Feeds:
Posts
Comments

Archive for the ‘Chinese art’ Category

Back in New York for just a few days, of course I had to visit the Met. After going to the bank and getting a letter officially noting me as a New York State resident so that I could avoid the new $25 admission fee ($12 for students) and continue to “pay-as-you-wish,” I made my way to the museum. The one big must-see show up right now (until May 28) is Golden Kingdoms: Luxury and Legacy in the Ancient Americas, which I blogged about when I saw it at the Getty a few months ago. If you have the chance, do check it out. It’s a really incredible exhibit.

But, having seen that already, I skipped it, and headed over to the Asian Art section, stopping first at Arms & Armor, where I found to my surprise a delightful little display (three or four cases, maybe about 12 objects total?) of Qing dynasty arms and armor. Most certainly not something you see everyday. The Qing was a major empire, which fought many wars and battles and expanded “Chinese” territory considerably over the course of its nearly 300-year reign. Further, while the Ming and Song and Tang and Han and nearly every other Chinese dynasty also had extensive armies and their share of wars, the Qing in particular was founded in Manchu warrior culture, from the warrior bands of the nomadic steppe. And yet, while just about every museum in America has at least one samurai sword or samurai suit of armor on display, it is all too rare that we see anything at all of Chinese arms and armor. So, this was a most pleasant surprise.

The exhibit includes some small decorative knives, ornately decorated saddles, a Qing helmet just like seen in many paintings of the time, and a princely seal granted to Mongol Princes. But what really caught my eye was an 18th century matchlock gun decorated with carved red lacquer. According to the gallery label, this gun is “extraordinary, possibly unique,” in having such extensive lacquer decoration on a firearm. One wonders how this was used – purely for display?

Next, I found my way to the main China galleries, where they were showing yet again yet another show of gorgeous landscapes. But what I quite liked about this show was the inclusion of some wonderful quotes from all across Chinese history, on the gallery labels. In each section of the exhibit, we were greeted by a new label introducing us to a new aspect of landscapes and landscape paintings, and each of these labels had a just wonderful quote on it. A small touch, but something I absolutely took photos of, and will use if/when I ever teach a course on Chinese history or Chinese art history.

The Museum is also in the process of finally reopening its Musical Instruments galleries, after a lengthy renovation. And they’re beautiful. I quite enjoyed seeing not just beautiful examples of instruments from across history, from around the world, but examples directly associated with notable historical figures, including a guqin commissioned by Zhu Changfang, one of the Ming loyalist rulers of the Southern Ming; a cello made for George, Prince of Wales (crowned King George IV in 1820); a Turkish ud by Manol, once owned by Udi Hrant, and another ud previously owned by Mohammed El-Bakkar – not that I know who those people are, but I’ve been getting into Turkish music lately, courtesy of my girlfriend, and it’s fun to not just see yet another ud, but to also start learning some names.

The one half of the gallery currently open is organized by Time, from the most ancient instruments, including something resembling King David’s harp, to the most contemporary, including an electric pipa. I’m eagerly looking forward to the reopening of the other half, which will be supposedly organized by Space.

Read Full Post »

That whole kimono thing last month really kind of exhausted me. Dominated my attention, and my time, and so I certainly wasn’t going to go see the Metropolitan’s blockbuster exhibit China: Through the Looking Glass explicitly in order to seek out potentially problematic shit to talk about. No, I went to see the exhibit because visiting the Met is what I always do when I’m in New York. And I found the Met’s biggest blockbuster show of the year, a show of (mostly) European fashion inspired by China. It’s a beautiful, impressive, extensive show, and has received much critical acclaim, as well as criticism from at least some Internet commenters, attacking the Met on accusations of perpetrating and perpetuating Orientalism. And, as I walked through the exhibit, hoo boy, there sure were moments where I agreed wholeheartedly with the critiques. What the hell were the curators thinking? But then there were also times where the curators explained themselves, in gallery labels, and did a rather good job of it, I thought.

I took pages and pages of notes while in the exhibit, and went back and forth on this quite a few times. But, let’s see if we can break it down. What is China: Through the Looking Glass? What did the museum do right, where did they go wrong, and what could they have done better?

Fashions by the Chinese designer Guo Pei (right), the House of Chanel (French), and other French designers, inspired by Chinese blue and white porcelain.

The show spans numerous galleries on three levels, and as a visitor one is able to start wherever one chooses – several different places serve as effective entrances or introductions to the show.

I’m not sure how the exhibit was coordinated, whether some curators controlled some parts, and other curators other parts. In some places, I felt the gallery labels defended their conceptual approach, their creative choices, quite well. The labels in the main hallway on the second floor (seen below) were excellent. But, in other places, they did not do such a great job of it; the labels in the basement did not show sufficiently nuanced, informed, attitudes, in my opinion, and were pretty problematic as a result.

To begin, one thing the curators did right was to acknowledge Said – thank god. And I feel they showed thorough understanding and appreciation of the problems of Orientalism.1 Curators aren’t idiots, and they aren’t bigots. They know what they’re doing; most have PhDs, and are well read in cross-cultural Theory and so forth. Let’s give them the benefit of the doubt, that especially at a top-ranking place like the Met, they should be regarded as proper experts and professionals. It’s just a question of the choices made based on that knowledge and expertise – whether they choose to push certain boundaries, or not.

Interestingly, the curators seem to have chosen in this exhibit to push boundaries by not pushing boundaries at all – by going back to old defenses of Orientalism & cultural appropriation, revived, perhaps, as new ones. I honestly can’t be sure whether this is a step forward, or back. In the Washington Post, curator Andrew Bolton is quoted as saying

‘What I wanted to do was take another look at Orientalism… When you posit the East is authentic, and the West is unreal, there’s no dialogue to be had. … China’s export art has colluded in its own myth-making,’ … The country itself has added to the ‘misperceptions that have shaped Western ideas.’

Similarly, on the gallery labels at the entrance to the basement portion of the exhibit, the curators clearly demonstrate their familiarity with Said’s theory, and their intention to move past it, or simply to explore a different side of things:

The China mirrored in the fashions in this exhibition is wrapped in invention and imagination. Stylistically, they belong to the practice of Orientalism, which since the publication of Edward Said’s seminal treatise on the subject in 1978 has taken on negative connotations of Western supremacy and segregation. At its core, Said interprets Orientalism as a Eurocentric worldview that essentializes Eastern peoples and cultures as a monolithic other.

While neither discounting nor discrediting the issue of the representation of ‘subordinated otherness’ outlined by Said, this exhibition attempts to propose a less politicized and more positivistic examination of Orientalism as a site of infinite and unbridled creativity. … It presents a rethinking of Orientalism as an appreciative cultural response by the West to its encounters with the East. The ensuing dialogues are not only mutually enlivening and enlightening, but they also encourage new aesthetic interpretations and broader cultural understandings.

Qing Dynasty Imperal robes, and European fashions inspired by them.

“Mirroring” was indeed a major theme throughout the exhibit, as mirrors were used to reflect scenes from “The Last Emperor” onto the clothes. This certainly ties the two together, conceptually, showing how these works of European fashion were inspired by Qing China – or, to be more accurate, were inspired by European imaginings of Qing China. While “The Last Emperor” looks amazing in terms of its production quality and so forth, and so far as I know (I haven’t actually seen the film) it may be quite historically accurate, but, still, it’s a European film. I wonder what the curators’ intentions were in choosing this over a Chinese film. In any case, this was a very clever and effective way of tying the two together, to show the influence, and to cast a red & yellow Imperial tint over the whole exhibit, which might be seen as Orientalizing, or as merely helping to set the mood & tone, however one wishes to take it. The mirrors also served a practical purpose, allowing visitors to see all sides of each garment on display.

As Connie Wang writes in probably the best review of the exhibit I have yet seen, “The Met’s New Exhibit is About Orientalism, Not China.” I think Wang picks up on much the same ambivalence, or confusion, that I do, but obviously from a different perspective, and writes about it in a far more concise, eloquent, and insightful manner than my ramblings. She writes that the exhibit is “thoughtful, respectful, and fairly thorough,” and begins in her essay seemingly to describe the Orientalist appropriations of these fashion designers as so distanced from politics, and from any real understanding of the culture, as to be hilariously incorrect, and thus perhaps, kind of, sort of, harmless. She quotes one of the gallery labels as saying that “Whether it was Fred Astaire playing a […] Chinese man, or Anna May Wong in one of her signature Dragon Lady roles, it is safe to say that both of those depictions were far from authentic.” And, she shares an Instagram post in which she, and the exhibit itself, poke fun at Dior for appropriating a work of calligraphy about a stomachache, simply because it looked pretty. (Though, actually, many of the most acclaimed works of Chinese calligraphy, acclaimed even among ancient Chinese scholars within the historical Chinese tradition, are letters about the most mundane things, even unpleasant things like stomachaches.) Yet, Wang then goes on to speak eloquently and compellingly about the celebration of Orientalism in this exhibit.

the East as decoration — fully illustrates the true nature of the exhibit. … At face value, it doesn’t seem like that bad a thing, but is ultimately a fabrication of very real places and people. Through Orientalism, a kimono, hanbok, ao dai, and qipao become one and the same; and the 45 million people killed under Mao Zedong’s leadership become a cute, army-green jacket and a pop-art Warhol print. (emphasis added)

(Though, of course, Westerners are not the only ones guilty of papering over the horrors of Mao’s regime, lionizing and commercializing what should be condemned – the Chinese do a fine job of it themselves.)

The show overall relies heavily on spectacle. Videos, music, helping to create an immersive environment. I’m not sure if I like this or not. It’s certainly engaging, but does it go over the top? Does it reinforce the Orientalism, or simply celebrate Chinese culture and history? Does it veer into the tacky, pandering to audiences and turning the whole thing into something more resembling commercial entertainment than a removed, distanced, scholarly museum show? Now that I’ve learned that Hong Kong film director Wong Kar Wai was among the lead exhibit designers, I am less surprised that films were used in this way, and that the whole show had this immersive and spectacular quality. Though, I am a little unsure as to what to think about Wong’s participation. On the one hand, the fact that this is being done, and agreed to, by a Chinese person, and not only white people really does mean something. If anyone should feel sensitively about how his country and his culture is being represented, it’s someone like Wong Kar Wai. Even if there are those who are offended, as they have a right to be, it’s Wong they’re pointing their fingers at, not a staff of clueless, Orientalist, whiteys. But, does Wong’s participation excuse it all? As we’ve seen with the kimono incident, Asians often tend to be a lot less concerned about Orientalism than Asian-Americans, for a variety of reasons, and often commit or construct things Asian-Americans might rail against as Orientalist – something that indeed seems to be going on here. I wonder if the fact that real Chinese people – award-winning expert filmmaker, expert in visual experiences and audience, Wong Kar Wai among them – were so involved in making the exhibit changes anyone’s feeling that the Museum is being Orientalist… Still, I suppose it’s more about the final product than about who was involved in doing it, and if the final product perpetuates stereotypes, then I guess it doesn’t matter who’s the organizer.

As I made my way through the show, the more I thought about this spectacle aspect – the mood music; the film projections; the yellow, red, and blue lighting in different sections – and then, especially when I saw a clip being played from the 1945 Ziegfield Follies without commentary, I really began to think that these elements – the “spectacle” aspect of the show as a whole – reenact and exemplify the Orientalism, rather than distancing us from it. At times, in certain sections of the exhibit, I could really imagine myself having timeslipped, the show being no different from what I can imagine the Met doing decades ago (and that’s a problem).

Robe for the 18th c. Qianlong Emperor, and a 2011 fashion design by Chinese designer Laurence Xu.

Some of the labels were quite on point. But others were conspicuously absent. I appreciate that the curators may have seen the movie clips (“The Last Emperor,” “House of Flying Daggers,” and the Ziegfeld Follies) as mere set-dressing and not as art objects on display, but, in terms of the viewer experience they were absolutely part of the show. And in terms of their contributions to Orientalist discourses (both within this show, and in general), I think all three could absolutely have merited their own gallery labels, explaining not just the title, year and director (which is pretty much all we got), but also something about their contributions to the exoticization of the East, and perpetuation of mistaken ideas. I think this same show can be done – these China-inspired fashion pieces can be shown, and without it being entirely a show about vilifying the designers as horribly racist Orientalists. But, the context of the critique of Orientalism has to be there, as it was for the Art Deco Hawaii show, which placed artists like Eugene Savage within their cultural and political (and commercial) context. You know what would have been really radical? Removing these fashion designers from the myth of being pure creative genius, and addressing more explicitly their place within a commercial fashion world, driven by the need to innovate, to interest, to surprise, to shock, and, going beyond that, what a thing it would have been if the Museum itself dared to be a little self-reflexive, looking at its own tendency towards blockbuster spectacular exhibits, such as this very one, and what the museum does in order to attract audiences.

I think the exhibit should have spoken more extensively and explicitly about how cultural “borrowing” or “inspiration” – or appropriation, if we want to call it what it is – perpetuates exoticization, stereotypes, and considerable mistaken beliefs and misunderstandings about Chinese culture, and that this is seriously harmful in real ways. The fact is, I understand how and why it seems harmless and innocent to continue to play in fantasy constructions of imagined versions of Oriental cultures, and I do understand the temptation or desire to focus on a direction of celebrating creativity. But, the construction and perpetuation of fantasy notions of the Orient are harmful and damaging in ways that have very real impacts. Asian-Americans continue to be seen as the perpetual foreigner, and they continue to be associated with particular stereotyped notions about their culture, rather than being seen as full and complex people, who are much more than their Asianness, and whose Asianness is in any case far more complex than whatever particular stereotypical cultural markers. As Said explains, to maintain a fantasy of the Orient means (a) that you’re blinding yourself to a truer understanding of the real and actual Orient, and (b) that you’re leaving it to the Orientalists to describe and define the Orient, ignoring the voices and perspectives of those who actually live it, and know best. Chanel, Givenchy, and so forth shouldn’t be our touchpoints for understanding what China is really like. China should be our source for understanding China.

They do acknowledge this in several places – in the introductory labels both in the basement (quoted above) and on the second floor, where they talk about Said and Orientalism, and also in the discussion of Yves St Laurent’s “Opium” line, which is described as controversial even at the time for its “trivialization of the mid-nineteenth century Opium Wars between China and Britain; and the objectification of women through its highly sexualized advertisement,” and yet which is still being sold today.

Those second floor labels state unabashedly (apologies for the blurry image):

Here is perhaps the most scholarly, most intelligent, discussion of the issue in the exhibit. And yet, I still don’t know what to think about it. Is this a step forward, or a step back? The curators advocate not simply taking Saidian criticisms and living by them, but rather continuing to question, and to explore other sides of things. In this sense, it certainly seems a step forward. But, then, is the language they’re using, and the arguments, all that different from simply defending, perpetuating, reviving, even celebrating precisely that which Said was criticizing? One has to be so careful about word choice and phrasing when discussing these sorts of issues, in order to navigate the inevitable criticisms, in order to demonstrate that you really do know what you’re talking about, that you are well familiar with the anti-Orientalist critique, and that you are deftly, informedly, and not ignorantly, proposing a new or different interpretation. I imagine that the curators did intend, did aim, to be as careful as could be in the wording. Whether they succeeded, though, and whether it is possible to ever succeed, whether it is possible to ever avoid any/all possible critique, are separate questions however. There must be some way to talk about these fashion trends, and to exhibit these beautiful pieces, without either devoting the whole exhibit to their demonization, yet also without sweeping Orientalist concerns under the rug in the name of celebrating cultural exchange and creativity. But if there is some totally different way of doing it, a different direction to take other than just walking a very tight line, I don’t know what it is.

The inclusion of Chinese artists, such as Guo Pei, was a smart choice, demonstrating that (a) Chinese artists made use of many of the very same motifs and styles, so it’s not as if the Western designers are doing it wrong, misrepresenting China, or mis-using Chinese cultural elements inappropriately, and (b) Chinese artists also borrow from other cultures – such is the post-modern world that we live in. This nuances the conversation in an important and much-needed way.

But, I think it still needed to have gone further. We need to talk about Chinese reactions to these European fashions. How did Chinese people, Chinese scholars, Chinese fashion designers, react to these Orientalist designs, and what do they think of them today? The topic could be even further nuanced by bringing in fashion designs by Chinese designers who appropriate aesthetic elements from China’s ethnic minorities, or from other cultures entirely. No one owns the culture entirely by themselves – to be the one whose permission is needed – and no one in the world, Western or non-Western, white or non-white, is innocent of appropriation. We need to talk too about how Western designers worked with Chinese designers, studied China, lived there, did it respectfully or at least tried to. I personally know nothing about St. Laurent, Givenchy, Chanel, how much any of these people really spent time in China. For all I (we) know, maybe they did. If there is vindication to be had, it would be found in discussing the extent to which these designers “did their homework,” so to speak, and the extent to which they have the support of Chinese artists and fashion designers.

Left: Pieces from Craig Green’s 2015 Ensemble.

I think we do need to question and investigate, and not just assume, the experience and background of the artists. Craig Green (one of the artists featured in the exhibit) could be of Chinese descent, for all you know. All it says on the gallery labels is “British.” Or, even if he’s white, he could have been born and raised in Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Taiwan. I’ve met people purely of European descent who are native speakers of Mandarin, and I’m met people who could certainly pass for “white,” based on appearance, but who are in fact both by upbringing and by ancestry, part Chinese, part Indian, or part Okinawan or Japanese. You don’t know. Or, even if Mr. Green were from a rather mainstream white Western background, that doesn’t mean he couldn’t have worked closely with traditional clothiers in China, who gave him their “permission” to share this art out in the world, and to adapt it in this way. Cultural permission is central to many people’s definition of cultural appropriation; how do we know these artists don’t have permission?

Evening Gown, 2007, by Guo Pei, Chinese fashion designer who agreed to be in this show, who borrows extensively from both Western & Chinese inspirations and motifs, and who likely works with, at least to some extent, European fashion designers and does not (so far as I know) openly oppose or denounce them as Orientalists.

BY WAY OF CONCLUSION

In the end, does this show do a good job of walking that line, critiquing Said’s argument, and yet without outright celebrating Orientalist appropriation? Or does it do a horrible job? You would think it would be clear which is the case. And yet, in the end, I remain uncertain.

As I’ve already said, there were definitely portions of this exhibit where I felt I had fallen back in time, where I felt I was seeing a show just as the Met would have done it decades ago, celebrating Yves St. Laurent for example with the only critique being a few lines on one gallery label on one wall. I think the curators, at times anyway, really did fail to distance themselves sufficiently. It’s one thing to show Orientalist creations by fashion designers, but it’s quite another to contribute to the Orientalism, to add to it. Dragon headdresses and the like, for example, added onto the mannequins were clearly intended to look haute couture and “fit in” in that respect, but these were blatantly Orientalist as well. Really, what the museum perhaps should have done is toned down the spectacle considerably, and then, even if not excoriating the designers in the gallery labels, at least then the Orientalism would be limited to the objects on display – objects not created by the museum – and would not be repeated, or extended, into the exhibit design itself.

The focus on China as fantasy is further destabilizing. One feels inclined to rail against the perpetuation of these fantasies. After all, at the core of Said’s argument is the allegation that our idea of the Orient, the vision of the Orient which is allowed to perpetuate within the popular consciousness, is one constructed by Westerners, denying Orientals (to use his own term) the power to define their own culture, their own history, their own existence. And yet, which is better, to juxtapose these fashions with fantasy, or with reality? In one gallery, garments are displayed alongside projections of kung fu films – these are not misrepresenting Chinese reality, because they were never meant to represent reality, but were consciously and intentionally drawing upon fantasy. In another gallery, dresses are juxtaposed with historical artifacts, which seem to have inspired their aesthetic design, though devoid of actual cultural/ historical context. And, in the basement, we have “The Last Emperor.” Whether that is fantasy or reality I guess depends on the designers’ intentions.

What I think is missing from all of these conversations – whether about the kimono thing at the MFA, or on dozens of other topics – is nuance and complexity. As I said in my post about the kimono, not all appropriation is the same. Is it better to be inspired by the fantasy of kung fu movies, rather than by actual history & culture, or worse? I don’t know, but they’re certainly different, right? They’re not all simply of a type, to be lumped together, right? People want it to be very starkly one way or another. If it’s racist, then it’s wholly racist, and in order to be not, it must be perfectly spotless, as according to a very standard set of criteria. But, nothing in the real world is in fact that simple. Is there any way to talk about the positive aspects of the beauty and creativity of these works, at all? Is there a way to get the audience to understand that we – as art historians, as curators, as a whole, as a field or discipline – genuinely truly do denounce the negative aspects of Orientalism, stereotyping, and appropriation, while still acknowledging the creativity, aesthetic beauty, and positive elements of cross-cultural exchange involved?

If showing these works is so horrifically offensive, then I wonder what it was, for example, about the Asia Society’s show of Maoist propaganda art that made it so innocuous, that no one thought it was celebrating or promoting Communism, or excusing or condoning the horrible offenses of the Maoist regime, by virtue of showing these paintings and praising their aesthetics, skill, and so forth? It is possible, after all, is it not, for a museum to reject, to stand opposed to, or at least to not wholly support, the positions of the artists it shows? Whether the Met did this sufficiently I leave an open question, I suppose, but it has to be possible for a museum to engage with a phenomenon, to discuss it, and to show some appreciation for the beauty and creativity involved, while there still being some implicit understanding that “the views expressed [by the artists] are not necessarily those of the institution,” right? After all, problematic though the Orientalist / appropriationist aspects of this may be, these garments are still artworks. They are still beautiful, inspired, inspirational, expertly crafted, and they are still representative of particular cultural and artistic trends that genuinely exist – and they deserve to be shown in a museum, just as much as Maoist propaganda paintings, shunga prints, or any number of other kinds of works of visual and material culture do.

Art Deco Hawaii did a rather good job of this, I think, showing many beautiful objects and celebrating their beauty, while at the same time being very explicit in the gallery labels as to how all of this constructed and perpetuated fantasies explicitly for the benefit of the tourism industry, papering over the loss and tragedy experienced by the Hawaiian people, and eliding any accurate or earnest documentation of actual Hawaiian culture or history. Perhaps that is what was needed here – a more explicit, forefront, discussion of the problematic intentions and impacts of these fashions.

But, then, that wasn’t the curators’ intention… They explicitly expressed their desire to escape from having to always see Orientalism that same one way. And, as scholars, we should be questioning and pushing the boundaries, and encouraging the broader public to do the same – not giving in to the popular attitudes of the day. In one part of the exhibit, they talk about Manchu robes, and their design features, being taken out of context, and European designers explicitly breaking Chinese cultural rules… Should a museum have to be judgey, and expound on why this is problematic? Are museums supposed to be judgey? Or are they supposed to simply present things with a certain disinterested distance? Do museums judge Japanese art for its (occasional) sexual explicitness? Do we display Melanesian or African art just so we can talk about how horrible the culture was that created it? Certainly not. So, why should we do the same for our own culture, to do an Orientalism show just to tear it apart, tear it down? I think the point of scholarship, and museum exhibits, more so, is to highlight and examine from a certain scholarly distance, to acknowledge the complex and diverse phenomena of our world, and to attempt to understand them. Not necessarily to be judgey – or at least not in certain ways, or to certain extents. I think maybe the curators here expected or intended that distance, and didn’t execute it properly, giving the impression (mistaken or otherwise) that they agreed with all of the designers’ cultural decisions when, in fact, hopefully, presumably, they do not.

I’m still on the fence about all of this, despite having studied Orientalism, and East Asian history and culture fairly extensively. But, maybe that’s how it should be. Maybe we should all have some humility. Question our own assumptions. Consider the possibility of potentially seeing it a different way. Is this all about appropriation? Maybe very much so. But maybe not. Has the museum dealt with this subject in a way that would please everyone? No, of course not. That would be impossible. Have they demonstrated considerable cultural sensitivity, education, awareness in the relevant politics and problematics, and so forth? Maybe. Maybe not. Are these European fashion designers culturally ignorant, insensitive, appropriators? Maybe. Have they spent extensive time in China, more extensive perhaps than their critics, actually working with and learning from Chinese fashion designers? I don’t know. And neither do you. Would it make a difference if they had? Maybe it should.

Maybe, in this broader debate of Orientalism in museums, and in our society as a whole, let’s not rush to condemn – nor to vindicate or excuse – quite so quickly. Let’s think about it. Let’s talk about it. Let’s have a real discussion that’s not a shouting match. And through that discussion, let us all, on all sides of the debate, maybe learn something from one another.

“China: Through the Looking Glass” is still open for a couple more weeks, until Sept 7, at the Metropolitan Museum, in New York.

All photos my own.

—————
(1) We should note that Edward Said spoke almost exclusively about what we call the Near East and the Middle East, and about British and French attitudes as expressed largely in literature. Said was in no way a China or Japan expert, and makes very little mention of East Asia in his book. So, while the core central argument of his book is extremely valuable, and this is where it all stems from, please just note that wherever I refer to “Said,” really I’m referring to the far more well-informed, and well-written, critiques that have emerged out of East Asian Studies, Asian-American Studies, and so forth, drawing upon his ideas.

Read Full Post »


One of the reasons I’m excited to be home for the holidays right now is because there is so much of great interest going on at the Met. Two exhibits in particular struck my fancy, and I am so glad that I was able to be here to see them.

First, the Met’s first major show of contemporary Chinese art, entitled simply Ink Art. Though dominating the main Chinese galleries, I thought it a quite fun and interesting move that the show also spills over into all of the other Chinese spaces in the museum’s Asia wing, with contemporary pieces interspersed among traditional and historical artworks. I walked into the first of the Chinese galleries – which features massive Buddhist wall painting and sculpture – expecting to have to keep my eyes open for signs, or simply to ask, where the Ink Art exhibit was. But, as soon as I walked in, there they were – a set of stunning scrolls hanging from the ceiling, in bold, bright, mineral pigments (below), and another set, in monochrome ink on paper streaming along one wall. Each uses traditional formats and media, a link to history and tradition, rather than a break from it, as they address new, modern, contemporary subjects. All too often, we tend to see history as broken into two parts – the historical or traditional, and the modern or contemporary. But, even as people throughout history, whether in Song Dynasty China or Renaissance Italy, saw themselves as “modern” or at least as “contemporary” – even as they saw their own lives as “now” and the past as past – they addressed what for them were very modern, very new, very “now” topics and issues, in forms and styles and media which developed directly out of the traditions of the past. Ming Dynasty painters addressed the issues of their times, what for them were very contemporary issues, in modes and styles of the Song and Yuan, in inks, in birds & flowers, in mountain landscapes on scrolls of silk and paper. Can we not today do the same? Must we throw out the traditions of the past to produce things as utterly and completely “new,” different, “modern” as possible? Why should it be seen as so radical that we, in 2013 as in 1013, address the issues and topics of “contemporary” Chinese society in ink painting?

Above: Crying Landscape by Yang Jiechang, ink and colors on paper hanging scrolls. Right: Gu Wenda, I Evaluate Characters Written by Three Men and Three Women

Curator Maxwell Hearn and his team have truly done an outstanding job choosing works for this exhibit. So many of them are by big-name artists, who I was quite excited to see – it’s a great feeling to feel you’re looking at works by Ai Weiwei, Gu Wenda, Xu Bing. Weeks or months or years from now, I can say I’m familiar with those artists; I can say I’ve seen those works. And, fame or name aside, they are truly great works. Not trying to be international, pan-cultural, or acultural, not trying to blend in with the global “modern art” scene, these works engage directly with Chinese identity, culture, history, tradition, and do things uniquely Chinese while at the same time no less cutting-edge, no less modern, than what any Western artist is doing. And they are so much deeper, more multi-layered, more meaningful for it. To name just one example, a work by Gu Wenda features large Chinese characters written in a grid, in black and red on white paper. Each character is covered by a large X or O, a typical technique in East Asian school culture for marking correct and incorrect work. And, as the gallery label explains, in this particular work, the criteria for why each given character is marked right or wrong is left quite unclear, evoking resonances of Cultural Revolution era censorship and re-education. It’s a work with a (relatively/somewhat) overt political message, but not so stark that the message overrides the traditional referents (like traditional calligraphy, but quite untraditional as well) or general aesthetic appearance.

Above: Ai Weiwei, Map of China; Right: Xu Bing, Book from the Sky

I enjoyed, too, a map of China by Ai Weiwei made of pieces of wood re-purposed from Buddhist temples, showing that China is made up (literally) of its past, of its traditions, and that even when one perhaps cannot see the traditional influence or traditional origins (wood is wood, and you’d never know this was from temples if not for the gallery label), it’s still there. Xu Bing’s “Book from the Sky” was also installed – easily one of the most famous, most iconic works of Chinese contemporary art (1980s to present), it was a great privilege to get to see this in person, after seeing it so many times in books, in lecture slides, and online.

And, finally, I really quite liked how the museum incorporated works into the rest of the Chinese galleries. Scholars’ rocks in steel and rubber took up positions within the otherwise quite traditional-feeling space of the Astor Court Chinese garden, and a plastic sculpture of a Qing dynasty dragon robe stood alongside a collection of actual Qing dynasty robes, with each of the contemporary pieces clearly labeled with the Ink Art logo, and nicely juxtaposed against the traditional objects to which they refer, or upon which they draw.

Chinese contemporary art remains among the most vibrant, most interesting, most culturally & politically engaged contemporary art scenes in the world. I am so glad to have been introduced to it by Prof. Aida Wong, and to have gotten the chance to see so many wonderful exhibits of it in recent years, keeping me always discovering new works, my enjoyment of these artists and what they do growing every time.

Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is up at the Metropolitan Museum of Art in NYC through April 6, 2014.

Read Full Post »

It’s really kind of incredible to think how much stuff is still out there. Art treasures in private collections, historical documents in archives, that simply haven’t come to light in terms of broader, more widespread awareness. But even more than that, things hidden away, that perhaps even their owners don’t even know about. Every now and then, we hear some incredible stories about these sorts of finds and discoveries… In a way, it’s actually encouraging, in that whenever you think that a certain type of artifact or documentation might not exist anymore, there’s actually the possibility it just might still be out there.

Messy Nessy chic, a blog I hadn’t heard about until now but which looks like it has some pretty cool content, posted back in May (I was just pointed to the link the other day) about a Parisian apartment left untouched for 70 years and just recently re-opened.

The owner fled Paris just before World War II broke out, and never returned; somehow, the apartment remained unopened, untouched, for all this time. That is, until, following her death at the age of 91 a few years ago, her heirs finally opened up the apartment, and discovered what was inside. Beautiful now-quite-antique furniture, a Micky Mouse stuffed toy, a taxidermied emu or rhea or the like, and all sorts of other things, including a rather special painting.

The Messy Nessy Chic blog post has some incredible pictures of this time capsule of an upclass 1930s Paris apartment.

The Freer|Sackler, meanwhile, has posted a blog post about the apartment of art collector Dr. Paul Singer, which some members of the staff had the opportunity to visit way back in 1998.

Dr. Singer keeps more than five thousand objects, apparently, in his New Jersey apartment, a collection which we are told is one of the largest and most important private collections of Chinese objects in the United States.

I’m not sure there’s much to say here, except to invite you to click through to the F|S blog post, which has a nice photo of the apartment, and to say that I’ve been fortunate to visit the homes of an art collector or two, and that it’s always a fun and breathtaking experience. Some people have such beautiful homes, and such incredible collections; it’s something I look forward to doing more often in the future.

Read Full Post »

Let me give away my position on the matter right here at the top: Yes, yes, yes, and yes.

A post from a few days ago by Art Radar Asia focuses on works by five Asian contemporary artists who use video games, or the aesthetics or iconography of video games, in their art. They highlight Cao Fei’sRMB City,” a creation created entirely within the virtual world of Second Life, and Feng Mengbo’s “Long March: Restart,” an actually playable platform-style game (think Mario) which makes extensive use of Maoist iconography and imagery.

Above: An Art|21 segment on Cao Fei’s “RMB City.”
Below: Feng Mengbo’s “Long March: Restart.”

The article also links to something posted by Roger Ebert a few years ago, explaining Ebert’s opinion that video games are not and cannot ever be “art,” and asks the reader, Can Video Games Be Art?. Here is my response, copied from the comments section on the Art Radar Asia page:

I think the work of Cao Fei and Feng Mengbo just goes to show that video games can absolutely be art. The only things that separate their works from something like Jenova Chen’s “Flower” are (1) being previously already recognized as an “artist”, (2) the commerciality of the creations and connection to a corporation, and (3) the size and type of team involved in the creation of the work.

Video games are creative creations in their visuals, sound, and gameplay/concept. I think that most of the argument against video games being “art” focuses too much on them as “games,” i.e. with rules, goals, and puzzles/challenges, and too little on them as “experience.” Flower is a great example of a game that is visually stunning, and quite creative/innovative in concept. Playing it is not just about earning points, or completing levels – it’s about experiencing the game and having an emotional reaction. If the same exact thing had been created by Cao Fei or Feng Mengbo, would we not call it art? If it were not interactive, but were created as “video art,” or for that matter as a still photo, as digital art, and shown in a gallery or museum, would we not call it “art”?

MMOs like World of Warcraft, GuildWars, and LotR Online, along with giant-sandbox games like the Elder Scrolls Series, and visually stunning RPGs like the Final Fantasy series likewise involve exploring massive worlds filled with beautiful, really, truly stunning environments, each of which is designed by professional concept artists and digital artists with much the same training/background, i.e. as art students, as many more widely recognized as “artists.”

Admittedly, there are also many games out there which are, perhaps, not so clearly beautiful, inspirational, innovative/creative, but all were created by artists, designers, creative minds. All bear the same features as those games – e.g. Flower and WoW – which are, perhaps, more clearly artistic, creative/innovative, and/or aesthetically attractive. So, where do we draw the line? If some games are clearly artistic, or art-esque, then why would other games not be?

If the design of a car or a skyscraper can be considered “art,” if marketing posters, postcards, etc. can be considered art, if arms & armor (such as included in many of the world’s greatest art museums) can be considered art, then why not video games? If it’s the commercial element, or the corporate rather than individual creation element, that is the problem, then why cars, skyscrapers, dresses, and not video games? Those of us coming from a background in Studio Art or Art History are likely to be in favor of the conception that anything can be art. So why not video games?

Roger Ebert, of all people, if he recognizes that art is not only limited to static images (paintings), but extends to incorporate cinema as well, should be able to recognize the strong cinematic qualities of video games. Like video games, films too are the creations of not a single, inspired, genius artist, but rather of a collaboration between directors, producers, costume designers, set designers, actors, musicians/composers, and many others. Unlike paintings, they incorporate motion, narrative, and music, and yet, they are still considered by Mr. Ebert to be art. So, why not video games? Because they are interactive? Because none have yet been canonized? As a critic, Mr. Ebert should be especially aware of the haphazard and arbitrary nature of the construction of the canon – created by scholars, random tastemakers, and critics like himself – and thus, he of all people, should not be taking this to be the determining factor in what is (and is not) masterful. Who decided that George Melies was such a genius, that his creations were such great art? Is Mr. Ebert simply parroting the attitudes of cinema scholars and critics of the past?

Those who fixate on the great names, on the canon, of the inspired/genius artisté, forget that many of those we revere today as great artists were in fact quite commercial in their day. Rembrandt was a commercial painter. Hokusai and all of his ukiyo-e brethren produced emphemera, perhaps no more appreciated in their time than movie posters today. And so many we do appreciate, we appreciate only because the canon tells us so. Was George Melies truly such an artistic genius? Was his creation truly so wonderful as Ebert seems to think it was, or is he just buying into the same canonization that makes us all appreciate Van Gogh, Rembrandt, Michelangelo, and Picasso without actually considering whether or not we ourselves (as individuals) see the artistry, the beauty, in it? I, for one, see absolutely nothing in Jenova Chen’s creation – aesthetically attractive, masterfully created, innovative in concept, emotionally impactful – that should disqualify it as art.

Read Full Post »

For the first time in roughly 40 years, a Tang dynasty (618-907) copy of original handwriting by Wang Xizhi has been found in Japan. Much thanks to the blog Heritage of Japan for re-posting the Japan Times article about it, and thus bringing it to my attention.

Right: The newly re-discovered work.

Wang Xizhi (303-361) remains today the most highly esteemed calligrapher in Chinese history. All calligraphers since then have either revered and emulated his style, or intentionally, purposefully, rejected it. In other words, his is the standard to aspire to, or to compare creative innovation against. His most famous work, and thus arguably, quite possibly, the most famous work in all of Chinese calligraphy, is the Orchid Pavilion Preface, composed in 353 at a now-famous gathering of scholars and artists at a garden / vacation villa called the Orchid Pavilion (蘭亭, C: Lanting). That piece of calligraphy was so treasured by the Tang Dynasty Emperor Taizong (r. 626-649) that he had himself buried with it.

No original works by the hand of Wang Xizhi himself survive today, but numerous later copies, meticulously copied by later Chinese calligraphers, do survive. It is unclear from the Japan Times article whether the piece just discovered is the only known copy of this particular text, three lines of 24 characters total, but the article does indicate that this discovery could help contribute to our better understanding of Wang’s hand, and thus of Chinese calligraphy as a whole. The work, which likely came to Japan via the embassies sent to China by the Yamato (Japanese) Court, was long believed to have been an original composition by a Japanese calligrapher; experts at the Tokyo National Museum, re-discovering the work in a private collection in Japan, have determined that it is in fact by a Chinese calligrapher, and a copy of Wang Xizhi’s hand.

Exciting finds. It would be wonderful if this were to be exhibited in upcoming months, keeping museumgoers (i.e. the public) in the loop as to new discoveries, and perhaps encouraging their excitement about such discoveries. The article makes no mention of any such plans.

Detail of a copy of Wang Xizhi’s Orchid Pavilion Preface.

Read Full Post »

A continuation from yesterday’s post. This past Friday, we here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa enjoyed the one-two punch of talks from husband & wife super major Chinese contemporary artists Liu Xiaodong and Yu Hong, courtesy of Prof. Jaimey Hamilton and her Intersections visiting artists program.

Above: “Us Two: Yu Hong and Zhao Bo”, depicting Yu Hong (right) and a friend. Image via Long March Project.

Yu Hong, like her husband, is a professor of oil painting at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, the same school where the both of them attended high school, undergraduate, and graduate school. Her work, like his, is mostly figurative, focusing on depicting real people who model for her, in a realistic manner, in oils or acrylics. Her paintings, however, tend to be much more personal, addressing less any kind of social or political events on a national scale. She paints herself, her family, her friends, mainly, within their own real-world contexts – studios, apartments, coffee shops.

My first exposure to Yu Hong’s work was in Boston, where she and her husband were included alongside a number of other contemporary Chinese artists in a group show entitled “Fresh Ink.” I’ll come back to the work she displayed there later, but first I wanted to touch upon my first impressions, and how my taste or interest in her work has changed as a result of this week’s talk. The gallery labels in “Fresh Ink” emphasize the feminine energy or femininity of her work, that she focuses so much on painting other women, her friends and family, and that she focuses so much on their lives. At first, I was a little turned off. I had no real interest at all. It reminded me of housewives, and their lunch dates and shopping, and the kind of lives they lead, living in essentially a totally different world from their husbands, or from other people, immersed in the interpersonal politics and gossip of each others’ families, the wholly insignificant accomplishments of their children’s crayon drawings or soccer leagues, totally divorced from the major happenings of the art world, business world, politics, or whatever else may be going on beyond the picket fences of their suburban little lives.

Yet, while listening to Professor Yu’s talk, I found myself reconsidering her work and gaining a new appreciation for it. It’s a celebration, really, of life, and of the beauty and enjoyment of having friends and networks; the relative calm of everyday people’s lives even as the country changes so swiftly and dramatically around them; and the calm, beautiful, energy of celebrating one another’s accomplishment’s and goings-on in one another’s lives.

Above: From her series “Witness Growing Up,” images of a photo celebrating the publication of the oil painting “Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan” (left) and of two year old Yu Hong in a park with her mother, wearing a badge with Chairman Mao goes to Anyuan on it (right). Images via All-China Women’s Federation.

For her painting series “Witness Growing Up,” Yu Hong went back through her family photo albums, and painted pictures of herself at every age, every year of her life (or, at least, at various ages, if not every single year; I’m not sure). Each of these is one-half of a diptych, accompanied by a magazine cover or other image relating major political events of that year. When the series reaches the year her daughter is born, it becomes a series of triptychs, no longer tracing only Yu Hong’s life, but that of her daughter as well, as major events continue to change our world. The contrast between the relatively normal, calm, family-oriented, very personal narrative of this woman’s life (and that of her daughter), and the rise and fall of Mao, Tienanmen Square, the return of Hong Kong to PRC control, 9/11, etc. is striking and interesting. We all live these lives, but while many artists might focus on only one or the other – the big political/social events, or the personal – she brings the two together to highlight the calm and smoothness of life as these major things happen around us, on a very different scale.

Above: “Flute Player – Rong Yiru” from Yu Hong’s series “She.” Image via Artnet.

Another series, titled simply “She,” consists of portraits of her friends, including artists and writers, each within a context (studio, coffeeshop) that somehow speaks to their identity. One painting in the series depicts a friend very pregnant, and nude, a painted record of this important time in the woman’s life (and in Yu Hong’s life, as her close friend), since under the One Child Policy, she may never be pregnant again. Another painting in the series shows Yu Hong herself creating plaster molds of a friend’s legs; the friend, a famous writer apparently, suffered (suffers?) from depression, and had fallen and broken her leg. I don’t fully understand the connection or the logic, but somehow, for some reason, because of having broken her leg, the writer wanted Yu Hong to make plaster molds, and to record her legs in that fashion, as they are/were. Considering this whole series in aggregate, we see between the lines a network of friendships, and can imagine the personalities and characters depicted, their lives, and their interactions. We can picture a calm, friendly, sunny, happy set of interactions – even punctuated by such things as depression, and terrible falls & broken legs – in which Yu Hong visits these friends at their studios, or meets up with them at coffeeshops, talking, chatting, keeping in touch. And since some of these people are themselves artists or writers, it seems also a bit of a glimpse into the world, the life, the friendship circles of being a member of this art-immersed lifestyle, romanticized not so much on the canvas, but rather in the mind of the viewer.

Above: “Spring Romance”, full view, across eight silk hanging scrolls. Image from the webpage of Harvard University’s “Fresh Ink” symposium.

Now, returning to “Spring Romance,” the piece Yu Hong made for the MFA show. She was one of a number of artists invited to create a new artwork inspired by or based on a work from the MFA’s collection of Chinese art. Selecting Emperor Huizong’sWomen Folding Silk,” she replicated the composition of the handscroll on a series of hanging scrolls in gold-infused silk, depicting her friends – including the pregnant flute player and the writer with plaster-covered legs – as themselves, in modern clothing, in positions emulating those of the figures in Huizong’s painting. And, as an extra little amusing jab, she replaced the lengths of silk being stretched out by women in the original work, with the handscroll itself, so that Huizong’s work is visible within the new composition.

I had thought this was perhaps a departure for Yu Hong, as necessitated by the specifications of the project. And I am sure that it was in various ways. The fact that she re-uses figures from other works, rather than creating new portraits based on who and where those people are today, and that she divorces them from any background which would inform the viewer of their context, are certainly a change from some of her other works.

Left: Yu Hong’s “Atrium,” a piece meant to be installed on the ceiling and viewed from below. Image via Blouin Art Info.

But, I was stunned to discover that, actually, this is hardly her only work on gold, hardly her only work playing with formats this way – using multiple hanging scrolls to create a polyptych – and hardly her only work based on or inspired by famous works from art history. I had thought the gold was perhaps a choice to emulate or recall the brownish discoloration of the silk of Huizong’s painting, and I still hold that it adds meaning in that way for me, but asking Prof. Yu her intentions or thoughts, she simply said that gold is a powerful, special color, especially in Chinese culture. Fair enough. In any case, it has a beautiful effect. I particularly love how it just sort of fades into the background. The gold is no more obvious than a solid-color background in any other color (and, in fact, probably far less noticeable or distracting in many cases), and just provides a beautiful, glowing, warm background. I wish more Western artists, or more artists in general, used gold today. (Or maybe I don’t, because then it would be less special when it is used.)

Yu Hong has reproduced “Spring Romance” in a polyptych of canvases, and has produced another similar work, seemingly on silver-infused silk handscrolls, depicting figures peering over a curve, like a hill maybe, which extends across the whole composition. Several works were designed to be installed on ceilings, and some were even painted in that posture, the artist stretching up, the work facing downwards. Recalling the trompe l’oiel and de sotto in su techniques I just learned about having been used in the High Renaissance, fooling the eye by painting a skylight, for example, with a beautiful blue sky on the ceiling, when it is in fact simply painted on and not an actual cut-through view of the actual sky, these works do something I feel is not particularly common at all today.

In another piece, she emulates the layout of the famous Ghent Altarpiece, replacing each of the figures – God, Mary, John the Baptist, Adam, Eve, etc. – with her friends, all of them asleep. I am not sure I fully understand the connection thematically between this and the Altarpiece, a very religious work, but she says the figures are asleep because they are tired out from the swift and dramatic changes China has seen in recent decades, and continues to see everyday.

Above: Yu Hong’s “Ladder to Heaven.” Image via CAFA Art Info.

In another work, called “Ladder of Divine Ascent,” she depicts figures climbing a sort of ladder to success. I’m guessing it represents the rat race, or something, the sacrifices we make forcing ourselves into the one path that mainstream society seems to expect of us. The medieval European work it is based on depicts figures struggling to ascend to heaven, as demons try to pry them off and pull them down into Hell. Yu Hong has kept the basic composition, more than enough of it to be quite recognizably based on that medieval work; but she has reversed the meaning. Those who make it to the top of the ladder might achieve a sort of “Heaven” of financial/career success, but those who fall off are depicted as being happy. They’ve found happiness in marriage (love/relationships), or in art, or in pursuing their own path. The idea that falling off means falling into Hell is completely not in evidence and is, I believe, meant to be extricated, removed, not present in this work. She’s really changed around the meaning of it, in an interesting and creative way. The total and complete secularization of what’s essentially, to its core, a Christian work, is also very interesting to me, and seems very (Communist) Chinese to me.

So, to sum up, I guess, Yu Hong’s references to historical masterpieces, her use of gold, and her playful, creative use of formats (e.g. ceiling paintings) made her works quite appealing and interesting to me from the beginning. But what is attractive and beautiful about her works on a deeper level is the calm, optimistic, positive energies they exude, as they chronicle her everyday life, her social circles, as well as her own life-story growing up. Seeing one of her works at the MFA was impressive and enjoyable enough, but now I really want to see an installation of her works filling a gallery, seeing how they interact, and feeling the energies flow through the space.

Above: An installation shot of a recent show of Yu Hong’s work, showing how her pieces work together in a consistent aesthetic. The canvas version of “Spring Romance” can be seen on the left wall. “Atrium” and “Natural Selection” appear on the ceiling, while her work referring to the Ghent Altarpiece graces the far wall.

(For more images of Yu Hong’s work at the MFA, see my blog post on the exhibition, or my photos on Flickr.

Read Full Post »

Older Posts »