sounds more like a clever gimmick, Ge's other experimental artworks, which became known to the public after he shot to fame, are more political and even defiant in nature. In one video installation called "Stare," Ge erected scaffolding around several surveillance cameras on the streets of Beijing and climbed up them to stare into the lenses hung high up on the poles.

"Usually, surveillance cameras are there to monitor us. Can I monitor them too? Here I want to question the right to surveillance," he told CCTV about the purpose of the artwork.

But along with his fame came controversy.

On July 13, four days after the Zhihu post, local authorities dismantled the street sign that Ge made, and replaced it with an official sign ten days later. According to the authorities, the road's official name is Number 1 Baiziwan South Road.

Many questioned his art. "Blocking surveillance cameras, changing road signs, I don't understand how this vandalism can be called art," one netizen commented.

Ge was also punished for a disciplinary violation at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, according to documents revealed online. Neither the school nor Ge explained the reason for the punishment, but some alumni told the media that it was because Ge placed a fake penis on top of the university's flag post in one of his video installations.

Ge said he is sorry for his lack of consideration when carrying out some of his projects. "Whether Geyu Lu is a mistake or art, I'm only 27 and I won't stop here… 'Geyu Lu' is only a part of Ge Yulu, not all of him," he said.

Global Times

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