Ai Weiwei Back in Action at 798



As promised in a previous post, a few words about the Ai Weiwei exhibit I happened upon while visiting 798 last month. Over the years, I have in various places and ways expressed reservations with Ai’s work, and more particularly, his reception in Western media. This exhibition, though, marks a kind of turning point in my appreciation of him, at least as an artist in China. I am reminded that he is in factstill full-voiced, relevant, powerful, and really worth the hype in many ways.

Ok, it seems important to mention that this is Ai’s first solo exhibition in China since he was censored all that many years ago (since 2008, to be precise). This is important because, in the political history which will come to dominate understandings of Ai in the coming years,  Ai’s “return” to the Chinese domestic art scene signals either an escalation in the sometimes downright hostile tit for tat between artist and political authority, or perhaps a mollifying pivot to a kinder, more gentler relationship between Ai and his minders. I actually hope for the latter, if only because it has the greater potential to bring to view the type of work currently on exhibit at Gallerie Continua and Tang Contemporary Art Center.

For those not already aware, the exhibition is a reconstruction of an ancient  (400-year old) dwelling located in Jiangxi that was slated for demolition by Chinese authorities. Here’s what it looked like from a photograph displayed in the exhibition:




Instead of such a fate, Ai has had a portion of the structure disassembled and then reassembled in two spaces, which are adjacently situated Beijing’s 798 arts district. I toured the exhibit, albeit too quickly, in the company of Sichuan artist Zhong Biao, whose impressions were in and of themselves interesting to record. What follows, though, is largely my take.

The colors.

The work is mammoth and impressive for sheer size and scale (and complexity). I’ll begin, though, with a small observation: the way that Ai paints some material objects found on site in the village in Jiangxi. We’ve seen this strategy many times in Ai’s work, most famously the ancient urns and other vessels which he similarly painted, and in some cases branded with marks of global capitalism (Coca-cola, for instance).  The idea was clear enough to me in the past, and as an abstract notion — that crude paint on old and therefore venerated objects brings about meditation on value of all material objects in our midst — it made sense enough. But seeing is believing in this case. Here I am reduced to my own poor photography, which is not enough to convey just how vapid, yet vibrant, and saccharine to the point of being painful these colors really are.

colors1 colors2


The objects are painted ornamental elements of the original structure, brought to our view in a dedicated space of the gallery again as if to pose the question of viewing itself, ornamentation emanating from ornaments defiled and in their defilement emanating yet again. The effect is riveting, something like a car accident one views from the vantage point of a passing car. I both couldn’t bear to look, and couldn’t pull myself away.

The footings.

The colored objects (and also ladder, which I won’t get into here) are truly but a minor element in the vast work that, and here’s the major point, encompasses two full galleries. This is an important point because few artists in China living today could not only lock up two galleries for the purpose of exhibition, but also force cooperation between the galleries that required, beyond logistics of timing, etc, actually boring holes right through their walls! The reconstruction of the ancient dwelling was not done, in other words, in one gallery, but in two, and this required building supports across the two (or is that three?) structures, an architectural wonder further accentuated by the video projections of the “other” galleries constantly in view. Again, here Ai deftly captures long-standing questions of exhibition, space and viewership. We are complicit in uncomfortable ways, captured by cameras so we have a constant sense of watching and being watched in the simultaneously authentic and yet entirely artificial space.

What captured all this most powerfully for me was the single footing, separate from the other (I presume) original pieces of support because instead of stone it is actually made of glass:



and a close up:



Apart from the obvious meditation on functionality and aesthetics of the built environment that such a choice occasions, Ai includes within the footing a note composed by his six-year-old son which reads:



心平而好, which literally could be rendered “with a peaceful heart all is well” but which might further be interpreted to say: F*** You! (to use a favorite Ai Weiwei-ism). Ai’s heart is not so peaceful, and yet he quietly and painstakingly assembles this massive work, supports it beautifully on an impossible sentiment encased in glass. I half wondered if at any moment the entire structure (and the two galleries with it) might not collapse at this very point. Fortunately that did not come to pass.

What the exhibition demonstrates for me is that Ai is a highly competent artist whose “issues” may not be as universal as worshipping media outlets would have us believe, but at least speak effectively to some core issues operative in China’s “rise”, for lack of a better word. In other words, if we must have celebrity artists such as this, I guess Ai Weiwei is a pretty good choice.

Zhong Biao “Splitting Time”


Here is a 5 minute video of Zhong Biao speaking at the end of the “Splitting Time” (切开时间) exhibition. The exhibition was held at the Zhong Gallery (中画廊) in Beijing. It was a small-scale operation (only nine paintings), but a lively (if a bit noisy) crowd and lots of good wine.

Here we get a good sense of Zhong’s characteristic painting philosophy, something that involves the very largest philosophical issues (space and time) as an integral part of his process. The sound, visual quality and subtitles are all a bit rough, but at least an outline of the essential ideas emerges.




798 Alive and Well


Can’t say how many times over the years I have encountered the idea, while traveling in China and more particularly Beijing and more particularly still the Northeast district (Chaoyang), that the 798 arts zone is “dead.” Its been dead since shortly after its birth in 2001, a pronouncement made famously by one of its progenitors (I’ll resist the word “father”), Huang Rui. Huang was early on disgusted with the commercial/propaganda vehicle that the area quickly became once the Chinese government changed its original plan-to demolish the entire factory (built, for those unaware, in the 1950s by Chinese -East-German joint venture). Whatever Beijing authorities had planned at the time, no doubt it was not what turned out to be the most lucrative thing imaginable– a free, independent, international/global center for the production, exhibition and appreciation of contemporary art, both Chinese and non-Chinese.

The word “independent” here, though, is what caused problems in the views of Huang and others. Once the Chinese government got involved, there was immediately a chilling effect on the scope and of course content of the art created and exhibited. Meantime, and in curious lock-step with the increased surveillance and hence control of the artistic “message,” the commercial value of space in the entire 798 area rose so rapidly that most artists were priced out. Thus, it mattered little whether 798 was doomed for economic or political reasons, it was still doomed.

Or at least, such is the narrative. I’m certainly not going to propose that either one of those interferences with the development of an arts district is not in effect in the case of 798, but I still find, year after year, that visiting the zone remains a rewarding even impressive experience, where art of significant quality is on display in a density and variety that few places in the world (I know that’s a big claim–would love to be challenged on this point) can rival.

Here, then, a few rather pathetic shots from my own  camera with a bit of commentary.


the first thing I like to observe at 798 is its edge. I love the ay the art and building come to an abrupt halt, here on the northwest corner. The installation of traffic mirrors to aid in safety a good example of something you won’t find often in Beijing, despite the fact that quote a few places could use them. The fringe of the above ground heating system, still wrapped in insulation, and the remains of whatever structural gate previously bordered the space when it was a factory district in the 1950s.






Here the makings of a typically elaborate exhibition, this one in the courtyard beside PACE Gallery, Beijing. Not a great deal to be discerned at this stage of installation, but typically arresting image of an airplane wing jetting up from underground.




798 Poeisis

This is one of the most interesting elements of 798 to me– the people who are constantly engaged in the incessant building, demolition and rebuilding that an arts district of this scale requires. I’ve often thought that if anyone really needed to obtain a thorough picture of what this place is they should contact whatever outfit sends workers in to actually make what we see visible. And then have a few sit-downs with the workers. One of these days I’ll find a way to do this.


798Workers1 798Workers2


the Inside:

Too much to report on this at once. Here just a few shots from a Fang Lijun exhibition, which included both oil paintings and woodblock prints, demonstrating that his work is still current and suggestive. going on while I was there. More impressive still was the Ai Weiwei installation I saw, but I’ll write about that separately.



My Review of Dragon in Ambush on MCLC

Dragon in Ambush

Today courtesy of Nick Kaldis and Kirk Denton at MCLC


Dragon in Ambush:
The Art of War in the Poems of Mao Zedong
By Jeremy Ingalls

Reviewed by Paul Manfredi
MCLC Resource Center Publication (Copyright October, 2015)

Jeremy Ingalls (compiled and edited by Allen Wittenborn). Dragon in Ambush: The Art of War in the Poems of Mao Zedong. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013. 420 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7391-7782-2 Hardback ($90.00 / £60.00); E-ISBN: 978-0-7391-7783-9 eBook ($89.99 / £60.00)
Jeremy Ingalls (compiled and edited by Allen Wittenborn).
Dragon in Ambush: The Art of War in the Poems of Mao Zedong
. Lanham, MD: Lexington Books, 2013. 420 pp. ISBN: 978-0-7391-7782-2 Hardback ($90.00 / £60.00); E-ISBN: 978-0-7391-7783-9 eBook ($89.99 / £60.00)

Jeremy Ingalls’ translation and explication of Mao Zedong’s poems is an extraordinary work, so full of information that it seems bursting at its roughly 500-page seams. This is not an entirely good thing, because the information provided, while often rich and resonate, is also frequently far-fetched and the assemblage of contents is somewhat unusual. In the Preface, we are told the work is a “critique and new translation of the first twenty of Mao Zedong’s published poems” (xi). This is a deceptively simple description of what is actually a tour de force of literary scholarship, but one that veers into an odd combination of reverential reading of Mao’s poems and diatribe against Mao himself and all that he stood for.

Ingalls, for those not already familiar, was born Mildred Dodge Jeremy Ingalls in 1911 and passed away in 2000. She was a scholar, essayist, and student of Asian Languages who taught in both English and Asian Studies at University of Chicago, Western College for Women in Oxford, Ohio, and Rockford College in Illinois. Over the course of her career she was awarded the Yale Series of Young Poets Prize, a Guggenheim Fellowship, American Academy of Arts and Letters grant, and other awards, as well as an honorary Doctor of Literature and Letters (Litt.D.) from Tufts University in 1965, five years after her retirement. The appearance of this book in 2013 was due to the painstaking efforts of Allen Wittenborn, an associate and friend of Ingalls. Wittenborn met Ingalls at the University of Arizona, where Wittenborn was completing his graduate work in the 1970s. Wittenborn returned to the University of Arizona archives later and produced, from some fifty boxes of posthumous papers, Dragon in Ambush. Wittenborn’s presence in the manuscript is notable: large editorial notes fill out the work in important places, providing background information necessary to hold the great span of truly disparate concerns together in one work.

Structurally, the book is not particularly unusual. It is comprised of two major sections, with Part 1 “Recognizing the Terrain” (a little over one hundred pages) divided into two chapters—”Methods of Approach” and “A Rationale for Ruthlessness”—and Part 2 “Mao’s Poems 1-20” (nearly 300 pages) comprising the translations, with poems appearing in pinyin, traditional and simplified characters, and English. Why, precisely, it was necessary to include both traditional and simplified characters is a bit of a mystery, and the pinyin also seems overkill, but the work is consistently thorough, and these elements are in keeping with that trait. The commentary that follows each poem, meanwhile, is truly exhaustive, working through line by line with general historical setting for twenty of Mao’s poems composed between 1925 and 1936, full explication of textual origins wherein demonstration of Ingalls’ extensive knowledge of classical Chinese literature is in full display, and a smattering of notes on translation issues, particularly as they relate to potential cultural miscommunication. In the translation discussion we can see that Ingalls takes her readership to be those generally interested in Mao’s work but with little knowledge of Chinese literature, recent or ancient.

The really curious part of the work is its intent. Ingalls seems less inclined to educate readers about Mao’s poetic writing than to make them acutely aware of the way Mao’s dastardly plans for world domination are manifest in his poetical writing. In Ingalls’ estimation, the poetry can be read first as a chronicle of Mao’s political thinking of the time, but also as a grand plan for the future for those learned enough to “read between the lines” (3). Ingalls observes:

Acquaintance with what these poems are asserting and proposing is crucial for those of us who recognize the continuing costs to humanity of seemingly effective despotisms and the aggravation of those costs by eloquence dedicated to the celebration of massively artful control over the destinies of other human beings. (ibid)

Two points about this bear immediate mention. First, that poetry could be used in such a way—to cleverly communicate a momentous scheme to a group of would-be political followers—is in itself fascinating. Ingalls’ view is that Mao the poet writes work that is consistently bifurcated, simultaneously communicating on one level with the masses and offering on another an esoteric layer of often conflicting information to be comprehended only by the truly worthy. The second point, perhaps less of a novelty in Mao studies generally but still fresh in the context of literary studies of Mao, is that the textual origins of Mao’s lyrical personae lie almost entirely outside of Marxist-Leninism. They are instead a collection of classical Chinese texts including principally Sun Zi’s Art of War, the Book of Changes, and Laozi’s Dao De Jing. The crux of Ingalls’ work is the identification of a stratum of readers, of which she is the preeminent example, who can actually unravel the dense allusions at work Mao’s poetry, revealing at last what Mao intended his poetry to actually do for his contemporaries and future generations. As readers, or “explorers” as Ingalls names us, we are initiated by her into an even deeper cognoscenti status than the one signaled by the texts themselves, aware of Mao’s hidden agenda and those to whom the agenda is addressed.

Ingalls builds the case for Mao’s nefariousness in the second chapter, appropriately titled: “A Rationale for Ruthlessness.” She opens with a discussion of the thirty two instances of the use of tian 天 in Mao’s twenty poems. Here, though, we immediately see a strange combination of scholarly, well-researched material and willfully unusual readings of Chinese classical texts. Chapter V of the Dao De Jing, for instance, begins with the lines: 天地不仁 / 以萬物為芻狗 / 聖人不仁 / 以百姓為芻狗. Ingalls renders these: “Heaven, in dealing with Earth, is ruthless / Using the ten thousand phenomena as straw dogs / The sage, in dealing with humankind, is ruthless / Using all of the people as straw dogs” (41) [italics mine]. This is not to say that her translation is wrong per se, but it is not standard. Though “ruthless” is a reasonable choice, the phrase is actually “not ren,” where ren (benevolent) is a fundamentally human psychological or moral attitude that is not a part of the nature signified by the phrase “Heaven and Earth,” to which it is here predicated. Further, by breaking the first two characters “Heaven and Earth” 天地 into: “Heaven, in dealing with Earth,” she sets up an oppositional force that is odd at best. Regrettably, this is an essential feature of Ingalls’ view of Mao’s appropriation of traditional literature; she believes Mao aligns himself with Heaven in opposition to Earth. Thus, the distance between ruler and ruled recapitulates Heaven’s ruthless “dealing” with Earth. In other words, Mao treats all people as “straw dogs,” only useful in their function of allowing him to achieve his principal goal of total domination. Ingalls writes:

In this rationale, the inherent ruthlessness and the inherent duration predicted, in analogy with Heaven, of the sage as a cosmically validated commander of humankind, supply the premises of Mao’s poems 5 and 21. In these poems he speaks of the ageless energy that he believes he possesses, in common with Heaven, in exercising, like Heaven, a ruthless activation of the process of change. (43)

The readings of the poems demonstrate similar orientation, often leading to interpretations that strain credibility. Poem 17, “Long March” (长征), might strike most readers as a celebration of Red Army exploits at a historical moment when success of the communists was anything but a foregone conclusion. Here is the original poem in full:


As is well known, Mao’s troops were outnumbered by and materially disadvantaged in comparison with the Nationalists. Mao’s poem describes the ease with which the Red Army travel difficult terrain, defiantly smiling as it reaches its goal. In Ingalls reading, though, these lines become something very different. Poem 17, she describes in her commentary, is

marked by a sustained ambiguity as to whose thoughts the poem is expressing. . . . Mao’s phrasing of his poem . . . sets up the suggestion that the thoughts might be those of the Red Armies but indicates, to close readers, that he is, by intention, summarizing, instead, his appraisal of the usefulness of the expedition to his personal political advantage. (292)

And a short time later:

A Mao Zedong who, like some of his predecessors, including the putative Zhou authors of the Zhou text of the Changes, considers himself endowed with unique talents and obligations to impose a “correct” government upon the human race can, without compunction, regard tens of thousands of human beings as expendable as long as, through this process, he grooms survivors docilely obedient to his further commands. (295)

What Ingalls sees as patently sinister in Mao’s work has its origins in Chinese political philosophy, a flawed system perhaps, but also perhaps no more necessarily conducive to world domination than any other. The essential problem with Ingalls’ work, which seems almost too obvious to observe, is that the “world” of Sun Zi, Lao Zi and the Zhou authors was not that of the 1920s and 1930s when Mao was writing, and thus the charge that Mao intended world domination based on his poetic appropriations of those texts is a bit absurd. Equally absurd is that the albeit over-confident and brazen lyrical persona of Mao’s poetic writing would actually have an intended result—if indeed such was Mao’s intent—to sway populations outside of Mao’s actual control. Ingalls again:

It is, therefore, scarcely surprising that Mao should suppose that, having proved himself an even more ruthlessly successful manipulator of human beings and human affairs than Zhuge Liang, the impact of the career of Mao Zedong and of his words . . . will enforce Mao’s dragon-claw grip upon the shaping of human events through many centuries to come. (99)

For anyone interested in Mao’s poems, or even in Mao himself, this book is immensely useful. As Wittenborn observes in the Preface, one cannot glean a full picture of the man without careful reading of the poems, because what Mao presents in his prose writings is for an entirely different audience. The argument that only in the poems does Mao’s true nature reveal itself, a position that might serve as a sort of raison d’être for the work as a whole, is convincing in a way. However, as Ingalls’ prevailing psychological characterization of Mao is that of a ruthless leader unconcerned with the people he purports to lead, the potential value of reading the poetry is greatly diminished. In fact, with Mao’s careful, even masterful, attention to poetic diction and other detailed elements of the texts, a truly astute reading, the like of which Ingalls advocates, could yield far more than a picture of mere ruthlessness at work in Mao’s poems. Unfortunately, for all of her efforts, Ingalls herself seems to be unable to grasp this broader view.

One final point is worth contemplating. From the wary or even alarmist tone of Ingalls writing one might suppose that she was engaged in analysis of the poetical writings of a living world leader, one who could, conceivably, extend his merciless revolutionary influence to lands outside of China. Given the rather restricted nature of information available outside China during the Cultural Revolution in particular, this might account for Ingalls’ concern about a world leader bent on something far more than governing just China. Obviously, limitations resulting from a lack of credible information of what was happening inside China during the Cultural Revolution and shortly thereafter, when Ingalls presumably began work on the project, could easily have been rectified in the years following Mao’s death with some judicious editing and revision. The incubation of Ingalls’ notes was decades long, certainly enough time to accomplish this task. Nonetheless, with the considerable volume of source material created in the 1970s, the sense that the Mao dragon was much more than poetic fantasy makes a degree of sense in the context of that time.

Whatever one’s political position, historical and/or literary training, Ingalls book is a rich source of information about Mao’s poetic work, and in some respects his personal and political philosophy. It is not challenging to sift through the dense commentary—which demonstrates at times an overabundant antipathy for Mao’s political project and slightly hysterical response to his hegemonic intentions—to find insights about his poetical work, particularly as regards his connection to classical Chinese literature. For those who have a low tolerance for narrow ideological reading, though, such a sifting process might be more onerous than it is worth.

Paul Manfredi (
Pacific Lutheran University

Zhong Biao, new work


Zhong Biao has opened up some new vistas in his work, something which in itself is not surprising as he’s been developing and changing at least since I began following his work in 2005. This time, though, I think he’s moved in a notably new direction, call it a lateral rather than vertical innovation. Gone (at least for the moment) is the restless do-more-different style of change that drove the 2009 video installation of the Embrace! exhibition in Denver, or the 2013 ground-to-ceiling and all points in between Tailoring Clouds 裁云剪水 installation in Suzhou Art Museum. This time he has returned to oil painting, and with heightened attention, in his own words, “to the painting process itself.” This is manifest in a number of ways, including a heightened fragmentation of the image, giving his juxtapositions, both on the figural/content and abstract/figural axis, a new level of poignancy. His abstract components in particular find better ways to reside on the canvas, echoing pneuma that seem to both situate and alienate the figures they surround. The “transmigration” image is particularly deft, both building on a kind of pixelation theme which I’ve mentioned previously in this blog, but adding a watery glass-like texture at once supple and explosive. And as usual the Tibetan monastery at the center gestures towards some political content, just as it pushes that idea completely out of the image.


Back Lake 后海

Back Lake 后海



In the Now 当下

In the Now 当下



Transmigration 轮回

Transmigration 轮回

Yan Li in Yangzi Jiang poetry journal–seriously great photos

Some great photos in the 8/19 Yangzi Jiang 扬子江诗刊 poetry journal’s spread of Yan’s poetry and painting. The 1985 East Village one, which I’ve seen circulating before, is a fine enough specimen, but I’d never seen the 1990 Brooklyn Bridge nor the 1975 Shenyang image. Follow this LINK for complete view of post coupled with paintings.

艺事 | 诗与画·严力

 2015-08-19 严力 扬子江诗刊

严 力 1985 年 于 纽 约 东 村







严 力 诗 选








严 力 , 2012 年 10 月













严 力 , 纽 约 布 鲁 克 林 大 桥 , 1990











严 力 ,“ 我 和 我 的 秘 书 ”, 1991



























































严 力 , 1975 年 于 沈 阳