Despite a major stress headache this past Friday evening, and a resulting desire to go home, I knew that if I did so, I ran the risk of missing out on the Urban China exhibition which closes this coming weekend at the New Museum.
The exhibit is organized around a magazine, 「城市中國」*, which covers various topics about urbanism and urbanization in China. From what I can gather from the photos and English subtitles, given my inability to read the Chinese-language content of the articles, it seems a very intriguing and beautifully put-together magazine. The art on some of the covers ranks up there with the best Chinese contemporary art I’ve ever seen. The content is quite serious, and professional, addressing issues ranging from pollution to knock-off brands to the urbanization of the countryside and the transformation of towns and cities into the national capital of a given good – “the city of dustmops” or “the city of sneakers”. If I could read Chinese – and if the magazine were not $16 here in the US after price hikes as an “import” – I’d definitely give this magazine a try.
Sadly, the exhibition was a disappointment. While other exhibitions at the New Museum typically take up a full floor, this was relegated to a small room behind the cafe. No more than ten to twenty objects were displayed, on a wall which was printed with images, graphs, maps, charts and text representing a smattering of topics. A series of computer terminals allowed the visitor to browse through photographs of urban China by geography or theme; photographs which I think, had they been blown up to huge proportions and mounted on the walls in one of the Museum’s full galleries, could have produced a much more powerful effect, and one of immersion into the topic (the computer terminals could be kept, too, to provide access to more photos than what’s on the wall). All in all, there was no organized narrative, nor sufficient detailed explanation of any one aspect, any one theme or topic.
The exhibit really had the potential to be quite good, which makes it all the more of a shame that it wasn’t. The wall seemed an afterthought, a decoration for an exhibition which really focused on the magazines (a number of issues of which were provided to read there in the room) and the computer terminals; they could have, and should have in my opinion, taken things out from the magazine, blown them up and displayed them on the walls. Different sections of a full one or two story exhibition could address different aspects of the topic of urban China – different themes or problems – both addressing the topics thoroughly, in detail, in text and graphs, and also providing beautiful, interesting, intriguing, or troubling photographs and images. Rather than it being an exhibition about the magazine, with the focus on the printed page, it could have been a fantastic exhibition version of what the magazine shows, tells, and does.
*literally, just “Urban China” or something to that effect, in the Chinese. But I remain amused that China uses the character ｢城｣ (“castle”) to refer to cities, or to the concept of “urban,” when in Japanese it only ever refers to castles.
Positing a hypothetical future in which Israel, after 100 years of existence as an independent modern state, has been taken over by the Palestinians, artist Michael Blum, in his installation piece “Exodus 2048,” creates a room from an Israeli refugee camp in the Netherlands, here in the 5th floor gallery at the New Museum.
White sheets with Jewish star manufacturer’s logos on them shield the beds from prying eyes, the living space filled with books, newspapers, potato chips, playing cards… there’s a shelf with bottles of Coke and Prigat, and a TV playing some Israeli program, filling the gallery with the sound of spoken Hebrew.
Graffiti on the walls expresses the refugees’ attitudes about politics and their current situation.
Israel ≠ Brooklyn (to where the Israeli government relocated after the Palestinians took over, paralleling perhaps the current situation of the Tibetan government in exile)
Israel ≠ Uganda (where a new Jewish state is being established, roughly 150 years after Theodor Herzl suggested it)
Israel = Israel
I LOVE HOL(Y)LAND – a brilliant turn of phrase reflecting one refugee’s views about his new home
Blum’s politics are unclear. Is he pro-Israel? Is he pro-Palestinian? The messages that can be taken from this work are many. However, it is wonderfully refreshing to see, particularly in a contemporary art museum, something like this that is about as far from abstract art as could be. It is quite clear what this is – the potato chips are potato chips, the bedsheets bedsheets, the clothes on the clothesline just clothes. All together, it denotes a room in a refugee camp. What it denotes is fully clear, allowing the viewer to quickly and easily move past that question, to more directly address the questions that matter – namely, not “what is this supposed to be?”, but rather, “what does this mean?”
Is Blum saying that Israel would never have survived this long without US and other foreign support, and that perhaps it ought to have collapsed decades ago? His fictional future historical timeline posits that Israel fell when the US and other international allies ended their support of the country.
Is he comparing Israel to the Palestinians? Is he saying that, if we (the Jews, the Israelis) lost our land, we would never stop fighting to regain it, and that we should therefore today, in the real world, sympathize with the Palestinians, since we could just as easily find ourselves in their position?
Or is he taking the opposite, pro-Zionist stance, saying that, just as we were refugees during and after WWII, just as we were without a homeland back then, so we can be again. We cannot stop fighting, cannot rest on our laurels, because the potential to lose all we have built is everpresent.
Perhaps he is saying something about national identity and about anti-Semitism in Europe. These refugees will never choose to stop identifying as Jewish, or as Israeli; they love their country and cherish their identity. These Israeli refugees in Holland will always identify with the global Jewish/Israeli community and hope for a return to Israel. It’s been over 60 years now since Communist China took over Tibet, and yet the Tibetan people still consider themselves a distinct people, and still fight for freedom.
These refugees are also prevented, however, by Dutch society, from becoming Dutch, from ceasing to be refugees and assimilating into Dutch society. As liberal as Western Europeans – the Dutch most of all – may be on a great many issues, national identity is not one of them. This is a great problem facing many Arabs in Europe today – some of them the second or third or even fourth-generation to grow up in Western Europe, i.e. to be natives and not immigrants. Eternally regarded as outsiders, Arabs are ostracized & isolated, and many turn inwards to their own enclaves, their own communities organized around a mosque or around a radical political/religious leader. This is one of the key causes of militant Islamic terrorism in the world today – the refusal on the part of European society to allow Arabs (and others) to assimilate and become European; the insistence that these people remain outsiders forever.
Whatever Blum’s meaning, whatever his political message, his imagery and historical references are clear. Israel is Israel. A refugee camp is a refugee camp. Exodus 2048, a ship carrying Israeli refugees, turned away at port after port, is a direct reference to Exodus 1947, a ship full of Holocaust survivors which was refused entry to British-controlled Palestine, being brought to France, to Cyprus, and finally to Germany, where the refugees came to live in terrible conditions in Displaced Persons camps.
Even as we cannot know quite what his message is, what position he takes, its explicit, clearly denotative nature makes Blum’s work easy to engage with, and a far more meaningful work as a result.