Tuesday, January 9, 2018

Some China Impressions upon my trip to Qingdao, invited by the Qingdao Sculpture Museum.

For those of you who are interested, I finally summed up a few of my thoughts on my China trip, launched by reading the great New Yorker article from a week ago. Read one, or both, or none...

This sentence sums up the BASIC feeling of my recent tip to China: "China has never seen such a moment, when its pursuit of a larger role in the world coincides with America’s pursuit of a smaller one."

When the Chinese action movie “Wolf Warrior II” arrived in theatres, in July, it looked like a standard shoot-’em-up, with a lonesome hero and frequent ...

In many fields, China is pressing ahead - artificial intelligence, urban planning, environmental protection especially.

I don't say this without criticism, it is still a one-party-state with palpable censorship and a sheen of propaganda on top of all the optimistic and inspired planning of a cleaner, better, happy future.

Our little group of German/Swiss/Austrian artists, treated extremely well, wined and dined and celebrated and brought on excursions by our Chinese hosts, indeed asked a few tricky questions. For example regarding the well-being of the poor people who were moved from one crumbling old German structure we visited (and then attended a symposium about) (there are also many beautifully-kept German structures left from the time period 1898-1914). These people were moved "into better housing", before restoration and repurposing of the old structures takes place...but I saw a few squatters still in place (eyeing us suspiciously). Our few more critical questions were either met with silence, or with an insistence that these poor people were very happy to have been moved, and that repurposing the housing by turning it into tea houses or artists' lofts, instead of moving the poor people back in, was the way to go. (After questioning the moved poor people's experience of losing their homes, however squalid, I warned the head architect of Qingdao's restoration projects about areas losing all their flavor and interest if the poor and truly creative/inventive people were moved out and couldn't afford such areas anymore, turning mixed and interesting neighborhoods into glossy touristy Yuppyville, like Williamsburg/Booklyn.)

On the positive side, I very much admired the push for environmental protection everywhere in and around Qingdao...you get the feeling that China has realized we can't scald the earth, air and water anymore if we want our billions of humans to survive, and they are taking the lead! Wish the US would do that! Reminders to conserve water and tissue paper are everywhere; I saw tens of thousands of young trees planted in recent years in Qingdao alone; wind- AND solar-based street lamps are on the mountainous roads outside the city....

One area where China seems behind the West is the area of contemporary art and the art market. As the recent show at the Guggenheim NYC showed, many good artists have left the country. But there, too, China is trying to enter the world stage on a whole new level.

China is catching up everywhere; it is proudly conscious of its thousands of years of cultural history, yet charging ahead to take a leading global position, very aware of the new vacuums left by the USA. Whatever the highest leadership wants, it can achieve faster than we in the West can - China is not a democracy, after all. But, as the article states:

"Joseph Nye, the Harvard political scientist who coined the term “soft power,” to describe the use of ideas and attraction rather than force, told me that China has improved its ability to persuade—up to a point. “American soft power comes heavily from our civil society, everything from Hollywood to Harvard and the Gates Foundation,” he said. “China still doesn’t understand that. They still haven’t opened that up. I think that is going to hurt them in the longer term.”"

On the quotidian level of my trip, I found it amazing how much the Chinese we encountered stood on formality and display. At our art opening - at the Sculpture Museum of Qingdao - alone, it felt like the first two hours of the event were dedicated to various entities thanking other entities for the realization of the show, in a large conference room crowded with visitors. Thank you, thank you, thank you....of course the various translations between German, Chinese and English made the whole Thanking Process take even longer.

Among many other guests, the highest military attache to Germany was at the opening. He had lived in Germany for 23 years, spoke perfect German and was very charming. (He asked to see my art later and I showed him. We spoke a bit. He turned around and whispered to my accompaniment that he didn't understand why the art was considered sculpture, as I was told afterwards.) We artists had to stand up and introduce ourselves. We were told last minute that one of us should get up in front of the seated crowd and speak. For artists used to just hob-nobbing with several glasses of wine, milling around, at their openings - and Germans at that! - , this was a scary prospect! The oldest among us was chosen and he did a brilliant job. He's an Austrian, a relaxed charmer who was able to just go along with the local flow.

At other events too, the symposium on restoring old German structures, the banquets - it was all about thanking each other repeatedly and everybody giving speeches, very formalized. The Chinese, from the highest to the lowest levels, were very good at this. In my fear of public speaking I was full of admiration, but frozen for fear of when it was my turn.

Paparazzi accompanied us to these well-presented and -catered events. We actually walked down a red carpet on the way to the symposium. (Another artist and I found this so surreal that we stood frozen in place on this red carpet outside the building, and could not stop laughing. The photographers and filmers looked at us with smiling interest.) We were asked to sign billboards while being photographed for the opening and the symposium. Were we in Hollywood? At the opening, there were two young women in long white gowns who played Western classical music on their violins, and a formal banquet ended the evening. (I chose to skip that, as I had dear Chinese-German friends visiting the opening from Beijing, who took me to an excellent dinner in a a restaurant up high in some skyscraper.)

So a formal politeness...but at the same time, people are very capable of saying brash, direct things. "When the French artists were here, they were dancing on the table! What is up with you Germans? Give a speech! You must! Drink after every speech! Loosen up!"

The food in Qingdao was universally amazing! Often served on a big lazy Susan on a round table. Enough said.

After my return, I made a collage called "Display and Projection". The element of display, you may now understand. Regarding the element of projection, that is in the concerted efforts towards the happier, shinier future, and how humans in this still-socialist, coated-with-heavy-layers-of-capitalism country are working to make it happen; and the projection of this thinking to the outside world, as well as to the own population. Take for example the Qingdao Planning Exhibition Hall. There, I saw the biggest audio-video and 3-D model of anything that I have ever seen. It surrounds you and lulls you into the idea of a perfect, beautiful, happy, environmentally sound Qingdao of the future. It is HUGE.

Everywhere I saw well-fed stray dogs. They wander around confidently, cross six-lane highways while the cars wait, sit next to "no dogs" signs, and seem to lack for nothing.

It was different with the wolves that the established older artist we visited keeps in pens outside his studio. They were lacking for an appropriate home. This artist generously received us to his beautiful house and studio that he built by the sea, where his long artistic practice is evident in a wild mix of huge stone socialist-looking busts, abstract shapes, and pornographic-looking half-woman-half-wolf creatures baring their vaginas to the world. In his free time he practices pottery, and we were all allowed to choose a small delicate piece to keep. I don't think he was aware of how foreign much of his artwork was to us. To him, the non-socialist sculpture is simply "Western Art", I believe, but to us contemporary artists it was a world away, especially in its representation of the female body. He had classical Western music on in his studio and seemed to be pondering things deeply while smoking his pipe.

We also visited the artist friend of the Museum's director, who is a professor of art at Qingdao's Academy. Around my age, he has a studio he considers too small in the academy, which to us Berliners and me New Yorker seemed pretty decent in size! He showed us his much more contemporary, quite beautiful pieces - very sparse paintings on paper, prints. What struck me is that he spoke of his minimalist art in emotional terms, something I don't think artists in the West would so readily do. It was almost as if Taoism had entered a Western approach to art. It was a fusion of pure emotionless form - where everything is about the outside and nothing is an expression of a personal state - and a total allowance of one's own feelings that inform the form. He said that he feels very lonely, that most people don't understand his art, not even his students.

During the whole trip I was wondering why the sculpture that we did see - pieces by the sea in Qingdao's Sculpture Garden for instance - seemed just a bit old-fashioned. Also, why the director of the Sculpture Museum feels she has to always emphasize to Chinese visitors that they should just remain open to sculptures by Western artists. Eventually, in discussions with a few people, we reached the conclusion that there is a very old history of poetry, printmaking, calligraphy by an individualized maker-person-artist in China - but not the same tradition of three-dimensional objects by an individualized maker-person-artist. Figurines were used as status symbols, in the home or outside of entryways. Our sculptural tradition seems to go back to the ancient Romans and Greeks and continue past Michelangelo etc into today, garnering more individualized ownership of the creator along the way.

We also visited two gorgeous temples in the Laoshan mountains, where we saw beautiful old buildings, stairs, humongous figures, figures representing various deities and ideas, big Chinese lettering on stone representing ideas of being, female monks - and I saw a male monk staring into his cell phone with the best of us.

Everywhere on the roads I saw older people working on gardening or placing cobble stones or sweeping (with primitive but efficient brooms made of tree branches) or other jobs you would not see older people do in the West; even jobs usually done by construction workers. I found this fascinating. I asked one of our hosts and she said these older people are offered these jobs to supplement their incomes. I would have liked to know if they do these jobs out of desperation, or in part out of an interest in working, in being active, in being needed and involved and having a job to go to every morning.

Overall it was an incredible experience that I consider myself very lucky to have had. Before this trip, I didn't even know Qingdao was a city, much less that it has more people than New York City (9 million). The differences between rich and poor are just as obvious as in the West, and I would have liked to talk with people not living in the shiny glitzy optimistic reaches....maybe next time.


Some excerpts from the article, in order, that speak a bit more to the China-US balance that I felt so strongly:

"In March, 1959, President Eisenhower argued that America’s authority could not rest on military power alone. “We could be the wealthiest and the most mighty nation and still lose the battle of the world if we do not help our world neighbors protect their freedom and advance their social and economic progress,” he said. “It is not the goal of the American people that the United States should be the richest nation in the graveyard of history.”

Under the banner of “America First,” President Trump is reducing U.S. commitments abroad. On his third day in office, he withdrew from the Trans-Pacific Partnership, a twelve-nation trade deal designed by the United States as a counterweight to a rising China.


In a speech to Communist Party officials last January 20th, Major General Jin Yinan, a strategist at China’s National Defense University, celebrated America’s pullout from the trade deal. “We are quiet about it,” he said. “We repeatedly state that Trump ‘harms China.’ We want to keep it that way. In fact, he has given China a huge gift. That is the American withdrawal from T.P.P.” Jin, whose remarks later circulated, told his audience, “As the U.S. retreats globally, China shows up.”

For years, China’s leaders predicted that a time would come—perhaps midway through this century—when it could project its own values abroad. In the age of “America First,” that time has come far sooner than expected.


To frame his vision of a smaller presence abroad, Trump often portrays America’s urgent task as one of survival. As he put it during the campaign, “At what point do you say, ‘Hey, we have to take care of ourselves’? So, you know, I know the outer world exists and I’ll be very cognizant of that, but, at the same time, our country is disintegrating.”

So far, Trump has proposed reducing U.S. contributions to the U.N. by forty per cent, and pressured the General Assembly to cut six hundred million dollars from its peacekeeping budget.


China’s approach is more ambitious. In recent years, it has taken steps to accrue national power on a scale that no country has attempted since the Cold War, by increasing its investments in the types of assets that established American authority in the previous century: foreign aid, overseas security, foreign influence, and the most advanced new technologies, such as artificial intelligence. It has become one of the leading contributors to the U.N.’s budget and to its peacekeeping force, and it has joined talks to address global problems such as terrorism, piracy, and nuclear proliferation.


China is also seizing immediate opportunities presented by Trump. Days before the T.P.P. withdrawal, President Xi Jinping spoke at the World Economic Forum, in Davos, Switzerland, a first for a paramount Chinese leader. Xi reiterated his support for the Paris climate deal and compared protectionism to “locking oneself in a dark room.” He said, “No one will emerge as a winner in a trade war.” This was an ironic performance—for decades, China has relied on protectionism—but Trump provided an irresistible opening


By setting more of the world’s rules, China hopes to “break the Western moral advantage,” which identifies “good and bad” political systems, as Li Ziguo, at the China Institute of International Studies, has said.


In 2000, the U.S. accounted for thirty-one per cent of the global economy, and China accounted for four per cent. Today, the U.S.’s share is twenty-four per cent and China’s fifteen per cent. If its economy surpasses America’s in size, as experts predict, it will be the first time in more than a century that the world’s largest economy belongs to a non-democratic country. At that point, China will play a larger role in shaping, or thwarting, values such as competitive elections, freedom of expression, and an open Internet. Already, the world has less confidence in America than we might guess. Last year, the Pew Research Center asked people in thirty-seven countries which leader would do the right thing when it came to world affairs. They chose Xi Jinping over Donald Trump, twenty-eight per cent to twenty-two per cent..."

Thursday, January 4, 2018

Monthly Art: January 2018

Display and Projection
Found materials, metallic paper and newspaper on wood
11" high x 12" wide