Great Conversation at VALA

Had a fine time at VALA last night, talking about art revolutions, Ai Weiwei, and a myriad other. Gaul Culley and I were “headliners,” but the real stars are the VALA community, so ably led by Jessica Lambert:

This event part of current exhibition, about which more here:


Along with some photos of the event itself:


Gaul_Paul_Discussion Gaul Paul_Manfredi VALA_Art_Center VALA_Revolution VALA_Transformation

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.

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.



Ai Weiwei’s visa rejected for criminal conviction?


In a splendidly ironic turn, Ai Weiwei’s British visa is refused due to “criminal conviction.” This is a rare moment when authorities in the UK and in China suddenly have the same view of the man who until now could do no wrong in the eyes of Western media. Proof positive that bureaucracy is amazingly consistently mindless no matter where its in effect.

The UK has since apologized.


AI WEIWEI in video

Wow. How did I miss this one?

I recall well (though not fondly) Ai’s musical debut, but not that Christopher Doyle had acted as cinematographer for the video. The music itself, despite all clever (if loose) attempts at texture and musicality by Zuoxiao Zuzhou (左小祖咒), is still so marred by the powerfully unmusical nature of Ai’s vocals that its rather hard to listen to. Not to say of course that all singing need be melodic. Just that Ai’s attempt to sound just plain terrible works a bit too well. Anyway, the filmic depiction of Ai’s detention is beautifully shot, and the video contains other compelling moving images to add to the scene. For those inclined to spend a few minutes with this, I suggest just foregoing the sound.

Ai Weiwei in Canada, … almost


I have just discovered, courtesy of the Real Clear Arts, that Ai Weiwei will take questions from attendees of his Ontario exhibition “According to What?” in online chat format.

This exhibition began in 2009 in Mori, Japan. It was reprised this year, starting at the Hirshhorn museum, moving to Indianapolis, stopping now in Ontario en route to Miami and finally Brooklyn.

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:

His work embraces one Chinese reality in particular – the gigantic. China has always been out-sized, from its teeming population and its continental dimensions to its massive feats of engineering, both infrastructural and social. It has always required the longest walls and biggest dams and cities that shelter 20-million residents, yet still function.

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.


Zhang Wei, 1976

Zhang Wei, 1976

The thing about origins, is that we have to keep going back to them to make them them. Ala:

15 May 2013 – 1 September 2013
Asia Society
This exhibit is strikingly similar to the Blooming in the Shadows event held at the China Institute in September 2011, itself a reprisal of a similar event held in Beijing the previous year. Granted, a common denominator of these has been the poet-artist Yan Li, and curators Shen Kuiyi and Julia Andrews have been involved. That said, a definite nostalgic trend can be observed of late with respect to contemporary Chinese art. Less engaged with the ways of the future, most seem inclined to the where did we come from and how did we get here type of questions. Even, I would say, Zhang Xiaotiao’s  “Sakya,” reported on by the New York Times in typically unnostalgic terms, is a turning back to Chinese cultural roots, or at least the branch of those roots which springs forth from Tibet. These gestures are more than jabs in present give-and-take between authoritarian governmental forces and individual artists; they are old wine in new bottles–and everyone knows wine gets better with age.
Venice Biennale, 2013
Zhang Xiaotiao
Zhang Xiaotiao

Zhang Xiaotiao