[Review] Collectors’ Stage & ‘Ai Weiwei: Fairytale’
A couple of weeks ago, KE and I signed up for a curator’s tour of Collectors’ Stage: Asian Contemporary Art From Private Collections at the SAM. Or, well, I prodded him into it …… Anyways, it was an opportunity to view a couple of incredible pieces (including a personal favourite I’d only ever seen in reproductions before), listen to the show’s curator recite from the wall labels (which she’d clearly either written herself or committed to memory), and experience what being in a museum after hours was like (awesome). I didn’t have time for a more leisurely walkthrough on my own though, or photographs, so before a screening at 8Q yesterday of Ai Weiwei: Fairytale, a film on the making of the artist’s 1001-man-strong contribution to the 2007 Documenta festival, I swung by Collectors’ Stage for a second look.
I’ve long been a fan of Indonesian artist Rudi Mantofani’s Rumah Rumah Coklat (above). Currently in the possession of prominent Jakarta-based collector and real estate tycoon Deddy Kusuma (there’s a profile of him here), it was a spine-tingling experience, finally getting to see the piece in the flesh. The label does a great job – surprisingly for the SAM – of gesturing at its visual impact and socio-cultural implications:
Rumah Rumah Coklat (‘Chocolate Houses’) appears on first sight to be an abstract painting, its brown, speckled surface evocative perhaps of the texture of cracked, dry earth. On closer inspection however, the painting reveals itself to be a landscape of comprising hundreds of brown rooftops, punctuated by the occasional green shrubbery of trees.
The artistry of this work lies in Mantofani’s ability to capture the undulating rhythm of the rooftop through the use of varying shades of brown, while simultaneously delineating, with great precision, each individual dwelling. The viewer is therefore led from a bird’s eye view that surveys the landscape below and discerns an indistinguishable sprawl of brown shapes, to a more grounded perspective where one finds oneself in the middle of a scene teeming with humanity.
Rumah Rumah Coklat is a poetic tribute to the landscape of Mantofani’s home country. At the same time, the artist touches on very real social and urban issues confronting Indonesia’s cities and towns, where houses are packed close to each other in suburban sprawls without any breathing space, privacy, or proper planning.
Despite the glib pronouncements, like the comparison to an abstract picture – you’d have to be standing pretty far away for that to work out, plus they’d put Mantofani’s painting next to an actual abstract canvas and the differences were all too clear – a lot of the above does ring true, especially the allusion to Indonesia’s population woes. Indeed, the composition, in its hermetic, airless profusion of almost identical brown-roofed homes, seems to foreground the central problematic of any collective: the tension that exists between the individual and the crowd. The homogeneous sea of structures here connotes of course the idea of the multitude while simultaneously “delineating, with great precision” the solitary, discrete dwelling, emphasizing the auratic presence of the individual component while repeating it almost ceaselessly to approximate the aspect of indistinguishable commonality. The lack of either discernible windows or doors, especially, belies any claim about these houses being representations of functional domiciles, and indicates perhaps the possibility of a more generalized reading. Caught in the slippage between a near uniform mass (“the bird’s eye view”) and clearly defined individual units (“a more grounded perspective”), the polarity then between the inexorable constraints of civilization and collective existence, and the centrifugal pull of individual psychology and personal exigencies, seems suggested by the iconography of repetition which Mantofani deploys here. An analogous example – or a filmic illustration of this dialectic – may be found in the opening sequence to the 1973 sci-fi flick, Soylent Green (below). The montage moves from black-and-white snaps of 19th century folk happily at leisure, only to move through the passing of time and the rise of urbanity and technology to finally arrive at teeming rows of standardized vehicles, developments, factories and, yes, people, all semblance of that vital legacy of the Enlightenment – individual humanity – irrevocably ensnared in homogenizing, monolithic corporate networks.
Along those lines, Ai Weiwei: Fairytale was an eye-opener. As I said to MY, whom I caught the film with, I wished I’d seen this before I’d embarked on my M.A. project. So much, so relevant …
The artist’s Wiki entry describes the work thus:
Fairytale is the title of Ai Weiwei’s contribution for Documenta 12 in 2007. For this project Ai Weiwei brought 1001 people from all over China to a small town in Germany called Kassel. They were chosen through an open invitation he posted on his blog. Ai even designed clothes, luggage and a temporary home in an old textile factory. He let them wander around the city during the exhibition time of three months. The participants were divided into five groups that each stayed in Kassel for eight days. According to Philip Tinari the primary design object here is not the clothing or suitcases but the participants’ experiences, even their spirits.
Ai Weiwei posing with a portion of the 1,001-strong Chinese contingent who travelled to Kassel, Germany, under the auspices of his Fairytale project in 2007. Image courtesy of Sinopop.org.
Improvised sleeping arrangements for Fairytale participants at Documenta, Kassel. Image taken from ArtZineChina.com.
The film itself, an extensive 2 1/2 hour affair, documented the process that was involved in getting a thousand and one Chinese citizens to Germany. The logistics of it all was mind-boggling: the planning, the production, the paperwork, the large-scale accommodation and food preparation made necessary in Kassel. (Even the simplest task seems daunting when multiplied a thousand times, let alone arranging a vacation for a thousand people.) A goodish amount of screen time, though, was given over to recounting individual participants’ stories, in particular those from smaller industrial cities and rural communities in the hinterlands. We witness a village family sitting around in their wood-constructed abode, discussing their guileless visions and naive hopes of what going abroad entails (i.e. marrying foreigners and the like); a young, impoverished boy who dreams of attaining wealth through selling socks, but whose immediate reality is army enlistment; a vocal policeman who gets fired for expressing himself too openly in the local papers, and has a hard time thereafter trying to apply for a passport. These are just some of the intensely personal tales which the film brings to life for us, but as the narrative shifts to Kassel and the art festival, all sense of particularity is lost in the logistical rush to quarter and feed the hordes of Chinese tourists. Village farmer, university student, unemployed city dweller – selfhood becomes subsumed in a blur of uniform luggage, mass lodgings (above), factory-line culinary production, interchangeable identities. Transposed from their home country to a context where they become part of a large-scale “presentation” (as a Kassel local puts it) of China and the Chinese character, otherwise distinct personages with diverse backgrounds and histories are merged into an uneasy collective, thus enacting again the dialectical oscillation between the individual and the mass.
But back to the exhibition. A number of pieces were on loan from corporate or foundation collections; these were the more sizable installations, such as Japanese artist Yoshitomo Nara’s Yogya Bintang House Mini, or Pesawat Terbangku (“Flying Machine’) by Indonesian Yudi Sulistyo (above), just to cite the more salient works. Another striking contribution is Shen Shaomin’s Summit (below), which, rather morbidly, consists of Tussaud-like models of the twentieth century’s best-known Communist leaders – Mao, Lenin, Castro, Ho Chi Minh and Kim Il Sung – either entombed in glass coffins or on their deathbeds (in Fidel’s case). The piece is purportedly a response to the recent global financial crisis, a contrarian insistence on the “failures and death of socialist ideology” and the continued relevance of capitalism. Despite the grandiose claims, and the sight of those corpse-like figures in the darkened silence of the gallery, Shen’s work seems .. oddly unconvincing. If anything, ‘deracinated’ is the first adjective that leaps to mind here. Prophesying the death of Communism to the capitalist world is rather like lugging coal to Newcastle; we’re most of us already hopers, if not believers. One can only imagine, though, that displaying a duplicate of Mao’s cadaver in, say, China itself, where the real deal still lies in state, would be a fantastically subversive mode of declaring the end of Socialism vis-à-vis the reverence accorded the Dear Leader’s wax-ified remains.
Summit (Castro). The model of Castro, the sole figure of the group still alive as of 2011, was rigged up with internal gadgetry to make it seem as if he were breathing.
Generally I’m not a fan of Yoshitomo Nara’s infantile portraits, but this work, produced in collaboration with Japanese design unit graf, is pretty interesting. It emerged from the artist’s time in residency at the Cemeti Art House in Yogyakarta; the wall label notes that
Made from reclaimed wood from Indonesia, Yogya Bintang House Mini breaks down barriers and inhibitions with its playful approach, inviting us to experience once again – and hold on to – the sense of curiosity and wonderment that pervaded our childhoods.
Which begs the question: how many children these days, raised on a diet of Facebook and anime and Miley Cyrus, would want to waste more than a minute or two of their short attention spans on a dilapidated-looking wooden structure? Sure, the charming, quirky windows look in on a furnished interior boasting the artist’s signature drawings (below), but this is no dollhouse nor princess castle – it’s a run-down building made from recycled materials, with a billboard for beer on its roof … Of course, the point may be that the piece is directed at adults, but I personally wasn’t reliving “the sense of curiosity and wonderment that pervaded” my childhood so much as I was very aware that I was looking at a replica of a beat-up wooden kampung house passing itself off as seni in a museum.
There was one aspect of the piece that did speak to the experience of being a child though – or what the curator referred to as the home’s “secret.” Tucked into an occluded room at the front of the structure was the figure of a small, downcast dog (below), which was only visible through cracks between the wooden boards. These little peepholes were positioned at waist-level, thus ensuring that unless one were really scrupulous in investigating the piece, it was a child who stood the likeliest chance of stumbling onto the hidden surprise. Regular readers of this blog may probably see where I’m heading with this: yes, the Freudian Uncanny. (I tend to abuse it somewhat, but a useful idea is a useful idea.) Freud, in his eponymous essay, arrives, through a semantic interrogation of the terms heimlich and unheimlich, at the conclusion that the former, which commonly functions in the sense of “familiar” and “native”, “is a word the meaning of which develops towards an ambivalence, until it finally coincides with its opposite, unheimlich.”He quotes from the 1877 dictionary of Jakob and Wilhelm Grimm: “From the idea of “homelike”, “belonging to the house”, the further idea is developed of something withdrawn from the eyes of others, something concealed, secret … The notion of something hidden and dangerous … is still further developed, so that “heimlich” comes to have the meaning usually ascribed to “unheimlich”. Freud’s point, of course, was the the unheimlich is marked by the return of the repressed, surfacing from the depths of memory or returning from the unconscious; Nara’s piece, featuring an occluded presence embedded within the realm of the domestic, conflates quite neatly the idea of the home as an analogue of the Uncanny, and the existence of the Uncanny, in the form of a childhood memory, hidden in the home.
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