Abstract art/poetry in contemporary China

The question of abstraction hinges on the question legibility or intelligibility, with communication of visual idea divided semiotically between the semic and asemic forms of expression. Works can be plotted along a spectrum, and I am particularly interested in relationship between word art and visual art in this context. But before this, perhaps a reference to the very eloquent defense of the illegible or ‘asemic’ side of the spectrum, provided in this case by T.J. Clark who was writing in this case with regard to the innovation of Jackson Pollock:

What Pollok invented from 1947 to 1950 was a repertoire of forms in which previously marginalized aspects of self-representation –the wordless, the somatic, the wild, the self-risking, the spontaneous, the uncontrolled, the “existential” the beyond or before our conscious activities of mind—could achieve a bit of clarity, and get themselves a relatively stable set of signifiers

(T.J. Clark, Farwell to an Idea, 308)

Such a stable set of signifiers the like of which Clark describes has long been in existence in ink painting and calligraphy in China. I am reminded of  Zhang Xu 張旭 and Huai Su 懷素, two great Tang calligraphers whose works exhibit asemic qualities (in Zhang’s case often because he was just drunk enough to “stop making sense”).

Huai Su

Zhang Xu

In the contemporary era, the tradition continues, reinvigorated by by a century or so of modernist practice in the West, but fundamentally no departure from the eigth century. This brings me back to my (ever!) ongoing (contemporary) visible (Chinese) poetry project.  I am trying to work out a nexus of visuality, Chinese poetry, modernism, and contemporary Chinese aesthetics. A thorny mix, perhaps, but conveniently summed up in the following image by Li Zhan’gang 李占剛 .  Here Li is echoing the Chinese literary tradition in calligraphically performing a well-known poetic text in this case namely, “A Generation” 一代人 by Gu Cheng 顧城

First, the poem,


The dark night has given me darkened eyes And I use

   them to look for light

Next, the calligraphic execution of the poem by Li Zhan’gang:


the tradition of re-inscribing a well-known poem can now be introduced into the realm of contemporary poetry. It is now possible to “return” to that work, to borrow from yet another medium, and “harmonize” 2009 sentiment (when Li inscribed it) with the 1979 “original.”  This in effect gives legs to a now considerably more mobile visual-verbal tradition, one which evolves anew into the future precisely for its solid anchor in the past.

UPDATE–Ai Weiwei, Pornography, and the Words of HU

The authorities have moved on from Ai’s photographer Zhao Zhao, and moved to charge him with circulating pornographic pictures online.  I’d be delighted if any readers of this blog could speculate on the implications for him.

Meantime, I just note that, as reported by XINHUA, on the same day Hu Jintao was making a speech to roughly 3000 members of the Literary/Art world (unrelated observation that the Chinese 文艺界 is such a beautifully convenient word that in three characters does so much).  This was in conjunction with the 9th Congress, and his appearances will include other speeches on other topics.  Still, his comments on the cultural world strike a rather bizarre note given the current predicament of China’s most famous artist (outside of China, anyway), and one of its leading figures in other respects domestically.  Here a bit of the flavor of Hu’s speech (with an aside or two by yours truly–just couldn’t resist):


 In the [seemingly eternal!!!] process of reform and opening up and socialist modernization, the variety and vibrancy of our literature and art continues to blossom. The greatest of our artists and writers insist on progressing with the times, and in common destiny with the people. Their effort is focused on serving the people with rich content and artistic quality, providing ample food for thought in order to further consolidate [he could have said “harmonize”] the great unity, great prosperity, and great advancement in this most exciting moment in our country’s historical development.

The vibrancy and food for thought are all Ai’s, but the “common destiny” is the challenge.  If nothing else, we might observe a poignant and important contrast: the official view of art (if we take Hu at his word) is that art is constructive, even highly powerful.  What artist wouldn’t want to fulfill the call to this mission?


Our country’s socialist literature and art, by lofty spirit and unrestrained passion, plays in irreplacable role in inspiring hundreds of millions of people, satisfying their spiritual needs, enriching their spiritual world, enhancing their spiritual strength, and promoting their overall progress.

Of course, such work is easier said than done, as Ai and countless others are constantly discovering.

798, still there, still strong

I find it curious how people take a consistently critical view of this place.  And by “people,” I mean the artists and art-related folks I hang out with when in Beijing.  THe habit, and its just that, habit, is to lament the influx of commercial ventures, from small shops to big, installation like design operations, the economically central but aesthetically marginal operations that, to hear tell, are invading what once was pure “art zone.”  True, of course, that they may know something I don’t.  More likely, they see writing on the wall, writing that still strikes me as artistically relevant graffiti, but to them smacks of advert, plain and simple.  STILL, and at least for the moment, I find that 798 offers a terrific place to go and see, yes, art.  Part of the pleasure is simply logistical.  Once upon a time (5 years ago), when I first started visiting Dashanzi, I worked hard to get Beijing taxis to even go there. This last trip, nary a hesitation when I mentioned it upon getting in the cab.  More important, the invasion of commercial ventures has included, naturally, eateries, and while the preponderance of hamburgers and pizza suggests a (hopefully) misguided assessment of present and future clientele, at least there are numerous options to keep one going the whole day.

But mostly, the 798 Zone is simply a great place to walk around.  The art is inside and out, and incidental populations, great on weekends and more subdued at other times, makes for endless interesting contrast between (aesthetically) built environment and people who use/enjoy it.  As in :


of people and things, no doubt the most photographed (because roughly at the “center” of the Zone itself in part), is this sculpture:

one really is given to wonder how the family feels when that one comes up in the photo album….

“A Beijing Bohemian in the East Village”–Ai Weiwei still in New York, sort of

This week saw the opening of an exhibition of Ai’s photographs. The exhibition is on view at Asia Society called “Ai Weiwei: New York Photographs 1983-1993,” but also through Ai’s Google+ account. The latter would suggest that Ai is not entirely ‘disconnected’ from the world at large.

I happy to find that Holland Cotter’s review in the New York Times is beginning to demonstrate a more subtle understanding of Ai and his work, something I feel has been more or less absent the English-language reporting on him (the same can be said of a great deal of Chinese ‘reporting,’ of course, only subtlety assailed from a completely different direction).  The list of epithets, gadfly, artist-provacteur, adviser, suggests better appreciation of the many roles Ai has played over the years.

What isn’t mentioned is the nude series that I’ve mentioned before on this blog.  This might be because his notable nude photograph emerges later on.  But this work, of Ai and poet artist Yan Li, is from the era covered in the exhibition:

It may well be that that the New York exhibit includes them, but that Cotter does not consider this series of nude photographs worthy of mention. And indeed, they perhaps wouldn’t be were they not the basis for one part of the charge against Ai (pornography) and an ongoing element in his work.