Lee Mingwei, " The Dining Project, " 1997/2014. Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

Lee Mingwei, "The Dining Project," 1997/2014. Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

Lee Mingwei and His Relations: The Legacy and Deviation of Relational Aesthetics In The East, by Matthew Carver

“Beauty” and “dreamscape” are not buzzwords in today’s critical-art discourse. And yet they describe the Mori Art Museum’s Lee Mingwei and His Relations: The Art of Participation – Seeing, Conversing, Gift-Giving, Writing, Dining and Getting Connected to the World, an exhibition that’s nothing short of a reassessment of relational art. Mori museum director Fumio Nanjo notes the exhibition’s timeliness, linking it to the growing importance of human connections regarding both social media and new forms of connection, and regards these connections and bonds to have provided support after Japan’s 2011 earthquake. An Eastern viewpoint centered in Zen Buddhism is also cited, dramatically highlighted mid-show with an exhibition within the exhibition, Works for Relationality. Curator Mami Kataoka’s presentation of Lee Mingwei transcends the character of a broad mid-career retrospective, and explodes the popular reading of Lee’s practice as an Eastern example of “relational aesthetics.” In the West, we too often look for the dramatic cleavages in history. Kataoka expertly positions relational art as both rooted and timely.

A decade ago, one of the more popular and dominant topics of conversation in critical theory and the artworld in general was Nicolas Bourriaud’s, Relational Aesthetics, translated to English in 2002. Go back to that time.

Some of us were turning to the writing of Homi Bhabha and his “interstitial spaces” to get a more critical grasp of installation art. But, this was something more. Bourriaud wrote that his concept of the “encounter” or “social interstice” was no less than “a radical upheaval of the aesthetic, cultural, and political goals introduced by modern art.” It also went beyond the dynamics of a “performative” act.

Relations? There were jokes. “Relational Aesthetics: Forget the art. Let’s talk about me!” Critics like Hal Foster, Claire Bishop, Jacque Rancière, and Dave Beech resisted the term. Bourriaud’s micro-topias were seen as cliques resulting in insider excitement. Bishop stated Bourriaud’s art of participation relied on conviviality as opposed to opening up venues of dissent and critique, and Rancière even saw it as socially divisive rather than inclusive to all. But eventually the penny seemed to drop, and the term took hold. Critics realized that the “aesthetic” was the very dynamics of our relations. Bourriaud relied heavily on his elected stable of artists to illustrate his points, including Liam Gillick, Vanessa Beecroft, Carsten Höller, Pierre Huyghe and most especially, Rirkrit Tiravanija, an artist who made Thai curry in the back rooms of galleries. Bourriaurd argued that as Pop Art was born from consumerism, and minimalism emerged from the realm of industry; relational aesthetics emerged out of the realm of relationships. Remember, this was years before we even discussed or had experienced the contemporary online versions of social media.

 Lee Mingwei, " The Dining Project ," 1997/2014. Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

Lee Mingwei, "The Dining Project," 1997/2014. Photo courtesy: Mori Art Museum, Tokyo.

Lee’s projects are to be carried out within the art institutions of galleries and museums, and Kataoka eloquently summarizes the projects, initially as read through the lens of Bourriaud. (Later, the view will be expanded):

“Visitors enter these spaces and participate in ritualistic frameworks or simple instructions that Lee has prepared, whereupon artworks come into being by actually executing a series of actions. The significance of how these works emerge resides not within the act of giving a visible form to them – rather, it consists in the construction of relationships that resemble invisible threads.”

However, form remains. The danger of adhering too much to Bourriaud’s “shake up” whereby we focus exclusively on the art as a duration of time centered on participation, is the loss of any serious assessment of Lee’s visual form. And, it’s one of sophistication that heartily deserves attention, particularly within the installations such as Between Going and Staying.

Extremely rare and special are those times we unexpectedly slip into a dreamscape while encountering art. They are ineffable. How do you relate for someone, falling into such a vivid and suggestive cue to the unconscious? How is it like entering sections of a Murakami novel? My first experience might have been in my very early twenties on my first trip to New York City. I was rounding a corner in the old MOMA and came smack up against Henri Rousseau’s Sleeping Gypsyand then, ironically, The Dream in the next room. It happened a decade later when I stumbled into Tadasu Takamine’s installation, God Bless America at The National Museum of Art in Tokyo. A little over a decade later and just a few weeks ago, it happened for me again in the Mori Art Museum, walking into Lee’s Between Going and Staying.

I circled right back to the room where Lee was mending visitors’ garments. I tossed him one of the lamest questions you can offer an artist with no lead in, “Can you tell me about that piece?” pointing at the room with the installation. He smiled, and then proceeded to tell me about a dream. He was in a desert, it wasn’t too distinct, but stars were falling. There was a woman’s voice but he couldn’t make out words. He never brought up Homi Bhabha or used a word such as “interstitial,” but implied that it was one of those “in-between” places.

Many of Lee’s projects center on the gesture of gift-giving between strangers. The paradoxical element to his assigned roles is amplified in Japan, a country and culture that often regards itself as the “ultimate host.” Within the museum, Lee reverses this paradigm, where he, the foreigner (Lee is Taiwanese), is now the host with works such as The Dining Project and The Sleeping Project. Initially, we may cast Tiravanija as the extrovert, cooking and serving curry for large crowds in a gallery, and Lee as the introvert in a more intimate setting. But Tiravanija himself has stated that it’s the other way around. He feels like the introvert working backstage, whereas, he wrote of Lee, “it involves opening up your heart and mind to the person you’re making the meal for, and arriving at an understanding [of] him or her through dialogue and conversation.”

Lee wrote to me of the importance of The Dining Project as an intimate encounter between artist and participant. The event takes place exclusively “one on one,” and is not viewed by observers while the meal takes place. This is due to Lee’s personal preference for intimate and personal exchanges between strangers. Within the museum, this involves Lee and visitors, who may engage with him in conversation or even be selected to join him in a private meal or shared afterhours evening of conversation and, at some point, sleeping.

Ephemeral gestures and visual presentation are perfectly wed and nuanced within Lee’s works, such as the Nu Wa Project where a kite is released into the sky suggesting its healing by a goddess.The Moving Garden works as both a dramatic installation within the museum space and an extended relational event employing the simple gift of a flower from a visitor to his exhibition to a stranger on the street. I keep coming back to a word that doesn’t come up very often in contemporary art, beauty. We’re critically conditioned to be uncomfortable with that word, but maybe Dave Hickey (an infamous proponent for the maintained relevance of beauty in critical art appraising) issued a wanting snake that’s at play in the institutional space, now, in this case slithering through a Zen garden. Lee’s practice is much more than simply conducting social activities and experiments within museum and gallery settings. There is a refined, sophisticated visual dimension to the work I fear gets overlooked. Lee confirmed this within our correspondence, “Beauty, in both physical and emotional forms, is central to my work. The other essential element is ‘tension’, which magnifies Beauty.”

This expert refinement of form often draws on the dynamic flow between the past and present. (I’ll add that Bourriaud’s indebtness to the concept of time in art-making has not often been given its due.) But Lee’s relationship with the past is less archaeological a model than an act of cross-cultural engagement. His project Through His Master’s Eyes involved inviting both Western and Eastern artists to reproduce works by the Qing-dynasty Chinese painter, Shitao. This exchange is far from cynical and brings about questions of visual inheritance, asking if, indeed, a relational dialogue is possible with a historical predecessor. Lee spent six summers in his youth at a Ch’ an monastery, where his formal training in Chinese literature and painting began. His studies focused on the idea of the void in mainly Song-dynasty Chinese painting.

Lee’s critical acknowledgment of the past, with an emphasis on that of Asia, is shared by curator Kataoka. Her expansion of Bourriaud’s relational aesthetics suggests that it should, critically, include Lee, but also many others such as Ozawa Tsuyoshi, D.T. Suzuki, John Cage, Lee Ufan, Yves Klein, Allan Kaprow, Tanaka Koki and even more distant figures such as Imakita Kōsen and eighteenth-century Zen priest, Hakuin. The exhibition-within-the-exhibition, then, Works for Relationality, features examples such as a Hakuin ink-on-paper painting, Sekishu (One Hand), ostensibly referring to the Zen kōan. Though meant to convey profound transcendental concepts of timelessness, Hakuin’s playful wit is often overlooked. Kataoka extends the relational dialogue through history by including other examples such as Yves Klein’s Leap into the Void (1960) and Ozawa Tsuyoshi’s Vegetable Weapon series of 2001. It’s not easy, at least for a Westerner, to grasp that relationships and connections can include a concept of “nothingness” and “emptiness.” Lee described his time in the Ch’ an monastery, for instance, as an environment of “extreme minimal[ism].” “My teacher would use the simplest natural object such as stones, plants, or snow to share with me the sense of Beauty in everyday encounter,” he writes.

Not to be confused with Western essentialist reading on minimalism, these installations succeed due to their bold, visual simplicity and the confidence of this gesture, whether it was the falling black sand lit iridescently in Between Going and Staying, the black pebbles placed around the dinner setting in The Dining Project, and the swept patterns left in Guernica in Sand.

 Lee Mingwei, " Guernica in Sand ," 2006/2014.

Lee Mingwei, "Guernica in Sand," 2006/2014.

Kataoka posits that “the reassessment of ‘participatory art’ from a Buddhist perspective promises once again to reopen its discussion to a wide context.” Buddhist concepts like pratītyasamutpāda (the chain, or law, of dependent origination) imply a causal relationship of good and bad luck in daily interchange, connected along a temporal axis. Being centered and aware within the present moment also implies an acute awareness of transience and suffering. As the museum director acknowledges, part of the significance of this exhibition was the recognition of healing connections in Japan following the earthquake of 2011. Further, Lee’s The Mending Project originated from the trauma of his partner losing hundreds of colleagues in the World Trade Center. His Guernica in Sand was inspired by American bombings of Iraq in 2003, and obviously draws from Picasso’s artistic response to Nazi air raids in Spain in 1937. In Lee’s Guernica, the work is both walked upon by viewers and swept by performers including the artist himself, keeping its form in flux just as Tibetan sand mandalas are destroyed by the Buddhist monks who create them. Kataoka writes, “To be conscious of the mutual interdependence between all things is also to be aware of the temporal relationships of cause and effect, such as relationality and the in-between.”

The digitalized, virtual space of this very website, it could be argued, is an example of the in-between. One might ask if art criticism and theory are starting to pay more attention to the concepts of the in-between and the void. The theorist Boris Groys writes that as previous eras, signaled by Warhol, Judd, and Duchamp, demonstrated the severing of the body of the artist from the body of the artwork, our current internet-era has only further alienated us and our bodies from the artwork and its multiplying, fragmenting image.

Most of us experience how the fragmentary multiplicity inherent to online social phenomena leaves us alienated even as it affords us new connections. Does relational art, as Bourriaud suggested, act as a proposal to live in a shared world, or fool us, as his critics maintained, into producing in micro-communities? Fumio Nanjo and Mami Kataoka provide the venue for something extraordinary with this exhibition at the Mori Art Museum. They successfully extend the breadth of relational art and its expanding history through Works For Relationality and the dramatically presented relational projects and installations of Lee Mingwei bolster relational art as a platform to contemplate the ephemeral and the void. I would argue these are examples of beauty in time and space as well.

MOMUS : A Return To Art Criticism.
February 18, 2015.

  Jake and Dinos Chapman,   World Peace Through World Domination   (installation view), 2013. Courtesy DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Jake and Dinos Chapman, World Peace Through World Domination (installation view), 2013. Courtesy DHC/ART Foundation for Contemporary Art. Photo: Richard-Max Tremblay.

Jake and Dinos Chapman Dazzle in Montreal, by Matthew Carver

“And when he had opened the fourth seal, I heard the voice of the fourth beast say, Come and see. And I looked, and behold a pale horse: and his name that sat on him was Death, and Hell followed with him.” —The Book of Revelation

Dark visions from the final book of the New Testament have inspired countless artists over the centuries. Among them is Soviet Russian director Elem Klimov, who used “come and see” as the title of his 1985 war drama/psychological thriller, and British artists Jake and Dinos Chapman, who have also borrowed the phrase for the title of their current exhibition at DHC/ART in Montreal—their first major North American solo show.

In his 1987 New York Times review of Klimov’s film, Walter Goodman wrote, “scene for scene, Mr. Klimov proves a master of a sort of unreal realism that seeks to get at events terrible beyond comprehension.” This sentence could also describe the work of the Chapmans, and other film references beyond Klimov that proliferate throughout the “Come and See” exhibition.

Kino Klub (2013) is an installation that brings together excerpts from the Chapmans’ own short films. It’s impossible to make a film outside of the narrative of film history, and Jake and Dinos are well aware of the significance of dialogue in their practice—whether that be dialogue with art of the past, or dialogue with each other. In an April 2 artist’s talk at DHC/ART, Jake Chapman called the brothers’ practice “a long conversation” and “a discursive activity before it’s a reflective activity.” It’s also intensely well-crafted: they throw themselves physically into the work and physically exhaust both themselves and the viewer. They question the role and identity of the artist, as well as the myth of the genius working alone in the studio.

A work viewers encounter on the first floor of the exhibition is Kontamination examination of the significunt material related to human eXistenZ on earth (2009). It’s a vitrine with a laboratory of sorts inside; essentially, their studio in a box. The titular reference to a David Cronenberg film is meaningful, as the viewing of art can lead us to question the very nature of the real, the virtual, and the shifting ground we walk upon—themes Cronenberg often takes to heart in his work.

The relentlessness of the Chapmans’ practice, the intense production of the work, and its excess to the point of overkill are often mentioned by those writing about their art—but even more important, and easy to forget, are its slippages. At the artist’s talk, Jake called such slippages the “glitch in the matrix”—a phrase that comes from yet another film, The Matrix, which referred to such phenomena as a source of déja vu.

One instance of slippage in the Chapmans’ oeuvre exists in the catalogue for “Come and See,” co-published by London’s Serpentine, which originated the show. In that text, Jake presents us with Professor Gregory Fourier and his fascination and passion for Chlamydia Love, a character whose reality is one we come to question: “And yet, with each solid footstep planted up the ramp in his direction, the sublime ‘otherness’ so characteristic of Chlamydia Love’s esoteric televisual form begins crossfading before Fourier’s very own eyes.”

Indeed, a sense of crossfading is what makes the work of the Chapmans so rewarding overall. You can give an artwork that extra push over the cliff—”take it to eleven,” to point to a film I didn’t see referenced in the exhibition (This is Spinal Tap)—but to do so doesn’t always mean losing a sense of subtlety. The Chapmans certainly know how to push it, go big and shock. But they also know when to rein it in, respect the act of viewing, and offer the opportunity for visitors to inspect and discover.

For instance, these artists often employ a concept of the low. Take the Chapmans’Shitrospective (2009), in which they poke fun at the grand artist survey with what is essentially a room-sized maquette of their entire oeuvre made out of shoddy, impoverished materials such as cardboard and toilet-paper rolls. Yet this use of the low isn’t devoid of confidence. Another example is their Little Death Machine (Castrated, Ossified) (2006). It takes self-assurance to skilfully render studio objects and detritus in bronze and then paint them to look like crap.

And yes, spotting the “glitch in the matrix,” as the Chapmans put it, is the true reward of this exhibition. For instance, on a more obvious level, there are the rainbow socks and Birkenstocks on the feet of the Klansmen sculptures placed throughout the exhibition. But a glitch can be subtler, such as in the use of materials that are not what they seem. Carved wood from works in CHAPMAN FAMILY COLLECTION (2002) is actually cast-and-painted bronze. These are artists who, for all their bravado, came to recognize that perhaps the most subversive gesture one can apply to a Hitler landscape painting is not to add Nazi zombie storm troopers, but a rainbow.

Jake and Dinos are tricksters. To put it in more contemporary artspeak, they are Nicolas Bourriaud’s semionauts, engaging as much with time as material, with a “vision of history as a spiral, which advances while turning back upon itself.” Engaging with art history is easy, but it takes confidence to see the contemporary—the now—as part of the conversation.

For all its shock and awe, the Chapmans’ work is funny, and it creates engagement through employment of the carnivalesque. As political theorist Andrew Robinson writes, “Carnivalesque images often use an approach [Russian theorist Mikhail] Bakhtin terms ‘grotesque realism,’ drawing on ‘the idea of the grotesque.’” This style transgresses the boundaries between bodily life and the field of art. It also, writes Robinson, “celebrates incompleteness, transgression and the disruption of expectations.”

So the fact that it takes thousands of studio hours to render one of the Chapmans’ intricate figurine-filled dioramas isn’t really what’s significant here. What is significant is that the scariest figures within one of these dioramas, The Sum of All Evil (2012–13), are not skeletons, but Ronald McDonalds.

Many of the Chapmans’ interventions with pre-existing artwork—such as their famous painting-over of a set of Goya’s Disasters of War prints in 2003—verge on graffiti. We’ve seen some of these strategies in artmaking before, with Jean Dubuffet tackling the horrors of war and the Holocaust in paintings such as 1945’s Wall with Inscriptions, works that seemed embedded with a prescience of the graffiti-tagging to come. Such methods are also apparent in Manuel Ocampo’s 1992 painting Untitled (Burnt Out Europe), with its appropriation of the swastika.

But in yet another unexpected turn during their artist talk, when the Chapmans were asked by Canadian painter Joe Becker what other artist they would want to, in his words, “tackle,” Dinos replied, “We wanted to get the Rauschenberg-erased deKooning and redraw it.”

DHC/ART director Phoebe Greenberg and curator Cheryl Sim travelled to Hong Kong and Seoul, among other places, in development of this exhibition. We should thank them for bringing the Chapman brothers’ rich studio dialogues to Canada.

Canadian Art online.
May 5, 2014.

 Zhang Xiaogang  A Big Family , 1995, Oil on canvas, 1.79x2.29m courtesy Saatchi Gallery, London,  ©  Zhang Xiaogang

Zhang Xiaogang A Big Family, 1995, Oil on canvas, 1.79x2.29m courtesy Saatchi Gallery, London, © Zhang Xiaogang

China Time, by Matthew Carver

Three hours into the grand opening of the new Saatchi Gallery last year, I was a little tired of hearing people praise the space but deride Charles Saatchi’s choice to open the sprawling, converted Georgian site at the former headquarters of the Duke of York with the exhibition “The Revolution Continues: New Chinese Art.” For more than a few years, critics had been chattering about Saatchi’s irrelevance, and in the three years since he’d moved the gallery from County Hall on the Thames to Sloane Square in Chelsea, they’d had time to sharpen their knives. The newly renovated building’s soaring rooms are gorgeous and impeccably lit, and in the context of the then-new news of falling world financial markets, many there actually seemed relieved to see such outright confidence from a collector. But that didn’t still the criticism of contemporary art from China, and the unfairness of the remarks made that night still rankles.

For anyone who has been to China, it is a different story. Making one’s way around Beijing to explore artists’ studios, one cannot help but be struck by the city’s ring roads. These are huge circular highways surrounding the urban centre; each newly added ring opens up and yet simultaneously closes off the city. It is hard not to read them as a metaphor for the networks of capital circling contemporary art in China; there has been so much blending of art and investment that it has distracted us from giving the art its due.

When I first arrived in Beijing in 2006, I crashed on the sofa of my artist friends Meng Jin and Fang Er (Jin frequently moved the sofa to make room to paint). On our expeditions through the city, we travelled in taxis, moving in and out of the ring roads to visit studios and scout the 798 District, where my friends were searching for a site to set up a studio/gallery/project space. They eventually found a place, moved in, put on shows and then moved again to a better two-storey location in a more central business district to which other galleries were gravitating. The rate of change in Beijing is mind-boggling. Part of 798 District, for example, was formerly a factory complex used mostly by the military. Since its reinvention as a place where artists gathered, its fate had mirrored that of such districts around the world: the artists come, galleries and services follow, then rents go up. In 798 District they had risen around 900% in five years.

One day, I made a visit to the studio of the artist Shi Jinsong. Well removed from 798 District, his place was located next to that of the artist Bai Yiluo. Both had recently begun to pull in money for their work but this hadn’t yet translated into improved working conditions. They had found these studios in a hurry, after their former premises were demolished by the government. The air in the new place was browner and more full of dust than elsewhere in the city, and every five minutes the ground would shake. In their rush to find a new location, these two had overlooked the fact that their building complex included a test site for new trains. Shi Jinsong showed us about half a dozen of his fantastical stainless-steel sculptures. My friend Fang Er whispered that she’d heard they had all been sold, even though their first public showing was months away. Shi talked a bit about the tractors from the countryside that had inspired their shapes, but I was so in awe of the sums of money that were apparently rolling into this unlikely place that it was months before I began to think seriously about his sculptures. Their morphing steel shapes allude to American chopper-style motorcycles, but they are also a loaded reference to and subversion of the tractors so associated with the collective farms of Mao’s Great Leap Forward.

Myopia is nothing new when it comes to Western perspectives on art from Asia. Impressionism wouldn’t have happened if examples of Japanese ukiyo-e art depicting the Yoshiwara district of Tokyo hadn’t made their way into the hands of certain artists in France. In the 20th century, the American Abstract Expressionists were admired for engaging with a calligraphic impulse, while their abstractionist counterparts in Asia were considered derivative. I observed this bias against Asian art while in grad school in London and wondered whether it was only snobbery; one of the most underappreciated dynamics within world culture over the last few centuries has been the back-and-forth exchange between East and West.

A decade ago, I started experimenting with anamorphosis— whereby a distorted image appears normal when viewed from a particular perspective or via a lens or mirror—in my own art practice. According to my initial reading, anamorphic art came to Asia from Europe; it was apparently shown to the Chinese by the Jesuits. Digging further, I found that anamorphic art in China predated the arrival of the Jesuits by centuries. In fact, the earliest Jesuits most likely brought examples of work made in this style from China to Europe and then made anamorphic art of their own, featuring religious iconography where the Chinese art often engaged with sexual content.

So what transpired at the Saatchi opening in London last October was nothing new. Art is a dialogue. I believe that painting has its own distinct language. We think about it in the studio, we argue about it with other painters over pints of beer and we recognize it in the paintings of others. The paintings of Zhang Xiaogang, who was included in the Saatchi show, have elicited a lot of negative commentary. When I looked at them in person, I thought of Gerhard Richter, a painter who hadn’t come to mind before I saw the work first-hand. But Xiaogang’s horizontal blurs were pleasingly subtle and seemed more about setting a mood than anything formal. The simply formed white highlights in his figures’ eyes reminded me of Svetlana Alpers’s writing on Dutch still-life painting; white blobs of paint were seen for the first time in these works as artists made use of the newly invented optical lens. Art shows us not just what we see but more importantly how we see, which is important to note as technology constantly changes our ways of seeing the world. An image may sit squarely in front of us or have been filtered endlessly before reaching us. Zhang Xiaogang’s work, for example, starts with the detritus of faded photos of Chinese families, while the arresting figures in the paintings of Feng Zhengjie have been borrowed from fashionable advertising. Xiaogang’s source material in particular is interestingly loaded; family portraits were banned in the time of Mao.

 Wu Xiaojun,  Gift , 2006, Neon light, 15m high

Wu Xiaojun, Gift, 2006, Neon light, 15m high

Noticeably absent from Saatchi’s show was much of the new photography coming from artists in China. Wu Xiaojun’s photos of geckos standing up to toy tanks would have been perfect for this show, as would have Ai Weiwei’s works giving the finger to the White House as well as Tiananmen Square, or Han Lei’s figurative studies, or the posed scenarios of Li Wei. An image of a work by Wu Xiaojun—an installation featuring a giant neon lightning bolt— could have served as an elegant comment on the current boom moment in Chinese art and would have been a welcome inclusion. The paintings in Saatchi’s show were dismissed by their critics as illustrative and repetitive. One overheard the often-used refrain: “It’s derivative of art from the West.” Yet what was likely making people cringe when they thought about an artist like Zhang Xiaogang was the issue of money, especially Charles Saatchi’s money. Saatchi doesn’t play by the art world’s rules. He doesn’t operate discreetly or manipulate markets from behind the scenes, sitting quietly on boards of directors and advising public institutions on what to buy. He puts the art up in his own grand space, where his interests are out in the open.

 Ai Weiwei,  Study of Perspective-Tiananmen Square , 1995-2003, Black-and-white print, 90cm x 1.27m, Courtesy Ai Wei Wie/Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne

Ai Weiwei, Study of Perspective-Tiananmen Square, 1995-2003, Black-and-white print, 90cm x 1.27m, Courtesy Ai Wei Wie/Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing and Lucerne

Many prominent Chinese artists don’t play by Western rules either. Many, like Ai Weiwei, spent years in poverty in the West and then returned to China, where they later became successes. Ai left China in 1981 and returned in 1993, a few years after Tiananmen Square, into what he described as a period of spiritual pollution. He put on a show entitled “Fuck Off” as a response to the Shanghai Biennale in 2000 and told me that he never sold an artwork until 2004, making a living instead via his architectural practice (Ai worked on Beijing’s National Stadium—known colloquially as the “Bird’s Nest”—but refuses to visit it, and designed most of the galleries in the Caochangdi neighbourhood where he lives and works).

 The artists Meng Jin and Fang Er search for studio/gallery space in Beijing's 798 District, September 2006

The artists Meng Jin and Fang Er search for studio/gallery space in Beijing's 798 District, September 2006

It is tempting to generalize about artists we view as a group and to look for commonalities. It is also easy to confuse the world of the market and commerce with issues in art criticism and theory. Lived experience keeps us in touch with the truth: I’ve been in such unlikely locations as the backlots of Singapore’s Little India, where, one night, artists gathered in a group to talk about their work as they projected it on cinder-block walls. At the beginning of the evening someone had the task of making an announcement that this was an informal grouping of friends; the government bans unauthorized public gatherings. We were only a kilometre or two from the office towers of some of the world’s most powerful investment bankers, who were possibly inquiring right at that moment about auction prices for the latest paintings of Zhang Xiaogang. But in the backlot there was talk about the video work being made by Vietnamese artists, and the exciting painting scene in Manila, where one sees Catholic iconography subverted with sexual content and pop sensibilities. The dialogic nature of art persists, markets notwithstanding.

It will be interesting to see how the boom/bust cycle we are currently in affects not only what we see in terms of art in China but how we see it. The artist Han Lei told me in 2006 that the boom represented a very important phase in the development of the Chinese art scene. It was a mess, he said, but there were so many different artists working and such a vibrancy to the scene that it wasn’t all that important why curators and collectors were coming to seek out the art.

During my most recent trip to Beijing, in January, 2008, some friends took me to see the studios of the art students at the China Central Academy. Room after room was filled with precise, some- what stiff photorealist paintings. It was only as we entered the rooms of the second- and third-year students that the work loosened up. I’d make a joking comment about a still life: “Was Giorgio Morandi here last week?” “Yes,” came the sincere reply, “he was a big discovery for some last year…If you look over there, you’ll see how much of an influence Marlene Dumas was recently too.”

Downstairs, the bookstore was a hub of activity, with students poring over recently arrived monographs on Western artists. Globalization isn’t just for the West—the 4,000 fortunate art students at the China Central Academy may be struggling to find their own styles and voices, but thousands and thousands of other Chinese artists struggle with poverty; only a few succeed commercially and can command Saatchi-level prices. The young artists in the bookstore can draw upon Western art just as freely as we’ve been pulling from Asian art for centuries. There is no question: if art is a dialogue, these young artists want in. The question is whether the West is ready for it to be a two-way discussion.

SPOTLIGHT: This series of essays on emerging Canadian artists in sponsored by the Fraser Elliott Foundation in Memory of Betty Ann Elliott

Canadian Art.
Summer 2009 issue.
Volume 26 Number 2


‘William Kentridge’, Matthew Carver, Border Crossings magazine, Issue 132, 
December 2014, Volume 33, Number 4.

‘Garry Neill Kennedy’, Matthew Carver, Border Crossings magazine, Issue 126, June 2013, Volume 32, Number 2.

‘’Bastards of Misrepresentation: Doing Time on Filipino Time’, Matthew Carver, Border Crossings magazine, Issue 117, March 2011, Volume 30, Number 1.