Its been a little while since I’ve posted, busy of late with completion of manuscript for publication. Happily, that process is coming to an end.
More information about the book available HERE
Its been a little while since I’ve posted, busy of late with completion of manuscript for publication. Happily, that process is coming to an end.
More information about the book available HERE
One wonders how the curators plan to approach this chat experience. Will they be moderating, perhaps even reviewing questions in advance? If so, will they be editing out overtly political content? If not, could this turn into a no-holds-barred discussion of Chinese authoritarianism, political corruption, and all other manner of potentially seditious talk? Obviously, Ai may choose not to answer if he feels line of questioning veering into unsafe territory. But from what we’ve seen of Ai already, self preservation is not the highest on his agenda.
I’m actually thinking that this is potentially a stronger position for Ai than physical presence. In recent years, in fact going back to Wenchuan earthquake project, the internet and related technologies have been key to his development. Planes, taxis, openings and meet-and-greets are all perhaps things of the past for someone as globally inflected as Ai.
Meanwhile, and on the more ponderous end of things, the works actually on display are, from what I can see on the websites, large and weighty, or, in the words of Charles Foran, “massive.” Here is a sample paragraph from his piece on Ai in Canada:
This from a relatively brief article, but excellent article that appears in The Globe and Mail. Would that more critics willing to put finger to keyboard on the subject of Ai and his politics (and sometimes art) could be as informed as Foran.
Ai Weiwei is back in the public eye, now more ponderous than ever. Namely, he’s provided sculptural view of his 80+ day detention in 2011, and they are on display at Venice Biennale under the title SACRED.
Which brings me to an imaginative exercise, brought about only slightly facetiously by voluminous and similarly placed facial hair. What of our own instances of unlawful detention? Would a mock-ups, beard and all, of Abdullah al-Kidd being interrogated by CIA officials do well as art in Venice? (al-Kidd was detained for 16 days in 2003 for attempting to fly to Saudi Arabia.) If the art was well done, I suppose, it might be picked up by some adventurous curator for global art events like the one now in Italy. But, would NPR, the New York Times, and the Guardian cover them as they have Ai Weiwei’s exhibit? Obviously not. Part of the reason for that is of course that al-Kidd is not himself an artist, and therefore not eligible for artist as hero against ‘The Man’ narratives that we so readily go in for. The other reason is that al-Kidd was presumed to be a terrorist, and that just does not seem a topic worthy of reporting. Which of these two reasons is more important here I can’t say. Maybe they come out about equal.
Which brings me to Time Magazine. Last week featured a cover by Ai himself, and a report on contemporary China by Hannah Beech.
Ishaan Tharoor comments:
The consequences of China reclaiming its “rightful place” are far-reaching—a world driven by a Chinese consumer class, rather than an American one, would be already a very different place. But Beech charts the “uncomfortable realities” of China’s emergence as a superpower: its toxic environment, its awkward relations with wary neighbors, the iron-bound determination of Xi’s Communist Party to keep a stranglehold on power despite the growing frustrations of its restive population. China views itself as the Middle Kingdom, imbued with the mandate of 5,000 years of glorious history. But the rest of the world still sees a “foreign policy laggard,” preoccupied more by its insecurities than its strengths.
Ai’s image thereby accompanies a narrative of China’s rise coupled with the important exercise of putting China in its place. This concerted effort requires not only all the major media to partake, but just as importantly, a legitimate, dependable, valiant, brave, native, figure like Ai Weiwei to drive it all home. It must issue from numerous places at once (Time, London, Venice, etc), and fully interweave text and image, politics and culture, without ever disrupting the dominant view: China is rising, BUT…
The following quote from the NBC WorldBlog:
“Whenever I get back to New York, I’m in middle earth, and when I’m in Europe I feel like I’m in a museum. And here it feels like the right pulse of time.”
Question: where’s the “here” here?
对了。Its Beijing. Granted, the year is 2009, when the Beijing Olympics were still bouncing about the echo chambers of very recent memory banks. I’m often given to wondering since about how Beijing/New York (or Paris or…) is doing in that comparison. Recent reports like this one in Chinarealtimereport, suggest that its not going so well, at least if we take Beijing 798 as something of a center of potential for cultural development. That phrase is at least 1/2 in effect, which is to say the Chinese government is about to “develop” another 50 billion yuan into 798, a place not want for capital investment, as far as I can tell. What it has been lacking in many people’s estimate in recent years is something genuine amidst the rapidly spreading shlock of unscrupulous consumerism. Indeed, a development from consumerism with scruples to the worst of the laissez faire (which is to say massively engineered top down extravaganza that this bit of “cultural” investment appears to be) is precisely what will destroy the “cultural” part of the comparison with New York or any other vibrant urban center the world over.
This development (in able hands of Melco International Development Ltd) has generated more controversy than usual, however, partly because consciousness of the use of resources both financial and natural (water) has risen considerably, and China’s burgeoning internet community–which so far China’s government has not figured out how to ‘develop’ –is very apt at expressing that consciousness in microblogs. Not to say that the push-back will necessarily stop to project. Chances are it won’t. But we could be optimistic and believe that developers and officials alike will finds ways to be guided by wisdom found in voluminous weibo postings.
Its also a moment when I for one would like to pause and note the importance of the voice of Ai Weiwei, of whose antics I’m occasionally critical, but whose basic critique of Chinese government policy where culture is concerned is more or less spot-on. We could perhaps take the positive view that Ai and others will become more central to decision making in the cultural sphere going forward. At the moment, I can’t quite be that positive.
Yang Yongliang, ‘A crocodile and shotgun’, 2012, “Silent Valley”, digital print, 66 x 119cm
Inevitably, the time arrives to take notice of the descent of what was for a moment (or perhaps a bit more) seemingly endless upward trend of Chinese art market. Estimates vary (as estimates will), but since a peak in 2011 Chinese art sales on world market have dropped by something like %50. Now comes the interesting game of trying to pinpoint why. While the intelligent, if not just informed, answer is that a number of factors are at work, the tendency to push towards which factor leads the way is strong indeed. Here are my top three, though I can’t say in which order:
1. The Chinese economy has slowed bringing all activity down a notch or two. Down %50? no, but a downturn in gangbusters economy like China’s would perhaps tend to hit fastest those whose money came the most quickly in recent years, coincidentally the ones (domestically) most inclined to be buying art.
2. Fraud. Chinese cultural scene has been for some time rife with the knock-off. Indeed, so pervasive is this that one might (actually, should) be given to wonder what the “original” really means in this day and age, if in fact it ever meant that much at all. Our fetishistic attention to original object, in my humble view, often if not usually an act of faith. On the other hand (and here’s the one that matters!), “original” does mean a lot monetarily. Everything, in fact, and the ever increasing presence of false merchandise is not helping the Chinese art market much at all.
3. Taxes. The Chinese government is stepping up its game in the tax collection department, with art and real estate taking primary position in the spotlight of national revenue. A new adjustment in luxury goods, which fantastically art belongs, has kicked in, and that is going to send investors in particular, if not the committed collectors, running for some other commodity.
The major caveat in my “report,” here is that this is not the first time pundits have proclaimed the death of the Chinese (art market) miracle, as David Barboza of the the New York Times, wrongly, in 2009 reported. A bit more judiciously, then, “what comes up, must come down…at least for a while.
Ok, now, for anyone who actually read all the way to the bottom of this post trying to figure out what Yang Yongliang‘s image has to do with current art market I can now tell you: nothing. I just love his work… (sorry?)
Below is an exchange of views posted to Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, a listserv managed by Kirk Denton at Ohio State University. The subject was Noble and Ignoble : Ai Weiwei: Wonderful dissident, terrible artist by Jed Perl. The original article is here
My own opinion below, and following the other posts to the list:
What has long intrigued me about Ai as provocateur, which I think is the best way to see his work either as artist or as dissident, is that he seems genuinely fearless. The clear examples are his constant challenges to Beijing (among other) authorities, whether they derive from be art-related, politically-motivated, or, more commonly, perfectly blended activities. The less obvious examples, though, are often more interesting, as with the 2010 interview with CNN (http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xyAeLmN_UjA) wherein Ai proclaims (in English) that China has no philosophy, and no humanity. On that occasion I found myself wondering if he might not actually be mocking his interviewer. After all, he can’t really mean that, right?
Regardless, I was pleased with Perl’s review, mostly because I’d yet to see a single critical word about Ai in English-language press, and this fit that bill and then some. Strangely, this also provokes a somewhat defensive response from those of us in the field, myself included, who are quick to point out that Ai’s artistic work in China remains clearly more relevant than derivative. Obviously, the very idea that his work is derivative begins in an historically informed and global context, where his status (“influence”) as artist withers in the face of his heroic, even cinematic stand against the faceless regime. And of course, as Lucas observes, to get into the particulars of the dissent is more than most readers of the New York Times, Guardian, or CNN, are willing to do. But the media game is where, again, I think Ai has been concentrating his efforts since at least 2008, when the Olympics gave him direct access to a global platform. Indeed, this inclination to celebrity goes back to the days in New York, when he and many who now populate the contemporary Chinese cultural elite (image of Feng Xiaogang sitting on top of a taxi cab comes to mind) were dreaming up their somewhat impossible futures.
So my issue with Perl’s review perhaps comes down to the phrase “pleads his case in art museums.” I wonder, in fact, if that’s actually Ai pleading, or is it instead some battery of curators and art directors, who are perhaps better targets for Perl’s critique than a contemporary Chinese artist making his way, albeit willingly, in a veritable mine field of political and aesthetic explosives day after day. What Ai actually cares about is not Perl (or us), but the people who surround him, and this is perhaps the best thing that can be said about him.
The first response came from Lucas Klein.
From: Lucas Klein <LRKlein@cityu.edu.hk>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissent, terrible artist (1)
Jed Perl writes: “once upon a time Tatlin, Malevich, and El Lissitzky
imagined that they might unite radical art and radical politics.” In the
circles of American poetry I travel in, The New Republic is known to match
liberal politics with conservative aesthetics (in the same circles, those
liberal politics are often themselves seen as pretty conservative). I
haven’t paid much attention to its art criticism, but this piece by Jed
Perl (who himself is known as rather stodgy in his tastes) demonstrates
that the same may be true in visual art, too.
Here’s an example of Perl’s art historical conservatism: “If the scale of
a work and the way the work is produced are irrelevant to its meaning or
its content, then what on earth is a work of art? Isn’t a work of art by
its very nature a matter of particulars, of size and scale, of who does
what and how?” This seems like a question he might have wanted to ask Sol
Lewitt or other conceptual artists forty or fifty years ago. There’s
always the question, Would Ai Weiwei be so famous if not for his stance
against the Chinese Communist Party? But the flip-side of that is, Would
Ai Weiwei’s identity as an artist be criticized, undermined, or
second-guessed if he weren’t Chinese?
I’m not suggesting that political virtue and artistic value are the same
(I’ve posted reviews to this list specifically stating that they’re not).
But here’s how it works: Art Review magazine listed him as the most
influential person in the art world in 2011
world/). Maybe you think he’s influential for his politics rather than for
his art, but then again, I can think of no other Chinese person who has
ever been considered most influential in the world in his or her métier
while alive; Mo Yan, Gao Xingjian, Bei Dao, Lu Xun, and Li Bai have never
been considered the most influential writers in the world, and hey,
Chairman Mao wasn’t even the most influential Communist in the world! For
some, what’s influential about Ai Weiwei’s art is that he does not want to
define his artwork only by what can be easily put on display, but rather
that his life (also on display for more reasons than one) is his artwork.
This doesn’t mean everything he does is good. I certainly don’t respond to
all his work (the appeals to the government from many mothers following
the Wenchuan earthquake, framed and hung on the wall at the Hong Kong
International Art Fair, where I saw it last May, did not move me
aesthetically, and I found his Gangnam video stupid and indulgent), but my
own take is, actually, that Ai Weiwei is a much more interesting artist
than he is a dissident. I haven’t read all his tweets or collected
writings, or even seen Never Sorry (so this is limited; please write in if
you think my judgment is hasty), but my sense is that as a political
thinker he’s a one-trick pony, saying no more or less than the Party is
bad. I have seen no systematic analysis or developed perspective, but
rather sometimes who will attack from left or right depending on what he
thinks the problem is. That’s fine, but I don’t think it makes a
compelling dissident (Liu Xiaobo, on the other hand, whom I certainly
don’t agree with all the time, has a consistent Liberal standpoint; a more
developed perspective gives him more range as a dissident). In Ai Weiwei’s
artworks, however, I see him engaging much more fully with the depth and
breadth of the Chinese cultural and political identity, and what that
means for, as John Berger put it (quoted in Perl’s piece), the “style he
inherits, the conventions he must obey, [and] his prescribed or freely
chosen subject matter.” I don’t think he can articulate his aesthetics
very well (many artists cannot), but even in the poorly lit, undersized
images of his sculptures on the New Republic webpage (as if consciously
laid out to appear diminutive), I see craft and concept combined in ways I
find not only interesting and intriguing, but beautiful.
Following are numerous others writing to the list.
From: Stanley Seiden <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissident, terrible artist (2)
I think I disagree with both Messrs Perl and Klein. Or to speak more
positively, I agree with Perl’s assessment of Ai’s dissidence and Klein’s
with his art.
With little artistic background, I feel far less qualified to comment on
Mr. Ai’s artistic work, but as an enjoyer of art I’ve never found Ai’s
work to strike any fewer aesthetic chords in me than the oeuvre others.
The history of artwork as revisualizations of every day objects is far
older than Ai (see Duchamp’s urinal and Creed’s balls of paper). What’s
more, the mere fact of one viewer’s indifference to a piece of artwork
(such as Perl’s bafflement at Cube Light) does not diminish its impact to
others. Ai’s animal heads may be devoid of deeper meaning than a
presentation of Chinese cultural icons, but I question Perl’s seeming
renunciation of, say, the entire Pop Art movement, which was built on
nothing but stark portrayal of cultural icons. It is hard to have
patience for a critic who would allow a conversation of art without Mickey
Mouse (or 生肖鼠, I suppose).
As for the dissidence of Ai, I highly recommend watching Never Sorry for
its detailed portrayal of the shape and form of Ai’s work to criticize the
government. I say “work” because it is a laborious project. Ai doesn’t
just post the picture of his brainscan on museum walls (which both Perl
and Klein object to on different merits); he makes numerous trips to
Chengdu, files all his paperwork, and documents the entire process. The
message I took from Never Sorry, or at least from what it depicted of Ai’s
process, was that it’s never enough to simply denounce the Party as “bad.”
Ai has taken it upon himself to play out the system, follow the threads
to their end, and hold everyone (including himself) accountable for their
I think separating Ai’s artwork from his dissidence (and I don’t really
like splitting his public image into those two boxes in the first place;
there is more to Ai’s promotion of good governance in China than simply
opposition to government policy) is also somewhat self-defeating. His art
is a form of dissidence; his dissidence emerges as art. Ai Weiwei is a
man who deeply loves his country and seeks to improve the government
therein, and much of his artwork is documentation of this passion and
pursuit. Pollack threw paint against a canvas; Ai is throwing himself
against the similarly blank, expressionless expanse of the Chinese
government, in numerous shades and from numerous angles, and then leaves
us to see the marks that are left. I am a cynical art student, and I
agree with Perl that a list of names typed on paper, on its own, is
largely absent of artistic merit. But when I read that list, I am moved
by something much more potent than oils and charcoal. Ai is not going to
win a Nobel Peace Prize any time soon, but he has taught Americans (and
the world) far more about China than Liu Xiaobo or Tan Zuoren. That, too,
is a power of art: to rush in where dissidents aren’t allowed to tread.
Ai is an artist; these are his works. They have the power to stir us
emotionally, even if we don’t understand every installation. Why
shouldn’t we put them in our museums?
From: Kristin E Stapleton <email@example.com>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissident, terrible artist (3)
I agree with a lot of what Lucas Klein wrote in his response to the Perl
review of Ai Weiwei. Speaking without any credentials as an art critic (I
did forward the review to my colleagues in Visual Studies here in Buffalo
for their thoughts but have not heard back yet), but having seen the
Hirshhorn exhibition and the documentary, I think Ai Weiwei’s work is
trying to deal with Chinese history and the contemporary world in a
variety of interesting ways. Maybe it is the eclecticism that Perl
objects to? That light cube was not all that moving to me, either, but it
certainly immediately called to mind the total glitz attack of 1990s
Chinese commercial spaces. The map of China made out of wood reclaimed
from demolished historical buildings is pretty breathtaking, on the other
As for Ai as a “one-trick pony” political activist, I think it’s true that
in politics he is not as eclectic as in his art-making — the ability to
share ones thoughts on any subject with whomever one wants and have free
access to public information that should legally be available are what he
asks for in almost all of his “performance art.” That’s not a bad one
note for a one-trick pony to hold to, it seems to me, at this point in
history. (His broader approach to the question of the “legacy of Chinese
culture,” explored by destroying ancient artifacts, etc., is also
political, but in a broader context of cultural politics). The Gangnam
thing may be silly, but being silly is not a particular heinous offense
(at least, I certainly hope not!) and perhaps it only became publicly
known because he has decided that it’s better to just make his whole life
public than restrict it to his immediate circle and the public security
By the way, Buffalo’s Albright-Knox Gallery bought a couple of pieces from
the “Moon Chest” installation, which will come here after the exhibition
finishes its tour.
From: Sean Macdonald <firstname.lastname@example.org>
Subject: Ai Weiwei: wonderful dissident, terrible artist (4)
I read a review like Perl’s with a large grain of salt.
Different forms of contemporary art have trajectories within their
respective historical contexts. Any work or production that merits serious
consideration deserves to be criticized in the context of other works and
their institutions. Although Perl doesn’t seem to be a very nuanced art
critic, I find his comments to the originality, or lack of originality in
Ai’s work, interesting.
Perl seems to want to simply criticize Ai’s production as derivative
because Perl is anchoring Ai’s aesthetic in Western neo or contemporary
avant-garde work, work that does play with ideas of originality and mass
production. Perl has a point here. But Ai also grounds the content of his
work in contemporary PRC politics and society. Perl also seems to
understand that Ai is not the first contemporary artist to articulate
explicit political messages. Perl just doesn’t like Ai’s “messaging.”
The idea of bringing John Berger into a discussion about a contemporary
artist like Ai is also interesting, but maybe this is where Perl doesn’t
get it. For example, extrapolating from Berger, Perl claims Ai’s work
lacks “sense of the means as constituting an opportunity and a restraint.”
And what if the artist’s “lack of restraint” is precisely the point? What
if this “lack of restraint” is a kind of reply to a context (political,
social, and institutional) that still (from the point of view of the
artist) exerts too much restraint?
In the end, it is possible that neither Perl nor Ai are “conservative” or
All the best,
That’s right, the bang-em up, smash-em up, blow-em up beauties are pervasive. Not a scientific observation, of course, but I believe I’ve seen enough now to say that something tankful is afoot (aground) in China right now. To begin with, this image:
Ullens Art Centre in 798 district and aforementioned article by Evan Osnos (see my previous post), I now realize also with write-up in Economist. And in my own encounter at 798 the other day, I encountered this sculpture:
Video version is necessary because somehow the barking dog added to the overall menace of the experience.
Following, and not but four hours after I met the dog and its guardian Tank-Child, which is to say as I was settling in to the Hainan Airlines flight back from Beijing to Seattle, I found the following image in the inflight magazine:
That is Hong Kong artist Amy Cheung’s “Toy Tank,” a life-size death machine made….of wood.
Not much needed to ‘unpack’ these images. China’s militarism is palpable, at least seems so to me when talking even casually with strangers, friends and family alike. Artists respond to such militarism creatively, but in so doing more or less mark the contours of its prevalence. The will to war is evident in ways very unlike those of the United States (not to mention any other country similarly set in its way). Americans go to war, destroy things and people alike in the name of (insert name), and then we do all we can to imagine its not happening. China meanwhile imagines the war to come, ever more splendidly with each iteration. These two positions, I hope, are not actually the collision course they sometimes appear to be.
copy of my post on the New York Review of Books blog:
If nothing else, the awarding of the Nobel Prize to Mo Yan has drawn considerable attention to contemporary Chinese literature by those otherwise likely disinclined to take note. The ruts of the debate that arise from such attention, though, run deep, reducing much of the conversation to zero sum game pitting the Chinese Communist Party and all who support it against “us” moral high-grounders both in and outside of China. These two fields are absurd, and I certainly second the dismay expressed already that the New York Review of Books should give platform to it. Somewhere between Mo Yan supporters on one side and Perry Link-led “detractors” on the other lies the middle ground of contemporary Chinese writing, acutely aware of global trends (that include prizes such as this one), but also deeply attuned to its own language and culture (including the dreaded “Mao-speak” that Professor Link imagines exerting such an influence). Such a middle ground is where good literature resides, and where, in fact, Mo Yan writes, or at least once wrote. His ability to ever write anything worth reading again is perhaps the one major casualty of this debate.
The title of this blog is China Avant-garde, and I rarely have occasion to return to the question of what that means. It was selected as something provocative, and I trust many, critics and lay-persons (myself) alike, would have questions concerning which ‘garde’ Chinese art could in any way be considered ‘avant’. My concern from the outset has also been with the ‘where’ more than the ‘when’ of the cutting edge, and set within a global frame, the presence of Chinese experimentalism, such that the experiment ceases to be “Chinese” at all, is a clear fact, but not of course clear that once the dust clears there will be a consensus that ex nihilo maneuvers of any given artist or even group of artists in China gave rise to something which could be located at the forefront of what comes next for people outside of the Chinese fold.
I have in mind two instances signaling the legitimacy of Chinese claims–not that any have been made necessarily–to leadership in the arena of global art. The first is the Arts Journal blog “The Great Flourishing,” created by SHEILA MELVIN & JINDONG CAI, a couple with a considerable amount of expertise in contemporary Chinese arts, particularly music. The position of the bloggers, and significance of the word “flourishing,” is the immanent (in progress) rise of cultural China to the global fore, something which will accompany China’s rise as economic and other power.
(image courtesy of jusdeananas)
The second instance is Gao Minglu’s (still relatively recent) publication: Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art (MIT: 2011) wherein one finds an exhaustive exploration of what this term means in Chinese context. Gao’s work is a rare combination of lucid and exhaustive, a result of his having been both “there” in this historical-spatial sense (1989 China Avant-garde exhibition held in Beijing was curated by him), and diligent enough to have kept hard at work in the years since on documenting, commenting, curating, and in short thinking carefully about contemporary Chinese art.
It is this notion of representation’s relationship to ‘truth’ that has set the foundation for realism and conceptual art as well as abstract art, three vital domains in Western modern art. Therefore, modernism, postmodernism, the contemporary avant-garde, the historical avant-garde, and the neo-avant-garde, all these categories of Western art are, in fact, in pursuit of a real, authentic, original representation of the truth, either from the outside world or from inner thoughts, even though they may claim a deconstructive approach against conventional visual representation. It is just another extreme gesture in the pursuit of mimicry of truth. (354)
The problem, Gao goes on to explain clearly, is that China’s aesthetic tradition was never concerned with “truth” zhen 真. Instead, the Chinese tradition, in Gao’s terminology, demonstrates continued respect for yi 意, or “something that comes from your mind.” This is a conceptually powerful line of distinction, particularly as we look forward to developments in Chinese art. When the agent of art, the artist, is always in balance (or tension) with her context, be it external environmental, internal mental, combined physical/material or what not, the conglomeration of factors is never mistaken for re-presented reality, just one person’s yi. Full (or fuller) appreciation of this fact renders certain tried and true dichotomies common in the West, from truth/fiction, reality/fantasy to art versus politics unsatisfying as frames for understanding Chinese art, avant-garde or other. On the latter point there is assuredly no better example of this recently than the Mo Yan Nobel prize controversy. The Flourishing blog dispatches with this problem (or thought they did, way back on 11 October) thusly:
Mo has been criticized within China for being too close to the establishment; he is a recipient of the 2011 Mao Dun Literary Award and some interpret his writing as praising authoritarianism. China’s Weibo is already alive with criticism of the choice – as would be the case no matter who won. It seems fairer to say that Mo walks a fine line, does his best to stay true to himself as a writer, and, perhaps wisely, avoids the punditry circuit. Indeed, his self-chosen name means “doesn’t speak.”
Yet, the questions and accusations (CCP propagandist) continue in numerous venues around the world. Too bad, too, as the Chinese artists (Mo Yan among them) deserve better than this.
I first mentioned Robert Adanto’s film Rising Tide (2008) in this blog early this year. I’ve not finally got my hands on it. The film was produced in 2008, and features Chinese art and artists from Beijing, Shanghai, Los Angeles and New York. Following is a a rough form of my comments presented at the Rocky Mountain in Modern Language Association meeting early last month:
Rising Tide is a bold work, but not because it allows the filmmaker his own voice, subject to speculation, revision, polyphony in Chu Yingchi’s terms (on Chinese Documentary. Adanto does not appear in his film. He begins (via Gordon Chang, lawyer and author of the 2001 “coming collapse of China,” a not particularly prophetic work) that China is too vast to generalize about, and then aims to generalize. He does so, though, using contemporary art, most particularly contemporary video art, that of Cao Fei, Zhang O as well as photography of Yang Yong and others. In other words, the point of view of the work, bifurcated in Chang’s “China is coming to an end” and Victoria Lu’s (Creative Director, Museum of Contemporary Art, Shanghai) more measured and certainly optimistic view, is prismatic. Authority is asserted and then dissolves, repeatedly, although a pervasive sense of menace (for Chang, the Chinese Communist Party) remains, increasingly unnamed, often associated with money, but ever ambivalent. The menace, if anything, is history itself, the violence of China’s recent past, a pressure seemingly connected with the current state of development, a new menace, sheer rapidity of change.
What comes out intact and clear from the otherwise mutually canceling perspectives of Adanto’s authorities is this element of change and its relationship to art. More specifically, and again beginning with Gordon Chang, but also including (predictably) such China arts-world figures as Colin Chinnery (then of Ullens) and Meg Maggio, former director of the Courtyard gallery in Caochangdi and others, is that artists are the best spokespeople for the changes taking place in China, the real documentarians, so to speak. Chen Qiulin, arguably the best example of this, and the most powerful to my mind in the film, frequently refers to herself as just such a documentarian. Adanto is not so much out of the way of this process, as the way itself for their somewhat uncanny integration. For in addition to the artists testimony, or even intimate shots of their working environments and people featured in, for instance, Alison Klayman’s recent work on Ai Weiwei, Adanto has used the artists own art, photography, and video in particular, to advance his edification project. The social point of view of the text, its authority, is thus delicately mashed-up with some highly potent in its own right aesthetic objects, objects which are seduced into the framework of “the document,” a setting at once befitting but also powerfully misplaced. Where Bill Nichols fourth-order voice, that of the filmmaker revealing him or herself in the network of perspectives s/he purports to document, Rising Tide , with a simple “courtesy of” (given gallery) shell games the voices to the point that the overlap fully drowns out the single authority. What emerges is a rich act of theft, a chaos that seems so clearly in tune with its subject that one senses significant, if perhaps ethically dubious, accomplishment.