Thursday, May 22, 2008

Zhan Wang Stainless Stealing himself into history, Acronyminizing all the way to the end of the world and how I covered the Earth Quake

Wang launched his first solo show in China since 1994 with a tremendous bang! Not only did his stainless steel ‘Garden Utopia’ fill all three bottom floors of NAMOC (National Museum of China) but a symposium entitled ‘Sculptural Intervention – Zhan Wang and Garden Utopia’ hosted by Long March Foundation and attended by a bunch of flown-in media and academics types occupied the entire following day at CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts). The sleepy symposium brought me back to the last time I had seen Zhan Wang’s work which was in Louis Vuitton’s Hong Kong citadel. Amongst 40,000 dollar leather bags and 400,000 dollar limited edition wrist watches was indeed a 250,000 dollar Zhan Wang stainless steel scholar rock … as I eyed in on the title plaque I was quickly distracted by a cockroach the size of a pigeon being chased out the door by a well dressed security guard, funny how LV’s projected pinnacle of sophistication was being intervened, not so much by this lumpy piece of stainless steel-which was clearly added décor to some marketing executive’s wet dream of cultivated “taste” but by this mammoth critter who evaded the pointed leather shoes of several security guards and crawled under a display case. This episode and more was racing through my mind as the official and unofficial reps of contemporary art history searched for intelligent and polite things to say about Zhan Wang’s work which hadn’t significantly changed since his last solo show some fourteen years ago.
Lisa Corrin (WMCA lecturer) who delicately and intelligently placed the work in the context of “western” art history by positioning it somewhere between Brancusi (the scholar rocks) and Duchamp (the stainless steel pots and pans installation). All in all no one was really talking to each other, instead they were talking around each other especially when Caoimhin Mac Giolla Leith (and I thought my name was hard to pronounce) got on and pontificated about the suitability of T.S. Eliot’s 1922 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ in discussing ZW’s work and CCA (Chinese Contemporary Art) in general. Especially in terms of Eliot’s prescription that new must arise from tradition… meanwhile people were napping, fiddling with their cell phones and testing their translation headsets, which was rather funny because a word that kept coming up throughout the symposium as a point of contention was “western” “in quotes”. While the “western” has inflected and infected discourse about CCA from way before the getgo (and continues to be a point of contention for most CC practitioners even as CCA ads occupy a large portion of ART Forum, auction prices continue to spire and exhibitions get mounted in every corner of the planet) no one was really interested in what the westerner was saying. As the mic was being passed for the umpteenth time and most of the panelists who had already spoke had found their way to the WC - the earthquake hit. It went unnoticed in this one storey conference room but had we been at the brand spanking new super Goliath AMCAFA (Art Museum of Central Academy of Fine Arts) like we were after lunch we might’ve noticed. Standing amongst a bunch of Swiss donated plaster Greek sculptures the director announced that this Isozaki Arata designed edifice is for significant solo shows as Lisa, Megan Connolly (AAA Beijing rep) Richard Vine (editor, Art in America) Britta Erickson (longtime CCA curator/historian) all ooohed and ahhhed at the super expansive white concaves that made up this 5 storey labyrinth.

While the design was knock dead the construction was questionable with plasterboard seams, and leaks starting to show. Unbeknown to us a 6.8 quake was busting up Sichuan province.
It wasn’t until 6am the next morning that I got a surprising call from CBS News in Tokyo asking me to go edit news clips in Chengdu. 6am. Beijing beering the night before. Tongue tied by the pseudo art academia claptrap I’d been consuming for the last two days AND not having been in the TV News biz for at least 10 years I said “well, call me back in 10”. It was Rick Widmer, my old video buddy, Today Art Museum Video production dept. director and Zhan Wang camera man (who two nights ago gave me the camera to film the intoxicated dance performance duo of super star painters Yue Minjun and Chen Wenbo… hard to tell who was leading) who passed CBS my name.
SO I went figuring ‘what the hell? a little real adventure after all this fictitious artworld tedium will sober me up”- or tried to go – I sat in the airport for 13 hours before the plane was allowed to take off. Chengdu airport had been reserved for flying in emergency supplies and workers. As the press core and all the Sichuanese desperate to go home and check on everyone’s safety sat glued to the XL flat screen TVs that were generously distributed throughout Beijing’s brand spanking new (for the Olympics from Norman Foster) Terminal No. 3 the news little by little unveiled the gravity of the situation. School children, entire towns, cracking dams. A world beseiged and ultimately betrayed by its architecture. Having just fathered a son- I could only think of not wanting to leave him for a few hundred dollars and some adventure in a danger zone.
But Chengdu was safe- except for a few shocking aftershocks that, up on the 15th floor of the hotel, had me thinking if I’d actually feel anything once the roof collapsed Or if I hid under the bed? Should I take a water bottle, my computer?
Tents had been set up everywhere in town as the early morning saw messy haired civilians carrying blankets back to their cars or maybe back inside for a brief minute. Fear of the unknown paralyzed this southern town. I only had two days – had to get back for another job waiting in Shanghai (thank god would still be there otherwise) but the very nice but slightly confused CBS folks needed someone and I gladly went for the 2 days. Experts say that after 72 hours finding survivors isn’t hopeful. People usually cannot survive without water for that long… it rained often which complicated and, some others argued, assisted rescue efforts. I left around the 72nd hour and returned to a bustling Shanghai as the echo of the earthquake roared on in the media. In China Wen Jiabao was figure-headed as the governmental face of the rescue efforts. He appeared with victims and crew everywhere shaking hands, looking concerned, pointing at maps of the inaccessible far reaches of this rugged frontier (ala Rudy Guilliano during 911). In the western media everyone was looking for faults: faulty construction, faulty response time, unheeded warnings… always looking for the preconceived shit that international audiences (reared on their own propaganda) thrives on. China did a fine job. China has a zillion natural disasters a year and so they were as prepared as possible.
Now along with everybody everywhere the CCA world with its venues throughout the world are auctioning off artworks in support the survivors and effected… One artist put her piece up on the web and said she’d give 40% of proceeds to the Earth Quake cause. A Generous 40%.
Which brings me to the sober warning that it is not the end of the world as you may think (even more so in China with all these numerologists collecting data that points to the Beijing Olympics in August as utterly doomed) The world is actually in one of its most peaceful eras known to history according to Fareed Zakaria who says that it’s not so much the events as the immediate and incessant reportage that makes it seem like things are going beserk- when some one farts in Timbuktu CNN.BBC.CBS.CCTV.ZDF are all there with there cameras, crew and contortionist correspondent spewing end of the world rhetoric at us while we sit at home clenched to the remote waiting for the inevitable, quickly encroaching end of it all .

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