Posts Tagged ‘Chinese art’
Image of the day: a blurry 1920s photograph of …… whom ?
It’s probably obvious to some – title’s a dead giveaway anyways – but just a quick note: regular users of public transportation in Singapore must have seen ads for the latest “I Quit” campaign by now, with pictures of people who’ve pledged to quit holding up two cigarette-less fingers, and wearing tees proclaiming the proud fact (below).
Anyways, it put me in mind of the black-and-white image above, which I love, simply for its sheer spontaneity and contextual incongruousness: that’s the so-called last emperor of China, Pu Yi, lighting a cigarette for his empress, Wan Rong.
It was probably taken sometime between 1922 and 1924, on the grounds of the Forbidden City: the five-year-old Pu Yi officially abdicated his position following the Xinhai Revolution of 1911 – bringing Manchu sovereignty to an end, as well as two millennia of dynastic rule in China – but was allowed to stay on in the imperial palace. This he did, right up to the year of his sixteenth birthday in 1922, when he wed, taking Wan Rong as his empress and Wen Xiu as an imperial consort. Two short years later, however, Pu Yi and his entourage were hounded out of the Forbidden City by the Christian warlord Feng Yuxiang, whereupon they decamped to Tianjin.
Numerous photographs exist of Wan Rong’s brief residence in the palace though. She’s seen romping through the gardens; daytripping with her mom outside of the imperial compound; just hangin’ out with her English tutor, the American missionary’s daughter, Isabel Ingram (below); even trying to ride a bicycle (below); and, of course, smoking. Thanks to Bertolucci, it’s no secret that the last empress of China had issues with opium addiction, and apparently even from her early days the cigarettes she smoked contained small amounts of the substance.
It ended up taking her life.
In 1946, at the age of 40, Wan Rong, abandoned by Pu Yi and having fallen into Communist hands, died of withdrawal symptoms and malnutrition in a jail in remote northeastern China.
The moral here, I’m sure, is clear enough: Philip Morris really doesn’t need any more of your $$$.
Wan Rong with her English tutoress, Isabel Ingram (right) and Reginald Johnston (left), her husband’s.
So, almost three months after Chinese artist Ai Weiwei disappeared into the no-man’s-land of detention, he’s finally been released by the authorities. Not without a proviso, however: apparently he’s free to walk, but not talk. An LA Times article (reproduced below) has the scoop.
Free Ai Weiwei, a site dedicated to the cause, also has up to the date news.
Ai Weiwei upon his release. Image from the LA Times.
CHINA FREES AI WEIWEI ON BAIL.
The government cites ‘good attitude in confessing his crimes’ in its abrupt release of the acerbic dissident Ai Weiwei, who was in prison for two months without charges. He may now face a civil case. By Barbara Demick.
After languishing for more than two months in prison without formal charges, China’s most famous dissident artist was abruptly released on bail late Wednesday.
The official New China News Agency reported that Ai had been freed “because of his good attitude in confessing his crimes as well as a chronic disease he suffers from.”
The 54-year-old artist is reported to suffer from diabetes and high blood pressure, although he was not known to be seriously ill. More likely the release was a belated response by Chinese authorities to the international reproach that followed Ai’s arrest April 3 at the Beijing airport.
But it appeared that he would not be able to pursue the biting criticism of the Chinese Communist Party that had permeated his artwork and writing.
“I’m not allowed to talk. I’m on probation,” he said apologetically to reporters and supporters who greeted him about midnight as he returned to his studio in northeastern Beijing.
Dressed casually in a gray T-shirt and appearing in good health, he said his future plans were to “enjoy life.”
“Everybody should enjoy life. I can’t say anything,” he said before disappearing behind the gates to the studio.
Though dozens of others have been arrested over the last six months in a crackdown on activists, it was Ai — by dint of his stature in the art world — who inspired petitions and demonstrations across the world. In London, the Tate Modern gallery installed large black letters across its facade reading, “Free Ai Weiwei.” In New York, a Cuban artist used a slide projector at night to cast the artist’s face onto the Chinese Consulate.
Ai had not been formally charged, although the state media reported that his company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd., had evaded “huge amounts” of taxes. The New China News Agency quoted police as saying that “the decision [to release Ai] comes also in consideration of the fact that Ai has repeatedly said he is willing to pay the taxes he evaded.”
The wording suggests that Chinese authorities might switch their case against Ai to a civil proceeding, which would allow them to back away gracefully from a situation that has brought great embarrassment. Ai’s attorney, Liu Xiaoyuan, wrote Tuesday night on Twitter that they were still awaiting an accounting from tax authorities of how much money was supposedly owed.
Four of Ai’s associates remain missing, and are presumed to be in secret detention.
His assistant, Du Yanping, confirmed that Ai had returned home and reported with some satisfaction about her plump boss: “He got slimmer.”
Human Rights Watch applauded Ai’s release, adding its own caveats.
“The public announcement of his release signals that the Chinese government has had to respond to international pressure and that the cost/benefit ratio of continuing to detain him was no longer tenable,” Phelim Kine, an Asia researcher with the organization, said in a statement. “Sadly, other Chinese citizens less well-known than Ai Weiwei who have been forcibly disappeared since mid-February remain incommunicado, whereabouts unknown and at high risk of torture.”
Ai, a provocative artist and one of the designers of the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, in recent years had become one of the most acerbic critics of the Chinese Communist Party. Much of his latest work has revolved around the tragedy of thousands of children killed when shoddily built schools collapsed during the May 2008 earthquake in Sichuan province.
[This post is the first part of a two-part review.]
Trying to review an exhibition of video art is pretty insane.
It took me three separate visits to the SAM – which worked out to a total of five and a half hours, not including a curator’s tour – just to finish seeing all the stuff in their latest show, Video, an Art, a History 1965-2010: a Selection from the Centre Pompidou and Singapore Art Museum Collections.
Towards the end, the galleristas were beginning to look at me funny.
Anyways. First, a personal caveat: I’m pretty ambivalent about video as an art form. I’m not saying it can’t be art, but so much of what I see these days isn’t all that different from traditional narrative cinema, or are simply documentary components of larger multi-media projects. Then there are the ones which capture performative works for posterity. This may all perhaps be a bit of a moot point, seeing as how certain art historians and academic departments – not to mention practicing artists – are increasingly situating their work in the space between art and film, under the broad aegis of the visual culture paradigm, but take, say, Chinese artist and filmmaker Liu Wei’s A Day to Remember (below), for instance, which was included in the show. Liu walked around Tiananmen Sq. and the Beijing University campus on June 4th, 2005, asking random strangers on the street if they knew what day it was, and those recorded responses became A Day to Remember. Most of the replies were unsurprising, given the general self-censorship which ordinary Chinese citizens still practice as a means of negotiating socio-political minefields, and while I thoroughly enjoyed the piece, sitting through most of its short runtime of thirteen or so minutes there in the darkened gallery, I couldn’t for the life of me explain to myself why this should be in a museum – as opposed to being aired on TV, say. Because if I didn’t know better, I’d have said it was a clip from some documentary program. Yes, museums regularly play host to film screenings, and, yes, video art and film are perfectly legit subjects of academic inquiry by art historians, but museum programming and the shifting inclinations of academia still don’t explain why some televisual works should be screened on their own in museum galleries as art, when they they might make just as much sense – if not more – when viewed in a theatre or on an educational or arts channel. Which is not to say that video art, especially in it’s early, experimental days, did not attempt to insinuate itself into the realm of mass media, but these days it seems almost as if the mass media has staged some sneaky counter-colonization, asserting its own aesthetics as art …
A Day to Remember 忘卻的一天, Liu Wei (2005). Caution: Unreadable subs, and a minute-long commercial in front.
Perhaps the advent of twentieth-century strategies like abstraction and conceptualism opened a whole stinky can of worms as far as aesthetics are concerned. British artist Ceal Floyer’s Construction, which appeared in the recent Singapore Biennale, pretty much consisted of an empty room with four white walls … and a soundtrack of construction noises that periodically played overhead. When I described it to a friend, all I got was a rolling of the eyeballs. Ok, so it isn’t everyone’s idea of art. If any vaguely aesthetic experience may fall under that label, then why not televisual works like Liu Wei’s as well ? But here’s where a large part of my discomfort stems from, I think: something like Floyer’s piece can only be dubbed (conceptual) art, and very little else. In the manner of John Cage’s pioneering 4’33″, a three-act symphony of utter silence, works based on an aesthetics of absence which explicitly challenge the limits of the experiential categories they operate within – like composed music and ambient urban soundscapes, for instance, or even <gasp> Art – are founded on an interrogation of those boundaries, and thus, while perhaps unfamiliar on a formal basis, nonetheless are works calling themselves art and attempting to do what postwar art does best (at least since the prescriptions that Clement Greenberg laid out in Modernist Painting*): challenging it’s own physical and discursive limits. Liu’s video piece, on the other hand, could be contextualized as art – mostly from being included in an art exhibition – but when something looks like an elephant and behaves like an elephant, housing it in, oh, the aviary, doesn’t exactly make it a cockatoo, does it ? Why call A Day to Remember video art, when it doesn’t a. stage a critical intervention of some sort, b. challenge the parameters of its particular medium, c. function within a larger artistic program, or d. present an aesthetic experience, as opposed to serving a straightforwardly documentary purpose ?
To put it another way, is anything televisual or even filmic a priori admissible as video art these days ?
* To wit: “The essence of modernism lies, as I see it, in the use of characteristic methods of a discipline to criticize the discipline itself, not in order to subvert it but in order to entrench it more firmly in its area of competence.”
Having said that though, I have to admit, I loved the show. (The five and a half hours speak for themselves. Plus the extra hour and ten bucks for the guided tour.) As SAM exhibitions go, Video, an Art is massive, ambitious and – in a local climate of continuing conservatism in the sphere of the arts, just look at the dismal response to this year’s Arts Fest. – real ballsy. It was co-curated by the Pompidou’s Christine van Assche (big name, by the way) and the SAM’s Patricia Levasseur de la Motte. Hats off to these girls. I may not agree with every single inclusion, but in terms of it’s depth, daring and breadth of vision, the show is a major step forward for the local visual arts scene – we can’t always be looking at Nanyang school stuff or contemporary reformulations of traditional Chinese ink painting, no offence to partisans of those genres. Quibbles aside, Video, an Art makes a definite attempt to be conceptually coherent: it is divvied into six different categories, starting with “Utopia and Critique of Television”, which looks at the emergence of video art in the ’60s, both as a critique of the totalitarian aspects of network TV and as a new aesthetic medium in its own right. Next is “Identity Issues”, a rather amorphous grabbag of various pieces, some of which seem to me to be pretty tangential to the theme; “From Videotape to Interactive Installation” includes participatory video works, and “Landscape Dreams” – probably my least favourite of the lot, art-wise – feature pieces which reimagine the role of the environment, both natural and built, in our lives. Over at 8Q, “Memory: Between Myth and Reality” offers a take on the role of the media in our personal and collective mental lives, and, finally, “Deconstruction and Reconstruction of Narratives” is pretty self-explanatory.
One of the highlights for me was finally getting to see Pierre Huyghe’s The Third Memory (above), a multimedia installation which excavates the sedimented layers of personal narrative behind the notorious 1972 holdup of a Chase Manhattan bank in Brooklyn by John Wojtowicz and Sal Naturile. A simple bankjacking soon turned into a day-long media circus; it was later immortalized in the critically acclaimed Sidney Lumet film, Dog Day Afternoon, which starred Al Pacino as the Wojtowicz character and the enormously talented but short-lived John Cazale as Naturile. I’ve always been curious about the events behind the film. The bare bones of the story are well-known: Wojtowicz was a man with an ex-wife, two kids and a male lover desperate for a sex change, and it was to bankroll the latter’s surgery that he decided that sultry summer day on his outrageous course of action. The holdup soon became a standoff, and in the ensuing melee the teenaged Naturile was shot and killed, and Wojtowicz landed himself a twenty-year jail term, of which he eventually served ten. He also sold his story – the result was Lumet’s 1975 film – and a portion of the proceeds was used to transform his erstwhile squeeze, Ernest Aron, into Liz Eden.
That’s it though. I never knew much else about either Wojtowicz’s or Eden’s personal histories, and Huyghe’s work goes a long way towards putting together a narrative that positions itself somewhere between real-life occurrence and Hollywood flick, hence The Third Memory. Its centerpiece is a reenactment of the crime with Wojtowicz as director, and juxtaposed against this is actual footage from the film – or at least that’s what I’ve read about it. I sat in the gallery for almost ten minutes, and didn’t see anything of Dog Day Afternoon; mostly it seemed to be a staging by the now rotund, geriatric Wojtowicz of what is presumably his hazy recollections of that fateful day, a performative hybrid of personal reminiscence inextricably fused with cinematic imaginary, and while the gusto he put into it was certainly admirable (cancer was to claim his life several years after this), what little I saw didn’t quite measure up to the work’s reputation. Pity … The rest of the installation was great though. In an adjoining room were reproductions of contemporary newspaper coverage and a Life magazine article just chock-a-block full of details about the crime and its protagonists, as well as a recording of an episode from The Jeanne Parr Show* on which Liz Eden appeared. Wojtowicz was also interviewed from jail, and the breakdown of the relationship between him and Eden gets rolled out and dissected in pretty stark detail.
How I miss Jerry Springer … You’d think I’m kidding, but I’m not.
*A bit of trivia: Parr (above) is a former CBS reporter – who apparently had her own talk show in the ‘70s – and, more pertinently, the mother of actor Chris Noth, a.k.a. Mr. Big from Sex and the City. Is it just me, or does she resemble a younger version of her son in drag ?
[To be continued.]
Its kinda odd to think that a warehouse space in Tanjong Pagar Distripark – a cargo storage and shipment complex next to the Keppel docks – is now playing host to limited edition Warhols and multi-million-dollar pieces by Pollock, Hirst and Jasper Johns.
But, thanks to blue chip art dealer Ikkan Sanada, that’s the delightful reality.
Sanada recently relocated the base of Ikkan Art International from NYC to Singapore (read about it here); he joins a growing number of art spaces sprouting up in the Keppel warehouse neighbourhood, which include Valentine Willie, Fortune Cookie Projects and L2 Space. Are we seeing our own meatpacking district in the making ? – albeit with storage depots instead of disused slaughterhouses, industrial containers and cranes taking the place of transgender prostitutes and cobblestoned streets. In any case, the new kid on the block represents the arrival of an international player on the local visual arts scene, which can only be good news.
Sanada’s inaugural show is titled Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol. As the name-dropping suggests, the exhibition features work from a range of 20th century luminaries, both Western and Asian: Warhol, Ai, Matisse, Pollock, Hirst, Johns, Richter, Oldenburg, Stella, Tracy Emin, Takashi Murakami, Yayoi Kusama and Yasumasa Morimura, among others. Johns, in particular, is represented here by a series of original prints produced in the last two decades, including a number apparently never before shown. Those prints, however, were the least interesting things I saw – if only because I wasn’t quite sure what I was looking at. Johns made his name back in the ‘50s with his richly textured, vividly coloured encaustic canvases that called into question the iconicity of common images, like the American flag; these recent pieces seem to indicate a 180-degree turn in sensibility, being most black-and-white or thinly tinted intaglio prints of indecipherable patterns, silhouettes and abstractions. Johns’ work seems to have made a detour into the personal, which I think is the only – if overly convenient – way of accounting for some of these pictures, and titles like Shrinky Dink (below).
In other news, the show itself came across as something of a hodgepodge of the greatest postwar hits. It is called Surfaces of Everyday Life, but that thematic framework really encompasses two different theoretical concerns: materiality (surfaces), and the everyday. While those ideas have been brought to bear on each other – in very interesting ways – by certain academics and thinkers*, they are still necessarily separate concepts. And at times it seemed like the pieces in the exhibition either fell into one category or the other, only rarely demonstrating discernable links to both. Admittedly, though, Sanada has been pretty candid about the rationale, or lack of one, behind some of these inclusions – “I am not pretending to be a museum curator. The works you see in this exhibition are a reflection of my personal taste” – so perhaps the connective tissue there, between the notion of materiality and the prosaic, was supplied by his own predilections. Charles Merewhether of Sotheby’s Institute of Art, Singapore, though, provides a different take. In a brief but incisive essay for the exhibition, he explicitly adduces mass production and consumerism as the glue between the everyday and the material: “Critical to the transformation of the “everyday” was the process of modernization, most notably industrialization and mass production. … What emerges from this period is a number of artistic practices that critically engage the ethos of consumerism within the development of industrial modernization—practices seeking not just to understand the logic of consumerism, but to harness and appropriate the energies of consumerism … Materiality was of primary importance ……” (Read excerpts here.)
* See for instance, Bill Brown’s Thing Theory (Critical Inquiry, Vol. 28, No. 1 [Autumn, 2001], pp. 1-22).
All that, however, doesn’t explain the presence of works like Frank Stella’s Cinema de Pepsi (below), which is comprised of two squares divided up into geometrical bands of varying shades and hues. This canvas is quintessential Stella: blandly, calmly non-pictorial, denying even the painterly gestures of abstract expressionists like Pollock, Rauschenberg and Johns, and insisting on the primacy of the flat canvas surface and the materiality of the art object. Speaking of his own praxis, he declared that “Its posture is not romantic. Its method is not improvisational. It’s a more classical, more controlled art, that in a certain sense reacted against the “action” conception of abstract expressionism, and against what by the late 50s had come to be a great deal of very bad painting made in abstract expressionism’s name.” (Quote here.) While the alternating strips of colour in Cinema seem to suggest some kind of movement – a sort of optical illusion of advance and recession – I guess the point here would be that, up close, the appearance of hard-edge painting gives way to fine textural nuance; the seemingly defined lines begin to betray tendrils of paint seepage and other surface irregularities.
Which explains “surface”, but not “everyday life”. (Its hard to imagine anything less evocative of the ordinary than Stella’s abstract, meticulously calculated canvases.) What does, however, are, say, Claes Oldenburg’s oversized food objects, or Ai Weiwei’s sunflower seeds or block of tea, or Warhol’s Campbell’s soup cans – all featured in the show. Oldenburg’s Leaning Fork With Meatball and Spaghetti II, in particular (below), produced in collaboration with wife Coosje van Bruggen, was definitely one of the more eye-catching pieces. In a well-known statement of 1961, the artist remarked: “I am for an art that embroils itself with the everyday crap and still comes out on top … I am for the art of neck-hair and caked teacups, for the art between the tines of restaurant forks, for the odor of boiling dishwater … I am for the art of rust and mold. I am for the art of hearts, funeral hearts or sweetheart hearts, full of nougat. I am for the art of worn meathooks and singing barrels of red, white, blue and yellow meat.”*
In other words, an art of the mundane and the everyday. Duchamp and his Readymades were an acknowledged influence: Oldenburg recalls seeing Duchamp’s work at the latter’s 1963 retrospective at the Pasadena Art Museum – and coincidentally, a signed copy of a poster for that now legendary show is on display here (below). As art historian Benjamin Buchloh remarks, Oldenburg was “the first sculptor after Duchamp who uses a kind of iconography that is completely alien to all preceding sculpture, which is the industrially produced, ready-made object.”** The avant-garde Dadaist project, formulated as an overt critique of the separation of art from the praxis of life within bourgeois society, by which the autonomy of the institution of art is understood as a corollary of the rise of the leisured classes and the ensuing social divide,*** finds a re-articulation in Oldenburg’s hands. His oversized foodstuffs, in particular, represent an attempt to recuperate our experience of the familiar, the prosaic, which become embedded in the routine of daily life as so much background noise. These humble things – the things we eat every day – exist for the most part below the threshold of sustained attention and memory because they function as conveniences, their constant repetition and easy availability within the circuits of modern consumer culture serving to mask their ubiquity, to lull and dull us into “social forgetfulness and thereby constitute the sphere of hidden historical otherness.”****
* See Claes Oldenburg: An Anthology (New York: Guggenheim Museum, 1995).
** See Benjamin H. D. Buchloh, “Three Conversations in 1985: Claes Oldenburg, Andy Warhol, Robert Morris”, October 70 (Fall 1994).
*** Peter Bürger discusses this idea at length in his classic Theory of the Avant-Garde (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1984). See the section, “On the Problem of the Autonomy of Art in Bourgeois Society.”
**** C. Nadia Serematakis, ed., The Senses Still: Perception and Memory as Material Culture in Modernity (Boulder, Colorado: Westview Press, 1994).
A Poster Within A Poster (1963), Marcel Duchamp. “Poster for Duchamp’s Retrospective exhibition held at the Pasadena Art Museum, October 8 to November 3, 1963, signed and dedicated by the artist. Edition of 300, only 10 of them were signed by the artist.” (from the wall label)
As subjects of artistic intentionality, Oldenburg’s food objects imply participation in the long, if historically unremarked, genre of the still-life, a tradition that reaches back into antiquity. The category of painting the Romans referred to as xenia stands at the hoary head of a genealogy that is defined largely by its exclusion of the human form, according to Norman Bryson, a denial of the visual dimension of the animate that at the same time “expels the values which human presence imposes on the world.”* While this statement belies the peculiarity of Oldenburg’s anthropomorphized objects – and, indeed, a feature of his modus operandi – Bryson’s distinction between megalography and rhopography presents one of the chief cruces on which turn Oldenburg’s strategies of interruption, dislocation, defamiliarization. Megalography is the stuff of history painting and portraiture, which deal with the grand themes of mythology, religion, literature and history, allegories of the great and good, as well as the invocation of the lives and likenesses of celebrated men and women. Rhopography, stemming from the Greek rhopos (trifling things, or small, inconsequential goods), portrays that which the prescriptions of the class of momentous events and illustrious personages programmatically omit from their range of subject matter: the undramatic material base of life taken for granted in an age of plenty today, a substratum of habitual, habit-forming objects which define the contours of “hidden historical otherness.”
In his appropriation of the trope of rhopos, Oldenburg displays a preference not just for an iconography of the edible, but also for a particular type of fare. A quick survey of objects from his 60s period discloses the predominance of the sort of foods that have come to symbolize a twentieth-century America of the diner, the deli, the fast-food restaurant: burgers, sandwiches, cakes, pies, ice-cream, baked potatoes, breads, and roasts – as choice of meatball and spaghetti, for one, seems to suggest. Despite the claim that his choice of subject is “only an accident, an accident of my surroundings, my landscape, of the objects which in my daily coming and going my consciousness attaches itself to”, Oldenburg’s art, in its foregrounding of gastronomic (all-)Americana, clearly reflects an exclusion of other types of cuisine, perhaps the kind of food that he may have been accustomed to growing up in a privileged Swedish-American household in the 1930s and 40s (his father first served as Swedish Consul in Chicago and, later, as Consul General). More than simply being determined by considerations of cost, taste and custom, however, what people eat is very much an indication of their values. The introduction of the technologies of food preservation and processing radically altered the American diet in the mid-twentieth century, freeing up a whole generation of women for the workforce and shifting the main site of food preparation and consumption from the domestic kitchen to the cheap eating establishment and food retail outlet – originating, ultimately, in the processing line – with their quick, affordable, labour-saving meals, a medley of the “bleached, dyed, sulphured, refined, synthetic, dehydrated, adulterated, and emulsified”**, a celebration of everyday realities that continue to shape our dietary habits and lives.
* See Bryson’s perceptive, valuable study, Looking at the Overlooked: Four Essays on Still Life Painting (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 1990).
** Linda Weintraub, ed., Art What Thou Eat: Images of Food in American Art (Mount Kisco, New York: Moyer Bell Ltd., 1991). Her Foreword contains a brief history of American gastronomic practices.
Donald Judd – a personal favourite – was represented in Surfaces by a stainless steel piece (above), a horizontal bar hung on the wall, and marked along its length by spherical protrusions set apart at gradated intervals. Classic Judd. The piece, like Oldenburg’s Meatball and Spaghetti, sits comfortably at the intersection between concerns with materiality and the everyday – though the artist himself might have begged to differ. Judd was famous, or notorious, for his theoretical pronouncements on his own work, insisting on the abstract, non-associative autonomy of his ‘specific objects’, their essential resistance to any sort of gesture towards a reality external to their particular forms. However, a number of critics, most notably Rosalind Krauss, disagreed. She openly refuted his claim of hermeticism in her well-known essay, “Allusion and Illusion in Donald Judd” (Artforum, vol. 4, no. 9 [May, 1966]). Judd’s sensuously tangible and seductively engaging objects were, for Krauss, the epitome of “the inadequacy of the theoretical line, its failure to measure up (at least in Judd’s case) to the power of the sculptural statement.” His artworks were “insistently meaningful” to her, and that meaning was generated through an embodied experience – meaning denied by a solely optical involvement from a single (frontal) perspective. Krauss saw Judd’s work as “objects of perception, objects that are to be grasped in the experience of looking at them” (italics mine). The impression of tactility, in both a metaphorical and corporeal sense, seemed especially important to her: “the work plays off the illusory quality of the thing itself as it presents itself to vision alone … as against the sensation of being able to grasp it and therefore to know it through touch.”
Don Judd in the 1960s. Image from Mondoblogo.
Other critics have noted that “Claims … that Judd’s art has a discrepancy – or even a falsification – as its heart, have by now long been central …” (David Raskin, “The Shiny Illusionism of Krauss and Judd”, Art Journal, no. 65 [Spring 2006]).The juxtaposition between Judd’s own conceptualization of his work, and the manner in which it has sometimes been received, makes this disjuncture all too clear. Krauss noted the deceptive appearance of his art, of the necessity of an embodied experience with which to grasp it in its actuality, a process that foregrounded the way the materials were “used directly” – in his own words – and, thus, the resultant, insistently tactile quality. Judd’s work appears to deny the possibility of any haptic exchange, by dint of his critical pronouncements as well as their circumscribed status as high art objects, but reception tends to elude those sorts of pre-determined channels. Judd’s objects, as three-dimensional forms in space, as staunchly material presences that incline towards the non-figural and a-referential, can be said to evoke a response beyond the purely visual – i.e. to draw attention not simply to their forms, but to the almost tangible qualities of their surface texture. To return to Krauss’ assessment of Judd’s art as inducing the perception of graspability and a touch-based epistemology, perhaps it should be noted that the haptic entails more than just an appeal to tactility via the mechanism of sight, but implicates the entire sensorium in a synaesthetic act of looking as well. Krauss brings to mind Maurice Merleau-Ponty’s characterization of embodied, multisensory experience: “The senses intercommunicate by opening onto the structure of the thing. One sees the hardness and brittleness of glass … One sees the springiness of steel.” Or, to quote Carolee Schneemann on her own performative practice: “Vision is not a fact but an aggregate of sensations.”
Judd’s objects present a façade of finished, flawless, machine manufacture. In other words, their industrial look, or the appearance of being the products of the factory line rather than the artist’s tool, was – and is – very much the initial impression that they left on viewers. Barbara Rose, for one, remarked that they seemed “machine-made, standardized …. easy to copy and not hand-made”; another reviewer spoke of the “slow, determined beat of a stamping machine” (Jane Gollin). And Robert Smithson, in detailing Judd’s preferred materials and the sources he turned to for them, listed a catalogue of obscure-sounding trademarks and industrial locations:
He may go to Long island City and have the Bernstein Brothers, Tinsmiths put “Pittsburgh” seams into some (Bethcon) iron boxes, or he might go to Allied Plastics in Lower Manhattan and have cut-to-size some Rohm-Haas “glowing” pink plexiglass. Judd is always on the lookout for new finishes, like Lavax Wrinkle Finish … Judd likes that combination, and so he might “self” spray one of his “fabricated” boxes with it. Or maybe he will travel to Hackensack, New Jersey to investigate a lead he got on a new kind of zinc based paint called Galvanox, which is comparable to “hot-dip” galvanizing.
(Robert Smithson, “Donald Judd (1965)” in Robert Smithson, the Collected Writings [Berkeley: University of California Press, 1996].)
While the stuff of Judd’s art were, literally, heavy-duty substances and materials, the actual execution of those pieces remained a very hands-on process for the artist. Much of his early 60s work were produced manually at a small, family-run piecework shop called Bernstein Brothers Sheet Metal Specialties Inc., which produced a range of items for industrial purposes, like smoke stacks, general roofing, skylights, ventilation systems etc. The procedure for constructing one of Judd’s pieces at the Bernsteins’ typically involved a high degree of hand operations:
… adapted from the shaping of ventilation ducts and industrial sinks, [the process] involved measuring and cutting the sheet iron, notching it with hand shears, and folding it in a brake die. … the sculpture [was finished] by truing its angles with a rubber mallet and … reaching inside the back to solder its three pieces carefully together.
(Joshua Shannon, The Disappearance of Objects: New York Art and the Rise of the Postmodern City [New Haven: Yale University Press, 2009].)
Don Judd (right) at the Bernstein Bros. workshop, 1968. Image from DB Artmag.
The appearance of industrial manufacture, then, belied the manual labour that went into the production of Judd’s pieces; their materials, the “adapted” processes, the high degree of finish, and their geometric, modular shapes all went towards suggesting an origin in the factory rather than the studio. And it is precisely this deceptive indexing of industrial means of fabrication and engineering, the assumption of the look of capitalist, technocratic power – by creating objects resembling mass-produced commodities, objects which then enter our everyday lives as items of utility – that engenders the desire to touch. Or, to put it another way: Judd’s objects, in suppressing most visible traces of the artist’s hand*, and approximating the appearance of those ordinary things that we use in our mundane lives, like floor boxes and stacks and bleachers and architectural columns, breaks down the barrier between the visual and the tactile that is part and parcel of the contemporary experience of art – that is to say, the dictum that one can look, but should not touch, is expressly infringed upon.
* See Josiah Mcelheny, “Invisible Hand”, Artforum International, vol. 42, no. 10 (Summer 2004).
By adopting the aspect of everyday articles, Judd’s objects almost seems to invite the viewer to experience them in those embodied ways with which we come into corporeal contact with those familiar things. One handles a box, sits on a bleacher, perhaps unthinkingly runs a stray hand over a row of colonnades in strolling past. And although it is difficult to conceive of actually picking up one of Judd’s box-like sculptures or parking your behind down on his Bleachers piece, it is not too far a stretch to imagine kissing your reflection in a particularly shiny surface, or using it, mirror-like, to peruse the state of your hairdo – which is exactly what critic, Anna Chave, witnessed two girls doing one day in the MoMA. She relates the following incident involving a “gleaming brass floor box” of Judd’s on display in the museum: “… two teenage girls strode over to this pristine work, kicked it, and laughed. They then discovered its reflective surface and used it for a while to arrange their hair until, finally, they bent over to kiss their images on the top of the box” (Chave, “Minimalism and the Rhetoric of Power”, Arts Magazine, vol. 64, no. 1 [Jan, 1990]).
…… Hey, I did say Judd was a favourite.
But enough of the art history and the theoryspeak, I think.
Being at Sanada’s was like New York all over again: the quiet moments of wonderment at MoMA, amidst the throngs of tourists; the endless galleries in Chelsea; the marathon Met walkabouts.
It was nice …
Some of the other stuff in the show:
Surfaces of Everyday Life: Postwar and Contemporary Masters from Ai Weiwei to Andy Warhol runs at Ikkan Art from 18 May to 5 June, 2011.
Ikkan Art Gallery, Artspace@Helutrans,
39 Keppel Road #01-05,
Tanjong Pagar Distripark,
11am – 7pm, Monday – Saturday
1pm – 5pm, Sundays and Public Holidays
News of the recent theft of a number of early to mid 20th century purses from the Palace Museum in Beijing – a.k.a. the Forbidden City – has been making the rounds.
Here’s the New York Times on the incident that’s caused a couple of red faces in official circles:
A thief hid in the Palace Museum in Beijing’s Forbidden City after closing time on Sunday night and stole nine 20th-century gold purses encrusted with jewels from a temporary exhibition, embarrassed Chinese officials said Wednesday.
The small Western-style gold purses had been lent by the Li Yiang Museum [sic] in Hong Kong, which in turn had been lent the purses by a Hong Kong art collector.
A Palace Museum worker tried to stop a “suspicious man” inside the museum at 10:30 p.m. on Sunday, but the man ran off, prompting the worker to sound an alarm, Palace Museum officials said at a news conference in Beijing. Two of the purses were found in “slightly damaged” condition, they said, but the other seven were taken from the museum.
A spokesman for the Beijing police said by telephone on Thursday that the police had detained a suspect on Wednesday evening and had recovered some of the missing seven purses, although he declined to say how many.
Neither the Palace Museum nor the Li Yiang Museum [sic] tried to assign a value to the missing purses.
The full range of burgled items. Image from China.org.cn.
The round purse in the first picture (top), referred to as the “ball”, is apparently the most valuable of the lot. A piece over at online portal China.org.cn notes that it is a personal favourite of Fung Yiu-fai’s, the owner of the Liangyi Museum, which loaned the stolen pieces to Beijing:
The ball” refers to his [Fung's] favorite piece – a Tiffany egg-shaped gold cosmetic container inlaid with olivine and turquoise stones. Wong said a jewelry appraiser told her that none of the mines that produced this type of olivine is still operating.
After six hours of waiting, Fung and Wong learned that nine gold purses and cosmetic containers covered with jewels were stolen. Two items had been found, but were damaged, at the foot of a wall on the east side of the museum. “The ball” is on the list of missing items.
The perpetrator, one Shi Bokui. Image from What’s On Tianjin.
A lot of the commentary so far has emphasized the culprit’s particular modus operandus: he snuck into the museum via a self-dug hole in a wall, smashed the display cases and took the stuff, returned to hiding, and walked out the following morning without hassle. In his own words, Shi Bokui 石柏魁 of Caoxian country, Shandong province,
… said he had visited the Forbidden City as a tourist on Sunday evening, decided when he saw the golden purses and powder compacts to steal them, and had hidden until the museum closed. Then he broke open the display case, grabbed his loot, and hid himself again until morning.
(Read the full article at er, The Christian Science Monitor.)
Easy as ABC, no?
Thomas Crown has nothing on this guy.
An article in the local Straits Times today though, reveals just why Mr. Shi decided to help himself: “Bewitched by the dazzling display while touring the museum, he went on a stealing spree after everyone had left, he said in a confession on national TV.” (“Red faces over art theft at Forbidden City”, The Straits Times, May 14 2011.)
Shi is far from being the first person to be so turned on in a museum that he let his fingers do the talking, but his DIY, can-do approach to art theft really puts him in a class all his own.
Does it really happen ? – the allure of artistic bling being so great that one hazards all to smash a glass case and simply take something ?
In his rereading of Karl Marx’s notion of the commodity fetish, University of Chicago academic Bill Brown observes that – in the traditional account – the commodity as such is both a sensuous thing and, at the same time, a suprasensible one (both material and immaterial), while commodity fetishism, in its animating of the commodity-form through the privileging of exchange-value rather than use-value, renders those material or sensuous qualities void, since the commodity-form has “absolutely no connection with the physical nature of the commodity and the material [dinglich] relations arising out of this” (qtd. in Bill Brown, A Sense of Things [U. of Chicago Press, 2003], p. 28). Brown, however, also gestures at a lack in Marx: the issue of consumer desire, which is tied to the sensuousness of the commodity, and “without which capitalism … cannot be sustained” (Brown, 29), is never addressed. Thus, “it is at the moment where Marx intimates not the fetishism he theorizes but the more pedestrian, not to say less powerful, fetishism through which objects captivate us, fascinate us, compel us to have a relation to them, which seems to have little to do with their relation to other commodities. This is a social relation neither between men nor between things, but something like a social relation between human subject and inanimate object, wherein modernity’s ontological distinction between human beings and nonhumans makes no sense” (Brown, 29).
Commodity allure is the commodity fetishism of the new millennium perhaps ?
In any case, Shi, I think, has now become its public face.
Portion of Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains scroll currently in the collection of the Palace Museum, Taipei. Image from this website – please excuse the watermark.
Yet another piece reproduced from today’s edition of The Straits Times (23 April).
Seems like the two parts of Yuan master Huang Gongwang’s prized scroll, Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains 富春山居圖 (c. late 1340s to early 50s), is being rejoined.
Quite the watershed moment.
PIECES OF 660-YEAR-OLD PAINTING REUNITE
TAIPEI: Taiwan’s top museum will display a torn 660-year-old Chinese landscape painting by bringing together its two pieces, which have been separated since 1940 with one kept in China and the other on the island.
The longer portion of Dwelling In The Fuchun Mountains, measuring about 6m, is stored in Taipei’s Palace Museum.
It will be reunited with the 0.5m part shipped from China’s Zhejiang Provincial Museum at an exhibition opening on June 2, said Palace Museum director Chou Kung-shin.
The painting by revered Chinese landscape painter Huang Gongwan [sic] was split into two parts some 300 years ago as a private collector burned it as he was dying, but a relative quickly saved it from the flames, Ms Chou said.
“Huang finished the scroll at 81, when he was already a master painter,” she said. “it is an important work in art history, and has changed hands among many noted collectors.”
The longer part was among 600,000 treasures moved from China to Taiwan in 1948, during the last stages of the civil war between the Kuomintang and the Communists, some of which are now on display in the Palace Museum in Taipei.
The 40-day exhibition is widely seen as a gesture of support by the Chinese government for Taiwanese President Ma Ying-jeou, on account of his efforts to engage the mainland and reduce political hostilities.
But more important, according to reports in China, the unity of the two fragments is highly symbolic of the inevitability of China’s reunification with Taiwan, which Beijing considers part of Chinese territory temporarily separated from the mainland because of ideological differences.
In February, Chinese Premier Wen Jiabao highlighted the political significance when fielding questions from netizens, saying that it is his wish that the “landscapes” of China and Taiwan would one day be reunited, paralleled by the unity of the “landscapes” in the Fuchun paintings.
China has long said that the historical exhibits in Taiwan’s Palace Museum rightfully belong to Beijing, but since 2008 has encouraged museum exchanges after Mr Ma came to office.
Taiwan’s Palace Museum and its counterpart in Beijing, also called the Palace Museum, held their first joint exhibition in Taipei in 2009.
ASSOCIATED PRESS, XINHUA
Dinner at Chalk began indoors. I started off with some cream of corn – which sounds like it came out of a red and white can or a Warhol silkscreen – but the soup was fantastic. Rich and smooth, with nibblets of cut corn and chewy hunks of fat-fringed chicken swimming just beneath the milky, flaxen-hued, herb-speckled surface … absolutely dee-lish. CH ordered the escargots, which were pretty darned tasty too, especially when a ready supply of home-baked bread was on hand to soak up the pools of garlicky grease with. They were certainly a step up from the snails I’d had at Cocotte; served with gruyère on little bits of puff pastry that managed to mask the taste and texture of the molluscs, those were definitely an experiment that didn’t pan out.
Anyways, entrée-wise, we decided on a beef stew and the stuffed quail. The beef was good, braised to supple softness in a piquant red vino gravy – though not particularly outstanding. The quail was something else. Smooth, moist, stuffed with a mix of minced meat and diced vegetables and cooked to glazed, lightly charred perfection, it slid down the throat like so much vintage booze. Speaking of alcohol, however, the one sour note of the evening was the beer. I had a König something-or-other from the tap, which turned out to be uninspiring. Usually German brews are spot-on for the money; this was a rare misfire.
Chalk is situated at the Old School – the former Methodist Girls’ campus – and so named for their occupation of the school’s science lab. (A throwback to the blackboard era perhaps.) Nestled in the serene environs of Mt. Sophia, the complex exudes an idyllic, laidback charm, all low, whitewashed buildings and aged umber- and tan-coloured tiles and towering coconut palms and viridescent foliage sighing slightly in the thick, tropical late afternoon breeze. By the time the main courses had been polished off, nightfall had descended, and we took our coffees out to the terrace for an al fresco tête-à-tête, along with a small cake of sticky date pudding accompanied by ginger ice-cream and a glutinous butterscotch sauce. It was lovely out there. Under the low glow of the streetlamps, we had a view of the buildings rising up from Orchard and Handy Rds down the hill, lit up like ginormous slabs of glass-encrusted confection. Talk moved from casual banter to personal histories, and thence to the bewildering changes Singapore has seen in the last decade or so. I was surprised at how many memories CH and I share: he’s a naturalized Singaporean, having grown up in Mumbai and the U.K., but as he reminded me he’s been here fifteen long years, and the place is pretty much home these days. The 1990s was the era of my coming of age, and the further it slips away behind history’s onward stride the more my recollections of growing up then seem to lodge themselves in the nooks and crevices of my mental universe, peering out from beneath the ostensibly unbroken flux of everyday life in the here and now ..
In the words of a pastry-chompin’ Proust:
The sight of the little madeleine had recalled nothing to my mind before I tasted it … as soon as I had recognized the taste of the piece of madeleine soaked in her decoction of lime-blossom which my aunt used to give me … immediately the old grey house upon the street, where her room was, rose up like a stage set to attach itself to the little pavilion opening on to the garden which had been built out behind it for my parents.
- Swann’s Way, À la Recherche du Temps Perdu
Old School, 11 Mount Sophia Road #01-03, Singapore 228461
Kedai Runcit No. 12 [Retail Store No. 12], Gallery 12, Malaysia. A stand made up to resemble an old-school candy and toy store – of the sort one would be hard-pressed to find in Singapore these days – featuring young Malaysian artists. Beyond nostalgia, a droll comment on the undeniably commercial and elitist nature of the international art fair ?
The inaugural edition of Art Stage Singapore was a mammoth affair. Occupying an entire basement level in the suitably massive Marina Bay Sands Exhibition and Convention Centre, the event touts itself as “Asia Pacific’s new top international modern and contemporary art fair … a meeting place, a show, a market place, an ‘instant’ museum, and much more.” At least that’s the vision set out by its director, the redoubtable Lorenzo Rudolf – or the man who used to helm the prestigious Art Basel. (Read an interview with him here.) I’d headed down a tad earlier to catch a panel discussion on contemporary Chinese art – involving artist Shen Shaomin*, critic Pi Li, and collector Ulli Sigg, among others – but even then it took me nearly four long hours just to give the place a cursory once-over. Leafing through the catalogue (which cost a surprisingly economical 10 SGD), I realized just how much I’d missed. In that vein, this post adopts a straightforward ‘greatest hits’ approach, listing my three favourite moments of the afternoon.
* Shen’s short slide show, presented as part of the discussion, featured numerous photos taken with scholar and art historian Wu Hung, as well as a selection of Wu’s comments on his (Shen’s) work. Wu is an accomplished academic and a gifted thinker, as well as being my former advisor – something not lost on the artist, who clearly had bromantic feelings going on <lol> ..
A disclaimer, though: some of my choices are going to seem pretty obvious, insofar as works like Ai Weiwei’s large-scale installation, Through, quite literally stood out from the run-of-the-mill offerings; and there were a couple of stops, like the Singapore platform, titled Remaking Art in the Everyday, or the contribution of Malaysian Gallery 12, Kedai Runcit No. 12 (above), that I wished I’d paid more time and attention to … but, alas, I had to rush off for a German dinner at Brotzeit with CH and his delightful friends, KR and IG, who happened to be visiting from Mumbai.
Plus, after a couple of hours I was getting pretty art-ed out already.
Anyways. Bearing that in mind, here we go.
1. Through (2007-8), Ai Weiwei
As mentioned, Ai’s installation was one of the highlights of the event, if only in terms of sheer size. Taking up a space of some 115 sq meters, it involves colossal wooden beams and traditional Chinese furniture (mostly tables) dating from the Qing era, or so the wall label informed us. The objects were all mutually supportive, with niches and holes cut into each to accommodate the other, in effect creating a geometric forest of wooden structures. The artist declares that “certain objects, certain materials, need a certain scale to achieve a clear identity and voice, and that is what large-scale events provide. Artists are not in a position to decide the conditions imposed upon them but they can make statements about those conditions.” Which is well and good, and pretty commensensical as artists’ pronouncements go; the label continues:
Employing materials and techniques embedded in Chinese culture, Ai’s elegant objects can overwhelm viewers who do not fully grasp the conceptual implications of his work; their imposing, meticulous physical presence and massive scale often require considerable teamwork and vast production spaces to realize, and are made possible thanks to the artist’s influence, wealth and sprawling social network.
As much as I appreciate the “imposing, meticulous physical presence” of the piece, in the same way I do Richard Serra‘s steel behemoths, and interesting as the meta-commentary on the role of the contemporary artist is, surely scale can’t be the final word in any act of exegesis here. The vintage of the wooden objects certainly deserve consideration, for one, but the most noteworthy facet of the work, at least for me, is how they fit together as a cohesive whole. The niches cut into the beams of course reference the traditional process of construction for Chinese furniture, where, instead of nails, joints are used to fit the different parts together. This seamless mode of joinage, however, is belied by the disruptive manner in which the vertical beams and the horizontal tables come together: large holes are cut into the tabletops to allow the pillars to pass through. If one is allowed to adduce social factors in attempting to read the work, then perhaps a statement on the supposed cohesion of Chinese society – founded on paternal Confucian strictures and the extended familial unit – and the intrusion into that sphere by the praxis of the modern Communist state, may not be altogether implausible.
Along those lines, could then the solitary pole (below), standing in the midst of the installation and dwarfed by its fellows, be emblematic of the individual, subjugated by overarching socio-political structures ? I’m finding it difficult otherwise to account for its presence …
2. Procession (2009), Paresh Maity
I l-o-v-e-d this piece. 50 metallic ants, put together from used motorcycle parts, including lit-up headlights as Cyclopean eyes, crawl across a bed of twigs. Cue B-grade horror flick featuring the invasion of giant bugs .. Below is a still from Them! (1954), an old black-and-white sci-fi film about the attack of oversized radioactive ants.
Procession also reminds me of other art-animals put together from found materials – Picasso’s Baboon and Young, for instance (below). Both Picasso’s and Maity’s pieces are witty, humorous likenesses, a point of intersection between the industrial and the zoological. Baboon, in its indexing of the goods of the factory line, the commodities of mass production – a jug, toy cars, an automobile spring – reifies the “typically Cubist paradox”* of interrogating the semiotic and material modes of visual representation with these signifiers of daily life, provoking metaphysical uncertainty. It re-directs the aims of both analytic and synthetic Cubism: it does not merely yoke together its various elements, but engages them rather in an active reconstruction of the once fractured subject. Analytic Cubism’s shattering of the human figure into its constitutive planes and dimensions witnessed in, for instance, Ma Jolie, and the figure-ground reversal of, say, Guitar (1912) – where positive and negative spaces are inverted so that the sound hole of the instrument is indicated by an empty can projecting outwards – is here explicitly denied by the re-assembling, or re-imagining, of disparate industrial fragments into a new organic whole. Like Baboon and Young, Maity’s ants, constructed from vehicular parts and re-imagined in their, or a, natural habitat (the bed of twigs), gesture at once at both the realms of nature and society; they are hybrids caught in the flux between two dialectical poles which yet firmly occupies its own semantic space between these variable ontologies.
* See Timothy Hilton, Picasso (London: Thames & Hudson Ltd., 1975), p. 119.
Baboon and Young (1951), Pablo Picasso. Image courtesy of MoMA‘s website.
3. Crystal City (2009), Wu Chi-Tsung
Here’s the scoop on Wu’s piece from the catalogue:
Taiwanese artist Wu Chi-Tsung (吳季璁) presents 水晶城市, or Crystal City (2009). Through a series of installations using a projector, LED lighting and plastic, Wu reveals the invisible city in which modern society resides, made up of electronic equipment, programs, networks, media and information. The artist chose the word “crystal” because this information-dense city grows like one; each component element organically comes together, infinitely expanding and spreading according to a set internal rhythm and logic. it is a city that is transparent, light, and lacking in real physical volume, but it projects a very real experienced world of unparalleled reality. It is this space that the artists considers contemporary society’s spiritual home.
At its most essential, Crystal City is a cluster of transparent boxes assembled in a dark room – with a toy train, bearing a light, making its way back and forth, casting a series of constantly distending and dissolving shadows. Beyond the pure visual pleasure derived from watching the gossamer silhouettes shift and morph and flicker across the surface of the wall, the piece also calls to mind Plato’s allegory of the cave:
Plato likens people untutored in the Theory of Forms to prisoners chained in a cave, unable to turn their heads. All they can see is the wall of the cave. Behind them burns a fire. Between the fire and the prisoners there is a parapet, along which puppeteers can walk. The puppeteers, who are behind the prisoners, hold up puppets that cast shadows on the wall of the cave. The prisoners are unable to see these puppets, the real objects, that pass behind them. What the prisoners see and hear are shadows and echoes cast by objects that they do not see … Such prisoners would mistake appearance for reality. They would think the things they see on the wall (the shadows) were real; they would know nothing of the real causes of the shadows.
(Summary from a University of Washington page – read it in full here.)
Standing at the entrance to the little room, watching the exquisite dance of shadows from the harsh fluorescent glow outside, its not hard to imagine that Wu is deliberately making claims, contra Plato, for the impalpable realm of shadows as the highest form of “unparalleled reality” – a postmodern idea if ever I heard one.