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.