Archive for the ‘Chinese contemporary art’ Category

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.


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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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Intersections strikes again. Through whatever connections, the Intersections visiting artist program here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa managed to get two huge big-name Chinese contemporary artists who are here in the islands on private family vacation, to come in and talk about their work.

Left: Liu Xiaodong. Photo: Mary Boone Gallery, New York.

I first learned of Yu Hong and Liu Xiaodong’s work when I attended the Fresh Ink exhibition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, a year or so ago, though I did not know that they were a married couple. Both are professors at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, the most elite art school in China, as well as graduates from CAFA high school, and CAFA undergraduate and postgrad. Though the popularity of Chinese contemporary art is very much booming in the art market these days, and though there are many artists doing all kinds of fascinating, interesting, new, creative, innovative things, contrary to what we might therefore expect, CAFA’s curriculum remains extremely conservative. Which is not necessarily a bad thing – technical skill should still be considered important, and not just concept and theory, on which many art schools in the West might focus overmuch. Training at CAFA is like “academic” training in the French or Soviet mode, very much focused on realistic painting of the human figure in oils. Accordingly, both Yu Hong and Liu Xiaodong focus heavily on depicting contemporary scenes, and real people – e.g. themselves, their friends, everyday people selected to serve as models.

Above: Liu Xiaodong paints his childhood friends in his childhood hometown of Jincheng, for a piece called “My Egypt.” Image: Want China Times.

What interests me most in Liu Xiaodong’s work is the concept and the process, more than the final product. In many of his works, he selects a meaningful site, and selects people from that place to serve as his models. The final product is, perhaps, nothing too radically unusual or impressive – it’s a realistic (though still stylized) depiction of the scene he had in front of him (posed models, landscape, props, setting) in oils – though I am sure that in person (rather than on PowerPoint) the works would be quite impressive in size, at least. He tends to paint his figures life-size. This means that, each figure in a painting being five or six feet tall, the work as a whole, incorporating background and everything, is often several meters square, if not larger.

Above: “Qinghai-Tibet Railway”; 98″ by 394″, oil on canvas, 2007. Photo via Mary Boone Gallery.

Among the works he shared with us were several of workers at the Three Gorges Dam, or of people forced to move from the area so that the dam could be built. He took actual people from the place, set them up as models, and painted them from life, with the actual landscape of the Three Gorges area and/or the dam itself, in the background. Another work captured seven young women sitting atop a wagon, with their town, the town of Beichuan, in the background, as it was right after being almost entirely destroyed by the Sichuan Earthquake. This was entitled “Out of Beichuan.” A partner piece to this was called “Into Taihu,” and depicts seven young men in a wooden rowboat on Lake Tai, near Shanghai. He then went back to his childhood hometown, and painted portraits (and group portraits) of his childhood friends, all grown up. One painting shows them all playing cards together in the park; one depicts a friend who owns a karaoke bar, singing at the bar, with all the crazy lights and whatever of the karaoke box room in the background. Another work, completed a few years earlier right after the Beijing-Tibet railroad was finished, depicts two Tibetan men leading horses across the plains, as the train runs by in the background. He said he actually had to go quite a ways afield to find Tibetan men who had horses, could ride them, and looked a bit more like what he was looking for – less fully culturally assimilated into (Han) Chinese culture. In 2009-2010 or so, he went to Boston and got a bunch of high school students to pose as models for him, as he sought to address issues of high school violence. This was the work I saw at the MFA. Perhaps you begin to sense the theme.

Above: Liu Xiaodong painting young women at Beichuan in Sichuan after the earthquake. Photo via Dgeneratefilms.com and Supernice.eu.

I think what I found most interesting and engaging about his work is the context in which he paints it, the issues he seeks to address by painting certain subjects at certain times or in certain places, and the role his art plays therefore in capturing these moments in time, and then broadcasting them, with, of course, a considerable degree of his own sentimentality or interest mixed in. He says he does not see himself as political, let alone activist, and I think in a way this does sort of come through in his work. Yes, he is picking particular moments which are of particular significance, and which could be interpreted to have serious political or social activist sort of meanings, but his work really sort of toes that line. The paintings themselves, the final products, feel more documentary, and more like simply capturing moments of life, then they feel like they are truly social commentary of any sort. Plus, as Liu pointed out, it is very easy to re-explain a new or different meaning for one’s paintings, if one is ever accused of making an inappropriate (read: politically dangerous) statement. Oh, no, no. That’s not what this painting means at all.

Further, Liu really seems to revere the process, and to insert into it a special energy. He says that from when a project begins to when it ends, everything in between is “art”, not just on-site, but everything that everyone involves does for the days or weeks of the process, from the act of painting itself, to the actions of the photographers and videographers, to the experience of the models, down to breaks and meals, carrying the materials away and then back to the site again the next day, even sleeping. All of it is part of the process, until the work is complete. With this in mind, many of his works in more recent years have been extensively photographed and videoed in process, sometimes by rather big name film directors. “Hometown Boy,” a documentary of his journey to his childhood hometown, re-meeting old friends, and painting them, was directed by big-name Taiwanese film director Hou Hsiao-Hsien, and won a Golden Horse Award in Taiwan for Best Documentary. Jia Zhangke, similarly, directed a film called “Still Life,” which incorporated a lot of footage of Liu Xiaodong painting, and which won a Golden Lion at the 2006 Venice Int’l Film Festival – the festival’s top prize.

Stay tuned for my thoughts on the work of Liu Xiaodong’s wife, Yu Hong, who also spoke here at UHM on Feb 3.

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Did everyone have a good Halloween? I had a great time. Dressed up as Haku from “Sen to Chihiro”, and went down to Waikiki, where hundreds (thousands?) of people just sort of walk up and down the street, admiring each others’ costumes. Mine was not nearly recognizable enough, even among people familiar with the film, but I’m really not sure what I could do to fix that.

In any case, it’s that time again. The links have piled up. I have a lot to share, and so I’ll try to keep the blurbs short. In short, here’s a smattering of interesting stuff I found on the web today!

*A short video about Higashino Hideki, 25 yrs old, a craftsman working to keep alive the 300-year-old tradition of Japanese karakuri, or clockwork automata. As early as 1662, the Takeda theatre in Osaka featured karakuri puppet theatre, based on European clockwork technology, and the same fine Japanese craftsmanship that went into carving the heads of bunraku puppets from wood, and fashioning their brocade clothing. Higashino revives, or continues, the tradition of making such automata, which, with surprisingly (relatively) natural movement, perform actions as complicated as calligraphy and archery.

*A Financial Times article from this past April, pointed out to me by a friend, relates bits of an interview with Chinese contemporary art superstar Xu Bing. The vice-president of China’s premier arts academy, and one of many artists who suffered during the Cultural Revolution, he is understandably reticent to talk about politics or political art, such as that of Ai Weiwei, who was still imprisoned at the time of the interview. … I certainly do not agree with China’s totalitarian stance on dissent, and am all in all frightened by the incredible number of people patriotically and nationalistically pro-CCP and pro-PRC, by the strength of their convictions, and by just how different their attitudes and views are from our own, as if there are two versions of the world competing for which one is real or true. Yet, at the same time, it does grow tedious and boring to constantly, and exclusively, talk about only that Chinese art which is vocally political. I adore Xu Bing’s work, which draws upon history and tradition, upon Chinese culture and arts, doing things that are very innovative and new, but also very Chinese, not aspiring in any way to be “modern” in a globalist, universalist, post-nation-state sort of sense.

*Meanwhile, the Asian Art Museum of San Francisco, which I visited a few months ago, apparently has been having serious financial trouble, and almost went bankrupt a year or so ago. The museum has now announced, according to a New York Times article from about a month ago, a brand new mission statement, new attitudes and goals. Like many museums, it is trying to combat the image of being stodgy, dusty, old or boring, and so is pushing in more modern/contemporary direction, and opening itself up to flashier, less conservative subjects. … I love contemporary art that relates to cultural identity, history, and historical art, that isn’t a-cultural or globalist in its aesthetics, and I think this new direction could bring lots of really awesome exhibits and events. I just hope that the Asian Art Museum – and others moving in similar directions – does not forget about, or neglect, the more traditional and historical art in its zeal to be fresh and new and exciting.

*November 1st is about to end here in Honolulu, and shortly afterwards November 2nd will end in Japan, where for the last 18 hours or so, the main frontpage “doodle” on Google.jp has been a gold-backed picture of Mt. Fuji, in honor of the birthday of neo-traditionalist painter Yokoyama Taikan (1868-1958). I missed out on visiting the Yokoyama Taikan Museum in Ueno a year ago, on the site, I presume, of his house or studio; I hadn’t been aware of it, and only discovered it after they’d closed for the day. Taikan’s a pretty incredible artist. I’ve yet to devote a post to him, or to write an article on him for the Samurai-Archives Wiki, but this Chinese art website offers images of a number of his works, which is something of a start. Remind me, and one of these days I’ll try to put together a post about him.

*A 340-year-old Chinese coin has been found in the Yukon, according to the Vancouver Sun, a contribution to a body of evidence of connections between First Nations (i.e. native peoples of what’s today Canada) and China in the 17th-18th centuries, or perhaps as early as the 15th century, if not directly, then at least in the form of Russian traders interacting with both the North American natives and the Chinese, and transporting objects such as this coin, along with ideas and culture, to whatever small extent, between the two. We don’t normally think of interactions with the Russians, I don’t think (at least not in Japanese Studies so much; I don’t know about Chinese Studies), let alone with First Nations, so this is really quite an interesting find.

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Much thanks to the Gothamist for sharing videos of speeches made at the official opening today of Ai Weiwei’s “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads,” a public sculpture installation at the Pulitzer Fountain at Central Park.

I first heard about this installation within the last week or so, and am excited to go see it. It is the first art installation to be done around the Pulitzer Fountain, and has extra meaning right now, as Ai Weiwei was disappeared by the Chinese government nearly exactly one month ago today.

The videos, I suppose, speak for themselves. I am sure that Mayor Bloomberg speaks at a great many events, and has a great many things on his mind at any given time, and I would not hold it against him if Ai Weiwei and current art events in NYC were not the very top things on his mind. To be honest, as I sit here in my dorm room in Honolulu, struggling to finish a paper and thinking about my plans for the summer, these things are not exactly foremost in my mind either. But, Bloomberg nevertheless has some very powerful and meaningful things to say, about diversity, free speech, and public art, about how these things make New York great, and about how over one billion people on this planet suffer without the most basic fundamental human right – the right to free expression.

I am embedding the videos here, so as to have some length and content to my post. But please do click through to the Gothamist’s coverage for some additional comments, and links to tons of great articles about New York culture and issues.

A number of prominent people from the New York art scene, especially Asian art curators and others with connection to Ai Weiwei or related circles, were given a brief chance to speak. It was fun and interesting for me to recognize names and faces – specifically Melissa Chu of the Asia Society, and Alexandra Munroe of the Guggenheim – and to realize that I really am beginning to “know people”, to have some “ins” in the Asian art world, especially in New York. Which is not to say that these prominent and influential people have even the vaguest idea who I am, but that’s a step that will come later. For now, one step at a time.

Ai Weiwei’s piece will be on view in Central Park until July 15.

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I apologize to post things I haven’t even watched yet; I feel like that’s unprofessional or something. As if this blog itself were professional in any way to begin with.

Well, much thanks to Jun Hu for sharing these videos, making me aware of them, and thanks of course to UBC and the Asian Art Museum for making these videos available.

A presentation by Xu Bing about his work at the Asian Art Museum in San Francisco. About 74 minutes.

Sure, Xu Bing is hardly an unusual choice to say I like his work. But, he’s that popular because his work is awesome.

Jerome Silbergeld speaks about the Chineseness of Chinese motion pictures. An expert on traditional Chinese painting, Silbergeld’s book on painting was assigned when I took a survey course on Chinese painting, and I would read it and assign it again in turn – it’s the best book I’ve yet seen on the format itself, explaining how lines and brushstrokes are make, how scrolls work as a medium.

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I am still way behind on posting about exhibits I saw on the East Coast over winter break. Trying to catch up… but I realize I’ve lost my notes that I took of my impressions and thoughts while visiting this exhibit, which is only going to make the whole process that much more difficult, as I try to reconstruct those impressions from the photographs, and from memory.

Fresh Ink: Ten Takes on Chinese Tradition at the Museum of Fine Arts, Boston, is a major Chinese art event not to be missed. It features ten new works by major Chinese artists inspired by the great treasures of the MFA’s Chinese art collection.* So, this is not just an opportunity to see amazing works by some of the hottest contemporary artists in the world today, but also to see some exceptionally, unbelievably famous Chinese paintings, and to see the way these contemporary artists have reinterpreted or reimagined the themes or compositions of the masterpieces of the past.

I had made the mistake of assuming it would be in the Asian Art galleries, and went there first. It’s a testament to how big a deal this exhibit is that it is being shown not in the Asian galleries, but rather in the new Gund Gallery for special exhibitions, right below the heart of the new expansion, i.e. right outside the new Art of the Americas Wing.

It was absolutely incredible to see the “Five-Color Parakeet” by Emperor Huizong – easily one of the most famous Chinese paintings, ever. Open up any good, thorough survey textbook of the history of Chinese art, and I can practically guarantee it will be in there. I felt like no matter how long I stood in front of that piece, it would be too short a time to pay it proper respects. Unless I end up working at the MFA (dream job!), I imagine it unlikely I will be seeing that painting again for a long long time, if ever. And yet, standing before it, prevented from really getting close enough to appreciate it properly, on account of the sheet of plexiglass that stood vertically between me and the painting, laid out horizontally on a pedestal, I just could not help but feel like I ought to be getting more out of this interaction. Here it is. A super super famous painting, by an emperor no less – a really famous emperor.

Seeing that work was incredible. But, even as I felt the desire to stand there and stare at it until something more happened, until some switch clicked and the super special experience I was waiting for happened, I knew I had to keep moving. I skimmed the rest of this “Masters” exhibition, wondering where all the rest of the treasures of the collection, not to mention the new works, were…. Certainly, the other works up were ancient, and famous, and masterful as well, but they were not any works I remembered having heard of (which speaks more to my ignorance than to anything about these masterpieces), and so I finally made my way to the Info Desk to ask and find out where Fresh Ink was.

I was pointed to a giant banner hanging over the stairs, reading “Fresh Ink.”

Each artist was introduced with a label like this one, including her signature, photos of her and her studio or process, quotes on the wall about her approach or attitude, a brief biography and summary of analysis of her work. Really a fantastic model that I think could be applied positively, productively, to most exhibits.

As soon as I hit the bottom of the stairs, boom, I got my first glance of “Fresh Ink,” and could see that it was everything “Chinese Master Paintings from the Collection” was not. It is an exhibit with some real design to it, with gallery-labels and an overall exhibit design custom-designed for this exhibition, in a super sleek, post-museum** sort of style. Rather than each piece being simply labeled with title, date, media, etc. and a brief description, we saw multiple labels for each piece, including photos of the contemporary artist with his or her signature and a brief biography, along with a brief discussion of the artist’s and curators’ thoughts and interpretations and ideas regarding the work. Other labels discussed other aspects of the piece, such as the art historical significance of the traditional masterpiece displayed alongside the new work, which served as the inspiration.

I was truly blown away by this exhibit immediately upon stepping inside. The gallery opens up in front of you, immediately presenting you with a very clear view of at least two new and contemporary works that, if you know your Chinese art history, immediately remind you of particular treasures from the collection.

For some reason, I had expected to see very conservative monochrome ink landscapes, the sort of thing that only the most expert of experts would recognize as innovative. I guess it was the “Ink” in the exhibition title. Instead, we see energetic, innovative, colorful (in some cases), incredible works using Western media (in most cases) and techniques to refer to classic compositions – really, my favorite kind of contemporary art.

Yu Hong – Spring Romance

Yu Hong’s piece is in Western paints and Western styles, in a form that couldn’t be anything but modern/contemporary – a single composition spread out across a number of separate pieces of silk, hanging more like banners than like hanging scrolls. Yet, walking into the gallery, I immediately recognized it as a reworking of the composition of “Court Ladies Preparing Newly Woven Silk,” a rather famous 12th century handscroll painting attributed to Emperor Huizong, the last emperor of the Northern Song dynasty, who also painted the parakeet mentioned above. Before even delving into any other aspects of this, the idea of a work on silk inspired by (based on) a work about preparing silk, itself also painted on silk, inserting women in modern fashions, depicted in modern/Western paints (oils? acrylics? I need to learn to be able to tell) and in a style unlike that of traditional Chinese works, holding up the ancient work on silk – these aspects alone put a smile on my face and have me enjoying the work.

The referential aspect of the artwork does not end there. Each of these young women is, in fact, a figure from another of Yu Hong’s works, each of them a friend or acquaintance, and each with a story to tell. As the labels in the gallery explain, the woman playing the flute, seen here in a detail of “Spring Romance,” had commissioned Yu Hong to paint her in commemoration of her pregnancy. We see also a friend of Yu’s, a novelist who had fallen off a building, and who asked Yu to produce casts, that is, plaster molds, of her healed legs afterward – Yu Hong herself is thus present as well, her hands covered in white plaster.

Li Jin – Reminiscence to Antiquity. Ink and color on paper, 2009. Album leaves mounted as hanging scrolls.

Li Jin’s piece at first seemed naive, amateurish, somehow. Sloppy. Like I could look at it once, think “ah, okay. Yup. Got it. Nice.” and just move on. But lingering for one moment longer, I began to see an incredible (anyone want to keep count of how many times I fail to vary my adjectives?) realism and density of color and form, and some real humor and parody in the details.

Backing up again, I love that he has created album leaves on hanging scrolls – a traditional format for very untraditional subjects in untraditional media inspired by, based on, referring back to, a traditional work.

I wish I could share with you all the pictures I took in the exhibition – there’s really just so much to see here, and so much to talk about. But, my posts are more than long enough as is, plus I feel that would be pushing the boundaries of fair use and such even more so than I already am. In any case, the exhibition is still up for a while, and the catalog should be widely available, if you would like to see more. Though the works look really watercolory at first, and I just sort of automatically therefore assumed them not worth a second look, I am glad that I did take a second look at them. Many of these album leafs are actually majorly accomplished, dense with detail and life-likeness, telling vignettes and/or sharing a great sense of humor or parody.

Based on a handscroll painting entitled “Northern Qi Scholars Collating Texts” and attributed to the great Tang dynasty painter Yan Liben (c. 600-673), Li Jin created a pair of handscrolls, and then also these album leafs / hanging scrolls, speaking to the less than serious attitudes these great ancient scholars seem to be taking. Though today we look back at the ancients and “paint” them, so to speak, in our history books and in our minds, as being of immaculate moral uprightness, and their compilations of the ancient classics of poetry and literature to verge on sacred, mythological events, in fact, even in a painting such as this – Yan Liben likewise being extolled as a paragon of virtuous, masterful Tang dynasty painting – we can clearly see the ancient masters having a raucous, drunken good ol’ time. So, Li Jin, as others (such as Wang Qingsong) have as well, seek to engage with this idea by reimagining such drunken and debaucherous escapades in a more contemporary (modern) context, or at least combined somehow with elements of the modern.

The handscrolls (not pictured here; sorry) were completed in Boston in 2008; when the artist returned to China he realized he needed to create further works on the same themes, completing the project by engaging with the subject not only in Boston, but also after having come home, those thoughts and ideas and thematics in mind, engaging with them in the different context of now being back in China.

Chinese art history, even moreso than the art histories of most cultures, is all about engagement with the past; traditionally, the only proper way to innovate in painting or calligraphy in China was to first master not only the styles of the masters of the past, but to truly engage with the spirit of those masters, and to then innovate within that tradition. Having these ten artists work with the treasures of the museum’s collection, and create new works inspired by the masterpieces of the past, therefore, is a most wonderful continuation of the spirit of that tradition, a most excellent fusion of traditional methods of developing the tradition and modern/Western-inspired media, subjects, and style. I am highly amused and entertained, and indeed pleased, therefore, to see that at least one of the artists spoke to the idea that these efforts to reclaim the past, in order to better gain insights into the present, which is essentially the central theme and purpose of this exhibition, and a major theme throughout Chinese art history, could possibly be less than successful.

Li Jin writes:

“How can people of today possibly know the thoughts of the ancients?
Mistakenly, they replace the old times with the new.
Li Jin lived in Boston in the spring of 2008, in order to pursue
A sense of antiquity…
But it was in vain.”

Fresh Ink is open through February 13th. I sadly did not know about it, and so will be missing out, but more contemporary Chinese works in the same vein will be up at the Harvard Museums through May 14, in an exhibit entitled “Brush and Ink Reconsidered.”

I could go on to talk about all the works in this show – they are each of them quite fascinating and beautiful. But I think I shall leave it for now. I hope you have the chance to see the show in person, yourself.

At the rate I’ve been going it will be a long time before my photos of this Boston trip are up on Flickr, but trust me, they will be eventually. In the meantime, please feel free to go take a look at my photos from Kyoto from last summer.

Upcoming posts will feature Japan Society’s exhibit “The Sound of One Hand: Zen Paintings by Hakuin Ekaku,” as well as a post on the 33rd Annual University of Hawaii Graduate Students Art Exhibition, up now, featuring some breathtaking work by my close friends & “cohort”/colleagues/classmates. Thank you for reading!!

*To be accurate, one work is by a Chinese-American artist, inspired by a Jackson Pollock. The rest are by Chinese artists, inspired by Chinese artworks from the collection.
**Post-modern is, of course, a term super-laden with meaning. And as I am hardly an expert at modern art terminology, I’ll leave that one alone. Suffice it to say, I identified the design aesthetic of the exhibition as something which felt, or tasted, very forward-looking, very contemporary, very new and sleek, precisely the kind of thing I wish we saw more of.

All photos taken myself. No one is to blame for the poor quality but me (and perhaps Apple; they looked soooo clear and sharp on the iPhone screen, but then when I uploaded them…). The artworks themselves are of course copyright the respective artists; gallery labels etc are copyright Museum of Fine Arts, and no claims of creative property are made by me here. Purely using photography for “personal non-commercial purposes”, pseudo-journalism, fair use in so far as I can justifiably argue so.

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Speaking of Chinese contemporary art, Wang Qingsong came and spoke on campus today.

Epic thanks to Prof. Jaimey Hamilton and the Intersections program here at the University of Hawaii which brings a good number of contemporary artists here each term not just to speak and present their work, but also to visit student studios and classes, and interact and engage directly with students. It’s a really special opportunity, I would imagine, for the students; I don’t know how common this is at other schools, but it’s pretty awesome here. And thanks, too, of course, to the incredible sponsors, since Intersections is not funded by the Art Dept or anyone else regularly/permanently on campus.

I don’t quite have my finger on the pulse of Chinese contemporary art enough to say really quite how big he is, but putting that aside, what matters is, his art is absolutely incredible.

In “Can I Cooperate With You?” (2000), Wang references a classic Chinese painting depicting a Tang emperor receiving a foreign ambassador. Here, the foreigner and the Chinese switch places, with the foreigner surrounded with adulation, power, and wealth, and China, with its tiny flag, seeking, begging, for corporate collaboration.

A photographer, Wang choreographs amazingly elaborate and artificial scenes, with bold, colorful costumes, props, and backgrounds, the artificiality being part of the appealing aesthetic. His works speak to a great many subjects, questioning the benefits of commercialism and criticizing the impacts of Westernization. He seems particularly interested, or should I say frustrated, with the idea that China is such a major economic powerhouse, but in fact has no big name brands overseas (or even domestically? I wonder. I don’t know.) – when Chinese companies merge with foreign companies, yes, they benefit, and the nation benefits, but in the end, you still see Nike, McDonalds, and Sony everywhere in China, and no big name Chinese brand names in the rest of the world (there may be big major exceptions that are just slipping my mind at the moment… but anyway, that’s his argument).

There are basically two things, well, four, that really impress me about his work. One, the effort and materials put into each work is amazingly impressive. One would assume that he could do a lot in post, so to speak, that is, in digital editing. It’s obvious he must edit his photos considerably anyway, dialing up the color and smoothing out the roughness of reality. Yet, from costumes to props to backdrops, he does so much to actually create the scenes he photographs. One of his newest works, which hasn’t even been debuted yet, is a 42-meter-long piece, like a huge long frieze running along the ceiling of a building, in which a great many figures are seen in various poses and costumes meant to recreate various famous statues and monuments throughout history (mainly Chinese history). All is made to look like stone relief. But while I am sure there are plenty of ways he could have done this digitally, he actually built a giant wall with styrofoam impressions, covered entirely in mud, into which his models, also covered in mud, stepped, so that it would look like they were carved in relief from the stone.

Left: “The Thinker” (1998) obviously speaks to spirituality and religion in these modern times. A man irrevocably imprinted with the cultural impact of McDonald’s attempts to meditate, to practice religion or seek spirituality, atop a cabbage leaf (symbolic, I am told, of the Chinese nation, or national pride), while the busy busy busy-ness of the city rushes past behind (or all around) him.

Secondly, his artwork functions on just about precisely the level I like and appreciate and enjoy in contemporary art. They are not abstract forms – they are very clearly images of people in certain costumes, in certain settings and situations, and very often the title gives a further hint as to the meaning of a work. I love works where you don’t need to struggle or get frustrated to figure out what it is. It’s very clear what his works are, what they depict. Whether it’s a crowd of people all crowded around a few naked women dancing, the crowd all pointing huge cameras at the women, or whether it is a professor sitting at a desk in front of a massive giant blackboard covered completely in English and Chinese words and Western corporate logos, you can tell immediately upon looking at it what it is. This frees you up to then get to the meat of the matter – what it all means. And while the meanings may be somewhat obvious – in one piece, he shows men in camo fatigues struggling up a hill as if towards battle, with a McDonald’s sign rising high above, obviously something belonging to the enemy – the aesthetic beauty of the works, the incredible detail (and I mean really incredible detail, every single word on that blackboard being legible at high enough magnification, and having relevance), and just some intangible quality about his work makes you want to look longer, look closer, and really think about it. There’s meaning right there, clear as day in front of you, that makes you laugh or nod, his social criticism obvious, saving you from the frustration most associate with modern art, but then, he makes you look deeper.

Third, these works are simply beautiful. They are appealing and attractive. Who says art has to be ugly? That is has to be disturbing? In a way, it’s kind of ironic, since historically it’s the Chinese painting critics, far moreso than anyone in the West so far as I know prior to the 20th century, who always said that color and realism were cheap tricks, that making a painting attractive and appealing in such a surface manner cheapened it, and that the best paintings were those that were not blatantly appealing on the surface, but which needed to be appreciated on a deeper level.

Wang Qingsong’s works absolutely work on a deeper level, I believe. But they are beautiful as well. Very clear, clean forms, like “airbrushed” magazine cover models, and bright colors, like an idealized version of reality, though the actual content of the scenes is more dream or fantasy, highly symbolic and extremely staged, hardly realistic at all.

And fourth, he does do a number of works that very directly reference classic Chinese artworks. And you know I love that.

When his “Night Revels of Luo Li” came on the screen, I nearly leapt out of my seat. (Click image to embiggen.) I am not sure that I can really articulate the meanings and implications of this image – the social criticisms embedded in it – but the way in which he has reproduced the overall composition of the exceedingly famous “Night Revels of Han Xizai” (Gu Hongzhong, c. 970 CE) while replacing each element with something contemporary, and often something outlandishly colorful and gaudy, and for lack of a better word, slutty and crass, is really just incredible.

(I’m genuinely sorry that none of these are big enough to see here properly. Please do click to embiggenate.)

There are various stories behind the Han Xizai painting. One states that the emperor wished to grant Han Xizai a ministerial post, but had heard rumor of depraved and debauched activity in Han Xizai’s mansions, so he sent two painters to act as spies, who produced this work depicting an inappropriate mixing of social classes at a most raucous and immoral party. Another interpretation says that the previous story was created, along with the painting, in order to sully the reputations of both Han Xizai and that emperor, as dynastic change leads to such negative portrayals of the previous regime.

In any case, Wang Qingsong says his work is meant to speak to the situation of intellectuals in China today. What does that mean? Perhaps that the powers that be seek to portray intellectuals as debased, raucous, and immoral; that today, as during the Cultural Revolution, and in accord with Communist ideology overall, intellectuals are seen as the elite, as the bourgeois enemy of the good, hardworking proletariat worker or peasant. Or maybe I’m misreading it – Chinese ideology isn’t exactly my strong suit. But, in any case, the size of the work and the details allow for it to be very engaging and involving. Notice how the biwa player has been replaced by a woman with blue hair and a wonderfully blue guitar, while figures sit or stand opposite her in just about exactly the places and positions people sit or stand in the original work.

Note the very traditional elements of the setting – particularly the furniture, and the fans a few girls hold – but then, the very modern Sprite bottles, not to mention the very modern, and in some cases outlandish, clothing. Notice also the repetition of figures or characters. Starting from the right – as traditional Chinese paintings are traditionally read – the tall furniture element behind the girl with the guitar serves as a sort of narrative break, marking a break between scenes. On the other side, we see the same figures over again, doing something different. This is not one single scene, one giant panoramic party, but rather a series of sequences, a narrative over time, as in a traditional handscroll.

So much more can be said… I could run through all the pieces he spoke of and showed tonight. But I think I need to leave it there. His work is surprisingly easy to find online – just Google his name: there is tons out there.

A show of Wang Qingsong’s work, entitled “When Worlds Collide“, opens next Friday (Jan 21) at the International Center of Photography in New York, and runs through May 18. I look very much forward to seeing it myself when I am in New York for the College Art Association conference next month.

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