SHANGHAI (Reuters) - The pot-bellied official in a tan golf shirt paused in front of a poster-sized image for a few seconds, asked a member of his entourage to make a note of it, then continued to lead the group on its awkward march through the Shanghai Exhibition Center.
A few hours later, the digitally manipulated photo of China's legendary Monkey King facing Tiananmen Gate, by Beijing-based artist Chi Peng, was pulled from the wall, one of several works at the SH Contemporary Art Fair deemed unfit for display by Shanghai's culture police.
Censorship of political content has long been a feature of the Chinese art world under Communist Party rule, but gallery owners and artists at SH Contemporary were told on Thursday that city officials were being extra careful ahead of a once-a-decade leadership transition set to take place in Beijing next month.
"It's especially sensitive this year because the 18th Party Congress will start soon," said a fair organizer after trying to convince another booth to remove a painting that censors didn't like because it appeared to include images of Mao Zedong.
The last-minute removal of art works, some of which had passed initial vetting for the fair, underscores the party's reach and the pressures building in the political system ahead of the secretive conclave that will anoint new leaders.
To participants at the art fair, though, it was met mostly with rolled eyes and the sense that, to some extent, the ham-fisted effort was backfiring.
Chi Peng's Monkey King photo, with a massive gorilla and a wall of grey smoke coming from inside the Forbidden City, had passed vetting in Beijing for a show in May and was initially approved for the SH Contemporary.
On Thursday, though, the officials had apparently changed their mind and wanted it gone.
Steven Harris, director of M97 Gallery, taped paper over the offending work. But that was not enough. Eventually workers came to pull down the 120,000 yuan ($18,900) image, leaving an empty frame.
"In China, the winds blow in different ways at different times and I don't think anyone really knows what the benchmark is for what's acceptable and what's not. I think that's the benchmark: you never really know," said Harris.
Censorship is an "important issue" but should not be overblown, said Massimo Torrigiani, Director of SH Contemporary.
"I'm more worried when I go around the world to fairs when there is allegedly no censorship whatsoever and I don't see anything that's worth censoring," he said.
Controversy is a part of art. And it can create buzz.
"If things become big, if there are rumors about it, it can partly increase the value," said Enrico Polato, executive director of the Galerie Urs Meile in Beijing, which works with Ai Weiwei, one of China's most controversial artists.
Last year, an image of M97's that was censored sold on the first night, Harris said.
On Thursday, even the empty frame was garnering interest.
"It makes people think: So, where are we, really? What is reality here? What are people thinking about here? What's acceptable, what's not?" he said.
"Actually, finding an empty frame on the wall is arresting more people sometimes than a big beautiful colorful piece."
Upstairs, censors ordered the removal of a giant print of a beehive shaped like China and peppered with small images of people. A tiny version of the photo was in the art fair's catalogue, prompting them to ban the book's distribution as well.
Three hours later, with opening night in full swing, a work crew came with a ladder and a bed sheet to cover the piece. A crowd gathered, snapping pictures on mobile phones.
"Congratulations," one woman said to the gallery director.
($1 = 6.34 yuan)
Editing by Nick Macfie