“Lucky cat” figurine purchased in Shanghai, China in 2009. It appears in many of our synth-demo videos.
Ten years ago, I frequently traveling to China for work, and found myself in Beijing during the week of the twentieth anniversary of the protests and massacre in Tiananmen Square in Beijing. As the thirtieth anniversary is upon us, it seems a good opportunity to look back at that experience.
Tiananmen Square is a YUGE space, mostly empty. It is bounded on the north by the Tiananmen Gate to the Forbidden City. On one side is the Palace of the Republic, the seat of the Chinese government, on the other is another imposing government building that I’m pretty sure was the culture ministry. To the south, before several temples, is the imposing tomb of Mao Zedong.
What was most notable was how ordinary things were, just a mixture of Beijingers and tourists wandering about like any other day. Indeed the most subversive thing I saw during that visit was my own photo with our mascot in front of Mao’s portrait.
There was almost no mention of the anniversary in any media. The big story around town seemed to be the preparations for Expro 2010 in Shanghai. One English-language newspaper had an article about the “last of the 1989 hooligans” being released from prison, but that was about it. My colleagues, who are younger and would have been small children at the time, barely even knew about it except as rumors. One did check out a video via internet tunneling and was shocked to know that her country could have done something like that – but she did accept that it was true.
It’s hard to say if my experience of young Chinese encountering Tiananmen Square as we know it is at all representative, as my friends and colleagues tended to be more educated, cosmopolitan, and a bit jaded. Indeed, one young woman from the more conservative countryside whom I befriended in Suzhou on that same trip seemed to be less cynical and more toeing the party line about respect for authority (and reverence for Mao). I suspect things are even tighter and more controlled now, given the current Chinese leadership under Xi Jinping. Only time will tell how the country comes to reckon with this particular chapter of its past.
The second of our remembrances focuses on the architect I.M. Pei, who passed away this week. A true champion of modernism worldwide, I have admired his work both from afar and close up.
Perhaps the most vivid memory with his work was from the Suzhou Museum in Suzhou, China. It may not be his best known work, but it is a masterpiece in itself and a love letter to his hometown.
The exterior facade combines Pei’s trademark geometry and minimalism with more the more traditional designs and tropes of an adjacent palace and Suzhou’s famous gardens. It also makes extensive use of water as an architectural element both inside and outside the building.
The simple geometric shapes, as well as the use of water, stone, and glass, gave the entire complex a very warm and welcoming feeling, even as the rain came down around me. Inside, the simplicity of the galleries left ample mental space to enjoy the exhibits and artifacts, while the atrium was a work of art itself.
I admire the way he often brought modernist aesthetics and principles to traditional spaces. This is perhaps most dramatically seen in his glass pyramid that anchors the Louvre Museum in Paris.
The pyramid is perfect, a stark contrast to the severe facades around it, and perfectly balanced in size and space. While I know many traditionalists have hated on this addition over the years, I for one love it. I am an unapologetic modernist and often find myself sparring with traditionalists even here in San Francisco.
Pei’s modernism was intended to integrate with its surroundings, even as it stood in contrast to it. For example, he wanted his stark geometric design for the Mesa Laboratory at the National Center for Atmospheric Research (U.S.A.) to look “as if it were carved out of the mountain”.
Until reading others’ tributes and remembrances, I had forgotten about his role in the Javits Center in New York, a building I am quite familiar with both inside and out. It is a massive and imposing structure but crisscrossed with triangular details that remind me of the Suzhou Museum (built 20 years later). The project was plagued by challenges and controversies, and “during the inauguration ceremonies, however, neither [James] Freed nor Pei was recognized for their role in the project.” [source]
Triangles do seem to be a major recurring theme in his work, and perhaps part of why it appeals to me even within the scope of other modernists. Triangles are powerful and strong, and the often stand out in Western spaces dominated by rectangles. These elements also played a role East Building for the National Gallery in Washington, D.C., a project is loved by many, but similar to the Louvre, criticized by some traditionalists.
The building is a masterpiece of minimalism. Even some of those traditionalist critics have grown to love it in the years since it opened in 1978. And it serves its purpose, both as a home to art and a work of art itself.
The growing popularity of art museums presented unique challenges to the architecture. Mellon and Pei both expected large crowds of people to visit the new building, and they planned accordingly. To this end, he designed a large lobby roofed with enormous skylights. Individual galleries are located along the periphery, allowing visitors to return after viewing each exhibit to the spacious main room. A large mobile sculpture by American artist Alexander Calder was later added to the lobby. Pei hoped the lobby would be exciting to the public in the same way as the central room of the Guggenheim Museum in New York. The modern museum, he said later, “must pay greater attention to its educational responsibility, especially to the young.”https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/I._M._Pei#National_Gallery_East_Building,_Washington,_DC
Defending modernism, even after a century, remains a tireless job. As we lose champions like I.M. Pei, it falls to those of us in later generations to make sure this beauty is preserved and celebrated.
So this is the time when we choose to look back on the year that has just ended. Or in some cases, not look back. It seems that this past year was a difficult one for a lot of people, an annus horribilis or a “year to forget.” For me, that particular title could be better applied to another year that was far more tragic and difficult.
So I feel a little at odds looking back at 2009 and seeing a really rich year, one filled with visual and personal experiences. I actually learned a lot, about other people around the world, about myself, about what is important to me, and I think that is actually reflected on these pages in a strange way.
I expect this coming year to be more of a transitional one, though I am not exactly sure yet where that will lead. But in the meantime, we at CatSynth will continue to do what we do…
In August I had the opportunity to take a private curator-led tour of the Present Tense Biennial exhibition at the Chinese Culture Center here in San Francisco before it closed on August 23. The exhibition was a joint project of the Chinese Cultural Center and the Kearny Street Workshop and included 31 artists with works that interpreted contemporary Chinese culture. There was no single direction or theme to these interpretations. There were plays on Chinese language, heritage, stereotypes, geography, artistic techniques, history and iconic objects.
The above image, featured on the posters for the exhibition, is a photograph entitled Nostalgia No. 24 by Chinese artist Maleonn. It features a young man looking at a miniature model of the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.
In keeping with the exhibition title of “Chinese Character”, several works dealt with plays on language. For example, the New-York-based artist Cui Fei’s Manuscript of Nature V was a large wall installation composed of plant tendrils resembling Chinese calligraphy. It was immediately reminiscent of handwritten Chinese characters (as I had seen many times in my recent visits); however, this was an entirely made-up character set.
Tamara Albaitis presented an audio and sculptural installation, with two planar arrays of speakers. Each speaker played a human voice uttering sounds (not strictly phonemes, but vowels, consonants, diphthongs, etc.) from various languages. On one side were sounds from languages arranged strictly horizontally (e.g., English and other Indo-European languages) while on the other were languages that could be written vertically, such as several East Asian languages. One could walk through the middle of the installation, with each bank as a “wall” of linguistic sounds, or around the outside. Out of context, it was not easy to distinguish the sounds from one language or another. One could use directional cues to determine whether a language was “horizontal” or “vertical”, but that served more to demonstrate similarities or “confusion” among languages.
In addition to the plays on language, these pieces were in the minority that I would consider to be “modern art” (rather than more loosely defined “contemporary art”). Another was Larry Lee’s Endless column takes a simple and familiar object, the traditional porcelain rice bowl,and arranges them in an “endless column” of spheres that extend from the base to the ceiling of the gallery. From a distance, it appears as a large piece of modernist abstract art, and the rice bowls are purely there for their shape and texture, rather than their function. However, the detail and functional context of the bowls are an interesting contrast to some of Lee’s other abstract sculptures (some of which can be seen at the CCC online gallery) with the simple geometry and solid colors that are the norm for abstract art.
Among my favorite photographs in the exhibition were Thomas Chang’s images of a Chinese-government-sponsored project in the United States that did not go so well. Spendid China was a theme park in Orlando, Florida (where else could it be?) that featured to-scale models of great Chinese monuments, including the Great Wall and others. The park closed in 2003, after which it became a frequent target of vandalism and fell into disrepair. Chang’s photographs document the ruins. I have a long-standing interest in ruined buildings, particularly as they appear in the context of a modern city, so I was intrigued by these photos even without knowing the full context. I think it would actually be interesting to visit this park in its current state.
Other photograph sets explored the concept of “Chinese identity” as well as the intersection with American identity. Whitespace by David Yun presents portraits of an extended Chinese-American family (presumably taken around Christmas time). There are individuals we conventionally think of as “Asian”, a young blonde girl, and others who look vaguely Latino or Mediteranean, yet these are all blood relatives in the same family. I can certainly identify with a family whose composition defies traditional expectations, with relatives who appear to be from different parts of the world. Yet both my own family and the family presented in Whitespace are quintessentially American, i.e., this is what many American families look like when you get everyone together. Another take on family is presented in Sean Marc Lee’s portraits of his father. We see the typical “American Dad” in the Los Angeles area. But we also a man who seemed to have an exceptionally fun and playful attitude towards life even while raising children; and someone who knew how to “ham it up” for the camera. We see him blowing out candles with his children, posing like a TV still in a 1970s leisure suit in front of a sports car, going for a swim in a mountain lake. We also see him later in life, aging, resting, and receiving medical treatment. There are similarly familiar and intimate portraits of Lee’s father on his flickr site.
Kenneth Lo combines commentary on Asian identity in the United States with a lifelong dream to be a basketball star, in one of the shows more entertaining pieces Happy Feet Lucky Shoes. This conceptual work centers around a new brand of athletic shoes marketed as the AZN INVZN (i.e., the “Asian Invasion”) with their own superstar “K Lo.” There was a commercial, in which a young man is getting crushed on a basketball court. But once he receives the “magic touch” from K Lo along with a pair of “Yellow Fever” shoes, he magically acquires unstoppable basketball prowess (along with straight black hair), overpowering his opponents and winning the admiration of attractive cheongsam-clad young women. In addition to the video, and themed t-shirts for sale, the piece also included a Chinatown storefront made into a shoe store that specialized in the AZN INVZN, and even actual reviews on Yelp.
This was one of several installations scattered in the nearby blocks of Chinatown, beyond the boundaries of the standard gallery. Another was Imin Yeh’s storefront of household objects wrapped in the Chinese patterned fabric often used for gift boxes. Among the wrapped objects were dolls, fans, TVs, even an Apple Macbook:
Charlene Tan’s The Good Life incorporating “wrappings” of a very different sort. The piece was entirely made of photocopied fast-food wrappers from various locations in Asia. Several were clearly recognizable as McDonald’s wrappers, but for unfamiliar items. There was one that caught my in particular. It featured an Asian cartoon cat making the universal facial expression for “yummy!” surrounded by fish, and was presumably a wrapper for a fish sandwich or snack. I wish I could find a picture of that wrapper somewhere online.
We close with another of the neighborhood storefronts, a text-based work by Tucker Nichols in the Chinese for Affirmative Action window, declaring “YES WE ARE”, a riff of Barack Obama’s “Yes we can!” slogan. It faces inward, as if for the occupants of the office to affirm themselves while looking out at the world.
[Window installation by Tucker Nichols. Photo from the Kearny Street Workshop blog.]
A special thanks to Ellen Oh, Executive Director of the Kearny Street Workshop and co-curator of the exhibition, for hosting our tour.
The Kearny Street Workshop will be hosting their annual APAture festival, showcasing Asian Pacific American art. We at CatSynth look forward to attending at least a few of the events.
This weekend is marks Pride 2009 here in San Francisco, and while the parade and other events here were huge (and occasionally over the top) as always, I found myself thinking of the much smaller, but nonetheless significant event I saw during Pride week in Shanghai on June 8.
I had the chance to attend the opening night event, which took place at a large bar in the French Concession district of Shanghai. There was a good mixture of both native Chinese and expats; of course, the attendance was a couple hundred rather than hundreds of thousands. But one must think about the significance of having an event like this in China, which is still a relatively conservative country and where gatherings of any sort can be complicated.
The open night featured screenings of two documentaries. The first was a film from Singapore entitled “Autopsy” which follows the filmmaker Loo Ziham’s dialogue with his mother about his sexuality. Following that was a documentary “Queer China”, a rather stylized look at the history of homosexuality and LGBT issues in China. The film interspersed images from traditional Chinese art and literature with historical footage from early years of the Peoples Republic, but focused primarily on relatively contemporary interviews. Those interviewed ranged from a young man who nearly committed suicide over his sexual orientation to an older man (I think he was in his 80s) discussing sexuality in rather open terms. Because of the way the room was set up, it was sometimes difficult to see the English subtitles, so I did miss some of what people were saying. One thing I was able to gather from the film was that much of the progress in terms of recognition and getting groups organized and sanctioned came under the heading of AIDS prevention – the one young woman interviewed noted the irony that AIDS was not a big issue for everyone.
In any case, it was quite interesting to see such an event in another country. And I leave wondering if Chinese can go out and take the cultural risk of participating in such an event, why does it have to remain “hidden” for people here in certain ethnic groups?