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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Tailor trashed

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

Feng Xiaogang has been ranting. Boy has he been ranting. Co-opting the shrill tendency of egotists everywhere to brand those at variance with themselves “nazis”, the mainland filmmaker’s response last month to a negative reception of his latest opus has been quite undignified, perhaps all the more so given the eagerness with which audiences flocked to see it anyway, enabling it to break Chinese box office records.

Alas, Personal Tailor scored poorly with paid reviewers and the social media crowd alike, a double whammy Feng rationalised on Weibo as follows: “The movie-goers can criticise me as much as they like … but not the film reviewers. [They] do not pay for tickets but make money from reviewing.” He also labelled his critics “shallow”, “an embarrassment” and “fools”.

Not having seen Personal Tailor, I cannot say. Perhaps they are. And perhaps it is the brilliant, important satire Feng avers and will be lauded by posterity for poking fun at corrupt authorities and the superficiality of modern Chinese society (the plot, it seems, touches on official graft, the vulgarities of the nouveau riche and the obstacles that prevent filmmakers from transcending lowbrow culture). Claims to that effect from a man who has built a career on the popular tastes of such a society, and whose cinematic cup runneth over with product placements, seem a little counterintuitive, of course – but as I say, what do I know?

One supposes it is a good thing that a mainlander should speak his mind freely, but to rail against those “cultural nazis” who would dispute Feng’s genius by suggesting they be deprived of their right to do so sounds a tad despotic in itself. “You’re all stupid, shut up,” is about the size of it. Whatever Feng’s talents as a filmmaker, patrons of the vituperative arts have been ill-served.

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Classic mistakes

This article was published in the South China Morning Post’s Post Magazine

Some jobs call for more concentration than others: surgery, snooker, murder, that sort of thing. Performing, say, a Mahler symphony, must be pretty demanding, too, what with all the time signature changes and demented scherzo-ing; and some things rather tend to break the spell – a phone ringing in the concert hall, for example. 

Noisy audiences at a recent summer arts festival in Scotland prompted discussion about classical music concert-goers’ decorum there. Someone writing in The Guardian – betraying that newspaper’s vestigial 1970s radicalism, or hatred of all things “stuffy” – argued that making such music less accessible by expecting people to conform to norms of behaviour once a conductor raises his baton might put some of them off attending and should be avoided.

Well, of course, trying not to cough is tricky and in extreme circumstances may lead to death; and I have no issue with the ingenue who claps between movements – there is a difference between etiquette and manners, and those who possess the latter ought to know to join in so as not to make the clapper feel awkward. Efforts to make concert halls more welcoming or relaxed places must be resisted, however. It will only open the door to the kind of excesses that should be confined to American Pentecostal worship.

Now, reports tell us of a Canadian orchestra’s performance in Fuling, Chongqing, being marred by chatter, phones ringing (and being answered), and audience members filming proceedings. Hong Kong’s concert-goers tend to be more considerate but, even so, that most precious of commodities in these parts – silence – is never a given. Classical musicians deserve more: it should be remembered, after all, that many of them take rests during longer pieces to catch up on sleep.

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Roeg’s gallery

This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

Most scientists agree that aliens probably look something like David Bowie, with his cultivated strangeness and differentially-pigmented eyes (the result, apparently, of being punched in a schoolyard brawl).

Actually, “most” might be an exaggeration: there has been no extensive polling. But what is even less concrete is Bowie’s idea of himself. Whether as Aladdin Sane, Ziggy Stardust or the Thin White Duke, the English singer’s most interesting years saw him shifting otherworldly shapes like nobody’s business. And the quantities of drugs he is known to have consumed in the 1970s make it feasible that he thought himself arrived from outer space.

Nicolas Roeg’s 1976 film The Man Who Fell to Earth casts pop’s original chameleon as a humanoid alien who drops from the sky in a rocket. His objective, sketchily outlined, has something to do with developing the technology to reverse the drought now killing his own planet, and to that end he brings with him high-tech patents that make him a billionaire overnight.

Unfortunately he does not count on human greed or decadence, and, sadly, things do not go well. Mary-Lou, a first-rate mentalist who falls in love with him, introduces him to booze and he becomes addicted to it, and to watching television.

But enough of the spoilers, other than to state that 1970s paranoia – about impending planetary ruin, the brain-sapping properties of TV, political corruption and big business being dreadful – is writ large. Ideas that now seem tired abound. And yet, the movie’s visual boldness, ambition and insistent focus on character over plot put it on a superior plane to most current genre film-making.

Roeg was on a rich vein of form (a run that includes Don’t Look Now – named best British film ever in an industry poll last year – Bad Timing and Walkabout) and by this time Bowie had conquered America. But when the brass at Paramount saw the final cut of The Man Who Fell to Earth, they refused to fund its release and the film struggled to break even.

It’s likely the studio felt it was too, well, alienating. Roeg cuts incessantly between scenes without explanation, only to then linger on things which interest him visually, not least the desert landscapes of New Mexico, where Newton (Bowie) opts to reside. The result is that the film-maker himself seems to approach America – whether New Mexico or New York – from an alien’s point of view. He confronts its strangeness, asks questions of its culture, puzzles at capitalism’s outward manifestations.

Naturally, Bowie is an alien with a British passport. Feeble, androgynous, melancholy, he is the ultimate outsider. And the ultimate tragedy is that like Icarus falling, almost unnoticed, into the sea – as referenced in the film by way of W.H. Auden’s poem about Brueghel’s painting of the scene – humans very soon lose interest in that which they don’t understand.

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A fine lot of good

This article was published in Hong Kong Tatler

If there were any doubt that the art world in the 21st Century is a thoroughly globalised, geographically cross-fertilised business, a thumb through the catalogue for this year’s Fine Art Asia quickly dispels it. Local Hong Kong artist Tsang Chui-mei’s paintings very clearly combine the Chinese literati tradition with elements of Western abstract expressionism; Frenchwoman Fabienne Verdier, who spent a decade in China learning traditional ink painting, likewise channels a distinctly East-West spirit on her canvases; and local gallery FEAST Projects’ Chinese Artists in France features works by contemporary master Zao Wouki, who is said to have counted Joan Miro, Picasso and Matisse among his friends once upon a time.

One could go on – but perhaps it was ever thus. Here, for example, we have Galerie Dayan of Paris offering up a large Louis XV vernis Martin – imitation Chinese lacquerware – among its items of French decorative art from the 17th to the 19th Century.

Art fairs in general have about them something of the 19th Century – for Europe a period of global expansion, when, as the hoarding of artefacts and works of art from around the world became almost a competitive sport, major public galleries sprang up, taking art collecting out of its hitherto exclusively private sphere. And Fine Art Asia 2012, which boasts exhibits from across four millenia and confidently straddles Eastern and Western art, is no exception. Indeed, the flaneurs of Haussmann’s Paris might well feel at home at the Hong Kong Convention and Exhibition Centre in Wan Chai next month – were it not for the fact that modern and contemporary art and design sits jowl-to-jowl with that of older vintage.

“I think it’s a perfect match to combine these different strands together in one venue,” says the fair’s founder and director Andy Hei over lunch some weeks ahead of the eighth major international fair he has staged in the city since his first Art and Antiques Fair in 2006.

Hei (who, like his father before him, deals in classical Ming and Qing-era Chinese furniture) and his co-director Calvin Hui (a gallery owner and collector of Asian contemporary art) are bringing together more than 120 galleries from as far apart as London, New York and Singapore for next month’s event – making it the biggest to date and confirming Fine Art Asia as the region’s most prestigious art gathering.

Says Hei: “I come from an antique or heritage art background; Calvin is from the contemporary art world. We’re a small team and we don’t have a lot of resources, so we are basing everything on the position of Hong Kong and our reputation among dealers and buyers.”

The pair are palpably excited, almost skittishly enthusiastic. Hui talks about fluctuations in the market for contemporary Chinese art with the twinkling eye of one who knows what will count as having artistic, and indeed pecuniary, value, years hence; Hei waxes lyrical about Hong Kong’s advantages for art dealers of being a free port and not charging a sales tax on art (it’s little coincidence that the fair coincides with major autumn art auctions in the city). And as a double act they encapsulate what makes the fair work: theirs may be vastly different artistic backgrounds, but they share a belief in the intrinsic value of good art and a passion for bringing as diverse a representation of it together – under the same roof and in their native city.

“Hong Kong has always been the perfect gateway city,” Hei boasts. “It has always known how to deal between East and West. In the art world, it used to be a case of Western buyers buying Chinese art and taking it back to the West; but now you can see the process has changed direction, whereby both Eastern and Western art is moving east.”
With the art market very much driven by wealthy mainlanders right now, Hui believes the Chinese are first of all “buying back” their own heritage: “There is is a phenomenon in China referred to as the Return of Cultural Relics and this is part of that, whether it’s antique art or 20th Century modern Chinese art.”

But it’s not just about patriotism, he insists – mainlanders are also increasingly outward-looking. “Hong Kong has always been in touch with western culture and western art. In China, people are travelling more and going abroad to be educated and there’s a sense that they are experiencing what Hong Kong experienced further back.”

Much like 19th Century European collectors, he says, the nouveaux riches of China are decorating and furnishing their homes with art and artefacts from different centuries and from around the world. “They may not understand the art historical significance of everything but they will think nothing of combining Italian-design furniture from the 1950s with 5,000 year-old Chinese vases, 19th Century English silverware and Ming Chinese paintings.”

Such eclectic appetites are unlikely to be frustrated by the veritable goulash of treasures on show in Wan Chai. The breadth of exhibits at this year’s fair is truly astonishing: Chinese bronzes from the 13th Century B.C; Chinese and Western classical furniture; Asian and international antique ceramics, paintings, jewellery, watches, sculptures, textiles and decorative art; Dutch and Italian landscape paintings from the 17th to 19th Centuries; masterpieces from Pissaro, Sisley, Monet, Renoir, Guillaumin, Picasso and Miro; sculptures by Rodin, Bugatti and Guyot; works by Chinese “new ink” artists Liu Dan Wei Ligang and Qin Fen; vintage jewellery made for the famous 1920s American socialite Millicent Rogers by “jeweller to the stars” Paul Flato; and much else besides.

For his part, Hui is particularly thrilled to be welcoming the first ever 20th Century Italian Design Furniture Exhibition in Asia – which will run for the duration of September, ahead of the fair, at the K11 Art Mall in TST. Presented by Italy’s Novalis Contemporary Art, it features items by masters of modern design including Etorre Sottsass, Gaetano Pesce, Merret Oppenheim and Studio 65. “For so many of us, Italy really defines design,” Hui says. “It is beautiful and regal while still being accessible in everyday life.”

Hei, meanwhile, identifies an expanded fine art jewellery category – spanning antique pocket watches, 19th Century gem-set brooches and Art Deco Cartier necklaces – as a definite highlight.

“An art fair like this is not just a trading platform,” he adds. “It’s an appreciation of design and art history.”

It should also be said that the fair does its utmost to support local artists by allowing students from the Department of Fine Arts at The Chinese University and Hong Kong Art School to showcase, and sell, their work in the hall. “We want to encourage students to stay in the art business,” Hei says. “Hong Kong needs that. It’s a chance for them to get in touch with the real art market.” In addition, Fine Art Asia supports the Hong Kong Society for the Protection of Children and the Hong Kong Cancer Fund, with the latter receiving the proceeds of a charity auction of works donated by local artists.

“My father taught me that if you gain something from the market, you have to give something back,” says Hei. “We’re not just taking Hong Kong as the venue for an art fair, we’re supporting it every way we can.”

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All fired up

This article appeared on the South China Morning Post’s Rewind page

Even if you’ve never seen Chariots of Fire, you will have heard its theme: the one that goes “da na na na nah nah” and is usually accompanied on television by footage of people doing things in slow motion. (Come to think of it, the way it has been used as a de facto anthem for British athletics may help to explain why the country’s sprinters no longer win the same quantity of medals as they did, say, at the 1924 Olympic Games, which provide the setting for much of this film.)

Along with The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, Chariots of Fire is one of two very fine British films about running and in truth is no more about fire than Slap Her, She’s French. Fire does feature in a number of indirect ways, however.

For one there is a lot of smoking, clearly an aid to sporting achievement in the olden days. Secondly, it features two young men fired up, each in his own way, by zeal or ambition, one of whom, the Scotsman Eric Liddell, has more than a touch of Calvinist fire and brimstone in his makeup. In his unorthodox running style, he also often appears to have a rocket warming his bottom.

Where Liddell is running for God (he even refuses to compete on the Sabbath), Harold Abrahams – the son of a financier who happens to have been a Lithuanian immigrant – is motivated by a desire for acceptance among the echelons of an Establishment, exemplified by the dons at his Cambridge college, that is distinctly sniffy about his Jewishness.

Both are exceptional figures, plucked from real sporting history and held to embody certain virtues – honour, dedication, personal integrity – that infuse the film with a twilit poignance. That theme (composed by Vangelis) and the framing of the flashback narrative with scenes from a 1978 memorial service for Abrahams, add to an overall sense of nostalgia for gifts vanished, lives gone, the flame of camaraderie and love now sputtering or extinguished.

Besides excellent performances from Charleson and Ben Cross (as Abrahams), the supporting credits are chock full with British acting talent, including Sir John Gielgud as one of the dons and a young Nigel Havers in the role of Lord Lindsay, another Cambridge athlete.

There is also much delight to be had from what scholars call the “diegetic” music, i.e that which has a part to play in the narrative itself: plenty of Gilbert and Sullivan (Abrahams’ falls in love with a soprano from The Mikado) and, at the end, a rousing rendition of Jerusalem, the hymn adapted from the William Blake poem which inspires the film’s title with the line “Bring me my chariot of fire”.

The phrase in turn comes from the Old Testament and is taken as a byword for divine energy. Whether or not that idea moves you, Hugh Hudson’s film probably will.