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.

Ai Weiwei, Time Magazine, sculpture, detention, and an imaginative exercise of my own

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.

Unknown-2 images Unknown-1 Unknown 676x380

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.

Lee Gelernt, Abdullah al-Kidd

Which brings me to Time Magazine. Last week featured a cover by Ai himself, and a report on contemporary China by Hannah Beech.



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.

Read more:

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…

art documentaries : Chimeras in the mix

Another year another China art documentary, focusing on questions of identity, or, as Wang Guangyi asks in Finnish film director  Mika Mattila’s Chimera: “what are our roots?”

The question itself continues to inspire new documentary work, but not, perhaps, much discussion or even interest (at least not for me). I remain intrigued, however, by filmmakers who are able to take this topic as the subject of their art, in other words, film artists who make art the fodder for their art. The arrangement is curious in that so much of what is compelling about such work is derived, if not flat out stolen, from someone else’s creative work. Where would, in other words, Mattila really be without Wang Guangyi and Liu Gang, who in most media reports (LA Times, for instance) are the headliners anyway, with the ‘real’ artist–the filmmaker–relegated to round about paragraph three. Journalists can see proportionality in this case of creative production, anyway.

The question is somewhat personal, I suppose, as I’ve endeavored off and on to tackle Zhong Biao in documentary format. Whether or not the project ever comes to fruition, I am certain that the better part of what emerges as watchable (耐看) will stem from his painting, or other products from his fundamentally creative hand. The structure, rhetoric, even cinematographic dimensions of my work would all rightly be upstaged by the artist or artists in question.

Robert Adanto’s work, discussed elsewhere on this blog, is also a case in point, but in watching that work we are forced to admit a certain spectrum of truth to the proposition that the documentarian of art is a thief of sorts, particularly when compared with Alison Klayman’s work on Ai Weiwei, a more modest, and therefore artistically thin operation. Yet in either case there is something there, in the art of the art, something beyond mere convenience (documentarian travels to locales we cannot in order to bring back the goods of what’s good), something expressive and individual, self-deprecating by design, but occasionally aesthetically there in the mind’s eye of the viewer.

And so it will be with Chimeras, I expect. I’m looking forward to seeing it when it comes to town.

Cultural un-development in China

Quick quiz:

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.

Jeffry Wasserstrom and Jonathan Campbell in conversation about Pussy Riot, Ai Weiwei, dissent

An interesting interview appears in Los Angeles Review of Books website.

I am particularly impressed by Campbell’s opening point about social responsibility and art:

JONATHAN CAMPBELL: I think that what unites Ai Weiwei, Pussy Riot, and some of China’s most interesting and noteworthy rockers is that socialist legacy of the responsibility of artists to be examples to society, to use their art to make a difference.

This perspective is the type which is missing from many a discussion of Ai Weiwei and other figures who challenge authority in Chinese context. This omission is particularly unfortunate, because in the absence of such a sense of responsibility, what remains, in Ai Weiwei’s case, is something of a political opportunist, one who knows how to work media to advantage of fame (and, though not often acknowledged, fortune). I do believe that Ai rises above that opportunism, but he does so in the context of Chinese cultural assumptions about what an artist (or intellectual) can and should be.

The News Today–Ai Weiwei and the rest

from the series “Finger”, B/W Print, Edition of 10, 51 x 61 cm / 90 x 127 cm

at Artfacts

A full day of news, to be sure.  As reported by Washington Post, and elsewhere, Ai Weiwei has been detained, his assistants questioned, his studio “examined” by authorities.  The Daily Telegraph, just a few hours ago, is responding with “artist profile,” and all no doubt are anxiously awaiting word on his release.  The hope is that as an artist with a Twitter following of 70,000 unduly rough treatment (indeed, “treatment” at all) would be strategically problematic.  Scratch that, would be stupid.

But high intelligence is not, from my humble point of view, in evidence in this case.  The effect of Ai’s detention is to raise his stature higher than Hu Jintao himself.  In short, Ai status as celebrity just skyrocketed, all thanks to the very government which seeks to “control” him.  No doubt, as Washington Post points out, his recent connection to the–from various governments’ point of view–dangerously diffuse “Jasmine Revolution” is enough to warrant the risk of making the man larger than life, so to speak.

Meanwhile, by uncanny contrast, the news as reported by Financial Times, from the Ullens sale comes in as follows:

A new record auction price for a Chinese contemporary artwork was set yesterday at a US$54.8m (£34m) sale at Sotheby’s in Hong KongZhang Xiaogang’s 1988 triptytch “Forever Lasting Love” was sold to a buyer over the telephone for HK$79 (US$10.1m; £6.3m), more than doubling its pre-sale estimate of HK$25-30m. It broke the previous record of HK$75m, set by Zeng Fanzhi’s canvas “Mask Series 1996 No 6”, auctioned in Hong Kong in 2008.

The way that these two pieces of news seem to at once reflect and also repel one another is quite indicative of contemporary Chinese art. The generation of Zhang Xiaogang and Ai Weiwei is blessed in many ways, possessed of power that is both political and financial, and typically  curiously intertwined. These artists rule the market and command concern among the government authorities in ways that virtually no one else in China can.  Still, at the end of the day, Ai loses his freedom, thus fathoming for the rest the line delimiting permissible dissent.  Now that we all know, I do hope he can step away without major consequence.



There’s that line between “activist” and “aritst”?

Quite by accident it would appear that two major strands of this blog have intersected: 8 days ago Ai Weiwei was on his way to attend the Liu Xiaobo Nobel Awards ceremony when he was detained at the Beijing airport. As usual, his film crew was on hand to record this EVENT, a fact which obviously suggests that he fully expected what was waiting for him at the airport before he headed out the door. This does not detract from the political theatre of the event. Indeed, looking also back at Ai’s August 12, 2010 attempt to confront the police who viciously beat him a year previously (video HERE), we see something of a consistent pattern developing: deliberate drawing out of representatives of state apparatus with careful (often undetected) placement of a lens to record them engaging in pointless acts of oppression. These clips then become the platform for Ai’s observations of how misguided government policy really is, often on English-language news broadcasts.

Last week’s video, however, is certainly not top-of-the-line political theatre.  In fact, its vapid on so many levels, from the entirely clueless response of the airport official (who only observes “you’re not allowed” to film here—a prohibition common to most airports) to the actually quite polite and equally non-threatening denial of passage that we hear—and only hear—Ai subjected to later in the clip. In fact, the woman who tells Ai that he cannot travel probably has no idea who he is. Clearly, at least, she doesn’t much believe that that allowing him to go will “harm national security” (the video’s title, by the way).

In any event, and on balance, I’d say we’re approaching the point when Ai Weiwei transitions from artist to activist.  Of course, the zero-sum, or mutually exclusive implication of that sentence is questionable—how many the venerable artist-activists in human history, and how many of them in China.  Indeed, the literati figure, well schooled in classics and fully imbued with a “art for society’s sake” 文以載道 mentality, is by definition (or at least by some definition) a social activist.  Yet, in the contemporary Chinese setting, the artist, particularly one as globally inflected as Ai, often curtails his or her ability to connect with a constituency.  I don’t mean just a Chinese constituency (which is commonly the argument against their legitimacy), but ANY constituency.  This is because by and large in the Euramerican West what Ai “means” is thorn in side of the Chinese government regardless (indeed, without “regard”) of his actual works.  In this case his status as activist amounts to a kind of barrier, obscuring his works from engagement or even the visibility they often deserve.

Of course, less than “curtailing” this can certainly be more a suspension of Ai’s contribution to the world of art per se.  He no doubt knows what he’s doing, and exchanging hats (because wearing these two simultaneously does not work) is certainly his prerogative. I just find myself wondering how much good (call it “better”) work might otherwise appear if Ai were to shift activities from politics back to making art.