Yan Li, Recent Works

Zhuanzi With Bird

Yan Li’s poetry and art has been receiving a lot of attention of late in China. Among others, the online poetry portal New Poetry Canon 新诗经started in 2012 by Gao Shixian, ran a lengthy piece (#067 May 15) containing many new poems. The opening introduction to Yan’s work also includes his recent work on the Autumn Moon festival, running annually in Beijing. That introduction as follows:

严力

严力:(1954—)祖籍浙江宁海,出生于北京,旅美画家、纽约一行诗社社长、朦胧诗代表诗人之一。1973年开始诗歌创作,1979年开始绘画创作。是1979年北京先锋艺术团体“星星画会”和文学团体“今天”的成员。1984年在上海人民公园展览厅举办了国内最早的先锋艺术的个人画展。1985年从北京留学纽约并于1987年在纽约创立《一行》诗刊,任主编。2009开始主持每年一次的北京中华世纪坛中秋国际诗歌会。严力出版的有:诗集、中短篇小说集、长篇小说、散文集、画集等二十多本。画作被上海美术馆、日本福冈亚洲美术馆、以及私人收藏家收藏.作品被翻译成多种文字,目前定居上海、北京和纽约。

Yan Li: (1954-) native of Ninghai, was born in Beijing and has had long residences in New York, Shanghai and other cities. He began composing poetry in 1973, and in 1979 also joined both the avant-garde Stars artist and Today writers and artists collectives. In 1984 in Shanghai People’s Park Hall he held his first one-man show, in fact the first one-man show of avant-garde art in contemporary China. In 1985 he moved from Beijing to study in New York, and in New York in 1987 founded One Line. In 2009 he began hosting the annual Mid-Autumn Festival China Millennium Monument in Beijing international poetry meeting. Yan Li has published over 20 collections of poetry, short stories, novels, essays and other arts-related works. His paintings have been collected by Shanghai Art Museum, Fukuoka Asian Art Museum, and private collectors. Works have been translated into many languages, currently we live in Shanghai, Beijing and New York.

 

Here, as well, the first poem, a short, 2-poem sequence, actually, with my translation:

 

1

对简单的形象

我一直很有亲近感

比如板凳和鞋拔子

唯有对门一直不敢轻信

主要是门后太复杂了

我还听说

为此有人在制作门的时候

特意往里面加进了敲门声

那是干什么用的呢

几十年过去了

我觉得真的很管用

门要时常敲敲自己的内心

 

DOOR 

1.

I’ve always felt close to

Those simple shapes

Like benches or shoe-horns

Only doors I don’t approach lightly

Mostly for the complexity of what lies behind them

I’ve heard that

When doormakers make doors

They often have to add a couple of knocks inside

What can that be for?

After a few decades

I discover they’re really useful

Because doors too need to knock now and again

on the doors to their own hearts

 

 

2。

关在门里的门

是卧室的门

关在门外的门

是家的大门

而从来不用关的那扇门

还没诞生

 

The door in the door

Is the bedroom door

The door outside the door

Is the front door

And the door that never needs closing

Has yet to be born

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In Other News–Xu Bing

Testament that well-financed expatriate Chinese artist whose conceptual work of the 1980s stands as a monument in the development of contemporary Chinese art can still make some-thing of relevance (“things” remade from construction sites in Beijing)

Unknown

Phoenixes Rise in China and Float in New York

Xu Bing Installs His Sculptures at St. John the Divine

By FEB. 14, 2014

http://www.nytimes.com/2014/02/15/arts/design/xu-bing-installs-his-sculptures-at-st-john-the-divine.html?ref=design

Notes on (and pictures from) the ZhongBiao Suzhou Exhibition

Zhong Biao setting up his exhibition at the Suzhou Art Museum

Zhong Biao setting up his exhibition at the Suzhou Art Museum

In a word, I’d call Zhong’s new exhibition at the Suzhou Art Museum successful, even highly so, and quite contrary to my expectation. Now I see why, when I called him last week from Seattle, he seemed so emphatic that I jump on a plane immediately to come see what he was doing.

But first, a word about the context,

Though billed (I still think strangely) as a one-man show (个展), the entire spectacle involved far more than Zhong and his work. There were in fact two, simultaneous, even nearly adjoining ‘one-man’ shows, being Zhong’s and another notably, cleverly contrasting installation by famed Cui Xiuwen 催岫闻, whose photography, installation and video work have been very high profile and sometimes controversial at least since 2000 when she installed video cameras in a Ladies’ Room in a Beijing Karaoke club. In addition to these two solo exhibitions, there were paintings of 20 “young” artists displayed on the floor below and one Spanish artist in a small and rather hard to arrive at gallery upstairs. Given time pressure, I spent most of my time in the Zhong Biao part of the gallery and so I have sadly nothing to report about the other parts of the exhibit. Given the short time frame, though Zhong Biao’s bit was more than enough.

YanWenliangOpeningPoster

It should also be noted that the entire exhibition was held in honor of this year’s recipient of the Yan Wenliang Art Prize, the second iteration of this event. This year’s winner is Geng Jianyi 耿建翌, who was not present nor his work represented. He was however the focus of the opening remarks by Xu Jiang 徐江, President of the Chinese Academy of Art (Hangzhou), not to be confused with the Central Academy of Art (Beijing). But I digress.

Zhong’s work for this exhibition marks an important departure, though one he billed as a “summing up” of all his previous efforts. It is rather extraordinary that the act of summing up includes so much new raw material, and more importantly, new approaches to presentation of new material. The part of the Suzhou Museum allotted for Zhong’s work comprised one major largely square gallery space connected to a longer rectangular hallway. The walls were covered with paintings as usual, but one could easily see that, in true contrast to year’s past, these were not properly the focus of the experience. The list of additional elements is roughly as follows:

Mammoth bones mounted on a stack of Zhong Biao Dictionaries (the latter of which I’ll get to describing sometime soon)

MammothBoneswithDictionaries

Han Dynasty inscriptions of death sentences for criminals beneath a petrified tree interspersed with Han dynasty pottery fragments carved into the shape of leaves:

PetrifiedTrees+Stones

This image (quite by accident, of course) captures well the overall sense of the exhibition, namely the “new” stones in various forms from ancient period mixed with Zhong’s paintings, both new (on the right, the image which serves as signature for the exhibition) and the old, namely his graduation thesis work. The traversing of space and time through art is well manifold, to be sure.

3-d Printers, which as reported in previous post, reproduce a fake antique Buddha sculpture:

mammoth+3_d printer

realfakeBuddhas

There’s much more that my skills at photography weren’t up to the task of capturing well. I’ll sort through conference materials and see if I can’t add an image or two in subsequent posts. The list, at any rate, includes a bird cage with caged bird; Jingde Zhen porcelain vases decorated with Zhong’s paintings; an entire wood wall carved with reliefs of Zhong’s paintings and plaster maps of Chinese territory in Qin, Han, Tang, Song, Ming, and Qing eras, replete with dynastic histories laid out on tables underneath them.

Obviously, such installations are the works of many people, from friends who loaned Zhong precious objects to wood carvers, potters and so forth. His ‘crew’ has thus expanded greatly. What matters perhaps more than this though is the way it all comes together, presenting truly well connected if a bit overwhelming array of details, points in time that are solid and specific as the names carved in death stones or literally mammoth presence of an individual animal thousands of years dead. That Zhong has managed to so vividly express in a very new way his long-standing meditations on space and time is indeed an important accomplishment.

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.

There’s that line between “activist” and “aritst”?

Quite by accident it would appear that two major strands of this blog have intersected: 8 days ago Ai Weiwei was on his way to attend the Liu Xiaobo Nobel Awards ceremony when he was detained at the Beijing airport. As usual, his film crew was on hand to record this EVENT, a fact which obviously suggests that he fully expected what was waiting for him at the airport before he headed out the door. This does not detract from the political theatre of the event. Indeed, looking also back at Ai’s August 12, 2010 attempt to confront the police who viciously beat him a year previously (video HERE), we see something of a consistent pattern developing: deliberate drawing out of representatives of state apparatus with careful (often undetected) placement of a lens to record them engaging in pointless acts of oppression. These clips then become the platform for Ai’s observations of how misguided government policy really is, often on English-language news broadcasts.

Last week’s video, however, is certainly not top-of-the-line political theatre.  In fact, its vapid on so many levels, from the entirely clueless response of the airport official (who only observes “you’re not allowed” to film here—a prohibition common to most airports) to the actually quite polite and equally non-threatening denial of passage that we hear—and only hear—Ai subjected to later in the clip. In fact, the woman who tells Ai that he cannot travel probably has no idea who he is. Clearly, at least, she doesn’t much believe that that allowing him to go will “harm national security” (the video’s title, by the way).

In any event, and on balance, I’d say we’re approaching the point when Ai Weiwei transitions from artist to activist.  Of course, the zero-sum, or mutually exclusive implication of that sentence is questionable—how many the venerable artist-activists in human history, and how many of them in China.  Indeed, the literati figure, well schooled in classics and fully imbued with a “art for society’s sake” 文以載道 mentality, is by definition (or at least by some definition) a social activist.  Yet, in the contemporary Chinese setting, the artist, particularly one as globally inflected as Ai, often curtails his or her ability to connect with a constituency.  I don’t mean just a Chinese constituency (which is commonly the argument against their legitimacy), but ANY constituency.  This is because by and large in the Euramerican West what Ai “means” is thorn in side of the Chinese government regardless (indeed, without “regard”) of his actual works.  In this case his status as activist amounts to a kind of barrier, obscuring his works from engagement or even the visibility they often deserve.

Of course, less than “curtailing” this can certainly be more a suspension of Ai’s contribution to the world of art per se.  He no doubt knows what he’s doing, and exchanging hats (because wearing these two simultaneously does not work) is certainly his prerogative. I just find myself wondering how much good (call it “better”) work might otherwise appear if Ai were to shift activities from politics back to making art.


Between artist and architect

Continuing my theme of artists and architects.  It is well-known that Ai Weiwei was involved in the creation of the “Bird’s Nest” structure for the Beijing Olympics.  In my most recent trip to Zhong Biao’s studio, I find that he, too, has invested in architectual building software and is “advising” on, if not flat out creating, designs for structures himself.  In this case, it is a small development on the banks of the Lake Erhai in Yunnan Province.  The lake is increasingly trendy recreational spot, particularly for cultural producers in the Southwest.  Here a typical photo:

 

The Erhai Lake in Yunnan Province

 

Zhong Biao was kind enough to share with me the current version of his work on the project.  At the moment, it appears as follows:

 

 

 

I find most intriguing are the glass cubes which occupy the top floor and center of the structure.  The same from another vantage point:

 

 

 

shows how one could pass beneath the glass-encolsed sitting area.  Another intriguing question is how the structure would function (as far as I can tell the developers are still wrestling with this issue).  The children and dog in foreground of second image (no doubt selections from a template provided with the program) would suggest (perhaps?) single-family?  The various configurations of chairs and tables, meanwhile, suggest outdoor cafes, or other types of recreational spaces.

architecture in art

But perhaps more than the facts of contemporary architecture itself (interesting enough), I find artistic engagement with the built environment to be one of the most compelling in China right now.  Contemporary artists whose language is even in part urban imagery have at their disposal a wealth of chronotopic possibility that is, because of China’s scale and pace of development, unprecedented. Zhong Biao, whose work I’ve mentioned elsewhere in this blog and whose success depends in large part on how he is able to provide acutely real and yet highly stylized versions of contemporary urban experience, often features buildings as ideological structures. They are “figures” of China’s modern history, whether as traditional compounds slated for demolition, skyscrapers symbolizing the arrival of new economic policy (and prosperity), or just piles of rubble, whose implications are rich but rather difficult to paraphrase.  In the following, entitled “Catchers in the  Rye”, a classic urban-rural contrast is in effect:

 

 

 

More subtly, the detritus of rapid development is first caught in his digital camera (one of the major elements of his creative process) as follows:

 

 

 

 

 

 

and then rendered, charcoal, and acrylic on canvas, in the image: “Body Temperature”

 

 

 

 

 

Zhong’s approach is to combine images like the recently destroyed building above and an unmade bed in striking combination. I’ve described (Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art Vol 9, #2, pp 8-21) the effect of such juxtaposition as uncanny, as the artist manages to tap deeply and simultaneously into what is both strange and also oddly familiar.  His ability to achieve such resonate combinations has a lot to do with growing up in this particular generation of China’s urban development.