Posts tagged: New York

Just For Fun – Art Review: Xu Bing’s Phoenix

By , March 10, 2014

P1000203There are those pieces of art that are truly transformative; that can change the way you see the world and remind you of the humanity of this united struggle we call life.  Picasso’s Guernica is one such work.  Now there is Xu Bing‘s (pronounced Sue Bing) recent installation – Phoenix.

Housed in New York’s Cathedral of St. John the Divine, Phoenix is nothing less than iconic.  Back in 2008, Xu, who had just returned to Beijing after 18 years in New York City, was commissioned to create an art installation for a glass atrium in Beijing’s soon-to-be-completed World Financial Center.  It was Xu’s visits to the construction site that proved to be the inspiration for the work.  After seeing the paltry conditions for the migrant construction workers and the primitive construction techniques, Xu used much of the scrap left over from the site to create two massive and powerful phoenixes, an homage to those nameless workers who built one of Beijing’s most modern skyscrapers.

For those who have spent time in China, the materials that create the birds’ gritty skeletons are familiar: faded red, white and blue plastic tarps serves as wings, bamboo poles as the ribs, and old hand cement mixers for the birds’ heads.  But the message of these phoenixes is fresh.  As one of my companions noted, the simplicity of birds’ frames monumentalizes the laborers and workers who built one of Beijing’s fancier skyscrapers and who have largely been left behind.

But this was not a message that Beijing was ready for.  Reflecting how far removed the People’s Republic is from its socialist

The Phoenix Rises (click for larger image)

The Phoenix Rises (click for larger image)

rhetoric, the real estate mogul who commissioned the work requested that Xu cover the phoenixes’ rough frames  with nothing less than crystals.  Fortunately, Xu, schooled in the Socialist Realism style, refused to change his art.

Since 2010, the Phoenixes, and Xu’s homage to those invisible workers who have literally built China’s new society, have traveled around the world.  But seeing the Phoenixes suspended in flight in the nave of a Gothic cathedral is truly spectacular.  It elevates an amazing piece of art – and the message that infuses it – to an almost sacred and divine realm.  As we walked the nave this past Sunday, studying all the construction site scraps that created the birds,  the choir practiced at the altar, giving the phoenixes an angelic feel.

Phoenix is on display through 2014 and should not be missed.  Admission to Cathedral is free but a suggested donation of $10 is politely requested (and well worth it to help support this piece as well as the Church’s important community outreach and services).

Beijing Air Pollution – A Silver Lining on the Smog Cloud?

By , January 12, 2013

The air pollution reached off-the-chart dangerous levels today in Beijing and will likely remain that way until Tuesday.  Saturday afternoon, the United States Embassy, which has been publicly reporting Beijing air pollution from its monitoring site in the Chaoyang area of Beijing since 2008, recorded Air Quality Index (AQI) numbers of over 800.  AQI of 301-500 is considered hazardous where all outdoor physical should be avoided.  Beijing authorities were advising all residents to stay indoors.  What does 700-800 AQI look like?  Here are some pics:

These pictures of Beijing are gross.  But they aren’t that much different from pictures of New York City in the 1950s and 1960s, or London during the same time.  New York alone had three notorious smog disasters – 1952, 1962 and 1966.  The causes were similar  – a cold winter resulting increased use of coal; factories surrounding the city; and the exhaust from dirty trucks and cars. For New York and the United States, these smog incidents were a turning point.  Five to ten years later, the Clean Air Act was passed with a vigorous enforcement mechanism.  Since the early 1990s, less than a generation later, pollution in New York City remains relatively low (vis a vis the 1966).

So will these pictures serve to bring change to China, specifically in enforcement of its environmental standards?  Perhaps.  What might also bring change is the fact that the Chinese government – a one-party authoritarian regime – can no longer hide extremely hazardous pollution.  This might sound strange to those who don’t follow China regularly, but it was shockingly reassuring to hear that it was the Beijing government that was advising people to stay indoors.  Xinhua even honestly reported that AQI exceeded 900.  It’s rare to see such transparency from the Chinese government.

I believe a lot of this transparency is the effect of one thing: the U.S. Embassy’s hourly publication of Beijing’s AQI.  In 2008, the U.S. Embassy began to measure Beijing air quality, publishing it through a twitter feed.  Although the twitter feed is blocked in China, many popular Chinese websites pick up the feed and publish it inside the Great Firewall.  To call this an thorn in the Chinese government’s side is an understatement.  In 2009, according to Wikileaks, at a meeting with the Ministry of Foreign Affairs (“MFA”), Embassy personnel were informed that the hourly publication of the Embassy’s AQI was “confusing” to Chinese people and could result in unexpected “social consequences.”  MFA requested that access to the feed be limited to only foreigners.  The Embassy did not give in.

Thus, likely in order to restore its credibility, in early 2012, the Beijing municipal government began to publish its own AQI numbers from a site on the other side of Beijing.  While at times these numbers may differ (with the U.S. numbers usually showing a more hazardous level), so far for this smog disaster the numbers have remained relatively the same: both off-the-charts pollution levels.

So while this pollution is horrible, it demonstrates perhaps the impact of seemingly small, stubborn policies – here the U.S. Embassy reporting in real time Beijing’s true pollution – in bringing greater transparency to a Chinese government that otherwise would not have to.  Perhaps now that Beijing is honest with its own people, it will be set on a course to reform its laws and relegate pollution like today’s to  episodes of Mad Men.

 

Just For Fun: The Printed Image In China – 8th to 21st Century

From The Printed Image in China: Qing Dynasty "Folkloric" Print

For many, wood block prints are synonymous with all things Japanese.  But as “The Printed Image in China” – a traveling show from the British Museum currently on view at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art – demonstrates, such a perception is totally wrong since it was China that first developed the technology, allowed it to flourish and made it an integral part of its culture and history.  The Printed Image in China is a must see, but must be seen by the end of July before it closes on the 29th.

This small, six gallery show begins with the earliest known prints in the world.  Although the Gutenberg Bible, printed in 1454, is commonly referred to as the first printed book, in reality, China was printing books, through wood block printing technology, as early as the 700s (likely even earlier).  The Diamond Sutra, purchased by Hungarian-British explorer Marc Aurel Stein in 1907 from a monk in the Dunhuang region of China, is the earliest, dated printed book in the world, with a date of 868 A.D.

Although the Diamond Sutra is not part of the show, some of the thousands of other ancient manuscripts that were a part of Stein’s Dunhuang purchase and estimated to have been printed around the same time if not earlier, start this phenomenal show.  For prints from the early Tang Dynasty (618 A.D. – 907 A.D.), the detail is truly astounding.  In particular, “Bodhisattva Mahapratisara with the Text of ‘Da Sui qiu tuoluoni,‘” gives one pause, reciting an entire sutra within the print along with detailed pictures of Guanyin, making one wonder about the difficulty of carving it and the patience required.

The show then jumps to prints to the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644), where the technology of wood block truly began to thrive and the industry flourished.  During the Ming, the use of multiple colors on a print – by carving different blocks for each color – developed, producing glorious prints that accurately copied the famous paintings of the day.  Later on in the show an entire gallery – and a highlight – is dedicated to demonstrating the genius of this technique with actual replicas of the differently colored blocks that would be used to create a single picture.  It’s easy to linger in that room, studying the intricacies of the method.

Wood block printing continued and peaked as an art form during the Qing Dynasty (1644-1911).  By the middle Qing, wood block printing was

Etching of Qianlong Battle (c. 1770) in the European Style

becoming its own art form.  Whereas the goal of the Ming artists was to make the wood block prints appear as much as a painting as possible, the Qing artists began to experiment with more vibrant colors (think hot pink) and thinner paper which resulted in an embossed, tactile texture to the print, making it obvious this was not a painting.  In addition, under the Emperor Qianlong (1711-1799), China experimented with the use of copper plates, prevalent in Europe at that time, Viewing some the etchings of famous European battles that the Jesuits priests brought with them to court, Emperor Qianlong (1711 – 1799) commissioned Matteo Ripa to create copper-plated etchings of Qianlong’s own battles.

A high point of the show is the “folkloric” prints found in the third gallery.  Unlike the pieces found in prior galleries, these prints – exploding with color – would have been everyday art, hung for New Years in an average person’s home.  Depicting the doorway gods and the Kitchen God, these prints – dating to the mid to late 1800s – were likely purchased directly by British that were in China at the time and viewed them as art to be maintained.  For the Chinese, these pictures were utilitarian in that they warded of the spirits for that year and, in keeping with tradition, would have been burned in preparation for the next New Year.

Li Hua's Raging Tide - Example of Modern Woodcut Movement

The final century, the 20th century, saw a renaissance of the wood block not just once but twice.  With the fall of the Qing, the uncertain rule of the Nationalists and the impending invasion of the country by the Japanese, the average Chinese was suffering.  Author Lu Xun (1881 – 1936), along with Li Shutong, were the major proponents of the “Modern Woodcut Movement” which used the sharpness of the woodcuts to reflect the harshness of daily existence in China.  By the 1920s, woodcutting was on the rise throughout the world and would become a common medium for many artists attempting to depict and democratize the misery of the average individual.    China was right along with Western nations in using the art form to communicate democratizing thoughts.

Wood block printing had a second 20th century renaissance under Chairman Mao Zedong (1949 – 1976).  With the founding of the People’s Republic of China, the government became the only patron of the arts and art was there to only to serve the government.  With the Communists, mass production became essential and where as in the past, wood carving was only one technique an artist might used, under the Mao, with its ability to create rapid reproductions for wide dissemination, wood carving would become a sole medium for many of the state-employed artists.  As a result, a talented pool of woodcutters emerged, taking the skill of the craft to the next level; the artists were able to use the wood block prints to create a feel to the different materials and emotions depicted in the print.

With the death of Mao in 1976 and the re-emergence of the market economy, these artists have continued with their crafted, creating new wood blocks prints that express their own emotions instead of the Party line.

The Printed Imagine in China is a must see show before it closes on July 29 but not just for the astounding prints that fill every gallery in this show.  What also emerges from this show and the careful way it has been laid out and described, is how this art form is an integral part of China’s political and cultural legacy and will be a part of its artistic future.  From the first gallery, wood block prints were printed for political reasons -

Post 1980 Woodcut: Wu Jide - Chatting over Tea

with the Tang, the politics was religion.  Spreading Buddhism was essential to the Tang Dynasty and the wood block prints, with its quicker way to reproduce the Buddha’s teaching, was important to that goal.

Under the Ming, spreading the literati culture became its own mission.  Across the Empire, a cultural language arose amongst the elites – an educated man needed to have certain books on his shelves and certain paintings on his walls.  Wood block printing created that mass culture among the literati.  With the Qing dynasty, a foreign dynasty ruled by the Manchu people as opposed to the Han Chinese, wood block printing was used to solidify its rule, especially with the  battle depictions of Emperor Qianlong.  For much of the 20th Century, first under the Modern Woodcut Movement of Lu Xun and then the Communists of Mao Zedong, the political message was clear; under Mao, it was required.

Unlike the centuries before, the 21st century finds the art form – perhaps for the first time – unhinged from any political purpose.  As the final gallery, with its post-1980s wood block prints, confirmed, the art form has exciting, new places to go that will do justice to its long history.

Tang Dynasty Wood Block Print - ca. late 700s A.D. (from the Dunhuang Purchase)

The Printed Image in China: 8th through 21st Century
The Metropolitan Museum of Art
(on loan from the British Museum)
1000 Fifth Ave (at 82nd Street)
New York, NY
Through July 29, 2012

NYC Event – How are Legal Services Administered In China – Mar 12

By , March 7, 2012

 

Light refreshments will be served at the China Chat!

Hopkins Nanjing Center and Asia Catalyst are sponsoring an informal “China Chat” about legal services organizations in China.  Lawyers from the All China Environment Federation and from the Beijing Migrant Worker Legal Aid Station will speak about their work, cases they have brought and obstacles they have faced.  We read about the work of many of these lawyers in the New York Times and the South China Morning Post, but rarely is there an opportunity to hear directly for the lawyers doing the work themselves.

 

RSVP is required to this exciting event: skrumm@asiactalyst.org

 

March 12, 2012
6:30 pm – 8 pm
Ethan Cohen Fine Arts Gallery (ECFA)
14 Jay Street
Tribeca, New York, NY

Directions:  Take the #1 subway to Franklin Street, walk one block west to Hudson and two blocks south to Jay Street, make a right. ECFA is on the left-hand side going toward Greenwich.

Light Refreshments will be served!

Please RSVP to skrumm@asiacatalyst.org

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