Seattle Art Fair

Seattle Art Fair Scene 2 Milan at Seattle Art Fair Yan Li at Seattle Art Fair Seattle Art Fair Scene 1

“I’ve been going to the Venice Biennale for at least a decade and always enjoy the stimulation of seeing the work of new and up-and-coming artists” … “In 2013 I started thinking, ‘what’s keeping us from doing this in Seattle?’”

-Paul Allen (co-founder of Microsoft)


Spent part of this past weekend with Yan Li and Seattle-based Chinese artist ZZ Wei at Seattle Art Fair.

Question, as Jen Graves observes in her piece in the Stranger on the subject from over 6 months ago, is whether or not this event is “of and for Seattle,” or, to put it her way, is this a “mother ship” landing for four days in late summer and then just evaporating like the prospect of real rain on the West coast? (to use a regional metaphor).

The answer remains to be seen, I suppose, particularly in terms of impact on the many local galleries and art outfits that were not actually involved in the event. Meantime, many art writers seem to take the position that even the fact that it happened here at all matters. One important note is that some major dealers (referred to as the “triumvirate” Gagosian, Pace, and David Zwirner) have selected Seattle over other notable cities who have had art fairs running now for the better part of a decade (Los Angeles, Dallas, for instance). Seattle has drawn attention as a worthy endeavor, which is a mark of accomplishment of sorts.







Zhong Biao at the Margins of the Avant-garde


Last month at the American Comparative Literature Conference in Seattle, on a panel co-organized by Barrett Watten, Jonathan Stalling and Jacob Edmond, I was presenting on Zhong Biao. Here a brief digest of my remarks.


Title: Zhong Biao at the Margins of the Avant-garde


Broader context:

I am trying to situate Zhong Biao with regard to the contemporary Chinese avant-garde. In the process, I am posing the following question: if we begin with the assumption that essentially (and among other things) the avant-garde is a challenge to status quo, a compulsion to dissolve codifications wherever they occur (and particularly as they relate to or bolster ideological structures with mass influence, be they market appeal or state apparatus based on coercion), then what of a situation where so few codifications are in fact in effect? –that is contemporary China, a tear-it-up-and-rebuild-it ethos, be it in the array of material work of the built environment or in the circular waves of political campaign didactially deployed to lead the nation “forward” but, I suspect, more often than not not fooling anyone.

Zhong Biao focus:

Zhong’s work strives, through a combination of abstraction and uncanny juxtaposition of realistically rendered figures from disparate space and time, to uncover latent energies or pneuma of the universe, manifest momentarily. The ephemera of our lives and ourselves emerge in his painting at the point of concretization but also dissolution, and always in some inherent interconnectedness.

This is an ambitious project because Zhong’s work does not fit easily within the avant-garde. Indeed, I suspect many would argue that his work belongs in an opposite category, if such a category exists. Where avant-garde practice is oppositional and in some respects destructive, Zhong’s is affirming, constructive, and mainstream. The reason I believe such a conversation is even warranted is that an attempt to situate ZB in AG context encourages fathoming of the limits of each. While discovering limitations of an artist poised too close to market impulses is unremarkable, observing the edge (blunt rather than cutting?) of the avant-garde as marginal overlap with the market is perhaps news.


Images discussed:

20、An Overall View 87.8x69.6cm Serigraphs 2013

An Overall View 150 x 120 cm 2013

10 Thousand Years

10 Thousand Years 200 x 150 cm 2011


Life 280 x 200 2004


Swinging Landscape 200 x 150 cm 2010



Today 400 x 280 cm 2009


Living Space 130 x 130 cm 1996 (Oil on Canvas)


Ai Weiwei documentary showing at Harvard Exit


Alison Klayman’s Never Sorry showed at Harvard Exit, to a good audience. My introductory remarks focused on what I expected to find in the film (as I’d not yet seen it) and what I expected would not be in the film. My expectations proved to be more or less on the mark in the following ways. The film was long on Ai heroics, and short on more subtle view of Ai’s relationship to his social and political context. The bravery of his (artistic) political stunts and his commitment to the people compellingly portrayed by, among others, Hung Huang, a media mogul who is a fascinating subject in her own right. But what really happens behind the scenes, and more nuanced view of Ai’s work in a global context (which is to say a somewhat more thorough appreciation of the documentary mode itself) is notably absent. Ai emerges as a kind of monumental structure, but the building blocks of that structure disappear in the process.  Indeed, it is the interest value of many of the “supporting cast” (one of my favorites being He Yunchang, about whom a documentary really should be made) that I find often exceeding the primary “subject” of Klayman’s documentary.

In any event, I found the most compelling moments of the Ai story to be short conversations about his son, born to a girlfriend (Wang Fen) rather than to his wife (Lu Qing). One element of good documentary filmmaking is to capture those moments when subjects are that wonderful blend of willingness to divulge information and fear of doing the same, and Ai is a beautiful study of ambivalence on this subject. Klayman’s ability to disarm his is both surprising and in and of itself worth the price of admission.

I must also confess that one impact of seeing the film on me, in contrast to what purports to be something of an attempt to galvanize efforts at effecting political change in China (how that is supposed to occur I’m not sure, but perhaps I’m a bit dense), has been to increase my concern for Ai’s safety. After all, in addition to all those adoring “associates” both near and far (a seemingly perpetually tearful mother Gao Ying, for instance), he now has a young son whose life would no doubt be better with a father than without one.

Zhong Biao at Elliott Bay on Ai Weiwei and Freedom of Expression

As part of Zhong Biao’s visit, we organized a small panel discussion at Elliott Bay Book Company in Seattle.  Speaking were Zhong Biao and Jen Graves, visual arts editorial writer for Seattle paper The Stranger.  I served as translator, as best I could.

The event was very well attended, given the short notice, and the conversation wide ranging.  Sooner or later (later, as it turns out), the topic almost inevitably turns to Ai Weiwei.  I was pleased, though, to have the opportunity to mouth-piece an alternative view to the one that is frequently expressed in Western press.  Zhong’s response to the Ai Weiwei question–if we might frame it simply as such–focused entirely on the idea of freedom.  In Zhong’s view, an abstract “freedom” is not something we possess, or even “fight for,” and certainly not something handed to us like a trophy.  Freedom is defined in contrast to (and therefore limited by) what constrains it.  Like jumping up and down. One strives for the freedom that is above us, the clear sky.  If, though, we were to actually get there, it becomes a very different story. The feeling of freedom we get with our leaping to higher elevation is actually provided by the force that pushes us down—gravity.  Minus gravity, we’re just adrift.  Ai Weiwei (in grass horse/fuck your mother images) can be seen leaping literally against this gravity. His power to do so figuratively, which in Ai’s case is all-important, is defined by the authoritarian gravity which he challenges day in and day out.

But back to Zhong’s comments.  The discussion about freedom led abruptly to Zhong’s view about Chinese artists (and intellectuals) generally. In typically definitive fashion, he identifies two types of artist/intellectual: the destructive and constructive.  Both types are necessary to advance artistic progress, which I might add seems to be taken by Zhong as essentially necessary.  Ai Weiwei is an exemplar of the destructive type. Ai stakes out this position vis a vis existing power structures. Having clearly identified this target, he then endeavors to blow them up.  If he does his work well–and it seems  in Zhong’s estimate that he does–he can bring down the entire structure.  Meantime, the other side working on building things up.  These two are mutually dependent as one would be meaningless without the other.

This dichotomy aside, Zhong and Ai strike me as having an interesting common element, namely the powerful consistency between what they believe and what they do as artists and as people.  For both there is hardly any daylight between their lives as artists and as people, for lack of a better world.  Ai’s case is well documented.  Zhong, though, shares in this perhaps more than one would imagine.  His photorealism, his abstraction, his symbols, and his opinions are all part of an integrated whole.  Hence, while Ai Weiwei is challenging the limits of politically acceptable speech, Zhong is exploring gravities of other sorts.


Schoolyard Daredevil