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Posts Tagged ‘uhm’

Some time ago, there was a lengthy discussion on the Pre-Modern Japanese Studies mailing list, about the inclusion of kanji (Japanese/Chinese characters) in scholarly publishing.

For some reason, there seemed to be a widespread belief that including characters is somehow more difficult or expensive for publishers, and that many publishers are resistant to the concept. This is why we so often see either no kanji at all, or lists of kanji way in the back of the book, like from back in the days when everything was done on typewriter and characters had to be hand-written in, then photocopied or something. Well, surprise surprise, technology has advanced since then. And if I can type in a combination of English letters と日本語の字 and then publish it on the web, or print it out on my home printer, without any extra work *at all* to deal with layouts or “harmonizing” the size of the text, then so can any publisher. Right?

An excerpt from Hashimoto Yu’s essay/chapter “The Information Strategy of Imposter Envoys from Northern Kyushu to Choson Korea in the Fifteenth and Sixteenth Centuries.” in the edited volume The East Asian Mediterranean: Maritime Crossroads of Culture, Commerce and Human Migration. (Angela Schottenhammer, ed.) Harrassowitz Verlag, 2008.

Maybe scholars who’ve actually worked with publishers in the past have some special insights into this that I lack.

In any case, the Japan-based Society of Writers, Editors, and Translators (SWET) now has a nice short guide online outlining the arguments for and against the inclusion of characters in English-language texts, summarizing the advances in technology, and some material on how (and when) to include macrons and diacritics.

This doesn’t exactly put the subject to rest, as I think many publishers are likely more resistant than they ought to be, nor is this a full and thorough Style Sheet. But it’s something. Meanwhile, there is apparently some kind of fourteen-year-old Japan Style Sheet available from SWET, but only by contacting them and requesting a copy… Monumenta Nipponica’s Style Sheet is freely available online, however.

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On a completely separate topic, we have an interview with kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua Baker, the new Assistant Professor of Hawaiian Theatre at the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa. (Kumu means “teacher”; I tend to think of it as something honorable and worthy of serious respect, like sensei, though I don’t presume to be all that knowledgeable about the nuances of Hawaiian language or culture.)

This position comes as part of an initiative to create more positions for experts in Hawaiian traditional indigenous knowledge, in various departments throughout the university. A few years ago, I might have thought it to be all hand-wavey, and to be a obvious ploy at political correctness. But, in my time at Hawai‘i (oh, how I miss it there), I think I’ve come to a better appreciation of these things. It’s actually pretty cool to have traditional experts in the Law School, and in the Medical School, if only to help their graduates interface better with local communities who distrust anything that smells even slightly of colonialism.

An ‘oli and hula performed as part of welcoming ceremonies for students at the East-West Center in Honolulu, August 2011. Kumu Hula, Mapuana de Silva; Hālau (group/school) Mohala ‘Ilima

Hawaiian culture is, of course, one very much steeped in oral tradition. They did not have a written language until Europeans came, and so stories, history, morals, beliefs were all communicated via oral tradition, and through hula and other performance forms and ritual – so it absolutely makes sense that we ought to have a Hawaiian theatre / performance program beyond that which exists in the Dance department. I don’t know quite what “Hawaiian theatre” looks like or will be like, or whether kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua is planning on drawing from something wholly traditional, or doing something more contemporary in form and style, but either way, I think it very neat that we (they) should have a Hawaiian Theatre track running alongside the very successful Chinese, Japanese, and Indonesian ones. People come from all over the country – and beyond – to study kabuki or Beijing opera at UH, and for those who want to study Hawaiian and Pacific Islands theatre forms, if UH didn’t have it, who would?

I also thoroughly enjoyed this interview because we can see quite clearly in it how people in Hawai‘i speak – even esteemed kumu like kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua. You can really sense the distinctive culture and attitudes in the way Troy and kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua speak in the interview, using very laid-back and friendly English, but also native Hawaiian phrases with serious cultural power.

Even though I never studied Hawaiian Studies, or got involved in cultural practices or the like at all, I do really miss living somewhere with that kind of special cultural and spiritual identity. Living in Hawai‘i, like living in Japan, is something really special for a boy from New York whose parents scarcely ever did much traveling and whose grandparents most certainly never traveled or saw the world the way that we can today. My apologies to Santa Barbara, but you’ve just not got that same energy, that same character. I have a number of friends who have very little interest in staying in Hawaii any longer than they have to, and I don’t blame them, but I surprise myself, I truly do, that I have come to like it there, to appreciate what I had there, and to very much want to go back. Maybe when I do I might get to see one of kumu Tammy Haili‘ōpua’s performances.

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Finally today, we have an “open review” scholarly volume entitled Subjecting History. The concept is an interesting one – Prof. Trevor Getz and Thomas Padilla have posted the beginnings of a scholarly volume online, and are asking viewers, readers, to add their comments, which will then get added into the publication. They are also soliciting Chapter Proposals (deadline Nov. 15 2012), on topics related to questions of self-reflection on the discipline of History.

They ask, “how well does academic scholarship represent the past? Does it align or conflict with nonacademic ways of understanding the past? What are ways that academic scholarship can better represent the past without appearing to ignore interpretations that run counter to it?”

Personally, I’m hesitant to comment on the site, as anything I write there could end up in the formal, hardcopy published version of this book, and I just don’t know that anything I have to say would be perfectly well-phrased and perfectly well-thought-out enough for me to want to do that. Besides, these kinds of historiographical, philosophical, meta-analysis kinds of things make my head spin.

But I do think it a very interesting project. Go take a look, check it out.

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Last week was a good week for super high-profile visitors to our campus. Murakami Haruki, quite possibly the most popular living Japanese author the world over, has been here this term (or this whole school year?) as a “writer-in-residence” with the East Asian Languages & Literatures department. I’ve read and very much enjoyed several of his novels, but I cannot say that I really know that much about him. I guess, I’ve gathered over the last several months, that he seems to be somewhat reclusive. There are rumors that he has something against the Japanese media, and for that reason does not do many (or any) public appearances in Japan, book signings, or the like, and that he tends to avoid the limelight in general. He has been quietly visiting Japanese language and literature classes on campus all year, but up until a few weeks ago, I had not heard anything about any larger public talk, and was given the impression that he most likely would not do one, since it wasn’t something he tends to do. Even at the talk, once he did agree to do it, he seemed quite strict about his personal request – not the venue’s policy, but Murakami’s direct request – that there be no photography or recording of any kind. I was amazed that he was willing to take time to sign books afterwards. I hear that he doesn’t do booksignings in Japan, hardly ever. Huge thanks to Miz Yvette for sharing with me one of her books to get signed – I didn’t bring one, as I didn’t have one to bring (I don’t read fiction during the school year) and didn’t expect there to be a book signing.

Murakami spoke briefly about his thoughts on the process of writing, and such. I had hoped for this to be longer, and more insightful – for this to be the main part of the event. I would have loved to be able to come here and share with you new insights into how to interpret and appreciate his books, or into who he is as a writer. But, I’m afraid I couldn’t really follow most of what he was saying. His English is nearly flawless. That was not a problem. But the content of what he was saying was just hard to follow. Something about being fascinated by beautiful yet completely useless, absurd structures such as the idea of a bridge under water? I’d hoped that someday, years from now, I would find myself in a conversation about Murakami, and could be able to say, “oh, I heard him speak once, and I gained this great insight about his work,” or “.. and he had this great quote. He said…” But, alas, there was none of the that.

The main event of the evening was a reading of two of his decades-old short stories, written around the time of his first marathon, the 1983 (I think) Honolulu Marathon. He read each story in Japanese, alternating sections with Prof. Ken Ito, a literature professor here at the University of Hawaii, who read from an English translation. I thought Murakami should have spoken more slowly, and more clearly, but my advisor said he had no trouble understanding him, and that the speed and style of his reading gave it appropriate energy, character, and drama. So, I guess this says more about my waning language skills than anything else…

The first story, “Mirror” (Kagami), is a sort of ghost story, featuring a school security guard who is attacked by his own reflection in a mirror. The story itself was a bit meh, though Murakami, as usual, reveals his brilliant insights into the strangenesses of everyday life, as he talks about the question of which one is real and which is the reflection; the protagonist expresses his anguish and fear as he finds himself following the actions of the man in the mirror, rather than the reverse. I particularly liked the framing device for this story, which reads as though you have broken into the middle of a much longer story or scene of people sitting around each telling different ghost stories. This is the only one written down and published, but it starts out in media res, if I have my usage of that term correctly, with the protagonist talking about how everyone else has already shared their stories, and he himself has never actually seen a ghost, nor had premonitions, but he did have this strange experience this one time…

The second story I found much more interesting and rewarding. Tongariyaki, awkwardly translated as “Sharpie Cakes,” is a story about a fictional commercial brand sweet or pastry, akin, I imagined in my mind, to Twinkies, though perhaps Murakami had something more traditional in mind, like taiyaki. (Tongari means ‘pointy’, and yaki means ‘grilled’, so, it’s a sort of nonsense word that sounds like it could be a real pastry / treat). I definitely suggest reading the story yourself, and I apologize to just summarize and ruin the ending here, but, essentially, it is about a man who proposes a new type of tongariyaki, a new, updated, version of the classic pastry, and while the staff of the tongariyaki company like it very much, they take him and his creation to a secret room in the company compound, which is full of crows. A very particular kind of crow, which only eats tongariyaki, and only “real” tongariyaki. If his creation is not accepted as being a valid variation, a valid type of tongariyaki, the crows will tear him apart. The story being so weird and fantastic, and humorous, I didn’t quite make the connection until after the reading ended, and Murakami added some extra remarks. My friend turned to me and said “I’ve got some crows like that in my life. They’re called my thesis committee.” It’s true. Substitute scholarship for the tongari cakes, her or I for the protagonist, and the thesis committee for the crows. Or substitute fiction writing for the cakes, Murakami for the protagonist, and publishers & critics for the crows. This is how it has to be because this is how it has always been done, and this is the way we have always liked it. And if we don’t like it, we tear you apart. …. Oh, how I wish I could just write what I wanted to write, and not have to worry about it being accepted.

There was a brief Q&A, in which I think the most interesting question was one about Murakami’s opinions on the quality of the published translations of his works. The fellow who asked the question has published his thoughts on the whole event here. Murakami answered something to the effect of that, so long as you enjoy it, it’s a good translation. Everyone laughed. But the next audience member to speak said that she has read several of his stories in both English and Japanese, and that they read as very different. Maybe this is just a function of the texture, the flavor, the atmosphere, the cultural nuance of the language – but maybe the two versions really are that different. I think it doesn’t really address the question to say “so long as you enjoy it, it’s a good translation.” I could read a story by George RR Martin and enjoy it quite thoroughly, but that doesn’t make it a good translation of a Murakami novel – that makes it a very enjoyable story that’s entirely different from what Murakami wrote in Japanese. … I think he was just disinterested in answering questions, and more to the point, disinterested in revealing anything more about himself, his attitudes, his insights. Which was a shame. That’s truly what I came there for – yes, the special opportunity to simply say that I have seen him speak, have shaken his hand, have spoken to him directly, however briefly – but also for the ability to gain some new or different insights into who he is, his attitudes, his thoughts on writing. His thoughts on culture, or on politics.

Ah, well. shou-ga-nai, as they say. Nevertheless, I look forward to reading some more of his work this summer.

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Randai!


Every year, the Theatre & Dance department at the University of Hawaiʻi at Mānoa puts on a stunning theatrical production from a different East or Southeast Asian traditional theatre form. Last year, I was privileged to be involved in their kabuki production; the previous year they did jingju (Beijing opera), and the year before that, Noh.

This year, UHM’s Kennedy Theatre brings us Randai, a traditional martial arts / dance-drama form from the Minangkabau people of Western Sumatra. This is the only place outside of Indonesia that Randai is performed, and so I feel quite privileged to get to see it.

I started writing a rather lengthy post sharing everything I know about randai (mostly learned secondhand through friends, through a talk or two I’ve attended, and through just seeing the performance itself), but what I really ought to be doing here is sharing my impressions, having seen the show last week.

The randai is performed in the round. A giant circle has been built into the normally rectangular stage, and bleachers placed up on stage, around it, offering the opportunity for audience members to sit up on stage, mere feet away from the performers, and all around them. The entire arrangement is meant to attempt to simulate the feeling of a village performance, where villagers would simply gather around, in a full circle surrounding a central circular area where the performance takes place. Dancers move around the edge of the circle, performing martial arts routines mixed with powerful, energetic pants-slapping percussion called tapuak. The pants are quite low-slung, providing plenty of fabric against which the performers slap their hands – when they pull their legs apart, the fabric becomes taut, and great sound can be produced. All of these motions are tightly choreographed, and performed alongside instrumental and vocal music performed by musicians off to the side of the stage. Song lyrics describe the ongoing plot, even as the martial arts / dance action on stage does not depict it. One dancer, the goreh, shouts “hup” and “ti“, vocal cues for the dancers to strike the next silek pose (silek being the name of the Indonesian martial art used in randai); their coordination is incredible.

You can get a taste of the action in these two segments from the local news, or in the clip below:

Actors playing the major roles enter from off-stage, passing through the moving dancers, and entering the center of the circle. The section of silek (martial arts) and tapuak (pants-slapping) ends, and a “normal” plot scene begins. The dancers sit, facing inwards and watching the action. I really quite like this convention; it brings out a sort of “storytelling” feel to the whole thing, as though the action in the center is manifesting magically, appearing like a spirit vision. Sometimes, a dancer will be brought into the scene as his character, but while it might sound like this breaks the illusion or ruins the distance between the imagined world of the play, and the dancers who are outside of it, actually I find this kind of playing with boundaries quite enjoyable.

The acting is done without any particular stylization of the voice (i.e. as is done in jingju or kabuki), which for me sort of broke the illusion of that theatre world, that world within the story, and brought be back out into the reality of sitting on a stage watching friends perform roles. But, the acting was very well done, as was the martial arts stage combat – much more realistic, less stylized, than kabuki. There is actual grappling, and, well, I won’t give anything away, but there are some pretty impressive moments.

Overall, I am not quite sure how to describe my feelings on this, other than to say it’s a true spectacle. Colorful, magical, and extremely impressive. The energy these people bring to the stage, the complex movements they perform, with such strength, speed, and most importantly precision and coordination (unity of timing) is truly incredible.

This weekend is your final chance to catch The Genteel Sabai before it goes away forever. UHM is the only place outside of Indonesia where Randai is performed, and the only place in the world it is performed in English. For more information on times and tickets, see the Kennedy Theatre website.

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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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The annual University of Hawaii Art department “grad show” exhibition opened a few weeks ago, displaying work by MFA students in glass, ceramics, textiles, painting, photography, and sculpture (am I missing anyone?). I was truly stunned, and blown away, by the skill and talent and sheer artistic creativity of my friends. … It is one thing to note that a work is skilled, masterfully made, impressive, but furthermore, a big part of what makes these works amazing is that they are not purely conceptual, but rather actually speak to their concepts – the ideas and concepts are evident in the works, or can be read into the works. They are not inscrutable, too abstract, nor too obscure, leaving the visitor genuinely capable of getting meaning out of the works, and having an emotional reaction as well.

I had seen some of the pieces, or at least the concepts, over the course of last term, as they began to germinate and develop, but in many cases the final project was honestly levels beyond what I’d imagined it to be.

The atmosphere, that is, the space, was great too. In a show like this, where each artist has one or two pieces, and you’re trying to show everyone equally, it can be really tempting (or just the most obvious option) to sort of section it off and make the whole gallery into corners and alcoves and tiny rooms, so that each artist can have their own space. But here, this year, they left much of the gallery wide open, allowing pieces to interact, creating a dialogue between the pieces, and also a more open, airy environment (a less claustrophobic one) in which the visitor can feel freer and lighter, and thus in a better frame of mind to enjoy the art.

Now, I’m only going to talk about a few of the artworks. I hope no one is offended if I leave them out; I love you, too, guys, and I love your work, I do.

Jessica Orfe is one of the few artists who did take/get her own alcove, and it was brilliant – absolutely necessary for the effect I assume she was seeking to achieve. A white rabbit painted directly onto the wall greets you as you approach her section of the gallery. Following the white rabbit, you are pulled into her world, her dream sequences. They melt and blend into one another, to create a dreamscape that still feels quite fresh and original, no matter what anyone may say about the core idea being tired or cliché. Jessica pulls it off in such a way that it doesn’t feel tired or cliché at all, but rather a nod to the classic amidst a very fresh, new work.

Ghostly figures, described only roughly, walk into a building that is itself not quite there. Shadows melt and flow, like puddles of ink on the ground.

A rectangular form serve, Escher-like, as both window and fridge.

And one sole burst of color, in sky blue, highlights a rope just about break. Is the unseen figure being dropped helplessly into dream? Or is she desperately trying to pull herself up and stay in this fantasy world, to avoid returning to the banal?

Against this monochrome background, it takes the eye a moment to realize that a string, a thread, connected to a sewing needle painted on the wall is itself three-dimension, emerging from the wall, an actual piece of black string that is not painted on.

This is work is just filled with the kinds of hidden touches and little things to find, each with their own meanings or clever tricks or amusing gimmicks to them, that I love. It means you’re not just taking in the work in one go, but you’re really examining it, really exploring it, venturing through the depicted environment along with the travelers depicted in it, like in a Chinese landscape painting, walking up the paths and into the mountains, towards the temple, with your eyes and in your mind.

—-

Gideon Gerlt has constructed a deer or antelope of some sort out of metal, rope, and other materials, which is meant to recall ideas of totems and animal spirits. He called it a “boli,” which I assumed was a reference to an African native traditional practice, a concept akin to the totem of the Pacific Northwest Native American tribes; but Googling it now, I am having trouble finding any such term.

The creature itself is cute, its form really kind of amazing in how well done it is – a form fully recognizable as an antelope, out of scrap metal, rope, and whatever else – and cute in how small it is: maybe, what?, one foot off the floor, two at most. Cute, yet dangerous, its sharp, pointy antlers of wrought iron twisting all around. It’s easy to imagine emotions or expressions on its face, as it gazes up in awe or amusement at Gideon’s other work in the show, entitled “A Classic Example of Self-Defeat.”

I really appreciate his gallery text for the work, which reads:

“Eagles may soar, but this thing would never get sucked into a jet engine.”
“It looks like something da Vinci would have invented… if he were a dolt.”
“It’s just sad, really…”

There’s something wonderfully amusing in the idea of an artist intentionally creating a failure, intentionally creating something he might consider “sad” or “made by a dolt.”

It’s an intentional failure, with a wonderful sense of whimsy. Does it have deeper meaning? Perhaps.



The simplicity and naturalness of the wood and rope combines with the clean and manmade but still very pre-industrial, for a nostalgic, romantic sort of aesthetic. Knowing that Gideon is from Alaska, and likes to draw upon the aesthetics or environment of that part of the world, we can sense the dense woods of the Pacific Northwest in this work, alongside the Renaissance Italian workshop. It is held down to the ground by a very raw section of tree, more tree really than “lumber” or “wood” as material, as media.

I hadn’t realized that it spins. I don’t tend to touch artworks, especially if I’m nervous about breaking it or something. I need a sign that says “please touch me,” or even better, someone present in the gallery verbally telling me, encouraging me.

Gideon’s work plays well off of that of Chad Steve.

Chad has explicitly spoken of these ceramic constructions as reminiscent of Polynesian voyaging canoes. He fills them with unpainted, unglazed pieces in the form of Greek or Phoenician urns or amphorae or the like, calling to mind maritime trade and commerce, shipping these jars from the center of ceramics production to another city or another island, where they are to be painted. And in doing so, he evokes the voyaging aspect inherent in all our histories, connecting peoples and cultures across time and space.

The wooden scaffolds and ropes, like a drydock for the boats, somewhat plain, simple, and straightforward, play off of Gideon’s work quite nicely, reflecting some of the same aesthetics, and implying again a romantic pre-industrial past. The sentimentality for the homemade and artisanal nature of trade and life, society, back “then”, whenever and whereever that might be.

And then there was a piece by my good friend Katie Small.

Katie’s work (almost?) always deals with themes she encountered doing volunteer work in Kosovo. Her works can be kind of abstract sometimes, though the tar paper ground and other aspects do an excellent job of evoking the right emotions or atmosphere. The more you examine her works and really think about them, they can be quite dark and serious. They’re certainly not what one would expect from a smiling, bubbly, sunny girl like her… but then, these are very important messages and themes, and it’s obviously very meaningful and important to her to address them.

Here, she uses many of the same elements as other works of hers that I’ve seen – heavy black tar paper, torn and burned, recalling the damage and horrors of war and of genocide. But where her previous works portray somewhat abstract scenes of burnt-out cityscapes, here she reproduces something more concrete and lifesize, which one can easily imagine having actually existed, almost exactly as it is portrayed.

Coats, nearly all of them small enough to belong to children, hang on a wall, covered in orange, which drips like rust onto the wall below. Orange and black as though the coats have been chemically altered and merged into the wall by the extreme heat and flame of a dramatic bomb blast, or just by unnamed ravages of war, weathering, over time exposed to the elements after being abandoned, the shop window long ago smashed.

I gasped when I first saw this work, and was immediately reminded of the piles of shoes and suitcases at the Holocaust Museum in DC, and of photos of the storefronts of German cities after Kristallnacht.

The gallery label describes a storefront, but this could just as easily be a schoolroom. Where have the children gone? Are they safe, having fled? Or are they truly gone, these coats an eerie and terribly upsetting reminder of their lives, their existence, their great potential, so innocent, cut short by violence and evil?

….

I do apologize to end on such a note. I would like to congratulate and applaud all my friends in the show – Megan Bent, Abi Good, Shiori Abe, Kumi Nakajima, Mark Enfield, Gideon Gerlt, Jacob Guerin, Michael Hengler, Sheri Lyles, Noah Matteucci, Jessica Orfe, Katie Small, Chad Steve, and Jonathan Swanz – for their amazing technical skills and astonishing creativity and insights.

The Graduate Exhibition will continue to be up at the Art Building, here at the University of Hawaii at Manoa, through.. whoa. Only February 4? I’m sorry. I really thought it was going to be open longer. I guess it takes a full 3 weeks to install The Reformer’s Brush, the modern Chinese calligraphy exhibit that opens on Feb 27 (and which I am super excited about!). Well. Come and see the Graduate Exhibition while you can!! Last days!!

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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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