Jeannene Przyblyski, want to look at the questions of novelty and newness and their relationship to contemporary art practice very selectively, from two different perspectives.
From that of China and that of Cuba. And, even more selectively, looking at a very narrow range of work. So, I'm not going to encompass the whole of contemporary practice in either China or Cuba.
What is interesting to me is to look very carefully, within a broader discourse about contemporary art, within a broader sense that contemporary art has become a global practice that there is no longer one, that it's no longer possible to argue for one capitol city of contemporary art in the way that it could be argued, at one point, that Paris was the capitol city of Modernism, and then that capitol city shifted to New York.
That's certainly one of the dominant narratives of Modern art. But, instead, that contemporary art in a global economy is a distributed practice with many networked nodes that are linked, in fact, by the practice of large biennial and other sorts of regular international exhibitions that bring the work of artists from many different countries together. And that not only have artists become international, but also many, many nations have recognized engagement with contemporary art as a part of a larger practice of advertising and claiming a cultural position in contemporary times.
So, both Havana, in Cuba, and Shanghai, in China, sponsor major biennials. And that's an effort, quite consciously, on the part of governments, to claim culture as a part of their contemporary national standing in a global economy.
The Huang Yong Ping's, The History of Chinese Painting and the History of Modern Western Art Washed in the Washing Machine for, 2 Minutes. And we looked at this work very briefly, and in one way, it could be taken as a kind of parable on what it is like to simply mash up two distinctive and distinguished art histories into one sort of undifferentiated mass.
So, the artist has placed a survey book of Chinese art and a survey book of Western art into a washing machine for two minutes, and displays the results heaped on top of a glass plate that is supported by a tea crate.
So, almost as if the ensuing sculptural, pulpy mass is ready to be packed up and shipped around in this global art economy, at the same time that the tendency of paper history is to be both authoritative and also to disintegrate, and the tendency of language to be impenetrable, sometimes, across cultural differences, I think is also dramatized by this piece.
So, I think that the artist's work is meant to a little bit ironic, and to mobilize its criticality through a kind of irony about the kind of, both the legibility and the illegibility of language, the authority and the lack of authority and insufficiency of histories, and both the kind of potentials and also the pitfalls of understanding art in a global context.
So, it's a pretty economical piece that's doing a lot of critical work at the same time.
Certainly, for artists of Huang Yong Ping's generation, the transformation from a closed country, to increasing contact with the West was very much a part of the formation of their identity as artists.
We're looking, now, at a painting by a contemporary Chinese oil painter, Ma Gang, of a meeting between Deng Xiaoping and Nixon. The painting dates from 2009. We see a Chinese oil painter, trained in the academic tradition, taking on the techniques of major historical portraiture to document the contact between China and the United States. And to do it in a Western format so, a format that isn't really mixing languages, but is instead displaying a great investment in and a great fluency in the techniques of Western oil painting. And choosing them, in this case, to sort of do the work of history painting from a Chinese perspective.
What is it like to witness some of the great encounters of the history of the 20th century and to memorialize them in a way that great encounters throughout the history of the Modern and contemporary periods have been memorialized.
So Ma Gang might be said to be on the side of representing international and cross-cultural encounter in a seamless way, in a formal, diplomatic mode. It is, indeed, in that way, work that is very much done at the service of the state, and in honor of and as a part of official culture, much in the same way as David would have painted the coronation of Emperor Napoleon, for example.
And interesting, as well, in that regard. But let's move from that to another take on cross-cultural encounter. This is one of Ai Weiwei's notorious urns painted with the Coca-Cola logo, this one from 2010. And they're works in which he takes examples of Chinese antiquities of these large pottery urns and he emblazens them with the immediately recognizable as both American and pervasive logo of Coca-Cola, and Coca-Cola, I think, has a particular fascination for international artists as an emblem of the United States, precisely because so much of the marketing of Coca-Cola throughout the '70s and '80s and '90s, for those of you who can remember it, was about it being a mechanism that united the world.
And Ai Weiwei takes that ideology and myth of unification through the mass consumption of commodities straight on, as a very pointed component of the process of the opening up of the boarders between China and the West.
It was not only a function of diplomatic missions and major occurrences of state, but equally significant, perhaps, was the moment when McDonald's, for example, first appeared outside of the Tiananmen Gates of Beijing, and that sort of sense that a change was really in the air, because Western commodities were to be available and the most stereotypical of Western commodities were to be available in the East.
So, what is it like to take an example of the great and long cultural history of China and deface it, in fact, with an American, imported trademark. It is meant to be a provocative gesture, much in the same way that Duchamp's marking of the Mona Lisa, with a mustache and goatee, was a provocative gesture. And, in fact, I think Ai Weiwei is very much an artist in the Duchampian mode. And there's a lot that's been written about these works, not only in terms of Ai Weiwei's defacement of Chinese antiquities, but also in terms of his willful destruction of some of these antiquities as a part of his art practice, as well. Let's place Ai Weiwei's Duchampian gesture against the work of another artist, Pan Gongkai, who is actually the president of the China Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.
And this is important to think about, not only because Pan Gongkai was born during a time when China was effectively cut off from much of the West and turning inwards on itself, and its own government, and its own building of a new society, but because he came of age during the Cultural Revolution, which was a part of the rule of Mao in which the broad learning of intellectual history, various cultural traditions, being an artist and an intellectual in general was fiercely proscribed by the state. And in which a very repressive culture of social sort of retraining was imposed, especially on those people who were children of intellectuals and academics who came from academic and intellectual backgrounds.
In fact, Pan was not able to finish his schooling because he was sent out in the countryside to work in agriculture instead. And much of his return to culture was bound up in access to the West, and in puzzling out the differences, for himself, and the points of contact between Chinese aesthetics and Chinese philosophy of art, and Modern aesthetics and Modern philosophies of art in the Western mode.
So, in this very large-scale installation work, we see him thinking through those things. The work is a very, very large-scale installation piece that begins with a mural covered with gestural brush strokes in the mode of Chinese brush painting. And onto that mural is projected a stream of melting English language that processes through the philosophy of Modern art.
So, it has this marvelous time-based experience, in this installation, of watching English language dissolve almost into snow across the surface of a painting that evokes Chinese tradition, and an almost elegiac and sort of contemplative sense of both the sufficiencies and insufficiencies of that cultural contact, and the process of putting a new contemporary-artistic language back together, in the face of both.
We are looking at a work by another artist who is actually at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, Xu Bing who also spent a great deal of time in the United States and, in fact, was recognized with a MacArthur fellowship for his work. This is one of his most important major works, Book from the Sky, a work that he did between 1987 and 1991.
Again, it's a large-scale, installation-based work, a work that takes language head on in the production of an installation space. In this case, Xu Bing has made up his own language of invented characters, and uses them to fill books and scrolls and panels that fill the installation space, and cause the viewer to contemplate the sort of muteness that results, really, from being in the presence of so much language and so much illegibility, at one time.
Xu Bing certainly felt this, this sort of tension and frustration of the relationship between the modes of expression he had available to him, his travels between the East and West, the difficulties of learning the new language of English to operate in American society for the time that he was here, the process of going back to China and finding the radical transformations of Chinese society and Chinese cities that were a part of its globalization in the late 20th and early 21st centuries.
So that the relationship between traditional culture, the culture of Mao and the Cultural Revolution, and the culture of globalized China, were experienced in a kind of, again, kind of chaotic and jumbled way. And that's an exact quote from Xu Bing.
He talks about "our lives and cultural background" as a "jumbled knot of socialism, the Cultural Revolution, the Reform Period, Westernization" and modernism. "All of these complexities are reflected quite naturally in my work." So that the work of art becomes the work of figuring out one's place and one's possible modes of expression in a radically transformed culture and society.
The international politics of Cuba and the United States present a different set of challenges for contemporary artists, because this sort of porousness of the relationship between the United States and Cuba was regulated not only on the American side, with the U.S. embargo, but also on the Cuban side, as well, with a great deal of concern that, in order for the revolution to take hold, Cubans needed to stay close to home, to concentrate on what was going on in their own country. And hence, travel is greatly restricted, on the part of the Cuban government, as well, and has only recently, in fact, begun to be those restrictions have only recently begun to be relaxed.
So, one finds contemporary artists understanding, in a way, that their marketplace is international and global, and yet their own situation may be either restricted, or provisionally allowed, or nomadic, or exiled, certainly a complex relationship to the country of their birth.
So, here we see this work, again, José Angel Toirac's, Marlboro, from his series, Tiempos Nuevos, New Times, from 1996. This sort of ironic trying on of Fidel as the Marlboro Man.
And in both cases-- in both the case of China and of Cuba, in terms of contemporary practice one does see, in a kind of pop-ish mode, a kind of processing of the iconic identities and iconic brands, if you will. For those two countries, those brands seem are oftentimes organized around the dominant political figures. So, a kind of processing and reprocessing of images of Mao is very much a part of one sort of trajectory of contemporary Chinese art, and a processing of reprocessing of images of Fidel Castro is very much a trajectory of one aspect of Cuban contemporary art, as well.
And this, again, places us in that kind of pop-ish Duchampian realm of questioning the identity of brands and the contact between nations as a matter of appropriation and re-positioning imagining Fidel Castro as the Marlboro man, but the horse being the horse of the conquistador and not the horse of the American cowboy.
That's not such a different strategy, in some ways, than we saw with Ai Weiwei. And so I want to complicate that version of contemporaneity with the work of another Cuban-born artist who lives in the United States, Tony Labat, who moved from Miami to San Francisco and has taught, for many years, at the San Francisco Art Institute. And is actually a dear colleague and friend.
And so, I know quite a lot about Tony's background and, you know, I'm going to call him Tony rather than Labat.
He was born in Cuba. And when he was in his early teens, he and his mother left his father and moved to the United States, as part of the great sort of exiling and flight of Cuban nationals to the United States, in the early 1960s. And much of his work has been, then, about the sort of interrogation of the political iconography of the U.S. and Cuba about the sensations of displacement across language and across cultures.
So, we're looking at this work from his, Frankenstein Series, of Karl Marx, from 2007, in which he has taken on these silkscreen images of Marx, as a preeminent figure of communist political ideology intervened in those silk screened images, with both hands masking the figures, and also these kind of cross-cutting monochromatic bars, which parse Marx into quadrants and suggest that he could almost be seen as a kind of composite figure, an exquisite corpse, if you will, in the surrealist mode, and under willful construction.
That is, taken apart and put back together, if you will, according to political whim, until it becomes a version of itself very far from its original. In a very different way, that perhaps has its relationship to Duchamp and the notions of novelty, reproduction and appropriation that Duchamp was so interested in, but also takes its distance, as well, is Tony's recent work for the Havana Biennial in 2012. It's called, Irregular Encounter: Leveling the Field, and it was an installation-based, participatory, social, interactive work in which Tony had a pool table, a billiards table, made in the shape of the island of Cuba, so, in the shape of the Cuban nation, and invited people to play pick-up games of pool in a kind of a combination viewing stand, somewhat café setting where you could you could get a beer and buy some cigarettes and play pool, or watch people play pool, as the installation.
It's a very interesting work on a number of levels. As I said, it kind of references Duchamp, Duchamp famously played chess as a form of art making, or as an alternative to formalized art practice, and here we have the game of billiards substituted.
We have the sort of illogic of playing a mathematical game, which is all about calculating angles, on an irregular playing field, a field that maps the borders of Cuba, and also talks about all the various sort of sub rosa and underground economical ways that Cubans have organized their everyday life so as to work with, and work around the prescriptions of both the U.S. embargo and the culture of regulation and rationing that has been so much a part of Cuban economic life.
So, how to get people to play with the dilemmas of their own relationship to nation, state, politics, migration, immigration, displacement, and nomadism, that's all bound up in this particular irregular encounter.