Posts tagged: art

The Jewish Museum profiled the 19th-century version of the Sacklers — and glossed over the devastation they caused

By , July 13, 2023

Originally published in The Forward.

Lin Zexu in NYC’s Chinatown. Photo courtesy of LuHungnguong/Wikimedia

About six miles south of The Jewish Museum in New York, where an exhibit on the Jewish British merchant family, the Sassoons, is on view until Aug. 13, lies Chinatown’s Chatham Square. In the center of the square is a bronze statue of Qing Dynasty official Lin Zexu. The words “Pioneer in the War Against Drugs” are carved into the red granite pedestal upon which he proudly stands, in recognition of his efforts to rid China of opium in the mid-1800s.

By the time Lin became a government official in the 1830s, an estimated 10% of the Chinese population was addicted to opium (compare that to 3.8% of the U.S. population that abuse opioids today, which we consider an epidemic).

The Sassoon family dominated the opium trade in China, and the exhibit honoring them displays numerous treasures and artifacts they were able to collect, thanks to their opium-fueled wealth. In an age where the Sackler family’s name is being removed from museum buildings because of its ties to the U.S. opioid epidemic, it is no longer appropriate to celebrate artifacts like the ones the Sassoons were able to collect because they profited from China’s addiction without the full context.

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Portrait of David Sassoon. Attributed to William Melville. Oil on canvas; 41 ½ × 33 in. (105.4 × 83.8 cm). Private Collection/The Jewish Museum

Just For Fun: Art Review – Ai Weiwei’s “According to What?”

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

Artist & Activist Ai Weiwei

For sure the best part of the Brooklyn Museum’s current exhibition of Ai Weiwei‘s (pronounced Eye Way-Way) retrospective – “According to What?” – is that it was able to obtain the six dioramas Ai made of his 81-day detention by Chinese authorities. The dioramas visually demonstrates the utter absurdity of the Chinese police state. This alone mandates that this exhibit not be missed.

But the second best part? That the Brooklyn Museum did not place Ai’s works in a vacuum. Instead, Ai’s exhibit is one of four fascinating exhibits concerning art and social activism. Any visit to Ai’s exhibit should be accompanied by a viewing of at least one of these other shows. If you get there before July 13, definitely check out “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” as a contrasting exhibit to Ai’s and as a powerful reminder of America’s own checkered past and unclear future concerning civil and human rights.

“According to What?” is not just a retrospective of Ai’s art but also an explanation of

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

Ai Photo of Police & Protestors at Washington Square Park, 1988

his activism. One of the most revealing parts of the exhibition is Ai’s photographs from 1980s New York City, covering the decade when Ai lived in the city. Through Ai’s photographs, we see what he saw: constant protests in various city parks, face-to-face confrontation with the police, the beginnings of the AIDs crisis and its activism, the grit of 1980s New York City. When later on in the exhibit you watch a video of Ai challenging the Chinese police and demanding accountability, you can’t help but think back to the photos of bloody protesters in Tompkins Square Park and wonder if this is what influences Ai to be the agitator that he has become.

But Ai wasn’t always such an agitator. Unfortunately the exhibition gives only short shrift to his prior – and government-accepted – work. In overlooking this aspect of Ai’s career, the exhibit also fails to fully explain the spark that radicalized his art – the Sichuan earthquake. After an 8.0 magnitude earthquake rocked Sichuan province, Ai traveled to the region and saw the hundreds of shoddily-built schoolhouses that completely fell, killing the children in them. All the while surrounding government buildings remained standing. Seeing the thousands of children’s backpacks lying in the rubble and the fact that the government-controlled press was not acknowledging the “tofu-dreg construction,” Ai took matters into his own hands, undertaking a “Citizen’s Investigation” and uncovering the names of the 5,196 children killed.

The gallery with Ai's Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including "Straight"

The gallery with Ai’s Sichuan earthqake remembrance art, including “Straight”

In “Sichuan Name List,” Ai lists the name, age, school and address of every single child killed.   It is the layout of this work – the 5,196 names line an entire wall of the gallery, from top of the ten foot wall to bottom – that forms the art work. Only in seeing this can one even begin to attempt to understand the enormity of the loss. The work is accompanied by “Remembrance” a three-and-a-half audio recording of strangers from around the world speaking the name of every single child that perished. Lying in the center of the gallery are the steel rebar from the shoddy construction – all of which have been straightened back to their original form.

Ai’s homage to the victims of the Sichuan earthquake is powerful. It is also the reason why Ai is so dangerous to the Chinese Communist Party (“CCP”).   To maintain its power, the CCP needs to retain its monopoly on Chinese history. Since the founding of the People’s Republic, it is the CCP that writes the country’s history; not its people. Tiananmen? Never happened. Mao Zedong? Only 10% wrong. The Cultural Revolution? Not a descent into madness, just a little blip on the radar screen. Here, Ai – who is an influential figure since his father, Ai Qing, was a well-known and respected poet – is attempting to write the people’s history. It’s that attempt that the CCP sees as an assault on its rule.

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

Never Lonely! Friendly little guards are there and everywhere!

But if you think that is overreacting, then check out the six half-life size dioramas that Ai made of his 81 day detention. In 2011, Ai was detained by the public security bureau allegedly on tax fraud charges although the general consensus is that it was the government’s failed attempt to silence his activism. Ai designed each five-foot tall diorama with a window where the viewer can look in and see Ai in his room. In the first room, things don’t look so bad. It looks more like a hotel room than a jail cell. But as you progress and look into each scene, you begin to realize the absurdity of what is going on here. Two guards are with Ai at every moment, watching him. As he eats, as he sleeps, even when he showers. The guards are there, standing over him, watching his every move. Is this jolly, chubby man really that dangerous?

With so much of Ai’s art involving his interaction with the authorities, “According to What?” raises the question – has social activism become Ai’s art? And is this good for either: should activism merely be theater; should art be so much protest? By situating “According to What?” with other activist art, the Brooklyn Museum has largely answered those questions – art does not exist in a vacuum nor should we want it to.

Philip Guston's City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum's Witness Exhibit

Philip Guston’s City Limits (1969), part of BK Museum’s Witness Exhibit

For Americans, viewing “Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” will demonstrate that art and activism go hand-and-hand and that we can and should respect the artist for both. It will also serve as an emotional reminder of our own dirty little past. But in the end, it will make you wonder – while these tactics worked in 1960s America, a largely democratic society, will they also work in Ai’s authoritarian China? One hopes that Ai’s art is not in vain, but, as China’s new regime even more violently cracks down on any purported challenge to its rule, only the future can tell.


Witness: Art and Civil Rights in the Sixties” is only on view at the Brooklyn Museum until July 13, 2014. “According to What?” is on view until August 10, 2014. This will be the exhibit’s final stop on its international tour. While entrance to the Brooklyn Museum is a suggested donation of $12, “According to What?” is a required $15 ticket (which includes price of general admission). Note that the dioramas of Ai’s detention are on the first floor before purchasing tickets and thus can be viewed for free.

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).

What’s Up with Chinese Contemporary Art: An Interview with Brian Wallace

By , December 28, 2012

Red Gate Gallery’s founder, Brian Wallace

If you want to understand Chinese contemporary art, a conversation with Brian Wallace is a must.  Although a humble man, much of China’s contemporary art field is a result of Wallace’s early efforts.  In 1991, barely a decade into Deng Xiaoping’s dismantling of the socialist economic state and only two years after the Tian’anmen crackdown, Wallace opened China’s first contemporary art gallery, Red Gate Gallery.  Housed in the infamous Dongbianmen Watchtower in Beijing, for the past 21 years, Red Gate has been a mainstay in the Chinese contemporary art field, identifying and promoting some of China’s best-known artists.

With its 21st anniversary and it’s current exhibit – 20th+1 where older, established Chinese contemporary artists identify some of China’s up-and-coming young artists – China Law & Policy sat down with Wallace to discuss the beginnings of China’s contemporary art movement, the impact of the hot art market on Chinese art and the future of the field.

Red Gate’s current exhibit – 20th+1 which identifies some of Chinese up-and-coming young artist – is only open for a few more days, until December 31, 2012.  So if you want to see some great pieces, better high-tail it to Beijing’s Watchtower to check out Red Gate’s show.

Click here to listen to the audio of the interview with Red Gate Gallery’s founder, Brian Wallace
Length: 17:35 minutes (audio will open in a separate browser)

Click here to open a PDF of the transcript of the Brian Wallace Interview

[01:00] EL:  Thank you Brian for inviting us today.  I want to start with the beginning and a simple question.  Why?  What made you think to open a contemporary art gallery in Beijing when no one else had?  And what was it about 1991 that caused you to open it? 

[01:14] BW:  Thanks Liz.  While I was at University here studying Chinese language, my Chinese friends were artists.  So back in the ’80s I started to help them organize exhibitions at different venues around town.  As you know there were no commercial galleries, no private galleries.  So we had to hire different spaces and these turned out to be Ming dynasty buildings; structures like the Ancient Observatory – that is where I was doing shows in ’88 and ’89.  But other groups of artists were organizing shows at the Temple of Longevity, the Temple of Law, the Confucian Testing Center and such places which were empty and in some cases in quite bad states of repair.

[02:02]But anyway we were able to use those places.  So during those few years I got to know many of the artists and enjoyed helping them

One of the remaining vestiges of Beijing’s Ming Dynasty city walls, the Dongbianmen Watchtower. Since 1991 it has housed Red Gate Gallery.

while I was studying Chinese language at the same time.

[02:14] In 1989 everything stopped of course, so I went to the Central Academy of Fine Arts and did a bridging course in contemporary Chinese art history.  Not that there was much of that at that time.  Then in ’91, I’d been here for 5 years and was wondering what I was going to do – go back to Australia or look for a job.  It made me think about what we had been doing and we thought we would try and open a gallery at the Observatory.  So we went back there and they said no, but down the road was this Ming Dynasty Watchtower which had just been restored and was re-opening to the public.  So they [the Observatory] gave us a very good introduction to the management here [at the Watchtower].  That’s how we opened Red Gate in 1991.

[03:00] EL:  When you first opened the gallery, so you were already friends with the artists.  But how did you, for the gallery purposes, did you have to choose between which artists’ works to show and how did you do that?

[03:14] BW:  Well yes, I was friends with many artists but we wanted to work with a particular group so we just got them together.  Our first show I think had about 7 artists.

[03:26] EL: And who were those artists in the first show?

[03:28] BW: There was Wang Luyan, Zhang Yajie, Da Gong, just to name a few.

[03:37] EL:  And in terms of having a Westerner open a gallery here, how did the Chinese art field in general respond to your presence?  Were they happy that have a gallery here interested in their work or were they confused as to what your goals were?

[03:54] BW: No because they knew me.  And they also recognized that this was the first time someone was doing something like this so they were quite enthusiastic about being involved in it.  And we all were supported by the very small foreign community, mainly diplomats, cultural attaches, students, a few business people who were around at that time.  Many were very, very involved with the Chinese economy, the Chinese lifestyle, meeting Chinese, learning Chinese.  So they were very interested in seeing this develop even though we were developing from nothing and learning from the ground up.

[04:40] EL:  So it sounds like back in 1990-91, it was basically a group of artists and then a lot of Western support, supporting their work morally as opposed to financially.  What about mainstream Chinese people?

[04:51] BW: The interest was very limited to the artists and that group of foreigners. Outside of that there was no interest whatsoever in contemporary Chinese art.  People had plenty of other things they had to worry about before then.  And they didn’t have any experience in going to galleries or understanding art.

[05:13] What we have seen over the last 20 years is a huge educational learning curve for everyone, not just Chinese but foreigners and Western supporters.

[05:26] EL:  Let’s focus now on the shift in Chinese art.  Back in 1991 it was pretty much a very small field. What in addition to having more mainstream Chinese people support Chinese contemporary art, what are some of the major changes you have seen in the past 21 years in Chinese contemporary art in addition to just the support and the prices? 

Yue Minjun, an early Chinese contemporary artist. This painting – Execution – sold for $5.9 million at auction in 2007.

[05:52] BW: Well, for the artists that I have been working with, if we want to talk about their message, it’s all been a very strong commentary on what has been going on around them because they have been part of this dramatic change.  They have seen it from very much the inside.  That first group of artists from the ’80s, early ’90s, they were all post-Cultural Revolution graduates and part of the first group that came out of the Universities after they re-opened.  So they have seen a lot.  Those people are in their 40s and 50s now.  That generation of artists is one that I keep going back to.  I’m not looking for that particular age group but it is that maturity in their work, that content.

[06:41] EL:  So what kind of….the changes I guess from 1991, what do they paint now, what kind of work do they do now in terms of reflecting their environment?

[06:50] BW: Well, many of them are still working on the same subject matter and that could be anything from corruption, the environment, the state of living, freedom, things like that.  Many, many topics that they talk about and comment on.  Some of it is quite direct, some of it is very subtle.  That’s their way of negotiating their particular environment here in China.

[07:24] EL: And what about the next generation that is coming up  – the 20 and 30 year olds. 

[07:29] BW: Part of our current show addresses that issue.  The subtitle of the show is “Two Generations of Contemporary Art.”  We ask the older [artists] or the artists who have been with Red Gate for 20 years to nominate someone who they have had their eye on who is very good.

China’s younger contemporary artists – when will they grow up?

[07:44] The problem with looking at that younger generation is that many of them are quite well-skilled but they’re not that creative; they’ve landed in the art scene at the time of the boom in the art market.  Many of them have chosen being an artist as a career over being a doctor or a lawyer.  That’s changing but that’s sort of breed a younger generation of people who were not that experienced, not very creative.  So finding the very, very good ones among them has been a difficult task.  Finding the strong ones, the independent ones, we’ve found a few over the last few years.  But by having this particular show, all the artists we asked picked 10 very, very good [younger] artists.  Some of them are quite young, some are in their 30s and even there are a couple in their 40s, but they are quite unknown in the art scene.

[08:43] So these nominators took their time and took this role very seriously because they knew people were going to see who they chose.  We are very happy with the result.

[08:58] EL:  Just to go back to some of the younger artists who have chosen this more as a career because of the boom in the art field.  What do you think has caused the market for Chinese contemporary art to become so hot in the past 5 years?

[09:13]  BW: The introduction of a lot of money from the domestic market.  Just before that there was the international auction houses picking up a lot of Chinese artists from the secondary market and putting prices very, very high.  That sort of led the way.  And then very quickly followed by a cashed-up group of Chinese collectors but primarily investors who were looking for a quick return.  They landed in that market at the right time and took advantage of it.  Some of them did make a lot of money and lots of them had lots of fun.

[09:55] But now things have been dragging on since 2008.  Things have settled down and a lot of those people have moved on as well.  So there has been a maturing in that market.

[10:08] EL: Do you think that will be better for the younger artists to have less of this hot market? 

[10:14] BW: Definitely.  Some of them will move away completely from this career – if the money is not there, they are not that interested.

[10:28] EL:  In terms of the art, Chinese contemporary art; what is it about it that makes it “Chinese?”  Is it a continuation on a spectrum of

Traditional Chinese art techniques – brush painting.

Chinese art?  I mean, I am very familiar with a lot of the more classical art pieces, the calligraphy.  And then I see Chinese contemporary art and it doesn’t really look that “Chinese” to me.  Should I even view it as something that should be on a historical perspective with traditional Chinese art? 

[10:58] BW: That’s pretty hard.  There are artists who are still using the traditional techniques in contemporary art.  They are more or less proponents of maintaining those traditions but they’re using very contemporary content.  Apart from that, there’s a whole range of media being used now and people are addressing issues which are to them individual.  It is very much about where they are and where they are living – that’s China.  But the issues are global.  So people could come in and say, well some of the artists are talking about the environment and they would think that it could be back home.  So that kind of thing, these issues are very, very global.

[11:52] What people see in this group of artists, these people in their 30s and 40s, they are surprised by it because their reference to Chinese art going back a few years was the more traditional: was the calligraphy, was the scholar rocks.  So they are very surprised that over the last decade, the last 15 years there is this very vibrant contemporary scene.  That’s what’s been a catalyst for their interest.

[12:27] EL:  In terms of the art that is in the current exhibit, can we look at one of the pieces and maybe explain to somebody like me who knows little about modern art what about it that makes it a valuable piece of art.

[12:42] BW: Sure.

Chen Ke’s Red Sacred Mountain No. 6
Red Gate Gallery

[12:43] EL: I’ll let you choose one of the pieces.  So which one are we going to look at here?

[12:50] BW:  This is Chen Ke.

[12:52] EL:  Okay, this is Chen Ke.  What’s the name of the piece?       

[12:54] BW:  The name of the piece is Sacred Mountain No. 6, Red Sacred Mountain.  He was one of the artists nominated by a senior artist in the gallery, by Wang Yuping in fact.  Now apart from a wonderful piece of craftsmanship – very thick oil paint, the coloring all in red and shades of red, which is just quite striking.  He is talking about, after 1949, new China.  The future was bright, the future was red, communist red; everybody was working together.  There was this unity and common purpose of all these people who were part of the new China.

[13:45] So you can see that in his painting that people are just having fun in the field; they probably had a long work day.  They’re in their regular, probably nylon outfits, nylon white shirts that we used to see everywhere.

[14:01] What Chen Ke is talking about, he is looking at this nostalgic view about what things were happening in the ’50s, maybe early ’60s and comparing it with today and this dis-unity out there, this chaos in comparison to that previous time which was not so much a utopia but there was very much a common purpose in doing things.  Here, today in contemporary China right now there’s not that unity.

[14:35] EL: Right, right, you have a growing disparity in wealth and interests. Are there any other pieces you want to talk about? 

[14:44] BW: Well, we were talking about the environment earlier.  There is Zhou Jirongover here who is from southern China but has lived in

Zhou Jirong’s Mirage
Red Gate Gallery

Beijing since he graduated back in the ’80s from the Central Academy of Fine Arts.  His theme has always been about the environment.  You can see this mixed media work is rather hazy.

[15:04] EL:  What’s the title of this one?

[15:07] BW: Mirage.  So on some of the days you look out the front door here…

[15:15] EL: It sort of looks like….

[15:16] BW: ….this is what you see, this is the landscape.  And again, this could be anywhere in the world: a very polluted environment; a very quickly developing environment, uncontrolled.

[15:27] Then you have this other younger artist over here, Li Xiang from northern China with this very bare, barren landscape.  Maybe the environment has been destroyed.

[15:50] EL: Just in terms of what else Red Gate is doing…you talked about how when you originally started Red Gate it was helping to foster the art community.  How are you continuing to do that with the Artists in Residency programs.  Can you talk a little bit more about those?  

Li Xiang’s Night scene No. 3
Red Gate Gallery

[16:04] BW: We’ve been doing that for 11 years now.  We invite artists from all over the world and inside China to come and work in Beijing in studios.  They’re averaging about two months, sometimes three months.  Most of them have never been to China before so they have to come through this cultural barrier landing which we help them with and get them to work as soon as they are ready.

[16:30] They might be working toward a show back home.  Some of them, we are finding more and more, work their way into shows in Beijing – either group shows or have some solo shows or even become represented by galleries here.  So they’re finding opportunities here of meeting other artists, that’s one of the main things, but also meeting curators and dealers and collectors from around the world who are all passing through Beijing.  It’s something that they didn’t envisage and they realize that they may not of had that opportunity back home.  So they find that that is another very rewarding side of the program for them.

[17:08] EL:  And they also interact a lot with the Chinese art community? 

[17:13] BW:  Oh yes, very much.  They are finding that they are not here by themselves, but there’s a large artist, foreign artists community, who are living here on a long-term basis, so they get to know those people.

 [17:26] EL: Brian, this show – 20+1 – is on until December 31?

[17:34] BW: Yes.

[17:34] EL: Great.  Thank you so much for your time and for teaching us about Chinese contemporary art.

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