As has become my practice, when I’m impressed by NYT reporting on Chinese contemporary art, I try to make quick note of it. Such is the case with yesterday’s article by veteran art critic Holland Cotter, whose piece “An Artist Takes Role of China’s Conscience” contains the type of valuable view points often going absent in English-language reporting on, particularly, Ai Weiwei. The discussion of Ai’s 2007 “Fairytale,” for instance, is valuable to understanding Ai’s work in the 21st century. While Cotter’s concluding sentence of that particular paragraph, that “Overall, ‘Fairytale’ was not a winning picture of [Ai Weiwei’s] homeland” may well have missed the point– I don’t believe that moving 1001 Chinese people to a small(ish) city in central Germany for a period of time was really meant to re-present “China,” and the fact that a Pulitzer prize winning art critic (Cotter) takes it to be so may well just drive home Ai’s point: the barriers between China and the West, not to mention artists and audiences (of various cultural, not to mention socio-economic backgrounds) are often hard if not impossible to transgress. Nonetheless, such background for Ai’s work is far superior to what we typically read in, among other places, the New York Times.
The difference is that Cotter writes with historical perspective, not only rightly situating Ai in context of the late 1970s when he first emerged as avant-garde artist, but also more broadly, as a “cultural type” in China, a literati official who directly challenges imperial authority and, it would appear, pays for it. The precedents for this position go way back, particularly at transition points (dynastic shifts) through which many an agitator has been fortunate to survive.
But most to the point is to be sure the present moment, firstly because Ai remains in detention, and following because the unveiling of his most recent work, “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads,” is rapidly approaching. Thus begins the by now rather familiar stalemate between Chinese government officials and high-publicity event organizers who no doubt hope that Ai will be able to attend opening ceremony on May 2. Regardless of how that turns out, Cotter’s placement of the “Heads” in historical context of British and French destruction of Yuanming Yuan in 1860. This context, actually, is what we need to know about Ai and his work and demonstrates the continuing relevance of the New York Times to the discourse which surrounds it.