Archive for the ‘Chinese contemporary art’ Category

Chinese artist Ai Weiwei has been in the news a lot lately, whether for his sunflower seeds installation at the Tate Modern, or his house arrest and studio party.

As for why the authorities would approach him to build a studio, and then shortly afterwards decide he didn’t have the right permits and have it demolished, I gather there are complexities I am missing.

But, between the party featuring a dinner of river crabs (the word for which is a homonym for “harmony”, used here ironically and accusatively), other activities, and the general media presence and response in recent months, Mr. Ai is said to have “come to see his conflict with government officials as performance art.”1 And I can sort of see it. It’s certainly serious, and real, not merely a performance, but, in terms of the way the eyes of the (art) world are watching, it really does function in some ways as a performance. It seems almost humorous and nonsensical, or it would if it weren’t so deadly serious. I sincerely hope that Mr. Ai is not more severely punished by the government for his critical artworks and comments.

The river crabs party was held in protest against the demolition of the studio he erected over the last few years, and as a goodbye party for this magnificent art space which was only completed this past July. Authorities said they were going to knock it all down sometime in February, but, this past week, boom, down it went.

ART RADAR ASIA has gathered a number of reports on the events. Much thanks to them for this, and for their always excellent reporting. If you haven’t checked out their page, please do.

(1) Wong, Edward. “Chinese Authorities Raze an Artist’s Studio.” New York Times. 12 January 2011.

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Mmm. River crabs.

If you’ve been following Chinese art world news at all lately, you’ve heard about Ai Weiwei. He has an exhibit up right now at the Tate Modern in London, an installation piece where he created thousands (tens of thousands? I don’t know) of sunflower seeds out of ceramic, and installed them on the floor, where visitors could walk over them; this was put to an end fairly quickly, due to fears over the amount of ceramic dust being thrown up into the air in the process. … At the same time, Ai Weiwei, who had been asked (or even paid?) by the authorities to build a new $1.1m studio in Shanghai, was now being told it was to be demolished. A huge party was planned, and held, at which river crabs, a local delicacy, were served, the word for river crab, hexie, being a homonym and pun for “harmony” (和諧), a personal and political statement about the kind of harmonious society the CCP seeks to create, where there is no dissent. Ai Weiwei was placed under house arrest for a brief time, but was able to Tweet and otherwise communicate from his home.

And that’s basically all I know about it. I must admit, I had heard of Ai Weiwei before, but didn’t know anything about his work, or his protests…

This has been big news, however, in the last week or two, and so I felt I had to share it. Here are some links to fuller coverage and analysis of the house arrest and the party, thanks to Art Radar Asia:
*Ai Weiwei’s Studio Party Canceled; Art Radar was There
*The Internet is the best gift to China, and will lead to the downfall of dictatorship, Ai Weiwei says
*TIME: China’s House Arrest of Artist Ai Weiwei

It is wonderful to see Ai Weiwei safely returned to (relative) freedom and public activity, to see that the party was able to be held with a minimum of interference from the authorities, and to see that protests and anti-government comments continue to go on. China’s desire to eliminate dissent, and the methods they have and might use, terrify me. I do believe that there is a major need for regime change there, for the benefit of the whole world. But, it is at least reassuring, I suppose, to see that at least in this one instance, if not more generally these days, they seem to be acting a lot more leniently than they have in the past.

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This is what happens when I put off writing entries… I end up with a whole bunch of articles and blog posts that I wanted to link to and discuss, and as I continue to be too busy and/or tired to do a proper full write-up, I’m just gonna do some quick bits.

(1) Art Radar Asia shares with us today the work of Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann, who combines batik textiles with photography to produce some truly amazing work.

Yee I-Lann, Orang Besar series: ‘Kain Panjang with Carnivorous Kepala‘, 2010, direct digital mimaki inkjet print with acid dye, batik canting Remazol Fast Salt dyes on 100% silk twill, edition of 3 + 2AP. Image taken from original Art Radar post. No claims to rights made; no revenue earned.

The realism of the photography, somehow transformed into an image that looks painted, drawn, or otherwise created by hand, and accompanied by more abstract and hand-painted forms, creates a really interesting aesthetic. I also quite like the balance of the people to the right and the plant image – looking like a gold-backed Japanese screen painting – to the left. Most importantly, of course, is the distinctly Asian flavor. The plants, the gold-backing, the batik borders, and of course the ethnicity (and fashion? perhaps?) of the figures give the image an extra flavor, an extra texture and punch that your standard acultural panglobal Western modern art work would lack.

(2) Cai Guo-Qiang, meanwhile, has been busy at the Museum of Fine Arts, Houston, where his largest gunpowder drawings yet are on display. I’ve heard of Cai Guo-Qiang numerous times – he’s one of the biggest names in Chinese contemporary art here in the US – but I am not sure if I have ever seen his work. I was under the impression that he worked in gunpowder in the sense of actually creating shapes in the flames, in explosions and fireworks shows, the event itself being the art, and the photography of the art, and boring, shapeless piles of ashes and scorchmarks being merely the records and aftereffects.

But it would seem that I was quite mistaken. These gunpowder “drawings” seem to cover the full four walls of the gallery, and are gorgeous works of art that look not like the aftereffects of a performance piece, but as artworks in themselves, reminding one of traditional style sumi (ink) monochrome paintings, albeit in a most unusual medium.

(3) The big news in Japan this past week was the discovery that two swords found under the Great Buddha at Tôdaiji are now believed to be 1,250 years old, and to be the very same individual swords mentioned on an ancient list of national treasures.

The swords were found roughly 100-150 years ago (some time in the Meiji era 1868-1912), but were not until recently identified as being the “Yin Sword and Yang Sword” listed at the very top of the swords/weapons list within the Kokka Chinpô-chô (国家珍宝帳, “List of Rare Treasures of the Kingdom”), which lists treasures held at Tôdaiji, including treasures in the famous Shôsôin Imperial Storehouse.

I had had a video to share, a clip from TBS news, but like many Japanese news services, they don’t seem to have any interest in keeping content up for more than a few days.

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I just noticed that Hulu is hosting 16 full-length episodes of the PBS series “Art21”. Each episode features several artists from around the globe whose work can be connected to a given theme, such as Identity, Hope, or Play.

Here is the third season episode “Memory”, including a segment on Sugimoto Hiroshi, to get you started:

… I don’t know why embedding isn’t working, but here’s the link for the episode: Check it out.

I must admit I am unfamiliar with nearly all of the artists featured in this series, but am eagerly waiting for Hulu to post episodes from Season Five, which will feature artists such as Jeff Koons, Cao Fei, and Yinka Shonibare.

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The NY Times shares with us today an article entitled Gao Brothers, Beijing Artists One Step Ahead of Censors. Accompanied by a video report, the article describes a secret, illegal, underground party held by the Gao Brothers, artists whose exhibitions have been closed and studios raided before on account of their work being in violation of censorship laws.

One work, a slightly larger than life-size sculpture, portrays Chairman Mao on his knees, one hand on his chest, a penitent and profoundly remorseful look on his face. The head is designed to come off easily, so that it can be hidden, rendering the statue unidentifiable and politically non-threatening, in the case of a raid on the studio space.

China continues to be the site of an extremely vibrant art scene, and while it is exciting to learn that these kinds of works continue to be produced, that underground exhibitions do occur, at the same time of course one has to wonder how one could ever get on the invite list… If it’s secret enough to be unknown to the censors, the authorities, then how would little ol’ me find out about it and ever get to attend one? Well, it’s a moot point since I’ve never been to China yet and have no idea when I might happen to find myself there.

I am excited to see the Times continuing to report on Chinese contemporary art, and I look forward to hearing more about the Gao Brothers in the future – hopefully good news about future works and exhibitions, and not such news as their arrest or the like.

EDIT: An interview with the Gao Brothers, courtesy of Art Radar Asia.

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It seems relatively rare for MoMa to feature East Asian Contemporary Art. Maybe they’re not too eager to jump onto the bandwagon of Chinese contemporary art, thinking it too much of a fad and a trend, thinking that it’s not yet clear which of these artists are the true masters whose works will become classics. Maybe it’s because Asian contemporary works like those I’d like to see don’t quite mesh with their conception of “modern art” and/or with the museum’s mission statement or something to that effect. Maybe the American/European faction on the board is too powerful. Or maybe those running the museum are just stuck in the 1950s-80s.

In any case, in something of an exception, MoMa is currently devoting a large space on the second floor to a project by Chinese artist Song Dong. He and his mother have taken all of the objects she had pack-ratted away over the years out of her home and organized them around the gallery – scraps of cloth here, old newspapers neatly tied in a bundle there, bottle caps, old appliances, empty PET bottles, and so on. As the gallery labels explain, a Chinese saying, wu jin qi yong, translated in the exhibit as “waste not,” is a defining philosophy for at least one generation of Chinese… everything can (at least theoretically) be put to another purpose, and so there is no call to throw it out. If the artist’s mother’s home was indeed limited to the size of the wooden skeleton of a structure in the center of the gallery, then it must have been exceedingly crowded indeed.

(Actually, while they do refer to this tiny structure, about two or three times the size of my cubicle, as her house, I find it extremely hard to believe, given how much space one needs just to cook and sit and eat and sleep, let alone live a whole life, let alone hoard all these worthless possessions. It’s like the size of the so-called zero-yen homes you find made of blue tarp lining the shores of the Sumidagawa in Asakusa.)

In any case, it is a most interesting exhibit. It’s aesthetically culturally very interesting, from the perspective of the historian or anthropologist, in the way that each and every item is distinctly Chinese, or at least distinctly different from what we are used to in the US. The Coke bottles are a different size and shape, and the labels are in Chinese. Much of the old clothing is one kind or another of Chinese clothing, not Western dress. The appliances are different sizes, styles, shapes, brands, and makes from what we have here in the US. And so, as a traveler, a visitor, an explorer of other cultures, intrigued by things as minor as the way different people can each think their version of the Coke bottle is the normal, regular, typical style, and that it’s strange that it should look different in another country.

But is it art?

If the artist says it is, and MoMa says it is, then that’s more or less good enough for me. The artist, and curator, both had rather insightful and interesting things to say about the meaning and symbolism of the project, so that’s something.

But even if it isn’t art, I think it quite interesting, both culturally/aesthetically, and culturally/sociologically; that is, both for what it looks like, the designs and styles of all the objects presented, and also for what the hoarding phenomenon, “waste not” philosophy, and age, quality, and condition of the objects tell us about Chinese culture.

Definitely an interesting exhibit; the only one I saw that day, I think it was absolutely worth the $0.00 I paid to get in. I’m really glad I didn’t have to pay the full $25 they ask for regular admission, given that I have little interest in the rest of what they have on display.

One of the artists in the New Museum‘s “Younger Than Jesus” exhibition, Liu Chuang, did something similar, arranging the objects worn and carried by an individual on a table. Each table was a profile of a different random, average Chinese person, their clothes, bags, cellphones, ID cards, books, and other possessions describing and defining them.

Certainly a pattern if not a trend, and a fascinating peek into the culture of current-day China.

All photos my own. Courtesy of MoMA’s allowing photography in their galleries.

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Last post of my photos from New York’s “Asian Contemporary Art Fair 2008.” Maoism, Communism, the current cultural changes in China, are all extremely popular (common) subjects in Chinese contemporary art these days, and the chief motif or subject I was introduced to when I studied contemporary Asian art in my senior year of undergrad. Biting, meaningful, powerful, distinctly Chinese, referencing the past with attention to the present and the future, I find these images far more compelling than the vast majority of Western “modern art”. However, I think it took the massive environment, the numbers of objects, at ACAF to make me realize that Maoism as a motif is growing kind of tired. For me, anyway. I’m ready for something new.

"Multitalented Boy" by Jiang Shuo, one of a series of sculptures by the artist of cartoonish, cute young boys shouting the praises of Maoism.

The constrast of the metal (bronze?) and the red makes for a simple, and therefore striking, color palette.

McDonald’s series by Hu Gong. Maybe it’s not so easy to see from the photos, but these paintings are three-dimensional, the burnt wreckage extended out beyond the plane.

What is being burnt? By whom? For what purpose? We can’t be sure.

But note the shadowy figures in the top left of the first painting, "Conspiracy". And the hamburger image in the center of the conflagrations and destruction in the second painting. A pair of figures can be seen in all four paintings, watching their world destroyed.

They’re quite small, and maybe hard to see in this photo, but in both of these images, our two figures, who represent the average person, and the viewer, look out over the horizon at the Golden Arches, which serves in the context of the paintings as a symbol of hope.

Are these meant to represent the hopeful, prosperous future that Westernization and capitalism brings to a China ruined and destroyed by Maoism? Or is it a more ironic, sarcastic work, addressing the ludicrousness of seeking a hopeful future in a Western megacorporation like McDonald’s?

One of several works by Xue Song combining traditional images, Maoist propaganda imagery, and Western capitalist images.

Images from Maoist propaganda posters make up the purple background of this piece, with a more traditional Chinese ink-painting landscape image in green inside the outline of a Coca-Cola bottle.

Another of Xue’s works involves a number of proletariat/workers from a Maoist poster cheering for Marilyn Monroe.

As compared to works that are fully "modern", addressing color and shadow and line absent of any cultural or historical influences, this is far more the kind of thing I like. It directly addresses the cultural issues currently facing China. Issues of identity, of history. Are the Chinese people, having grown up under Maoism, looking for a new traditional identity in Coca-Cola?

Seems an extremely popular image, the Coke bottle, as a symbol of Western capitalist culture. One work we saw but did not photograph was a fairly traditional-looking calligraphy piece which reads "Long live Coca-Cola!"

A bright and colorful painting by Zhao Bo, technically Untitled, but tentatively titled "Youth" (青春) after the writing on the red T-shirt in the foreground.

An interesting representation of Chinese youth, with no direct references to pre-Communist traditional Chinese culture, and many modern elements, from the T-shirt to the guitar labeled "Rock".. the LG and Shell logos, Tienanmen (天安門) written on the right center…

And there’s something about the style of the painting, and the faces in particular, which I feel a great many of the contemporary Chinese artists use. It reminds me in particular of Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun. The pink skin with bright white areas… It’s quite distinctive, isn’t it?

And what better way to end a series of posts on contemporary Asian art than with Wang Guangyi?

Wang was one of the key core artists introduced to me in my undergraduate senior seminar on contemporary Chinese art.

Some of his works really express far more directly the notion of these Maoist revolutionary proletariat types admiring McDonalds, or another symbol of capitalism.

However, most of the other ones just juxtapose the Maoist yellow and red images with logos, like in these two, with no direct interaction between the two. A shame, I think, for an artist who has, in other works, made such a bold statement.

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I love that they let you take photos in galleries, art fairs. Actually, I’m surprised at how many proper museums allow visitors to take photos, provided they don’t use a flash. Museums are normally heinously strict about holding onto the copyright of objects they didn’t create, and whose creators are long dead.
… Of course, taking pictures at a gallery, art fair, or museum, and then actually doing anything with those photos, are two separate issues. Most galleries, museums, allow visitors to take photos “only for personal use”. Well, what counts as personal use? Does this blog count as journalism enough so that my use of the photos counts as “fair use”? I really don’t know. To be honest, I think it’s all a bit messy. What constitutes “personal use”? What rights do I have over my own photography, when it’s photography of a copyrighted artwork? In what manner, what ways, what contexts am I allowed to use these photos? Beats me.

Three babies, in different colors, with beautiful dragon images (tattoos?) on their faces, and what I interpret as phoenix feathers… The artist’s name is Hanis Purmono. What culture/ethnicity do you suppose that name comes from?

Chinese sometimes call themselves “Children of the Dragon”… this is a beautiful representation of Chinese spiritual, cultural, mystical heritage.

Or, it’s something completely different. What do I know?

I didn’t catch the name of the artist, or the title of the works, but I like the take on food aid.

These were great. Portraits of Mao by Yu Ziwei, made up of thread, sewn, not drawn or painted, onto the canvas. The flowers on the left and bees on the right are quite interesting…. the bees are kind of gross, and remind me of bugs feasting on a corpse. I realize as I’m writing this that of course flowers growing on a grave is also a common image, but the flowers are also a much prettier image, something that decorates and beautifies the image, raising questions of what the artist thinks of Mao.

Some fantastic bonsai (penjing or penzai in Chinese) art by Shen Shaomin. We couldn’t be quite sure if all the metal was just sort of braces and that the real art was the bonsai. But, I’m pretty sure it’s sculpture. What attracted my eye in any case was the Chinese seal-script covered vases.

These four portraits at first glance reminded me of Alphonse Mucha (though I’ll admit I needed Claire’s help to recall the name).

I think it was the green one in particular, with its Art Nouveau architectural elements and fashion. The blue one also features the Eiffel Tower, and fashion elements not entirely incompatible with that 1900-1930 sort of period.

The artist’s name is something like Ying Ying Zhang… I can read the signature, but do not know the proper reading, and cannot reproduce the second character on the computer because I don’t know the reading. The first and third are 逸 and 製.

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I worry that these ACAF posts will overwhelm my regular posts… maybe I should backdate them or something. But, I feel happy to think that I’m providing a service, by bringing my loyal readers (all two of you) new art and artists you might not have seen, learned of, otherwise.

“Imitate of Martin Luther King Jr” by Pan Xing Lei.

Is “imitate” a noun? I wonder what the artist was trying to express with the title.

I love the juxtaposition of the very traditional calligraphic backdrop and the very modern, comic-booky energy blast. It’s like he’s bursting forth out of tradition, out of the past, into the future. Based on the red, and the shouting face, and the Chinese context, I thought at first it was Mao… but it’s MLK. Interesting.


The next piece, to the left, is a work by Ken Hamazaki based on the Chōjū-giga, a famous 12-13th century handscroll painting depicting animals (mainly rabbits and frogs) dressed as, and acting as, humans.

Gold and marker on denim. I particularly like the way you can tell purely by the outlines what he’s drawing from. Another excellent, intriguing, and amusing example of combining traditional with new. The gold background is very traditional – though I do not believe it appears on the original Chōjū-giga scroll; the markers and denim are of course quite modern.

“City” by Zhang Kangiun. A recreation of Beijing in metals and mixed media, the city identified by the distinctively shaped CCTV Headquarters which is planned to be completed this month. The grubby bronze and overall color of the piece does a great job of representing the grubbiness, the filthiness, of Beijing, even though I’m sure the palette of the real city is not a bronze.

I love the details on this piece. Look at the traffic jam, and at the military tanks on the lower level of the roadway.

One of many pieces in the Luo Brothers‘ series “Welcome to the World Famous Brand.”

Given all that I’ve learned about Chinese art, from traditional ink paintings to Western-style Maoist oil paintings, I am a bit surprised to realize I have no idea where this particular colorful, gaudy, and very distinctly Chinese style comes from. But anyone who has been to one of the Chinese chotchke stores in the local shopping mall, or in Chinatown, will immediately recognize the style.

I don’t know the name of the artist of this piece, but I love it.

Yu-san spoke about paintings of literati meetings frequently in our art history class this past year in Yokohama, and mentioned this artist.

Meetings of famous poets, artists, philosophers – in short, literati (文人) – are a very common theme in traditional Chinese paintings. This artist takes the concept to the next level, incorporating modern-day people into the scene.

(Don’t touch that dial. More Asian contemporary art to come.)

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Last month, New York hosted its second annual Asian Contemporary Art Fair. I have been putting off writing about it, for which I apologize.

The fair was massive – really quite daunting, in fact, as the single hall (at Pier 92, on the West Side) just went straight back… There were tons of works by artists I was already familiar with, tons I’m happy to have been introduced to, and all in all it’s just a blur. Once it was over, there was this terrible falling anticlimactic feeling, like, “oh, it’s over? That’s all? No more?”

I’ve taken a few days to mentally digest, and the whole thing is still a total blur. No one artist or one piece stands out as something I just absolutely have to share with you, imaginary loyal readers.

But let’s take a look at the photos I took, and go from there. Having already written about the images on my Flickr pages, I shall paraphrase or copy those comments onto here.

These are two pieces from a series by an artist identified only as “They”. All the pieces – some paintings, some altered photographs – depict the same room, although with different people and things inside, and different sites outside. I would like to think that there is meaning to be gained in each and every detail, but I really cannot be sure. Perhaps it is simply a collage of modern Chinese life – the influence of Western modern art and pop culture as represented in the Andy Warhol paintings of Marilyn Monroe; the distinctly Asian fashion subculture of the blue hair and lolita dress; combined with slightly more traditional images, of food, of cheongsam clothing, of Peking opera facepaint imagery on the clock. And in the distance, out the window, we see the Shanghai skyline in one image, and the Beijing Olympic buildings in the other.
(I’m sorry about the dark shadows on the second image. I’m just a poor photographer I guess.)

Pierre Sernet‘s shtick oeuvre seems to consist of simply performing Japanese tea ceremony (it looks Japanese. I assume it’s Japanese.) in all sorts of different locations all around the world. This three-dimensional frame, while of course ultimately completely unnecessary for the ceremony or for making his presence known, does help to create a sense of a space within which the ceremony takes place. I didn’t even consider its lack of necessity until my art fair companion pointed it out.

I wonder whether Sernet considers the photographs to be the artwork, and the ceremony merely the subject, i.e. the preparation, in order to create the photograph, or, on the other hand, if the ceremony itself is the art, and the photo merely the record. Is he a photography artist, or a performance/installation artist?

Annysa Ng produces these wonderful silhouette portraits combining Qing Dynasty court costume – and the standard format of Qing Dynasty imperial portraits – with European lace collars and such.

I cannot presume to know what the artist’s intentions are in these works, but from my reading, it is a wonderfully conceived effort to draw an equivalence between Chinese Empire and British Empire. It makes us ask whether Chinese Imperial garb, customs, etc are really that exotic, and whether Victorian British formal garb and the like are really all that normal, while also, I think, arguing that Chinese Empire was just as civilized, just as modern, just as grand and noble and righteous as British Empire. Or, perhaps, it means none of this.

One of my favorite objects in the show. Completely impractical, not wearable, but beautiful nevertheless. The dress, by Li Xiaofeng, is entitled “Beijing Memories” and is made of Qing era porcelains.

In a way, it represents what China should be – the new made up of, built out of, the old. A China without a Cultural Revolution. A China that reaches for the future by standing on the shoulders of tradition, not by rejecting it.

Actually, it may be wearable after all. I had assumed this was a one-off piece, but it appears to rather be quite the standard thing for this artist, as our friends at electric sinophile point out.

I love this piece, Qi Xing’s “Red String”.

Firstly, despite what the gallery staffer told me, I do think it’s fairly common in East Asian art to do triptychs with a starkly different central image, which complements the outside framing works despite its starkly different style or subject.

The title, Red String, refers both to the red headband of our hero – the left and right paintings are based on scenes from a very popular Chinese cartoon show of some decades ago – and to the metaphorical red string which, in East Asian superstition, represents links of fate.

The gallery staffer explained the story somewhat. In the cartoon show, the hero is killed, but comes back to life, fights the dragon, and saves the world. Here we wonder if the hero represents a China reborn after the horrors and destruction of Maoism (as represented by the Tienanmen Square Incident).

(I have lots of photos, so I shall split up my coverage of the Fair into multiple posts. More to come soon.)

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