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Posts Tagged ‘ai weiwei’

I had not been to the Brooklyn Museum in a long time. I generally tend(ed) to just not think of it; I come into town, and I think, okay, what’s going on at the Met? What’s going on at Asia Society? What’s going on at the Rubin? What’s going on at Japan Society? But for whatever reason, I rarely ever even think about the Brooklyn Museum. But, boy was I wrong. Even with the entire China/Japan/Korea section closed for renovations until (projected) fall 2015, today’s visit was absolutely worth it.

Hearing that they were doing some kind of Ai Weiwei show, I figured I would go to check that out, and then just kind of poke around the rest of the museum. Turns out that Ai Weiwei show is a major retrospective, covering significant portions of two floors of the museum, and including many of his most famous works. But even so, that turned out to not be the stand-out highlight of the visit, since everything else was equally exciting and impressive.

Firstly, an installation by the Brooklyn-based artist Swoon, entitled “Submerged Motherlands.” I’m not even sure what to say about it, except that it took me very much by surprise, at how impressive, beautiful, and intricate it was. I don’t want to take up too much space talking about it, because this post is long enough, and I want you, dear reader, to get to at least some of the other stuff before getting bored and turning away from this tab, so, with sincere apologies for giving it short shrift, let me just link to my photos of the installation, and encourage you, if interested, to go read up about Swoon more, or keep your eyes out for other stuff she does.

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Getting into the meat of what I want to say, when I visit large encyclopedic museums, I generally put pretty low priority on the American and contemporary art sections. I know what I’m going to see there. More of the same. Very standard, canonical, mainstream stuff. But the Brooklyn Museum is different. Their modern/contemporary and American galleries highlight works relating to identity politics and different cultural perspectives in a way I don’t think I have ever seen at another museum. To see it here, I think, depicting America as a true, real, mix of cultures, and not through a singular mainstream narrative with everyone else on the peripheries, really throws into sharp relief just how little other museums do the same. Is our nation not, as Walt Whitman is quoted as saying on the walls of the Brooklyn Museum’s American galleries, a nation of nations? You shouldn’t have to be Brooklyn to do this; the Metropolitan represents New York, the United States, and the world, and yet it does not do this. The National Gallery and Museum of American Art, their occasional excellent special exhibits aside, do not, I don’t think, do this. And neither does LACMA, which likewise represents a very diverse, vibrant city, and yet which devotes its American/modern galleries chiefly to the likes of Rauschenburg, Warhol, Lichtenstein, Rothko, Calder – the usual suspects. And lord knows, the Museum of Contemporary Art here in Santa Barbara, while they have shown some very different things, including some work by Chicano artists, etc., lord knows they’ve never done anything that excites me.

“Avarice,” by Fernando Mastrangelo. An Aztec calendar stone, remade entirely out of corn, commenting both on the central place of corn in Mexican culture & identity, but also on the exploitation of Mexico by US agribusiness.

By contrast, the Brooklyn Museum shows Isamu Noguchi, Fred Wilson, Kehinde Wiley, Teri Greeves, as American artists, as central members of the body of artists they are showing in their American modern/contemporary galleries, not tokenizing them or showing them off to one side among “minority artists,” or “other stories,” but as central elements of the central, main, story. These are Americans. This is American art. This is American history & culture. This. is. America.

“Blossom,” by Sanford Biggers, a work about the history of lynching in this country. What do Rauschenberg, Warhol, Pollock, and all the rest say about American life, American history, American culture and identity? What political social commentary do they offer?

This attitude is evident more or less throughout the museum, with a Kehinde Wiley painting displayed prominently in the entrance lobby (where I remember seeing it also years ago), and with the main first floor exhibit being one of “A World within Brooklyn / Crossing Cultures,” in which objects from many different cultures/places and time periods are juxtaposed, in order to suggest something about the similarities, comparisons, and differences across all cultures. How do different cultures represent their world (landscapes, maps)? How do different cultures represent the human body, and ideals of beauty? On a more practical level, how do different cultures make chairs, pitchers, and other practical objects, and what similarities and differences are there in the styles, motifs, etc.?

To be honest, I’m not entirely sure what to say about Crossing Cultures. It’s a great introductory exhibit, as it includes objects from a wide range of cultures/places and time periods, representing the wide variety of the museum’s holdings without over-emphasizing any one period or culture. And it places them all on a more or less equal pedestal, inviting visitors to consider all these cultures merely as a diversity within a shared human experience, and not in a hierarchy of more or less primitive or advanced. The labels here invite the visitor to consider cross-cultural comparisons, but are rather unspecific as to more precisely what questions to ask, what comparisons to make, what conclusions to come to. I would be very curious what visitors get out of this exhibit. Because, on the one hand, it’s great to leave it open to the visitors; studies have shown that the vast majority of the time, the vast majority of museum visitors don’t “get” the message the curators intended anyway, and draw their own comparisons, conclusions, etc. But, then, on the other hand, by leaving it so open and vague, aren’t we just making it that much harder for the message to get through? Then again, maybe what I think is the message here isn’t really the message the curators intended, and maybe it’s not the only message to be gotten from this exhibit. I come to this from a certain perspective, with certain anti-Eurocentric, “rethinking the canon,” art historical and Museum Studies ideas in mind, and so it’s easy for me to see certain themes or messages and think that’s the theme or message the curators are trying to get across. But, then, maybe they’re not.

As I walked through the Crossing Cultures exhibit, I was also concerned about over-emphasizing the aesthetic. There’s a long tradition of museums in the West displaying and describing non-Western objects in a manner that encourages appreciation of them solely for their aesthetic qualities – that is, as attractive, appealing, or otherwise visually interesting to a Western eye specifically – and places value on their ability to inspire, as certain African objects inspired Picasso. The prioritizing of Western attitudes of what is and is not aesthetic, or of Western approaches to form, composition, etc., with the implication or assumption that Western ways of seeing are universal, is a classic element of Orientalist thinking, or so I’ve been taught, and is potentially quite dangerous. At the time, as I walked through the exhibit, I worried about the exhibit encouraging a more purely aesthetic comparison; but, now, as I rethink it and write this post, I think it really is also encouraging thought of comparison of usage and meaning across different cultures, which is a good thing. So, I guess the jury’s out…

In any case, by way of wrapping this up, I definitely need to visit the Brooklyn Museum more, and keep an eye on what they’re up to. I am working on a second post about my visit to the Brooklyn Museum, talking about their exhibit of African art, in comparison to that at the Metropolitan Museum. However, I’m also in Hawaii right now on a very brief stopover on my way to Japan, so, depending on what adventures come up, we shall see how quickly I get around to finishing that African art post. Thanks for reading, and have a great rest of the summer!

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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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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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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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