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May 24, 2010

Entertaining Mr. Chen

Yesterday, having miraculously and safely descended from a large metal tube that had transported me 7,000 miles in thirteen hours from China to New York, I walked, Willy-Lomanlike, with a bag dangling from the end of each arm, into my loft. Forewarned by my buzzing our buzzer to announce my return, Laurie, my wife, had Glenna Bell on the iPod dock as a greeting. Twenty hours later, after obsessively immediate unpacking, a fitful sleep, and four--so far--homemade extra-strength lattes, I'm ready to recount the rest of my adventure at the conference titled (in full), "China Contemporary Art Forum 2010: What Happened to Art Criticism?--Problems in Chinese and Western Art Criticism."

But first, a minor apology. The previously mentioned "German fellow who's a theorist at someplace in Vienna with a very long name that includes 'kunst'" is one Diedrich Diederichsen, a professor of a whole lot of things related to art at the Academy of Fine Arts in Vienna. (He commutes from Berlin, so yes, Virginia, he is German.) Herr Diederichsen is one of the most jovial, quick, unpretentious, and funny art academics I've ever met and I shouldn't have been so flip in my capsule description of him last post. He's so enthusiastically expert on American popular culture, in fact (he can discern individual Mickey Mouse animators), that I sent him while still groggy this morning a YouTube link to the entirety of Dos Equis beer's "The Most Interesting Man in the World" commercials. Would that Mr. Chen had been so hilarious.

With three days of formal presentations garnished with targeted Q&A under our belts, the conference had fairly well laid out the issues and arrived at a polite impasse that nobody knew what to do about them. Which is to say first that contemporary art in China is trifurcated among the hippy-dippy stuff that looks just like what you see in Chelsea or Culver City (only bigger and more overproduced), traditional Chinese painting being kept defiantly alive, and a kind of combo of academic/popular art. Second, China does not have a system--if it can be called that--like Western Europe and America do of writers not in the direct pay of artists and galleries passing more or less independent judgments upon the contemporary stuff. And third--what else would you expect from a covey of Western "scholars" (so loosely defined a term that even I am one)?--nobody in the West knows what "art criticism" really is. James Elkins, co-organizer of the conference and an art historian at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, gave a PowerPoint presentation summarizing that last topic, boasting so many bullet points I thought I was witnessing Sonny in "The Godfather" getting whacked at the toll booth all over again.

Then came Saturday's final sessions, and Mr. Chen--specifically, Chen Zhe, a high-ranking Party official from the cultural wing of its operations. He appeared in the morning, seated at the head-table side of our open square, and delivered a relatively brief disquisition from his chair. To an American, attempting to comprehend through a simultaneous translation furnished by two overworked people in a booth, he seemed to talk around things, and to--as a painter friend of mine likes to say--"choose both" when discussing which takes precedence, artistic freedom or toeing the Party line (sometimes expressed as "mainstream Chinese values"). Now some of Mr. Chen's double-tracking--he wouldn't commit to a blunt priority--might be due to China's still-monopoly political system. But at least some of it might be due to an underlying non-Western way of thinking that goes back at least a couple of millennia. Where we in the West tend to build inductively from point to point toward a reasoned conclusion (I myself am especially stiffly logocentric), most of the Chinese at the conference tended to speak in successive grand conclusions. Everything--and I do mean everything--is so equally "very important" it's hard to tell what comes first.

What I suspect was the impetus for Mr. Chen's appearance was the bringing up in a previous day's discussion a non-Chinese American artist expert in traditional Chinese techniques who was invited to be in a group show in China, but who was summarily deported (as in, "Be at the airport in 30 minutes!") for including an image of the Dalai Lama in one of his works. The question hanging in the air when Mr. Chen began to speak was, essentially, "How can you have this vigorous contemporary Chinese art scene and market you seem to want, and at the same time bring the hammer down on artists whose work is politically incorrect?" Mr. Chen didn't mention the Dalai Lama incident in his choose-both speechlet, but the implication was clear that the contemporary art scene as most conspicuously manifested in "798," Beijing's official avant-garde gallery nabe, would, if and when the crunch comes, have to play second fiddle to "mainstream Chinese values."

But Mr. Chen wasn't there just to talk. He was there to listen, too--maybe even to take some names and kick ass later, I don't know. When the conference reconvened for the final afternoon session, Mr. Chen wasn't there. But his presence was still felt in the form of some pretty vigorous arguing about whether all this art-and-politics business should have ever come up in a powwow dedicated to art criticism, and whether Mr. Chen should have been grilled as he was in the morning by a couple of pretty brave Chinese participants. (The consensus among us Westerners was pretty much "yes" and "yes.")

Although the Dalai Lama is absolute no-go territory, the arts censorship situation isn't all that fixed or clear in China. On the way to the airport to return to our respective Berlin, Dublin, New York and Los Angeles, we chatted about the recent developments on the "American Idol"-like Chinese TV program, "Happy Boy." It seems the fan fave is a young man who performs cross-dressed, which is allegedly not in accordance with "mainstream Chinese values." The government tried to order him off the show. The TV people dug in their heels and said that only the people's votes would decide that. The government backpedaled but expressed firm confidence that the people's votes would indeed eighty-six the transvestite. I wonder if Mr. Chen knows exactly how that's going to work.

May 24, 2010 12:28 PM | | Comments (1)


I enjoyed your article. I just got back from a five week stay in Beijing and appreciated your take on their art and attitudes. I had a show at He Gallery in 798 and spent a good deal of time looking at the art. I felt a lot of rebellion coming out of the young artists.

Please add me to your list. I'd like to follow your blogs. Thanks, Peg

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