Zodiac Heads
Wednesday, 27 October 2021 20:42

Culture's Nice Try

Published in Cultural Commentary

Sam DeLeo offers an imaginative critique of contemporary American culture. Can the killing of a few sacred cows deliver us from our current bleak circumstances, and usher in a new morning?

The free library box near our Denver apartment building is called the Little Free Library. It sits on a wooden post anchoring a corner of the block occupied by the History Colorado museum. The Little Free Library appeared on the corner not long ago, within a year or so. It is difficult to imagine what has not changed in the country since then.

The miniature wooden house — light green with forest green trim and a matchbook-sized side window — is accessed through a rectangular glass front door that opens to anyone who wants to take a book or donate one. It’s surrounded by a semi-circular garden of young trees and limestone boulders, and, for some reason, there’s a scarecrow behind it all, maybe in the event Denver crows are eyeing dog-eared novels for nest material.

Its location in such an urban corridor, away from any single-family houses or the children who might inhabit them, not to mention only a block from the Denver Public Library, surprised me when I first encountered it while walking down the street. I opened the door and looked inside: a self-help book, children’s science journal, a copy of “Ann of Green Gables,” a Colorado history book, and other nonfiction and fiction selections. I walked away proud of my downtown neighborhood.

Today as I neared the corner on a mild Saturday afternoon in January, a homeless man was busy cleaning out all the books from the little house. He was not inspecting the books for interesting reads, just collectively sweeping them into his backpack. There are thrift stores, even a few used bookstores left in town, where he might be paid a few dollars for his take.

I felt an urge to yell something but stopped, deciding to cross the street and talk to the man. It seemed to my righteously indignant proclivities that the man was not just stealing books from the free library — alright, “stealing” is the wrong word for free items — but besmirching its communal service, and how dare him, darn it. But just as swiftly, before even taking a step in his direction, I was hit by the prevalent truth that the man was right: I was the one in error, the one who had misunderstood.

It had nothing to do with my hypocrisy in forgetting about my shoplifting food when I was homeless for a short time as a teen so many years ago, or that, as a writer, I felt obliged to somehow “save” the books. The man had correctly understood that the words and ideas in the books were products to be sold to the highest bidder. They had no secondary or symbolic meaning beyond that. Any interpretation other than this in 2018 America will encounter obstacles — no less an authority than the U.S. Supreme Court ruled in agreement with the man’s understanding of words and speech as money back in 2010. The homeless man, at least, claimed integrity in reaching his conclusion from necessity, from his struggle simply to survive, a priority that supersedes the basic need to communicate for the rest of us.

The republican democracy that’s defined America since its founding is dismantled every week now, from the removal of voter protections and ushering in of voter suppression tactics, to the targeting of people of color and immigrants, the undermining of our judiciary with appointees loyal to party instead of the rule of law, to the takeover of public lands and so much more it staggers one to consider the transformation occurring. But the constant politicization of our words and language has turned them into intercedents, outside invaders, neutering their social value. As we allow them to separate us from our experience, the world becomes flat again. We crown ourselves the center of the universe once more, slavish to ideas of our gods and our pursuit of power.

Words once found grace in how they defined and connected us to our experience. Now they unleash emotions in the service of power, often for the political or financial gain of specific groups. And yet, ultimately, language cannot be delegated by party, faith or celebrity, it is a human trait, an acute weapon to those in power, a rope to those in despair, it can be manipulated but never extinguished, and it spreads like a virus.

We tell ourselves that they are only words, not sticks and stones, and this makes it easier to counterfeit the words we disagree with, pull the rabbit out of the hat to make the facts fake and the fake facts — how Orwellian chill. And we’ll not stop our reckless crossing of boundary after boundary until we locate the honesty to admit we’re crossing them. All this is to say that while these are crucial, even existential issues, they’re no fucking excuse for thinking you have the right to berate a homeless man who grasps the currency of language in our society.

I often wish the books I’ve read could mitigate all of this. But they can’t.

I said nothing to the homeless man taking the books from the Little Free Library, I kept walking. A few blocks away I reached Civic Center, a park between the state capitol and city and county building. The status of the people who spend their afternoons here is dire in terms of their mental and physical health, and their lack of means. Their population is nothing on the scale of other countries in the world or places like L.A.’s Skid Row, but none among them appears to own either the energy or the desire today to visit the latest art exhibit lined along the circular wading pool at one end of the park.

The “Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads” by Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is part of the larger exhibit, “Art & Social Change,” which continues inside the park museum. The display’s large bronze animal heads are replicas Weiwei made of designs from an old Chinese garden, and they are spaced in a semi-circular arrangement around the pool — Rat, Ox, Tiger, Rabbit, Dragon, Snake, Horse, Goat, Monkey, Rooster, Dog and Pig. “Everything is art,” said Weiwei. “Everything is politics.”

The original heads were designed in the 18th century by European Jesuits as a gift for Emperor Qinglong and placement at Yuanming Yuan, an imperial retreat of the Qing dynasty in current-day Beijing. Since the heads were ransacked by French and British troops in 1860, some Chinese have accused Weiwei’s exhibit of opening the cultural wounds of a lost national treasure. “It was designed by an Italian and made by a French for a Qing Dynasty emperor, which, actually, was somebody who invaded China,” said Weiwei when queried about this criticism in an interview. “So, if we talk about ‘national treasure,’ which nation are we talking about?”

Weiwei’s artistic statements cut across national borders to the idea of nations. To maximize profits, corporations transgressed national borders generations ago. So, what now is the purpose of a nation, if not to serve its people?

To my right, a woman was taking photos of the bronze heads with her phone, smiling. We were both apparently enjoying the close access to the art, the unseasonably warm temperature just beginning to drop. To our left, a young addict on a park bench had been scratching his face until it flushed and began to bleed. He had a thin blanket over his lap. He was maybe 19 or 20. Was he picking the same wounds Weiwei was metaphorically picking at — or, have we reached a point now where such comparisons fail to even make sense?

Soon, the sun fell beneath the line of the capitol and the sunny afternoon waned. Blue leaked from the sky as a blank slate slowly replaced it. A chill in the air released, reanimated from its dormancy beneath the ground.

Shadows drew in, disappearing into the concrete. The horizons collapsed. It looked as if a gray dawn was descending. But, it was hard to tell.



Wednesday, 27 October 2021 20:42

The Communist Vision of Ai Weiwei

Published in Visual Arts

Is Ai Weiwei the most famous artist in the world? If so, it’s not because of his art but because of his celebrity status as a political dissident who’s been carefully shoehorned by the media — and sections of the cultural establishment, judging from some of the accompanying notes to this exhibition — into the liberal stereotype of the heroic individual artist defying communist tyranny.

To some extent, the question of whether this is a fair interpretation of his art gets a response in this large and varied exhibition, some of it site-specific, which provides an opportunity to assess the aesthetic and political qualities of Ai’s art.

Curiously, the least successful pieces are the most directly political ones focusing on Ai’s own disputes with the authorities. There are handcuffs, camcorders and CCTV cameras crafted from marble and a porcelain map of China’s regions with the slogan “free speech” on each of them. They show skilful craftsmanship but their deliberate uselessness as objects and superficial political content make them seem bombastic and crude.

Marble surveillance camera

Six iron boxes with dioramas of half-size, lifelike figurines tell the story of his imprisonment on suspicion of tax evasion a few years ago. While it must have been very stressful to live for several weeks under the gaze of guards, the literal, “cute” way the scenes are depicted drains them of any disturbing effect.

The echoes of the kitsch and jejune styles of official art under Mao undermine their power as political protest.

Some other pieces show similar strands of self-glorification and half-hearted, unconvincing conformity to certain well-worn Western artistic and political tropes.

In one triptych of photographs, Ai vandalises a Han dynasty vase by smashing it on the ground. Other ancient vases are dipped in bright industrial paint and daubed with the Coca-Cola logo and echoes of Duchamp. Crudely iconoclastic Dadaism and the more nihilist elements of Warhol-inspired art are painfully obvious in these derivative pieces.

Dropping a Han Dynasty urn 1

Yet there are other much more authentic and heartfelt artworks. One room is dedicated to the 2007 earthquake in Sichuan which killed 5,000 schoolchildren, partly due to the shoddy building materials and techniques used by corrupt local authorities. The victims are memorialised, not only in videos, photographs and lists of their names on the gallery walls, but most strikingly through Straight, a 50-foot-long installation laid across the floor of the gallery.

It’s a massive, beautiful construction using the reinforcing bars from the badly built school buildings. They were crumpled and twisted by the earthquake but have been straightened and then laid in gently undulating but unsettled waves, reminiscent of the seismic movements which caused the tragedy. It is a sombre, grieving and dignified monument to the victims and a particularly sensitive kind of artistic and political activism. As Ai says: “Everything is art. Everything is politics.”

Straight 1

Another of his aphorisms, “I want people to see their own power” is expressed in much of his previous work. He helped design the famous Bird’s Nest stadium in Beijing, whose interlocking beams evoke fairness, mutual interdependence and social equality.

His installation of millions of sunflower seeds, supposedly China’s historic symbol of life and hope in adversity, in the Tate Modern’s Turbine Hall a few years ago was similarly memorable — a brilliantly original affirmation of hope and belief in the communist vision of similar yet separate individuals, living and growing together in a class-free society. The same feelings of respect for history, delight in craftsmanship and worked materials and an underlying faith in communal harmony are expressed in several brilliantly conceived and executed pieces in this exhibition.

The most abstract and imaginative expression is Fragments, a structure of intersecting beams taken from temples, sometimes driven through antique chairs and tables. The beams are fixed together without nails or screws, using traditional Chinese joinery methods and represent a kind of 3-D map of China, both formally geographical but also psychosocial. It invites the spectator to walk around and through it and it exudes history, strength and anxiety, along with a certain disquiet and subversive discontent, together with an exuberance at the power of the social, the joined and the co-operative.

Fragments 1

Other pieces, more straightforwardly representative, conform with another of Ai’s sayings, that “ordinary people should have the same ability to understand art as anyone else.” In one room, a sparkling and uplifting chandelier made of bicycles rotates very gently in the air, a wonderful homage to all the ordinary working people who have contributed their labour to building the modern Chinese republic. In another, vibrant tufts of grass are given a monumental quality by being carved out of marble. Like the sunflower seeds, they are all similar yet subtly different — a confident and empowering vision of Chinese people and society.

Bicycle Chandelier 1

Kippe is a stack of old and beautifully mellowed pieces of wood, salvaged from ancient temples. Fashioned into a tightly fitting, smooth-faced and harmonious block, strengthened and supported by gymnasts’ parallel bars, they reference the leading role of the Communist Party in maintaining and developing social harmony amongst the common people of China.

“My art becomes more and more political,” says Ai and it’s clear that his activist art is designed not just to interpret the world but to change it. It’s also clear from this exhibition that his political critique is not limited to repressive features of the Chinese state but is implicitly opposed to societies divided by class wherever they are. Ai’s best work summons up and celebrates the age-old communist vision of individuals living in egalitarian social harmony. By doing so in such an invigorating, empowering and pleasing way, it surely helps us achieve a society where we will indeed be “people who see their own power.”