» Archive for the 'pop culture' Category

Deconstructing the Chinese National Collection

4 June 2012

Hadrien de Montferrand Gallery, a French-owned gallery devoted to works on paper, is currently exhibiting sketches from more than 20 iconic works, dating from 1950-1980, all master works in the NAMOC collection. Through the display of preparatory studies and sketches by the artists themselves, the show deconstructs the production methods of art in this unique period of Chinese history, and offers a first-hand look at valuable art historical documents. Here, Hadrien talks about his experiences putting the show together, how he developed his unique approach to historical Chinese works, and reactions from the community of artists. “History in the Making: Sketches for Iconic Paintings” “创造历史:经典绘画手稿” is on display in 798 until late June. See gallery website for details.


[Left,Xiao Feng & Song Ren, sketch for “Dr. Bethune,” 1974; Right: Jin Zhilin, study for “Chairman Mao in the Mass Production Movement,” 1959]

My interest in this period was actually sparked over a dinner conversation with Chen Danqing, where he told me a lot of things about the Mao era, like that the wife of Mao didn’t want the painters to sign the paintings, etc., he gave me some “appetizers” that made me wonder what had happened during this period. So I met the first artist, who talked to me about the period, about how artists were perceived, and I really wanted to do a show about it, because I had never seen anything about it, except for the 60 years of drawings exhibition at CAFAM.

So I met with other artists, perhaps 20-30 artists from this period, and it was first a discussion, I also told them about a show that I might be doing. Eventually I found a logical theme that could bring them all together, the first theme was “portraits.” The first show last year featured portraits from 1955-75, and it was a huge success, in the sense that we really had some very high quality people who came, and the artists were really happy; for many it was also the first time they were shown in a commercial gallery. We really tried to do our best to make it happen in a good way, with a nice catalog, a good exhibition layout.

So after the first show I asked, “what next?”, and our team lined up a few other themes, one was, of course, “landscapes” and the other one was “nature morte,” but at on the top of our list was to feature preparatory sketches for paintings in the national collection. And, yes, we worked for maybe a year and a half, to put together forty drawings or sketches for paintings that are in the Chinese national collection.

Like any work in a gallery, I discovered, it’s really a question of human relationships, people earning your trust and earning the trust of other people. Not just the artists, you also have collectors, the press, and they have to believe what you show and believe in your instincts. I could tell thousands of stories from this year and a half of work …. For example Jin Zhilin has been here many times, we have had wonderful talks, he loves France, it was also these human experiences that really taught me a lot about China.

I think that the families and artists were quite interested to see a foreigner doing this exhibition, and they are really, really close to their drawings. I could sometimes feel that after we would sign the contracts, and when I was taking the drawings out of the house, you could see something in their eyes… as if maybe they had made the biggest mistake of their lives. Sometimes you feel quite bad, but on the other hand, you know that you’re going to do something good for the work.

The Dong Xiwen sketches are actually not allowed to leave China, You have ten artists whose production is not allowed to leave China, like Li Keran, Dong Xiwen, etc. And when I was preparing the show, my only fear was that a Chinese museum director, or someone from the Cultural Bureau would come to see it, and there would be some problems because these works are in a foreign gallery. Not in the sense that “he’s cheating” or breaking the law, my concern was that there may be trouble because this is a French gallery. This was my only fear.

sun zixi

[Sun Xizi, sketch for “In Front of Tiananmen,” 1964] 

I think that the role of a gallery is to show what you like, perhaps you like it for its aesthetics, or the historical value. I don’t think that it is our role to analyze what we show. In the case of these two shows, I really thought I should get an historian to help me, or to put together a nice catalog, but I want to keep to my role, and I’m here to show what I like. In the portraits show for example, I’m sure that I missed a lot of great artists—important in terms of art history, or historical value—but I could never put together an exhaustive show with a similar train of thought. So, I decided to focus on showing what I liked, and thus put together a show by making the most of the information I have, or can get. We’ve sent 5 students to the CAFA library to see if these images have ever been published, or if the sketches have ever been exhibited before, we do this kind of research, but research based on fact, not based on analysis.

Of course in the show you have artists who are well known, and I know that its very complicated in terms of their ranking or importance––the head of CAFA is important, the head of China Art Academy also, but how do you position them so? Maybe someone else is the son of whoever… so, shall I do it in alphabetic order, starting with the name of the artist? Should I start my catalog with the name of the painting? In both the gallery and the catalog presentation, we had quite a lot of issues in terms of how to present information in the most logical, fact-based way. We decided to go chronologically in the catalog, with the famous image coming before the sketch—first the painting, then the drawing. I was faced with questions that galleries don’t normally encounter.

Through the process, I think I’ve learned more about history than art history, and the most incredible thing has been meeting really great people, and having them share their history with me. It was really amazing. Also, when we opened the show, most of the artists who are still alive came, and some of them haven’t seen each other in 20 years, even though they even shared rooms in St. Petersburg, etc. When they saw each other again, it was really touching. Really touching. I know for a fact that the artists were really happy with the way things were presented, we had a good mix of artists, in the sense that they all belong on the same level. This would have never have succeeded if there had been two or three artists who weren’t famous at all.

What I often say about sketches and preparatory studies is that the painting is like writing your autobiography, you are writing it knowing that people will read it. Doing sketches is like writing for yourself, it’s like a diary. So you are much closer to the artist that any painting or finer work, because you don’t have a filter, it is much freer.

Interview with Lee Ambrozy; A Chinese version of this interview was posted here, on artforum.com’s Chinese edition.  

Archive of Modern Conflict––Beijing Office

26 April 2012

The Archive of Modern Conflict is a photographic archive based in London and curated by Timothy Prus and Ed Jones. As a part of Caochangdi Photospring 2012, highlights from its collection and a selection of the AMC’s publications are featured in a rare exhibition organized by head of the Beijing office Thomas Sauvin 苏文. Here he discusses his work for the archive in Beijing, the exhibition, and their recent publication, Happy Tonite, which features the work of 12 contemporary Chinese photographers.

[Gordon Earl Adams and his Time Machine, UK, Twentieth Century © Archive of Modern Conflict]

“From 2006-2010 we were focusing on Contemporary Chinese photography, it resulted in the Happy Tonite publication that only showcases a tiny facet of the collection, 75 prints from 12 photographers. The collection now counts 55 Chinese photographers and a little more than 4000 prints. The AMC collects photographers from all over the world, although contemporary works are not the core of the collection.

But the AMC is open to any type of work, as long as it surprises them. I guess the game is how to surprise them. It’s not that easy, as they have been looking at images everyday for 35 years. Photography can be an amazingly boring medium. A lot of Chinese works, especially from the early 2000s, convey some sort of strange, twisted, dirty fairytale style of photography. It’s pretty unnatural, so the game was to put them together and see what happened. The photographers in Happy Tonite are all mixed together, its very hard to tell who took what.

Nein, Onkel: Snapshots From Another Front 1938–1945 is definitely their most important publication, it is actually why the AMC is called so, because in the beginning they were collecting material related to WW2. From 1993-2005 they were gathering private photo albums from German soldiers all around the world, the idea was to challenge the notion popular in that period, the “German killing machine,” and to challenge the collective memory with authentic images from the same period.

The Beijing office of the AMC has a physical space, and I’m pretty proud of it because it finally smells like Panjiayuan in there. I have bought enough dusty books, period publications, photo albums and all kinds of stuff. The archive is not public, but if I had to divide the archive into three branches, there would be the contemporary, which is still growing, period publications (mostly books), and personal photographs and albums. Two albums showing in the exhibition are the PLA clothes factory sample album, and the special effects make up artist.

If we want to build up a visual chain from 1949 to now, the only way to cover 1949-79 is through official propaganda period publications, and one must admit that pretty amazing books were made. A lot of time, money, energy and talent were spent on these huge publications, especially publications in 1959. Martin Parr is focusing on Chinese publications now, he is working with the Dutch photographer Ruben Lundgren in Beijing.

I try to go to Panjiayuan every week, but the main problem with Panjiayuan is that the sellers always think they know what has value. They have great things, but they never show them to me, because, being a foreigner, they think that I’m only obsessed with Mao or the Cultural Revolution, etc. AMC doesn’t try to dig out sensitive material, or to press where it hurts. A lot of people like to do that, especially in photography.

[Beauty and the Fridge (left); Lucha-Libre © Archive of Modern Conflict]

There are no themes that we collect by. We like to have something amorphous. You never know if something is the right thing to collect, but anything that generates an emotion, surprise, nostalgia, melancholy, amusement, is probably worth keeping. Things emerge organically. We don’t have a purpose that we try to illustrate. We try to take interest in all kinds of people and different visual universes. The best photo album I could imagine is by a real estate agent, he’s not an artist, but for years he’s been taking simple snapshots in a hardcore way—what is the price, what is the size (of real estate). I like when images are not taken for an artistic purpose, but when you decontextualize them and put them in such a space, they have another meaning.

We tend to like funny people and funny work, and a little bit of humor is very nice to find in photography. Photographers often try to convey very sad feelings and melancholia, and somehow it’s very hard to find funny work, but people really like it. So if there were one rule, it would be not to take photography too seriously, and not to pay too much attention to technique.

Most important is the history behind the image, and perhaps the great masterpiece of this exhibition is Gordon Earl Adams’ time machine. The images are not spellbinding, but the story behind them is: in the 1920s Adams’ started to build a time machine in his basement, and now both the time machine and the guy are impossible to find. So maybe it worked. We don’t know. I didn’t actually do the research myself, but AMC ended up with this huge manuscript he worked on, a huge photo album and handwritten diagrams based on Indian mythology on which the design of the machine is based. Adams was an engineer, a seeker of spiritual truth, and an unusual character. And that is all that’s left of the story. The machine––and you’ve seen it’s no small machine—and the man disappeared. Nobody seems to know, there are no records in cemeteries, and no one kept the machine. In this case, if you take the images individually they don’t say much, so we also wanted to feature his diagrams prominently in the exhibition. They were maps on how to build the machine, and showing the connection between infinity and eternity, the material universe and spiritual universe, hell and heaven.

Its always very hard to define the archive, the best way is to define what it is not. It is not a photo agency, it’s not a gallery, and it’s not a museum. It doesn’t look like anything we know.

“Photographic Oddities from The Archive of Modern Conflict” is on display from April 14 to May 6, 2012 at Chamber’s Fine Art in Caochangdi. A Chinese version of this interview was posted on artforum.com’s Chinese edition. 

Things I’ll Never Understand, or, Deplaning at T3 with Air China

15 March 2012


I no longer mind 12 hour Air China journeys with no personal mini screen; I can now laugh at the CA flight where I watched “Mamma Mia” three times in a row; and then there’s the horrible in-flight meals…. But I’ll never forgive Air China for not making use of that fabulous new *Norman* Foster airport. Every single time I’ve landed at Beijing’s new T3 with Air China, I’ve never been granted permission to deplane at a proper gate. Even if we stop a few meters from one.

Bedazzled Jaguar Hood Ornament

14 October 2011

bedazzled jaguar

bedazzled jaguar 2

…spotted in 798. Some good things can get better.

March in Beijing: It’s Cold Inside!

23 March 2011

Late March. Public heat has ceased for eight days now. With concrete walls for insulation, my hands are freezing!It just might be warmer outside….I’ve been doing some research lately, and when I came across this cartoon from the May 1955 issue of Meishu 美术, I thought it should be shared, if only to show how much has remained the same.The title is “Four Seasons in one Building.” When this was drawn, urban dormitory dwellings were under construction en masse, according to the caption, the four season phenomenon was caused by irregular water pipes.I ran into a friend yesterday who hasn’t had hot water in their 15th floor apartment for three days, their building was built in the 90s. I’d rather be cold!At Beijing University, I lived in a dorm room which looked like the 3rd in the cartoon below (ah, Shaoyuan!). Now, as I write to you dear readers, I look like that huddled mass on the first floor, with just my hands sticking out from the folds….lou

Sino-Semiotics Test #3

13 March 2011

hope“Hope” in the Beijing springtime…

Sino-Semiotics Test #2

9 February 2011

yodaMaster Yoda speaks …

Why Top Gun Footage Does Not Equal Homer Simpson’s Brain

7 February 2011

Recently, CCTV aired “footage” of the new Chinese-built J-10 fighter plane. The clip in question, which featured air-to-air missiles destroying a enemy fighter plane, was recognized by some shrewd-eyed movie buffs in China as footage from Top Gun, the 1986 Hollywood blockbuster featuring Tom Cruise. In these final scenes, pictured here in CCTV=Top Gun equivalencies (via the Chosunilbo) Cruise’s F-14 fighter jet destroys a Russian F-5. The footage was quickly pulled from circulation and requests for commentary denied.

This fascinating example of Chinese copyright infringement and corrupted journalistic integrity has been compared in numerous news clips and blogs to the 2007 incident of an illustration of cartoon character Homer Simpson’s x-rayed brain used as an illustration for a scientific article on multiple sclerosis. Both incidents prove that CCTV “borrows” images on a regular basis, both further suspicions about government-backed media’s lack of credibility, and both are quite humorous. The fact that both Homer Simpson and Top Gun are images originating from US popular entertainment brings an end to their similarities.


Without a thorough examination of why the phenomenon of poaching images (and text) occurs, these two extreme examples should be enough to assure us that similar forms of copyright infringement is happening with regularity, but is just not as entertaining for western readers. (The Onion news debacle of 2002 was another hilarious instance.) There must be literally millions of images that been inserted, completely out of context, in countless news reports over hours, months, years of CCTV news. Low operating budgets (unlike those for abalone banquet for officials) preclude the updating of archival footage; on CCTV News last week, the “file” footage aired for a spot on computers was so outdated, I’m impressed they avoided showing floppy discs. This reality of television news is probably another reason why Chinese netizens were so quick to suspect the visually stunning images of this military maneuvering last month––only Hollywood would have a budgets capable of producing such footage. And anyone familiar with Chinese media and toting basic critical thinking skills could deduce that.

Unlike the Top Gun incident, the photo of Homer Simpson could only be earnest humor. There was an image slot in somewhere that needed to be filled, and instead of the trite stock image of a double helix, someone inserted Homer Simpson’s head. You don’t have to be a fan of the Simpson’s to recognize that the x-rayed cartoon of Homer’s brain is not authentic, nor is it scientific. No one “mistook” the image for real, it seems like a good-natured joke from the over-worked, underpaid offices of the Xinhua newsroom. But Top Gun footage is another story.

Compared to web-based media, where one or two individuals can be held responsible (the Homer image also appeared on the English version of Xinhua, much less traffic, different departments than its Chinese-language counterpart), more editors are accountable in the Top Gun footage incident, this was television news, and broadcast to a mainstream Chinese audience.

Whether or not you take stock in the images the news media, Chinese or otherwise, they reflect more than one lazy editor’s decision making, they reflect to some degree the expectations of the audience. And despite the many suspicious viewers who tune into CCTV daily, the simple choice in what news sources chose to pirate belies a shift in viewers’ attitude. Homer Simpson might be that lovable underdog, but Top Gun is awesome military might! They are stealing the master’s guard dog. The message here is rising confidence.

Western commentators on this incident are likely sub-consciously aware of the threat, but do the millions of viewers who saw it really care where the footage came from? For a population accustomed to hidden agendas in the news, all that counts is that Central Television aired it. It could be considered irrelevant whether viewers believe it or not.

The Top Gun incident is brilliant in the sense that it illustrates perfectly how modern China has crafted its image of military might in emulation of the United States. Not the US as its citizens might know it, but the “imagined West,” the one most Chinese know, and that we call Hollywood. Instead of boo-hooing over copyright infringement, or laughing at the silliness of “Chinese ‘journalists’” we should step back, and begin to appreciate ourselves reflected through this crazy lens we helped create.

Door Gods for the Contemporary Age

3 February 2011


Belated New Year to all, and apologies for the protracted absence. Lots of travel in the late months of last year, and busy updating artforum.com.cn leaves little time to blog. But hopefully, this spring will afford more time to post, more love from the archives. For now, despite the danger of blocking Sinopop behind the firewall, I’d like to wish sinopop readers a happy new year, 拜年拜年 with this, a most inspiring piece of contemporary folk art, door gods designed by Ai Weiwei’s FAKE office in Caochangdi.

Read about the door gods here, on the Epoch Times site. Truly auspicious protectors for 2011, (protection from censorship and littered with Grass Mudhorses and River Crabs) I’m glad that I hung mine on the inside of my door!

798 begets the spaghetti dog

18 October 2010

COFFEE AND DOGRecently, an American friend in Beijing told me about the fear of carbohydrates shaking down health/diet freaks in that nation. Here in 798, we scoff at gluten fears, and have produced a cross cultural dish that can put any fortune cookie to shame. Behold, the spaghetti dog: A toasted white flour bun brimming with crisp pan fried wheat vermicelli that has been tossed with bean sprouts and leek tips.This offering was spotted in an advertisement outside a small corner cafe in 798, the hot dog bun gives away its true identity as “Western food,” and testifies to the cosmopolitan nature of Beijing’s art zones. Wash it down, and kick yourself  out of that digestive slump with a cup of pitch-black coffee. A little taste of “the West,” right here in 798. The photo is a photograph taken outside the restaurant. I did not indulge in the spaghetti dog.dogThe artful placement of the two onion sprigs inspires me,  I would love to treat any willing readers to a spaghetti dog. Just get in touch, this place sells churros too.

Through a Pink Looking Glass

6 September 2010

candylandEvery now and then, when my eyes blur over with red, I refresh my mind with kitsch of the American variety. After all, one’s home culture is like their mother tongue, a system of symbols that we speak the most fluently, and ultimately react to most viscerally. This might explain why, in bouts of homesickness, I’ll pass on the pizza and watch Beyoncé on Youtube instead.Pop culture viewed through the filter of geographic distance allows for a very different analytical perspective. And as the largest global exporter of culture, we Americans should be aware that the rest of the world doesn’t interpret Gaga or Michael in the same way. And this works both ways. Many non-Chinese living in China find television galas, etc. “kitschy,” something culturally inferior and laughable.Last week, while watching Katy Perry’s performance on the Today Show (on Youtube here), the amazing similarities of Chinese and American culture struck me. From outside in, American culture can be just as spectacularly kitschy, pointlessly elaborate and ridiculous as any Chinese television gala could ever aspire to be.Of course, this is obvious. But I thought it would be fun to draw a comparison here, a trip through the looking glass into our respective pink, glittery, dreamlands gracing national broadcasting.此条有新的中文版,请按右手的“中文”让它显示 (more…)

Coffee, Chai, West China

1 August 2010

Traveling out West, tea migrated to bowls, and as we approached the Ottoman Empire, the coffee seemed easier to find than a dish of home-style tofu. Here are a few of my favorite images from this daily ritual, Western-China style.


coffee (more…)

Pabst Blue Ribbon! Select Hipster H20

29 July 2010


In honor of Evan Osnos’s “Pardon Me, Would You Have Any Pabst Blue Ribbon?” post in the New Yorker blog, I dug up this carefully preserved, very old photo of PBR “兰带” bottled water.

Perhaps it is the ideal thirst quencher for those hipsters smoldering in the Beijing heat this week…

The US Soldier’s Pocket Guide to China, 1943

3 July 2010


I’m celebrating this July 4th national day with the “Soldier’s Pocket Guide to China,” published by the US War Department in 1943. (No bbq’s for me, but as American as one can get at S.I.T., I’m enjoying an omelet slathered in ketchup and Tabasco with a cup of joe, black.)

This guide is deftly written, and delightfully full of insight and sympathy for the Chinese, “our gallant ally.” It comes replete with analects of Confucius––characters included––tips on shopping, girls, racial superiority complexes and more, and how much of it still rings true! (Aside from some predictable cartoonish characterizations of Chinese.)

For all of my American friends in China, remember, “Forget your old notions,” you’re on Chinese turf now, and “You are our Ambassador.” Happy Fourth of July!


“The Chinese are like Americans,” they laugh at the same jokes, and the “Chinese have their great men who were born in cabins” (Chiang Kai-shek).

And tips aplenty, on visiting traditional families: “the quieter you are, the better.”

How to eat in a restaurant: “If you want a good meal in a Chinese restaurant, take your buddies with you.”

Shopping: “If you pay what is asked, the shopkeeper will not respect you for it. If you argue him down too much, he will prefer not to sell it to you at all… But above all, keep good humored throughout. In China it is a sign of bad breeding to grow heated over a purchase.”

Learn about the “squeeze” [this isn’t the same “squeeze” as trying to exit the subway, but commission], and the use of “servants… who are smoothers of your way.”  And discover that “Chinese have ways of getting information which has nothing to do with newspapers or organized sources of information.”
“Important things to remember: …By following these suggestions, you will not only avoid difficulties, but you will guarantee your own popularity.”
“…China is the oldest nation in the world and its civilization is in many ways the greatest. As a natural result, the Chinese will not bear any assumption of superiority on the part of a white man because he is white.”
“…Discourage anyone who acts as though the Chinese people are queer. They are not queer.”
“…Try not to lose your temper. You will see plenty of Chinese lose theirs, but they are looked upon as lower class when they do so.”
“…Bear in mind that many refined and well educated Chinese––professors, students, government employees––are today poor and underpaid. … Do not be too quick, therefore, in judging by appearances.”



Images of the introduction below. (more…)

Fear and the “Post 90s”

27 June 2010


No, this is not a Chinese equivalent to Twilight. This is Komi, an “Uber-Internet Beauty” 网络超强美女. In case you weren’t aware, big, round eyes, with their giant irises and enormous pupils glinting with anime shine, white skin, pointy almond chin, and pursed rosebud lips are ke’ai, cute. They are cute that has crossed to the other side. Thus,  the “Post 90s” generation strikes fear in me. And Komi’s photos caught my eye in the sidebar of some Chinese web portal, a bizarre consequence of the social/technology machine driving self-photography. What were the many stages of production that created this photo, what contributes to the collective failure in recognizing the disturbing nature of this image? (more…)

the Mansudae Art Museum

1 June 2010

towerThe North Korean pavilion at the Shanghai World’s Fair was inspiring, but last week I discovered the Mansudae Art Museum in 798 just across from Pace Beijing. The current signage in 798 can’t be missed, and although a stop in to this spacious museum might cause most visitors to smirk at its “kitschy” socialist realist oils and statues with chiseled, idealized proletariat features, there were some artistic treasures within after all. The museum itself seems to be privately funded by one of the DPRK’s most enterprising cultural firms, the Mansudae Art Studio, whose “overseas projects” division is responsible for other monumental statues across Africa, including the controversial Senegalese “African Renaissance.” Look for the Mansudae Museum underneath the book-bearing youth astride a winged horse and crowning an enormous faux-brick pedestal.

Deferring comment on the works themselves, and not knowing enough about the context in which they arrived in China’s most prominent arts district, I’d rather tell you about my joyous discovery of other art within––DPRK stamps! While “Korean jewel painting” and the realist ink and wash landscapes depicting craggy mountains might not appeal to Western tastes, I don’t know who could resist the wonderfully rendered ratus norvegicous found on the pleasingly designed “Rodents” sheet of stamps.

Amidst political themes fawning on the P.R.C. (a plethora of stamps depict Mao Zedong, Zhou Enlai, and more recent visits by the “dear Leader” to China), there was also a fascinating visual interpretation of the “History of the Earth” in which the planet swells like a bubble, and a equally reality-bending 1997 skyline view of Hong Kong, surely a commemoration of her return to Chinese rule. Mushrooms and alpine life sit high on the list of muses for DPRK philatelic society artists, and in the small books for sale inside the museum (13-31RMB), you can find their issue date in both the Western calendar, and in the Juche year (0 = 1912, the year of Kim Il-sung’s birth).





mushroom stamps

juche year 91

Shanzhai and ArtBeijing

1 May 2010

Round two of the Beijing art fairs opened on April 30th, and the buzz in the art scene confirms, ArtBeijing has surpassed CIGE, providing a better show all around. While the unofficial theme at CIGE was “fear,” ArtBeijing has embraced the spirit of Shanzhai!


These skulls by Fang Shengyi 房圣易 seem to be popping up everywhere lately, a pyramid of at least 50 similar skulls was spotted at the young artists portion of 《Reshaping History 改造历史》 that opened last weekend. Each skull is mounted with 3700 Czech-crystal “diamonds” and took ten workers more than 45 days to complete all these crystal-studded metal alloy skulls.


Here they are again, lower mandibles disjointed and floating in a pile of red and white sand. The title of this installation is “Original Sin” 《原罪》. The artist’s statement reads “a lateral reconsideration towards the frantic pace of economic growth in a socialist motherland… The utilizing, plagiarizing and plundering of intellectual property of advanced civilizations by developing countries equals a bald-faced exploitation of developed culture under the premise of identification…”

Let’s embrace brevity: It’s Shanzhai contemporary art!


This random installation could be a commentary on the art fair, perhaps we could interpret it as the “shanzhai fair within a fair.” (more…)

Knocking Kongzi

25 January 2010

happyold kongzi

I haven’t seen the biopic on Confucius, Kongzi yet, but I can already tell it’s going to be a doozy. Chow Yun-fat’s omniscient face looming in the heavens on the film poster, and his self-bemused, wizened sage smirk on the film stills is one hint, and recent dogged attempts at drumming up nationalism through culture and the arts is another.

Since I am not a Chinese, and non-Chinese are simply not allowed to mock things Chinese (especially Kongzi) even in good spirit, I figure I’ll do like other bloggers and just rip off Han Han’s brilliant post this morning, entitled, “Watching Kongzi.” Read the Chinese here: 韩寒: 《看孔子》

“…To tell you the truth, I’ve never thought there was a need to turn these classic stories into films. From a film perspective, the moment such films are born, they become the antithesis filmmaking, strangling creativity. But if you say that China’s movies with classical-historical themes show no creativity, that’s not right either, because those scriptwriters are often writing incredibly counter-historical scenes, the situation is tangled. And thus the reason why a vast majority of big-budget Chinese films are borrowing classical themes and historical figures is because their investors have lack a sense of security, they hesitate to invest such a great amount of money on some plotline dreamed up by some dubious director. Occasionally, there comes along a director who has an enormous investment, and the freedom to write their own screenplay––the resulting films are even worse. And such is China’s tragic history of film. According to Chou Yun-fat, people who watch this movie and don’t cry cannot be human, I can believe this is his delusion, and I’m sure that during the in-house screenings, all of the producers cried. They cried thinking about how many elementary school students and governmental organizations they will have to drag to the theaters just to break even.
Let’s forget about all political reasons and look at the film itself, it is a failure of a film. The sermonizing in the film isn’t infective at all, when Kongzi is talking about propriety and benevolence in the film, the guy next to me was having a ten-minute long conversation on his cell phone. …

smugFinally, I want to say that the film Kongzi, no matter if it’s from the point of view of the significance of film, profits, artistic pursuits, film exploration, educational enlightenment, warning or admonishing the public, audio-visual experience, entertainment, or documentation of history, there is no need for this film to exist. This film could be erased completely from film history.”

Despite all this, I’m still happy that Avatar was pulled from the theaters just to make room for this film.
The illusion of global culture has been shattered by recent events with Google.cn, and Hillary’s speech on the “freedom to connect.” China’s official response to “so-called Internet freedom” makes me shudder, are we truly entering a virtual cold war? At the very least, films like this should prove the national agenda is still filtered through culture, remember Founding a Nation? At the least, its one more attempt by China’s film industry to harmonize ticket sales and pleasing the film censors. Yes, I will see Kongzi, because who can’t appreciate the wry irony of watching the former “God of Gambling” play the sagely man of morals Confucius? It’s like a national face lift. Well, I’ll see in on DVD anyways…

Urban China: Work in Progress

5 January 2010

ucPerhaps artists like to think of themselves as harbingers of social change, at least think they like to imagine themselves on the vanguard of something. In China, they seem more like backseat drivers. However, the world’s fasting urbanizing nation is heaving forward in myriad expressions, and relentlessly posing challenges to the entire globe with a host of issues that will shape the next decade.Urban China is a magazine that has hovered on the fringes of the art world since it was founded four years, it examines various urban issues in themed monthly issues, featuring intellectuals, artists and social scientists writing on topics such as Chinese creativity, education, migration, or Chinatowns. URBAN CHINA: Work in Progress (Timezone8, 2009), is a new publication co-edited by magazine founder Jiang Jun and Brendan McGetrick that seems to reiterate the supremacy of the urban machine over the artist’s ego, as the book itself grew out of a series of questions that emerged from UC’s participation in Documenta 12 (2007). (more…)

Best of the Worst Spectacles in 2009

30 December 2009

xiaoshenyangWhat more is there to say? If we should learn from history, and images are the most powerful medium of our age, then the following should need no introduction. For all the love of spectacle we endured, 2009, thank you most of all for introducing me to the perils of the Caonima, watch your back, river crabs are everywhere.

Click on photos for news links.

cctv burn



qiu zhijie

ai weiwei

60th anniversary


obama on great wall

2012 madness

“GUOJIA” National Day patriotism in translation

11 November 2009

Sometimes, in the spirit of preserving our mental health (and also following the sound example of many Chinese citizens) we block out the droves of nincompoopery political advertising that  inundates Beijing’s population during political festivals. However, China’s 60th anniversary recently passed, and left behind a rich trail of propaganda and harmonious good-tidings that begs to be deciphered by the twisted minds who are so inclined to pay interest to such mass messages from the state.

Thus it follows, a Chinese lesson for all souls who wish to join the“family,” as delivered to you by the creamy voices of Jackie Chan and favored Party chanteuse Liu Yuanyuan. The first video below was the National Day ‘debut’ of the patriotic song, written especially for the 60th anniversary and sung in The Square complemented by hundreds of jubilant dancers.

Please note the harmonious joy of China’s minorities as they dance happily in unison in The Square, this is very likely the favored past time of all the 56 minorities. This joyous display (which later incorporates Hu Jintao, Wen Jiabao, etc.) of course also indicates that even though we may be wearing different satin costumes, or of economic classes, our common ground is here: dancing below the benevolent face of the great leader.

Which brings us to our lesson, where we focus on three words:
国    GUO    (kingdom––the simplified character is a composite of characters for “jade”surrounded by a “mouth”)
家    JIA     (family, home––literally a “pig” covered with a “roof tile”)
国家     GUOJIA    (nation, country, state––the combination of the above two characters)

The Chinese for “China” is 中国 ZHONGGUO  (中=middle, inside) All of this word dissection is vital to understanding the first two lines of the song. Pay attention!

Now, due to the ingenious word play in this clever song, the appropriate words will be substituted below: GUO, JIA & GUOJIA.

Note that each time “JIA” is sung, one or both singers makes the sign language signal  for “home.” Special note for Cai Guo-Qiang fans, he was the “General Director” of the fireworks display you see at the end of the video.

(China based readers can see it on Sina here)

一玉口中国    Jade inside a mouth––ZHONGGUO
一瓦顶成家    Add a roof tile for a JIA

都说国很大    everyone says the GUO is large
其实一个家    but actually, it’s a JIA

一心装满国    A heart laden with GUO
一手撑起家    a hand props up JIA

家是最小国    JIA is the smallest GUO
国是千万家    a GUO is ten million JIAs

在世界的国    In the World’s GUO
在天地的家    and the JIA of heaven and earth,

有了强的国    having a strong GUO
才有富的家    makes for a wealthy JIA

国的家住在心里    The JIA of the GUO lives in your heart
家的国以和矗立    the GUO of the JIA stands upright with harmony

国是荣誉的毅力    GUO is the perseverance of glory
家是幸福的洋溢    JIA is brimming with prosperity

国的每一寸土地    every inch of the GUO’s soil
家的每一个足迹    every footprint in the JIA

国与家连在一起    GUO and JIA are joined together
创造地球的奇迹    to bring about a planetary marvel

国是我的国    This GUO is my GUO
家是我的家    This JIA is my JIA
我爱我的国     I love my GUO
我爱我的家     I love my JIA

我爱我国家    I love my GUOJIA!!!

And here, one more time, you have Jackie’s MV version. It features more happy minorities, students reciting their lesson (“GUO, JIA, GUOJIA”), and even some thoughtful calligraphers demonstrating how to write the characters. Later, superstar pianist Lang Lang makes an appearance for a solo played in the Great Hall of the People. (more…)

National Day Parade

3 October 2009

Hopefully these pictures can let you experience China’s national day parade as it was enjoyed by hundreds of millions on the morning of October 1st (only the very loyal, and high ranking cadres and military folk actually made it to the bandstand that morning). The painting of Mao looking over the square has been replaced with a smiling, benevolent and satisfied looking comrade, “Old Hu” inspected the troops poking out of the sunroof in the same Hongqi from 1949, and after a very proud and spine-tingling display of “model” soldiers and firepower, the parade began. Perhaps the most elaborate display of socialist pagentry possible today, the parade cost billions of RMB, and (of course) made the DPRK’s birthday celebration look like a mere joke.


parade floats

Below are some shots of thrilled, smiling crowds and saluting policemen and soldiers. Judging from the blue skies, and the nicely balanced crowds of citizens, we’re pretty sure these were “filler shots” filmed at the rehearsal that happened the previous week.

happy people

happy people 2



Aerial shots provided uplifting views of the poignant messages that were delivered via cards flipped by the masses seated in the square they read as following:

“loyalty to the party”/ “socialism is good” / “protect world peace”

The final image is an amazing recreation of the Fu Baoshi painting that hung in the Great Hall of the People. It was commissioned for the hall in 1959 and for decades it provided a most dramatic background for diplomatic missions.

loyalty (more…)

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