Off Beijing’s airport road yesterday, we found the digs of China’s leading dissident and artist, Ai Wei Wei’s Three Shadows. Library, galleries, cafe, studio, his home in there somewhere, repurposed industrial landscaping surrounding a space for outdoor movies. The New Yorker‘s Evan Osnos likened 3 Shadows to a monastery-meets-crime-family-hideaway. We exulted in breathing its free air there, like nowhere else we’ve been.
…Free air for us. Ai himself is in and out of detention and, of late, forbidden from videotaping himself (though the police have many cameras trained on the place). These now-banned video feeds were for friends & fans. He appears to live a blend of life & conceptual protest art.
My students mainly find Ai too confrontational, one-sided (those giving-the-finger photos, I guess), too in-your-face. I felt generationally connected (standing in the bookstore, Beijing 2012, leafing through his E. Village photos — we, too, hung out there in the ’80s). But most powerful was the Chinese art exhibited (others’), including a group show of award-winning new work. I see in blogging I’ve chosen the documentarians; many others were ethereal, meditations in sepia on Chinese medicine ingredients or dried up bodies of water, far more abstract. As a newsperson, I guess, gravitated to these:
Fan Shisan’s “2 of Us” a series takes on China’s 30-year-old One-Child Policy, which the artist dubs “tragic,” adding the generation of 100 million only-children is “the loneliest generation in history” and “besides the Rusticated Youth and the Cultural Revolutionaries, the most turbulent generation in post-Mao China – though the turmoil is more personal and internal.” Only children “won’t know what they’ve lost.” Double exposures pair the children — with themselves.
A series on animal rights featured mostly black-and-white pictures including many landscapes with large (wild) and small (domestic) cats + text.
A series by Zuo Feng called “Shanghai Zero Degree” : Insanely optimistic urban real-estate ads (which plaster the streets, on construction fences, everywhere) juxtaposed with the reality surrounding them. The artist says they give China’s cities “a strange, hard-to-understand vitality.”
A series on displaced Uigurs, the Turkic people of the far northwest, who have lost land to development. Like Palestinians, unlike the war displaced, they’re homeless while at home. The artist Jia Xicheng did them in brazen colors, printed with inhjet.
Was also impressed there with the work of Mo Yi, whose hand-sewn book 1989 was an oblique memorial to Tiananmen, with street scenes washed in red light, faux-mug shots and crowds.
I pay honor to Ai as China (& the U.S., on the eve of Secretary Clinton’s visit) are in the throes of a dissident drama — what VOA called “The dramatic nighttime escape of a blind rights lawyer from extralegal house arrest in his village” which was “a major embarrassment to the Chinese government and left the United States, which may be sheltering him, with a new diplomatic quandary.”
Now it appears the friends and activist network and even family members of the dissident, Chen Guangcheng, are being jailed. In the past Chen has suffered beatings (as has his wife). Tied to the first photos of only children — one of Chen’s ‘crimes’ was defending women who had been involuntarily sterilized.
Sometimes I wonder how the art can be so feisty here, why this space for it has been left open (as a steam valve, most likely, and for the tourist/collector dollars it draws). What’s certain is the tight, vital relationship here between art & politics. Art’s fierce urgency, and the role (greater, I think, than journalists’) it plays today as a force of conscience in China.