kenny hodgart

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Mapping Ai Weiwei

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

A diorama is a miniature model of something, often enclosed in a box. Ai WeiWei’s S.A.C.R.E.D comprises six such boxes, with peep holes to see what’s inside – in this instance, scenes from his 2011 detention by the Chinese government, when two soldiers stood guard at a distance of 80cm from him, round the clock, for 81 days.

It’s the first Saturday afternoon of the 58-year-old artist’s huge retrospective at London’s Royal Academy and inevitably it feels as mobbed as the street outside in Piccadilly. There is a particular clamour, however, to see Ai’s genitals – his manhood, his todger. In one of the boxes the guards are watching him take a shower. The other hot ticket is a glimpse of him seated on the can.

In 1917, Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain shocked the world with the idea that art could take any form an artist chose to give it. His “readymade” in that work was a urinal. Almost a century later, Ai has declared his readymades are the Chinese government and Chinese history. “I can piss with [them]”, he said in a recent interview, injecting, if nothing else, new meaning into the term “piss artist”. One, perhaps, who raises a finger at the one-party state then builds into his art the party’s over-reaction – in which it manages somehow to piss over its own shoes. Or something of the sort.

My companion and I are not completely ignorant: we do know that Ai is the Most Famous Artist in the World – despite, or perhaps because of, being imprisoned, hounded, silenced, having his studio flattened, his bank accounts frozen and his passport taken. But we definitely know a bit less about his art. Still, we opt not to wear headsets, partly because this will cost us more. This means missing out on a commentary which, judging from the expressions on our headsetted counterparts’ faces, affords a fuller grasp of Ai’s brilliance.

Luckily his work is nicely signposted for the weekend driver anyway. For a start, the ubiquity of 2D or 3D maps of the country leaves little room for doubt that Ai’s primary subject matter is China itself – even where the maps demand explanatory notes. The one in Fragments, for example, a sculpture assembled from architectural salvage and items of Ming and Qing era furniture, only shapes up if viewed from above, a physical impossibility in most gallery settings. According to the accompanying text: “The different geographic and ethnographic identities of the country are rendered immaterial and China is presented as a skeleton [suggesting] an inherent fragility that can be seen as a commentary on the concept of ‘One China’.” Do keep up at the back of the class.

Equally Delphic is He Xie, in which hundreds of porcelain crabs cluster in a corner. It’s a pun that needs some explaining – “he xie”, we learn, refers to river crabs but is also a homonym for “harmonious”, and has been adopted on the Chinese internet to refer to censorship. When Ai realised in 2010 that the new studio he’d had built in Shanghai was marked for demolition before he’d even moved in, he ordered a feast of crabs to commemorate both the building’s completion and its imminent destruction. A Dadaist triumph over the government’s own inadvertently Dadaist act is how He Xie is presented. Considered in itself, it shares with a lot of pop art the feeling of a joke waiting for a punchline.

Examples of Ai’s own creative destruction abound. In common with his re-configurations of reclaimed timbers, his Han dynasty vases dipped in industrial paint and a photographic triptych of him deliberately dropping a similarly antique urn are intended as a comment on the destruction of China’s past begun during the Cultural Revolution. Just as frequently, he reminds us of the Communist Party’s totalitarianism, its fear of losing power and its deathless crisis of legitimacy. Among a number of functional objects fashioned from lavish materials is a surveillance camera carved in marble. Clever? No. Subtle? No. Important? Sure.

It seems obvious that one reason the merits of Ai’s art are so often a secondary consideration is that his personal circumstances and their political dimension loom so large in it. Insofar as it asserts, again and again, that art matters in a society governed by paranoid fools, it’s in that political context that his own work does. There’s shining a little light into the darkness and there’s emblazoning revelations in neon. All too often Ai chooses the latter route to people’s responses, but striving to see past the neon may be to miss the point. And besides, people are pissing back there.

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When Xi meets the Queen – what won’t happen

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

The last time a Chinese leader was given a state reception in Britain, in 2005, Queen Elizabeth pulled on her smartest red hat and coat and put it to President Hu Jintao and his lady wife: “Have you come far?”.

The monarch’s civility was slightly undermined, however, by her heir to the throne – Prince Charles played truant, muttering off-stage about human rights and the Dalai Lama. The UK’s then-Prime Minister, Tony Blair, meanwhile, spoke excitedly of “an unstoppable momentum” towards democracy for China. When the Chinese delegation left, the staff of Buckingham Palace were ordered to count the spoons.

OK, fine, that last bit was guesswork. It is impossible to know what goes on in the households of heads of state. It may be that Prince Philip, aka the Queen’s other half, aka Phil the Greek, hides spoons in guests’ luggage for his own sport. Still, now that Britain is desperate to become “China’s best partner in the West” – as the country’s Finance Minister George Osbourne put it in Beijing the other week – the parameters for any meaningful exchanges not involving the (proverbial) hoisting up of British skirts when Xi Jinping touches down in London later this month have narrowed.

In any event, here are just a few of the possible turns unlikely to be taken by events after plain-speaking Phil, 94, has broken the ice with a joke or two about the Japanese and fallen sleep.

1. David Cameron, the British Prime Minister, will insist that in return for a) welcoming Chinese involvement in new UK nuclear power plants, b) turning a deaf ear to American concerns about the security implications thereof, c) jumping on board with the Beijing-led Asia Infrastructure Investment Bank, and, above all, d) investing £700,000 (HK$8.2 million) to assist Chinese citizens who may wish to go on holiday to places in the north of England, British ministers do not in future expect to incur the Chinese state’s diplomatic wrath for talking to harmless old men from Tibet.

2. Mindful of the Chinese love of pork, Mr Cameron will then seek Mr Xi’s advice on how to handle those who write and publish materials alleging Prime Ministerial misadventures involving dead pigs. And how to stamp out seditious communications in general.

3. Mr Xi will thank the Prime Minister for dancing so nimbly to China’s tune but remind him, portentously, that always someone must pay the piper. The Queen’s bagpiper will nod sagely. China’s paramount leader will then thank his hosts for knowing when to “shut up about all that human rights crap, not like the Americans”, adding that Mr Osborne is a man of high principle who is respected throughout China and the world and that the two countries are now best friends forever. He will also promise to keep throwing chickenfeed at the minister’s pet projects and that the £700,000 will not be spent by officials on a night out in Macau.

4. Onto his second whiskey sour, Mr Xi’s charm offensive will continue with an apology to Britain’s Foreign Affairs Select Committee, whose members were barred from entering Hong Kong earlier this year. He will blame the unfortunate episode on an administrative cock-up, praise Britain for giving the world parliamentary democracy and vouch that his administration approves of universal suffrage – for voting out contestants on Chinese Idol.

5. The Queen will ask after the well-being of Zhou Yongkang and observe that by contrast to the unfortunate former Minister of Public Security’s grizzled rug, Mr Xi’s own hair seems vibrant for a man of his years. She will then ask the President if he would like to pet one of her corgis.

6. Jeremy Corbyn, the new hard-left leader of Her Majesty’s Opposition, will attempt to engage Mr Xi in a discussion of Lenin’s 1904 pamphlet One Step Forward, Two Steps Back, and about the timetable for achieving socialism on earth.

7. Charles will announce “sod it, I never wanted to be a constitutional monarch anyway”, harangue Mr Cameron for being a pushover, and for doing so little on behalf of the endangered Patagonian Toothfish, let rip on China for being ghastly and appalling, and then finally settle in to some light Buddhist chanting, the noise from which will waken Phil the Greek from his slumbers.

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Scots and Japanese locked in new space race

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

It’s become one of those things people drop into conversations to make themselves sound knowledgeable: Japanese whisky is the best in the world nowadays. Better than the stuff from Ireland and America, don’t you know, and also that place where they make Scotch. Yes, yes: Scotland.

It is true that the Japanese are winning all sorts of awards for their whisky. Most notably, something called the Whisky Bible last year named Yamazaki Single Malt Sherry Cask 2013, by Suntory, the world’s best whisky, with nary a Scottish entry in the top five.

The ascendancy of Nipponese nips should come as no surprise. For a start, it is well-known that the Japanese are terrible swots and brilliant at copying other people’s things and making them better. And secondly, they’ve been at it for long enough: Suntory was founded in 1923, which is ages ago. Back then, most Scotch was still undrinkable, and most people in Scotland were blind and/or raving mad on account of it.

The sudden popularity of Japanese whisky, catalysed by the whole winning awards thing, was not foreseen, however – even by its distillers. Which is why, as it happens, they’re running out of casks that are ready to bottle.

Meanwhile, the Scots have not taken this reverse lying down. No danger – if the Japanese (and the Taiwanese, whose Kavalan Solist Vinho Barrique won best single malt at this year’s World Whiskies Awards) can make proper whisky, then, by the ghost of John Logie Baird, cultivating a little tea is not beyond the ingenuity of my fellow northern Britons.

Earlier this year, a smoky-tasting white tea grown on Scotland’s very first tea plantation, in Perthshire, by The Wee Tea Company, was duly named best tea in the world at the Salon de The awards in Paris. I have no idea why the French consider themselves so expert on the subject, but there you have it: Scotland rules tea.

Now I read that, contrary to the notion of it being the quintessential English drink, Scotland also rules gin. According to the London Times, UK exports of gin are up 37 per cent in five years, largely due to demand for premium tipples from Scottish distilleries, including Hendrick’s and Tanqueray. In Georgian and Victorian times, Londoners drank so much gin it rendered men impotent and women sterile, but seemingly now even that which is labelled “London dry gin” is more likely to originate from Scottish stills than English ones. One can almost hear Nicola Sturgeon, Scotland’s secessionist First Minister, cackling away.

Now that things are going all “craft” on the gin front, Hong Kong, predictably, has its very own circuit of gin bars run and frequented by men with awful Victorian-sized beards and charging modern-day Shoreditch prices, only doubled. Good luck to them, although the drink’s aptness to induce maudlin tendencies does not, perhaps, commend it altogether in an era of impending economic dissolution.

It has long troubled me, incidentally, that your average Hong Kong barman cannot grasp that gin and tonic is served with lime (or indeed lime juice instead of tonic, if you’re the subaltern in John Betjeman’s A Subaltern’s Love Song). All too often lemon, with the wrong gin, introduces an unwelcome hint, I find, of Pocari Sweat – the Japanese sports drink made from Pocaris, that lesser-known member of the citrus family.

I hasten to add here that on its own Pocari Sweat is a faultless beverage and an excellent hangover cure. As such, I can think of no more fitting product to pioneer branding on the moon – as it will next month, when its owner, Otsuka, sends a rocket there with a capsule containing Pocari Sweat, in powder form. The company’s laudable idea is that at some future date, present-day children inspired by the mission to become astronauts will touch down and be able to relieve their hangovers, or perchance simply their thirsts, by mixing the powder with the (currently arid) moon’s own water.

What is not admitted by the Japanese is that their designs are very much part of a beverage-centric space race in the making. The Scots, their principal adversaries, struck an early blow: some vials of unmatured malt from Ardbeg Distillery on Islay have just returned to earth after being transported to the International Space Station on a Russian rocket in October 2011. The whisky had orbited the earth for 1,045 days and was found afterwards by the distillery’s tasters to have a more “intense” flavour, although it’s unlikely they were about to declare “it tastes just the same” after going to all that trouble.

Another other piece of whisky-related news is that Whisky Galore!, the 1949 Ealing comedy set on a remote Scottish island, whose inhabitants appropriate a shipwrecked cargo of whisky, is currently being re-made. I would not be surprised to discover that the whole story has been relocated to space, nor that some role had been found for the Japanese as villains.

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In praise of the SCMP’s ‘Around the Nation’

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

A woman destroys an ATM machine in a fit of rage. Another wins a hair-growing competition. A man, drunk, drowns in a manure pit. I know I am far from alone in finding the South China Morning Post’s Around the Nation page one of its most compelling sections. Countless conversations with editorial staff and SCMP loyalists assure me of this. Often, however, there is a tone of slight hesitation in their admissions – a wavering, I think, lest too pronounced an enthusiasm be taken to intimate a lack of seriousness about news.

Anyone familiar with this blog will acknowledge that if it does not always provide the final word in serious-minded comment, then it will at least include one or two from somewhere nearing that end of things. More generally, the SCMP is considered a serious organ – the sub-editors may quibble at the word, but its news and analysis tends more towards the intellectual than what used to be called “human interest”, even when it was about pets. With ATN, this order is subverted. Reader, a word here in its praise.

For those of you who don’t know what I’m referring to, buy the paper and you’ll see it: Around the Nation is a round-up of stories that have been making the headlines in sundry corners of the mainland. Some are routine – a new infrastructure project here, a government denial about something over there. Others are anecdotal but still marginally un-extraordinary: a man cracks a window during a quarrel on a bus with his girlfriend; a woman has to receive medical help after playing mahjong for three days solid. The most memorable can usually be filed under bizarre, gruesome, heartwarming, comical or downright appalling, although none of these categories is exclusive.

You would probably be right to identify this as tabloid journalism. A fine tradition, and one in which I’ve dabbled, and frequently defend, but make no mistake – it’s often voyeuristic, mawkish and vulgar. The snobs have a point. Doubtless, too, it serves as an instrument of distraction, particularly in a country such as China where “proper” journalism gets throttled. And this is all before one considers how things have evolved online, where it seems the only way for media organisations to thrive is to deploy armies of clickbait wallahs to churn out titillating content, and to hell with its veracity.

There is, I think, a case to be made that our appetite for the weird and wonderful, the salacious and the shocking, is such that a journalism that caters to it offers a valve – one that’s not inimical to but rather part of life in a civilised society. This applies, moreover, regardless of how far that society may or may not be shaped by the principles of Athenian democracy. In its way, though, ATN offers both less and more than this valve function.

For one, ATN is mediated, a digest from other sources, for English readers in Hong Kong and elsewhere. There’s therefore an element of revelling in the wacky things that seem to happen in the mainland, puzzlement at the jarring effects created by awkwardly-translated phrases or sketchily-explained cultural mores, uncertainty at the degree of comic intentions. (What are we to make, for example, of this detail, included in a story about a pig which surprised visitors to a Buddhist temple in Wenzhou province by prostrating itself as if in prayer? “Photos posted online amazed some internet users, while others claimed the animal was suffering from a vitamin E deficiency.”)

At the same time, details omitted leave us wanting to know more, or attempting to piece things together in our imaginations, as we skip from the fantastical to the mundane to the brutal, mind-mapping the country, wondering what’s fact, what’s hearsay and what’s been embellished by eager hacks. The stories about mahjong casualties and failed blackmail attempts on local officials have an ageless quality, like folktales. Earlier this year it seems there was a spate of burglars breaking into homes then falling asleep.

Meanwhile, the outbreaks of violence or cruelty, the crazy people doing crazy things, the health scares, the exam stress – all contribute to a sense of modern China, even if they don’t tell us what modern China is. In Henan, a grave-visiting business opens for people who don’t have time to visit their own deceased relatives. In Chongqing, a farmer sells his ox to go looking for his runaway son.

ATN may be tabloid journalism by numbers on the one hand; on the other it offers a dispassionate window on a diverse country enduring the pangs of development. All human life is there. Animal life too.

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How China farted under poor Americans’ noses

This blog post can also be read at SCMP.COM –

Time was they were sort of unreceptive when it came to Communists, the Americans – a bit disobliging, all things considered. Not to overstate matters, during the Cold War normal human vitality often seemed indivisible in the American imagination from a desire to kick Bolshevik butts. That was the main thing I took from watching the 1984 version of the film Red Dawn, at any rate.

For better or worse – the former, one supposes – American attitudes towards modern-day Communist China are several degrees mellower. Indeed, tacit acceptance of China’s rise looks at times to have given way to a new dread of upsetting it and being thus dis-invited to the party. Being nice about China in blockbuster movies is one manifestation of this. Giving Chinese state-backed companies a role in the immiseration of America’s poor would seem to be another.

Smithfield Foods, until recently the world’s largest pork producer and processor, used to own hundreds of pig farms in North Carolina alone. These farms consist of three important elements: pigs, giant sheds for housing them and adjacent “lagoons” into which millions of gallons of their faeces and urine are deposited. The cesspits are emptied at intervals, their contents sprayed as a noxious mist over nearby fields.

In 2013, Smithfield sold out to Shuanghui, China’s largest pork producer, for US$4.7 billion, a 31% premium on the company’s publicly traded share price. The two had been weighing a partnership deal before the Chinese firm made a bolder offer, financing the purchase with a US$4 billion loan from the state-owned Bank of China.

Now effectively the owner, at a conservative estimate, of 1 in 4 American pigs, Shuanghui has been busy expanding production for export back to China, where the middle classes prefer not to eat anything reared in the motherland for fear of it being contaminated. This in turn appears to have increased levels of hydrogen sulphide and ammonia wafting into properties near U.S. farms, causing complaints of burning eyes, breathing difficulties, headaches, hypertension and anxiety.

Many of those affected in North Carolina are on low incomes. Many are black. Most have little option to move away. But a fightback of sorts is underway: in the last year some 500 individuals in the state have filed two dozen lawsuits against Shuanghui’s subsidiary, Murphy-Brown, complaining about the smell from its farms.

Initially, these actions sought to fix ultimate responsibility on the Chinese Communist Party. “Red China has taken a huge dump under the noses of the American people and been allowed to get away with it,” ran one writ – which, mark you, I have paraphrased. Last month, however, Shuanghui’s attorneys got their way, as a judge ruled any references to China, pork exports thereto, the CCP or even Smithfield being Chinese-owned, were inflammatory, irrelevant and off limits. Meanwhile, state lawmakers have proposed debarring newcomers to hog farm neighbourhoods from filing nuisance lawsuits and making losers in court pay corporate farms’ legal bills.

Voices were raised at the time of the takeover as to the wisdom of green-lighting Chinese control over such a large segment of the U.S food chain. Daniel M. Slane of the US-China Economic and Security Review Commission told Congress he had concerns over Shuanghui’s strategic ties to the Chinese government, preferential access to subsidies, and so on. Debbie Stabenow, Democratic Senator for Michigan, worried that the Chinese company meant to use Smithfield’s processing technology to build up its own capabilities at home and undercut U.S. pork exports to the Pacific Rim. In the end, though, faith in open markets, and in Chinese money, prevailed.

Simply a case of one private company buying another is how Smithfield’s CEO, Larry Pope, described the merger in a Senate hearing. Only it clearly never was that simple, was it? In-keeping with its efforts in the field of currency manipulation, credit from Beijing gives Chinese companies a huge advantage over competitors in the U.S. and elsewhere.

What we’re seeing here is partly about China securing stable food supplies for itself – the country already consumes about 50% of all pork globally and demand is rising sharply. In line with the government’s soon-to-elapse 12th Five Year Plan, Chinese businesses – state-owned or otherwise – have been investing in food assets around the world. Americans are far from alone in worrying about their producers being undercut or about Chinese corporations cornering markets. It may be tempting to shrug those concerns off as paranoid, but it’s probably judicious to wait until deals comparable to the Smithfield one are being sanctioned the other way round.

For America, making its own poor folks sick through turning swathes of itself into a hog farm capable of sustaining expanding waistlines in a formerly hermetic Communist state whose ruling party used to order its own agriculture along collective lines is perhaps both an achievement of sorts and further evidence of a crisis in the idea of American exceptionalism. After all, the whole point of an American-led world order was surely to encourage strains of American-style capitalism elsewhere. But being stung on the buttocks by globalisation was always a possibility too.


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