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These past two weeks, every communication included something along the lines of “How are the Olympics,” or “hope you’re surviving the Olympics”. The answer: smothering, and just barely.
Now that they have concluded, I feel that ominous burden slowly melting from my psyche, and I realize that I was truly not “coping well” with the games. I was instead lying low, playing dead, unable to watch or even comment on this historic event. Instead, I escaped the steamy red and yellow fervor emanating from the Bird’s Nest stadium by flying off to Yunnan province, a necessary act of “self-protection” (a Chinese pun on “avoiding the Olympics” and “contraception”) but the fervor pursued.
The NYT headlines mocked me in my inbox, conflicting and paradoxical news “angles” from American and Chinese news sources accumulated, champions wept or chomped on their lead-tinged gold medals over the endless highlights montages that were repeating on televisions across China, on every CCTV station, in the airport, in the bus station, waiting for elevators…
From 29, 49, to 51 gold medals––this news tracked me down even at 2000+ meters above sea level. Perhaps it wasn’t altitude sickness at all that left me vomiting in the bathroom. The record-breaking conclusion of the games was a victory for the Chinese spirit, for which I extend my true congratulations.
After returning to Beijing, and while browsing one of my favorite stress-relieving Chinglish sites, the Century Online China Art Networks, my “unprotected” eyes were despoiled by an unusual, but seemingly Olympics related headline: “Why does so much ancient Greek art feature males with small genitalia.” An English article posted on August 22, 2008 and signed “CL2000.com.” Here, among Beijing exhibition reviews, a feature on Buddhist sand mandalas, and a piece on the Jewish Museum, was this seemingly out of place reportage on the heft and quality of ancient Greek genitals as evidenced in statuary. (more…)
In these heady days leading to the Summer Games, many “foreign friends” in China and would be visitors are perplexed be the sudden difficulties in obtaining and extending their visas. Indeed, China’s crackdown and imitation of the US Government’s visa policies seems an illogical strategy for a nation on the verge of her debutante ball, even more so when inflation seems almost solely propelled by lusty visions of foreign visitors paying 40 RMB (~5.50 USD) for a cup of swill-piss coffee. Nevertheless, there are rules and conventions in every culture and nation, and with China so eager to enforce hers, international friends should bone up on a more “native” approach to red tape and visa paperwork. Herein lies the soundest advice I can give for anyone who approaches one of the low, laminate countertops that shield the forces of the Chinese bureaucracy: you need yin for yang, something to slake the thirst of the inexplicable administrative madness going on behind those counters. You’ve accepted the mission, now your secret weapon? MY CLEAR BAG.
“Business. School. Home.
Collection Information. Communication.
Shopping. Driving. Playing. Presentation.”
Helpful suggestions for its use are printed right on top of this “simple” document folder. Your lucky amulet comes in five pastel colors, each one bearing a white printed grid, the above “poem” outlining its function, and that discriminating title, those three conspicuous words: MY CLEAR BAG.
If life were a video game, MY CLEAR BAG would be the weapon that you buy with accumulated coins, or the talisman you steal from some dead guy. But, thankfully, this is China, a peaceful nation with some special socialist tendencies, and there are plenty for all! In a nation that loves homogeneity and inconspicuous behavior as much as China, there is no better tool to help you blend in. You can––and you should––buy one from your corner store.
Traditional Chinese philosophy stresses balance: bringing down the heat, restoring harmony. My Clear Bag is your antidote, your leverage for confronting an incomprehensible and opaque Ministry of Foreign Affairs. Imagine the brutalist monoliths that are Beijing’s governmentbuildings, imaging what is tucked behind those endless rows of black windows; the bureaus and the leaders that survey them, the constantly changing rules they make and break. Imagine now My Clear Bag––it is in your hand as you approach one of the many service counters that breech the Ministry with the comparably prostrate public––you use it to approach the human face of this bureaucracy. Your face is forgettable, and probably not as symmetrically pleasing as the My Clear Bag you carry. Place it unassumingly on the desk and revel in its purpose and its methodology: it is transparent, and compact, its function is obvious, self-explanatory, intuitive. It stands in diametric opposition to all of the nastiness inside. Your officer picks it up for inspection. Nestled inside your Clear Bag, nothing can be lost, nothing will fall through the cracks.
Simply the sight of My Clear Bag unconsciously brings peace to whomever you encounter behind the desk, just as a cool cucumber soothes the fires of a spicy hot pot, it calms the soul of this officer. In contrast to their life “within the machine”, the rules of My Clear Bag are simple and easy to follow, and they do not change seasonally with campaigns nor with national holidays. Protocol is obvious and perfunctory. Of course, Everyone’s Clear Bag is exactly the same, with no exceptions. Unlike that Audi A6 with mandatory leather-seats and a quilted tissue box on the dashboard that may or may not be parked outside of the building, there is no “VIP” Clear Bag. No, there is one bag for all, at one price, and with limited variations––that Clear Bag of mine is a tested, true classic model of Marxist socialism.
Of course, the contents My Clear Bag can vary. At more “official” times such as border crossings their contents should include your passport, little stacks of I.D. photos paper-clipped together and––as any experienced My Clear Bag operator should know––photocopies of each document. These contents are stacked in ascending or descending order of importance, depending on your mission. Larger assignments (applying for a Chinese university) would do well to include a typed table of contents.
Approaching any counter á la My Clear Bag is to say in a nonverbal language that you are a law-abiding, trustworthy candidate. It becomes the missing semiotic link between your inevitable success and your visa officer. By toting My Clear Bag, you are demonstrating highly prized values of “healthy thought”: you revere simplicity, you are well organized and respectful of your opportunity to inquire about a little visa from the big bureaucracy. You don’t fly ahead of that flock, and don’t worry, no one’s going to sacrifice you to scare the monkeys. You also know the virtues of being economical, because you bought My Clear Bag for 1.5RMB. This bag can truly change your life.
The following artist introduction will be included in the forthcoming book, Looking for Me, a collection of writings and works representing the best of China’s young artists.
Yan Cong’s artistic career began in boredom and loneliness, a student wasting away in his dorm room, which he surmounted by drawing comics and illustrations and posting them online for a growing group of virtual friends. Thus the imaginary landscapes he retreats into and characters that inhabit them are a true blend of his psychology and quaint nostalgia for childhood, or perhaps his humble home in the countryside. His adopted penname, yancong, is the Chinese for “chimney.”
Yan Cong works in an eclectic mix of elementary materials: ballpoint pen, newspaper collage, low-tech digital illustration, even needle and thread. His choice of mediums reflects the low-tech modesty and longing for an uncomplicated world that color his personal world. In drawings and comics on paper of various sizes and quality, he invokes a lonely world of folkloric creatures, and dreamlike adventures unfold in a narrative voice culled over a lifetime of avid comic reading. Much of the detail, the compositional language and depth in his two-dimensional works was informed by his training as a traditional painter, although, this formal instruction is otherwise invisible. He shares new comics and illustrations online at his blog, Soda Pop Stand, and is a central member of the Green School Design Collective, curating shows and influencing the group aesthetic with his seemingly benign style.
Many of his drawings resemble children’s book illustrations, but tiny nuances betray the skill of their author––eyelashes, the twinkle in an eye, or the just-so buttons on a flowery dress. There are evil characters with bullhorns, and good boys with rosy cheeks, pig-headed or dog-faced children are everywhere, and characters tear out their heart (literally) for us; the moon smiles down on it all. His works might be small but his repertoire is growing, each artwork becoming a frame onto Yan Cong’s private mythology. As it once functioned for him, Yan Cong’s work shelters us in a simpler world.
The following texts were originally published in the 2007-08 Insider’s Guide to Beijing. They have been expanded below, and include content that is “not permitted” to be published within China.
With such a noticeably short history, the question of from where the Chinese avant-garde emerged is gaining more interest, especially with new developments and tourist-ready accessibility of Beijing’s art zones such as 798, Caochangdi and the Liquor Factory. In a steamy arts climate, social change, economic reform and policy are intertwined with art history, and are equally intertwined to the development of the avant-garde.
The long, potholed road to “success” seems to have paid off for some members of the avant garde, the incredible sums they now collect at auction seem almost like compensation for previous eating of the proverbial “bitterness” and years of marginalization and exclusion from both city limits and institutional art systems. An art world that was once “underground” has been exhumed and now features newly paved roads cappuccinos to go, and a firm position in the popular media. The shape of the new artistic vanguard––like everything in modern China––is changing, and at a racecar pace. Keeping the recent 20 years in mind as a foundation, where it will lead to, we can only guess, reminding ourselves that the “art districts” of today were simply unthinkable 15 years ago.
1979-1984 Shaking the Reigns
Even after the bans on individualistic perspectives or themes had been lifted, the political themes of the Cultural Revolution had still not completely disappeared. Realism reigned on the canvas, though there was a tangible rejection and knee-jerk reaction to the practice of socialist-realist art from the extreme left. Emotionally charged, personal subjects were creeping back into the artistic and literary milieu with “Scar Art” (伤痕艺术 shanghen yishu), perhaps today best represented by the almost confrontational oil painting “Father” 父亲. Completed in 1979 by Luo Zhongli 罗中立, “Father” featured an intimate frontal view of this sweat-dripping, sun-withered peasant’s face executed in exceptional photo-realism. Abstract forms, nudity and personal themes, although not forbidden, were still taboo in the mainstream.
Representing the struggle that many Chinese artists still debate, artist Wu Guanzhong 吴关中emerged at the forefront of a continuing movement of traditionally trained painters who struggled to integrate Western expressionist aesthetics with Chinese mediums such as ink and wash. Amidst a politically relaxed, emotionally charged atmosphere the group of radicals know as the Stars 星星 (the notorious Ai Weiwei 艾未未 among them) was busy acting on their bottled-up experimental impulses that were uncorked in a backlash to years of a silenced avant garde. (more…)
Below is a short piece inspired by the Chinese Literature Translation workshop that I attended last March. The whole week was filled with meaty content on translation and its woes, but this dialogue was a highlight. Jiang Rong’s bestseller Wolf Totem, is recently available in an English edition. The book doesn’t necessarily appeal to me. Thanks to Tom Saunders for the photograph.
A few weeks back, Penguin Publishing Group and the Arts Council England hosted the first ever Sino-British Literary Translation Workshop on a hazy bamboo mountainside in the historic resort town of Moganshan, just a few hours north of Shanghai. Translators of various levels and backgrounds convened to discuss the finer points of textual and contextual understanding when moving texts across languages and cultures. The workshop was timed to coincide with the English release of Chinese bestseller and Mainland publishing anomaly Wolf Totem (Lang Tuteng), translated by the uncontested king of modern Chinese literature in translation, Howard Goldblatt. The basic premise of the workshop was that the responsibility of the translator is not simply to convert text from one language to another, but that in the act of translation, he or she becomes a cultural authority in his or her own right.
Wolf Totem, rumored to be one of the most widely circulated books in China since Mao’s “Little Red Book,” is a non-traditional, allegorical novel that examines the character of the wolf through not only narrative, but collected parables and folklore. It grew out of the experiences of the author, Jiang Rong, a pensive, conservative-looking man who sports Jiang Zemin-esque glasses. His time in Inner Mongolia inspired the book, 11 years laboring on a farm during the Cultural Revolution. He eventually finished Wolf Totem after six years of writing; it is purported to be a muffled criticism of the complacency of the Han people, ripe with nationalist undertones. According to publishing insiders, the book sold more than 4 million copies in its legal copyrighted edition since its 2004 release, which likely amounts to less than 40% of the book’s total sales on the mainland (including pirated editions).
the piece continues here . . .
“Cynical realism—it’s the intelligent man’s best excuse for doing nothing in an intolerable situation.” - Aldous Huxley
In Beijing, October 2006 two monumental art world events coincided to the fanfare of endless camera shutters: the opening of the Today Art Museum’s new space in Beijing and within it’s walls, the first Mainland solo exhibition of one of China’s most archetypical contemporary painters and celebrated “cynical realist” Fang Lijun. It was a strange “debut” in his hometown––late by almost 20 years––yet he is one of the most recognizable Mainland Chinese artists in the world.
Fang Lijun’s baldheads on desolate landscapes have become an iconic symbol of contemporary Chinese art, and Fang the commonly accepted as the definitive “cynical realist.” The Cynical Realist school that he so roundly represents and its contemporary, “Political Pop” have become the two most identifiable and uniquely “Chinese” contemporary art movements from the mainland—they are also some of the highest priced works in the international art market today.
Cynical Realism at a Glance
Cynical Realist painting, which emerged in the early 1990s, was a step towards personal expression and away from the collective mindset that prevailed in the Cultural Revolution, it is often linked with the political events of 1989 that left a sour taste in the hearts and psychologies of artists and intellectuals in Beijing, the cultural capital of China. Although Cynical Realist works maintain an ambiguous relationship with society and politics, socio-political themes emerge in form and content; politics are seen from a distance and take no clear pro-con stance on issues. The result is a cold, realistic view of a Chinese society in transition, a “stylized ambivalence” and a form of humor––later coined “grey humor”–– transcending the political realm although its roots clearly lie there. (more…)