Ai Weiwei, Time Magazine, sculpture, detention, and an imaginative exercise of my own

Ai Weiwei is back in the public eye, now more ponderous than ever. Namely, he’s provided sculptural view of his 80+ day detention in 2011, and they are on display at Venice Biennale under the title SACRED.

Unknown-2 images Unknown-1 Unknown 676x380

Which brings me to an imaginative exercise, brought about only slightly facetiously by voluminous and similarly placed facial hair. What of our own instances of unlawful detention? Would a mock-ups, beard and all, of Abdullah al-Kidd being interrogated by CIA officials do well as art in Venice? (al-Kidd was detained for 16 days in 2003 for attempting to fly to Saudi Arabia.) If the art was well done, I suppose, it might be picked up by some adventurous curator for global art events like the one now in Italy. But, would NPR, the New York Times, and the Guardian cover them as they have Ai Weiwei’s exhibit?  Obviously not. Part of the reason for that is of course that al-Kidd is not himself an artist, and therefore not eligible for artist as hero against ‘The Man’ narratives that we so readily go in for. The other reason is that al-Kidd was presumed to be a terrorist, and that just does not seem a topic worthy of reporting. Which of these two reasons is more important here I can’t say. Maybe they come out about equal.

Lee Gelernt, Abdullah al-Kidd

Which brings me to Time Magazine. Last week featured a cover by Ai himself, and a report on contemporary China by Hannah Beech.



The consequences of China reclaiming its “rightful place” are far-reaching—a world driven by a Chinese consumer class, rather than an American one, would be already a very different place. But Beech charts the “uncomfortable realities” of China’s emergence as a superpower: its toxic environment, its awkward relations with wary neighbors, the iron-bound determination of Xi’s Communist Party to keep a stranglehold on power despite the growing frustrations of its restive population. China views itself as the Middle Kingdom, imbued with the mandate of 5,000 years of glorious history. But the rest of the world still sees a “foreign policy laggard,” preoccupied more by its insecurities than its strengths.

Read more:

Ai’s image thereby accompanies a narrative of China’s rise coupled with the important exercise of putting China in its place. This concerted effort requires not only all the major media to partake, but just as importantly, a legitimate, dependable, valiant, brave, native, figure like Ai Weiwei to drive it all home. It must issue from numerous places at once (Time, London, Venice, etc), and fully interweave text and image, politics and culture, without ever disrupting the dominant view: China is rising, BUT…


night cities– by Yan Li and me

Spring time and therefore doing some spring cleaning of my hard drive (simply so that I can use it). In process I

stumbled across this painting by Yan Li:


I think the painting captures well the phantasmagorical quality of night in Chinese cities, when darkness does one the favor of eliminating all the jagged edges and rebar of rapid construction, leaving behind only light and shadows of not only what is already realized, but moreover what’s fanaticized to come (this effect usually enhanced by the atmospheric effect of smog). Yan Li’s painting of the Shanghai Bund captures this very well, replete with loving couple, and historical juxtaposition of turn of then century buildings dwarfed by turn of the (next) century buildings.

And then, further along in my “locate and destroy” trip through the hard drive I came upon this image taken by me at Denver Art Museum on occasion of Zhong Biao’s 2009 exhibition EMBRACE.

brand new snow just outside of opening of "Embrace," a show of 17 artists including Zhong Biao in November, 2009.

brand new snow just outside of opening of “Embrace,” a show of 17 artists including Zhong Biao in November, 2009.

I thought it might be good companion piece to Yan’s painting.

art documentaries : Chimeras in the mix

Another year another China art documentary, focusing on questions of identity, or, as Wang Guangyi asks in Finnish film director  Mika Mattila’s Chimera: “what are our roots?”

The question itself continues to inspire new documentary work, but not, perhaps, much discussion or even interest (at least not for me). I remain intrigued, however, by filmmakers who are able to take this topic as the subject of their art, in other words, film artists who make art the fodder for their art. The arrangement is curious in that so much of what is compelling about such work is derived, if not flat out stolen, from someone else’s creative work. Where would, in other words, Mattila really be without Wang Guangyi and Liu Gang, who in most media reports (LA Times, for instance) are the headliners anyway, with the ‘real’ artist–the filmmaker–relegated to round about paragraph three. Journalists can see proportionality in this case of creative production, anyway.

The question is somewhat personal, I suppose, as I’ve endeavored off and on to tackle Zhong Biao in documentary format. Whether or not the project ever comes to fruition, I am certain that the better part of what emerges as watchable (耐看) will stem from his painting, or other products from his fundamentally creative hand. The structure, rhetoric, even cinematographic dimensions of my work would all rightly be upstaged by the artist or artists in question.

Robert Adanto’s work, discussed elsewhere on this blog, is also a case in point, but in watching that work we are forced to admit a certain spectrum of truth to the proposition that the documentarian of art is a thief of sorts, particularly when compared with Alison Klayman’s work on Ai Weiwei, a more modest, and therefore artistically thin operation. Yet in either case there is something there, in the art of the art, something beyond mere convenience (documentarian travels to locales we cannot in order to bring back the goods of what’s good), something expressive and individual, self-deprecating by design, but occasionally aesthetically there in the mind’s eye of the viewer.

And so it will be with Chimeras, I expect. I’m looking forward to seeing it when it comes to town.

Word Image by Yu Huaiyu

Going back through some word-image materials in preparation for revising a chapter on the subject, and returning to the work of Yu Huaiyu 于怀玉, one of the leaders of Shanghai’s poetry circles and, more importantly, originator and principal editor of Shigebao 诗歌报, China’s largest online poetry venue. He is also a visual artist, working in ink paintings.

Yu Huaiyu goes by the name “Xiaoyuer” 小鱼儿 ,or “Little Fish.” Somehow the nickname meets the man and the art 1/2 way, even if there’s nothing in fact in his name save homophony that suggests water bound creatures. His poetry and his visual work share a kind of cleverness, breezy, fresh, and often amusing. “Today I entered a Chat Room” is a case in point. My translation follows below, but preceded by two Yu’s ink paintings.


YHY image 1 YHY image 2 YHY image 2 1

This morning I entered a chat room

Where I found two people

Me, Little Fish

And another guy called Everybody Else

I greeted Everybody Else

But he didn’t respond

So   I left

Come afternoon, I went back to the chat room

And that Everybody Else was still there

I didn’t say a thing to him

and  just left

Before getting off work

I went back to the chat room

and said to Everybody Else

Hey, old friend

Isn’t it about time you left?









我 就走了

下午 我又进了聊天室


还在 那里


就 走了




喂 老兄


Closer to Home, but then again, Not Quite Close Enough!


In the news of late is the Tacoma Art Museum and their decision to let donated pieces of traditional Chinese art go at auction, a 230,000 windfall for a museum that, I expect, could use some ….falling wind?

What TAM cannot use, by contrast, is ancient (or just old) artifacts from China, collected by Tacoma couple John and Mary Young and donated to the museum in “the 1970s.” Part of what is somewhat irksome about the Seattle Times report from my point of view is how vaguely written it is, for instance a Qing Dynasty that ended “in the early 1900s.” Last check a number of things happened in the ” early 1900s”. Delighted that’s too far away for us in the 2000’s to have worry about getting it any more precise than that.

Maureen O’Hagan, meanwhile, does find occasion to step back into ancient history, namely Tacoma’s history that includes, as O’Hagan points out, the Tacoma Solution, rounding up Chinese people, putting them on trains elsewhere and burning down their houses. Theresa Pan, head of the Chinese Reconciliation project which also fortunately finds mention in the article, manages to get in the observation that the art works are being treated now a bit like Chinese were in 1875.  

I expect the hubbub looks perhaps even a bit hysterical to those “on the outside” of Chinese (American) interests. The Seattle Times article makes clear, by interview with local authorities, that this type of decision making by museums is all part an accepted process, and that that process was (“apparently”) followed to the letter by TAM. By implication, the people don’t have anything to say about whether or not the Tacoma Art Museum chooses to allot no doubt very restricted space to the preservation not to mention exhibition of such art. But herein lies the rub. This may from all angles have been the right decision. Its execution, however, was not only a blunder, but an ongoing blunder that mere gesture doesn’t seem to fully counter. As Stephanie Steibich put it: “I’m looking to sit down with the family and figure out a way to come to a positive resolution.”  Apparently, something like this was accomplished as reports this week are that the matte was “settled” out of court. That may be so for the legal concerns, but the issues regarding Chinese in Tacoma continue well into present day.