philip tinari


September 20, 2011 @ 9:46 am —

It’s a special thing to watch an artistic collective emerge from a single show. In September 2005, I happened to catch the first outing of the Polit-Sheer Form Office, a new constellation of artists Song Dong, Xiao Yu, Hong Hao, and Liu Jianhua, and critic/curator/gallerist Leng Lin. Leng and Song had worked together in the 1990s, before the former’s sojourn in Berlin, on a show called “It’s Me!” at the Imperial Ancestral Temple, the cancelation of which in turn became the basis for a landmark study by Wu Hung as well as a tidy Smart Museum exhibition. The other members clicked into place over the summer of 2005. Leng Lin, having just founded an alternative space (now a powerhouse gallery) called Beijing Commune out in a still-remote Caochangdi, needed to fill his exhibition calendar. The Office, five guys who had only recently become mutually acquainted, stepped into the void.

Polit-Sheer-Form Office, "Only One Wall," 2005.

Polit-Sheer-Form Office, "Only One Wall," 2005.

That first show, appropriately titled “Only One Wall,” consisted of two pieces: a blue wall, printed with a generic image of the sea, and a banner laying out the group’s inchoate manifesto. Polit-Sheer Form: like so many China-coined English names, it didn’t quite sing. The Chinese name does the project some but not much more justice, and would translate more literally as “The Office of Pure Political Form.” But in Chinese it sounds, to the properly seasoned ear, like some absurdist government organ, buried deep in one or another musty ministry and with some vague but absolute set of responsibilities. The “political” here as everywhere in China is both front and center and somehow invisible, making the inquiry less some purely aesthetic conceit and instead grounding it in the back-and-forth of now. These were regular guys, trying to distill some aesthetic precepts from the lives they’ve led. And those lives, all of which began in the early-to-mid-Sixties, are among the last in China to include conscious recollection of the way things were with/under/during Mao, albeit from the perspective of young boys who saw circus and spectacle where others may have felt tragedy. That first manifesto show didn’t make a lot of sense at the time: unconvincing language about a generation unlike any other, a wall that took a rather pedestrian visual shape.

The shape didn’t matter, they argued, because the Office was really about another forgotten valence of the older order: the collective, homosocial camaraderie that they see as once having underlain so many other interactions. High Socialism was about a lot of things, but one of them was early-middle-aged men hanging out. To this end the Office began organizing trips, first to visit sites of actually existing socialism, later to take in various forms of circumscribed pleasure as in a day in Shanghai which began with a visit to the site of the First Party Congress and continued with coffee atop the Jin Mao Tower. As artists living well beyond the danwei-induced stupor of strained interpersonal relations and managed leisure to which a great many are still subject, they were nostalgic for the sort of structure that would give them orders–enforced as much by consensus as by threat–of where to be and when, what to do and how. They yearned for that particular form of governmentality in a way not that far off the mark of how Americans of my generation might for a cultural canon, conscious all along of the flawed object of their desire, subject to it nonetheless. And so they created it for themselves. Later they made paintings and coloring books about their travels.

Polit-Sheer-Form Office, "Library," 2008.

Polit-Sheer-Form Office, "Library," 2008.

In 2008, as the capital teetered on the brink of propaganda-induced euphoria, the Office produced its “sheerest” work ever: a Polit-Sheer-Blue library containing ten thousand Polit-Sheer-Blue books, each individually numbered, none containing anything other than pages and pages of empty blue. They took staged photos of themselves hanging out while reading the book, everyone absorbing the contentless content of the truly blue. They opened it to browsing by the gallery-going public.

Last night I went to the recently refurbished Timezone 8 in the 798 art zone for the launch of We Art Polit-Sheer-Form, a new book which details the Office’s project over the last six years. On their lapels, each member wore the Polit-Sheer-Form insignia pin: a blue rectangle with a sliver border and a tiny, rectangular indentation at top left. The indentation is there because a rafter ran through that initial blue wall they installed at Beijing Commune six years ago this week. The cool form of the pin, analogous in placement and function to the flag pins that have become part of the visual furniture of American politics, is a distillation of circumstance, which serves to highlight the specificity and contingency–cultural, historical, ideological–of any political form, no matter how seemingly ingrained. It is at once a send-up of totalitarian symbology and a distinctly insidery signifier.

Among their first pieces together was a digital composite portrait, a character named Mr. Zheng, after the first character in the Office’s Chinese name, the first character in the word for “politics.” (Perhaps not coincidentally, Mr. Zheng, while a mathematical hybrid of all five faces, most resembles Leng Lin.) For a recent show at Shanghai Gallery of Art, in that fashionable enclave Three on the Bund, they unfurled a flag bearing Mr. Zheng’s likeness out the gallery window, and let it flutter against the masonry a few stories above Guangdong Lu. Needless to say, a call asking for the banner’s removal came in from the local PSB within fifteen minutes.

After the book launch I went with four of the five Officers and critic Pauline Yao–Xiao Yu had a cold–for some late-night Cantonese. Over turtle-shell jelly and chicken-foot cassoulet, they reminisced about recent projects, and joked about a recent stay in their designated Shanghai hotel, the terrible Motel 168 on Anyuan Lu. Song Dong, secretary of the Polit-Sheer Exchequer, got up to pay. I said thanks; Thank Mr. Zheng, they replied. This morning, my houseguest for the weekend, once a part with me of a five-member crowd of Americans studying at Tsinghua, flew for Pyongyang. And then a colleague sent me this video of five North Korean kids strumming away. Must be something collective in the sheer autumn air.


September 15, 2011 @ 7:33 am —

I DIDN’T SAY too much while he was away, and in fact, with the exception of a brief sighting at his birthday party a few weeks ago, hadn’t seen him until this morning. The former was a Godfathery affair, a hundred wellwishers, including two wife-figures and the toddler, lawyers, construction foremen, and a washed-up rocker, crammed into the second floor of Eudora Station, the American place named after the owner’s Kansan hometown across from the Lido Holiday Inn. The sycophantic, celebratory crowd gorged themselves on soggy penne in watery marinara and internet-delivery chocolate cake. He blew out some candles for the socially networked smartphone cameras and handed out cartons full of his New York photographs book that he’d stayed up late inscribing to those who had helped him through the preceding months. I wasn’t really even supposed to be at the lunch but was called over by a visiting collector I’d introduced him to five years before any of this; I left without having touched the pasta. “You’re not going to go and do this all over again,” was all I think to say to him. “What? I didn’t do anything,” was all he could say back.

Back at Home, September 14, 2011

Back at Home, September 14, 2011

Then, a few weeks ago some American television producers who make an ongoing series about artists and their work asked me to interview him for a segment they’d been planning, also since before the spring. I was skeptical but apparently he had also asked that I do it, and so I obliged. I showed up a few minutes before the shoot and entered, at the request of the assistant who was with him when he was arrested, through the back door which leads into the part of the compound where visitors were once never, ever allowed. As a gift, I brought a giant box of Whiskas sample pouches, schwag which had come my way via my magazine’s parent company, which counts the cat-food brand among its clients.

With a pre-assigned list of questions on my iPad, I sat down unmiked on a Qing-dynasty living-room chair, amidst an elaborate setup of lights and sound equipment. He sat squarely in the center of the only good shot the dark room allows, head framed at left by the giant wardrobe that inspired his Moon Chests, at right by the white brick of his first architectural interior. The central table had been offset into its modular components, a functional Judd. “You used to do this three times a day,” I quipped before we started, remembering how, before, one could barely open the front door for fear of disturbing a shoot just like this. “Used to,” he replied. “This is already a big violation; we can only talk about the art.”

That was all I was planning to do anyway. In Miami a few years ago, I had erred in the same direction, asking one too many questions about getting hit in Sichuan or stepping back from the Bird’s Nest so as to set him up for the crowd-pleasing one-liner, “Can we talk about the art now?” Back then, on the verge of his art-world beatification (which preceded his political martyrdom–pardon the Catholic metaphors–by just a few months), activism seemed like a diversion, threatening to cheapen his standing as a maker of intelligent objects. Of course things played out differently.

And so we talked, bouncing among the almost comically apolitical questions in no particular order other than my best reading of which might best suit him at any given moment. At one point during the interview he registered a smallish protest, noting how much my man-and-his-work line of questioning mirrored that which he had been subject to during the fifty-some interrogation sessions of his captivity. Noting the permaglaze that now covers his eyes, even if he’s got most of his gut back, I called time once we’d been through the litany of influences, biography, and work-by-work explanations. He offered bagels that his visiting documentarian had brought from New York, and we sat in the corner of the emptier-than-before office cracking walnuts one against the other until they’d been heated. The film crew asked the question that the film crew always asks after the interview, and after filming the scene in the front yard, of whether there was any art on the premises to be shot. He ordered an acolyte to open the door to the showroom, and we went in to look at the cat toy on which the polyhedron sculptures are based, to marvel at a wall full of disassembled bicycles.

Ai Weiwei, River Crabs, porcelain, 2011

Ai Weiwei, River Crabs, porcelain, 2011

There on a table was this, a few plates full of porcelain “River Crabs,” the reference immediately obvious to all of the five hundred people who forwarded or commented to the snapshot I immediately streamed to weibo with only the caption “New work by Teacher Ai! Ceramic Crabs!” Subversive internet punnery aside, the crabs were also a reference to a simpler time, before that dig, or indeed the “harmonious society” slogan it parodies, had even been coined. One night, just about five years ago, a few dozen people gathered in Qu Na’r, the restaurant the circle of Ai just called “the cafeteria,” for a long National Day night of perfectly seasonal crabs, each wearing a bracelet of authenticity. That restaurant is gone now. It was definitely better than Eudora Station.

Qu Na'r, October 1, 2006, photo by Ai Weiwei

Qu Na'r, October 1, 2006, photo by Ai Weiwei

“Really happy to see you this morning, let’s go for crabs one of these days,” I texted a few hours later.

“Indeed! A banquet is in order!” came the response.


February 18, 2011 @ 5:51 am —

This came across the transom earlier today, and it’s so amazing that I have just anonymized and posted it deadpan, à la Harper’s Readings. Meanwhile I have been writing a bit about Yan Lei, who has done more work than just about any Chinese artist on the actual mechanisms of the art world and the individual artist’s place therein. The painting below, for example, is from the moment of “Alors la Chine,” that grand Pompidou spectacle of Chinese contemporary art back in the summer of 2003. The idea is that this other (also Chinese) guy, who has just painted the portrait (of Yan Lei, at least five pairs of glasses ago) which we see at bottom, will always remain outside, while Yan Lei himself is about to show on the other side of the Richard-and-Renzo escalator tubes. Maybe if this Beauborg portraitist had just read the below. Because “Nothing says ‘new artist’ like a low inventory number.”

Detail, Yan Lei, Climbing Space--Pompidou, 2003. Acrylic on canvas.

Detail, Yan Lei, Climbing Space--Pompidou, 2003. Acrylic on canvas.


from             [redacted]@[redacted]
date             Fri, Feb 18, 2011 at 4:29 AM
subject        Little Thigs Can Make a BIG Difference in YOUR Art Career!

Have you ever stood in an art gallery and said to yourself: “My work is better than the art in this gallery. Why are these artists selling in galleries and I’m not?”

I have spent the last several years helping artists answer this question. I have discovered it is the little things that can make all the difference in an artist’s career.

Before I share some of these little things that add up to make a big difference, let me introduce myself. My name is [redacted], I own [redacted] Gallery in [redacted], Arizona. I have owned the gallery for over eight years, and have been in the gallery business for 17 years.

You may have read my emails over the last several weeks. I am preparing to give an intensive workshop in your area to help artists, like you, become focused, organized and successful. If you are hoping to attend, I encourage you to sign up today before the class fills.

Can little things make a difference in your career? I invite you to ponder the suggestions below, all ideas I will expand upon in my upcoming workshop. These little ideas, put into practice with your marketing plan will help you present your work more professionally. They will help you get into galleries and sell more of your art.

Quality Check. I have known and worked with hundreds of artists over the years. The most successful  artists are devoted to high quality. They have the ability to step back from their work and look at it through their buyer’s eyes. Art collectors are picky. They demand attention to detail. Their homes are immaculate. You must create work that will fit seamlessly into their homes.

Your medium doesn’t matter – sculpture, jewelry, paintings, photography or fiber art – the presentation must be flawless.

Think of each work you create as a masterpiece. Treat it as such.

One small thing to improve the quality of your work: Invite someone you trust to evaluate the quality of your art. You should invite an artist you admire, or a designer, or a gallery owner over to the studio for coffee. Present 5-6 pieces. Ask the question “what are three things I could do to improve the quality of my presentation.”

An objective observer will see your art in a way you never could. Repeat this process every 1-2 years and make a commitment to constantly improve your quality.

Read a Book.
Collectors and dealers love to talk history. As you begin to show in galleries and interact with collectors at shows you will find they love to talk about past masters. Your relationships with collectors and dealers will deepen if you can converse fluently about art history. I suggest you strive to understand the major art movements from the impressionists through the present day. This understanding will also enrich your work as you are inspired by the great artist’s lives and works.

One little thing to work on: Visit your local book store or and order a biography of one of your favorite artists. Commit to read 2 artist biographies per year. Don’t limit your reading only to artists you like. I wasn’t a fan of Willem deKooning’s work until I read about his life. He is now one of my favorite artists.

Analyze your Competition. You don’t have to reinvent the wheel when it comes to marketing your work. With a little work, you will find hundreds of artists whose work is comparable to yours. Learn from them. Do what they do.

One little thing to work on: Every week, devote one hour to researching your competition online. Type keywords describing your work into a search engine and you will quickly encounter your competitors. Develop a list of 10 artists you feel are closest to you in style, genre, subject, and/or experience. Analyze them.


Where is the artist from?

What is his/her background?

What is his/her education?

What does the artist’s resume look like? What about his/her bio and artist’s statement?

What galleries is he/she showing in?

How does he/she advertise his/her work?

How is his/her work priced?

How is he/she presenting his/her work?

The insight you will gain through this weekly exercise will prove invaluable to you as you develop your marketing plans.  By understanding your competition you can better tailor your work to the market. You can price your work competitively. You can better understand the types of galleries you should approach.

Use an Inventory Number.
As you begin to experience success, organizing your inventory becomes critical.  Using an inventory number is an easy way to start to control your inventory. As you move artwork from the studio to your galleries, and from gallery to gallery and inventory number will make it easy to track your work. Titles can get mixed up, but inventory numbers are almost infallible.

If you don’t already have an inventory numbering system, start with a high number (3000, for example). Nothing says “new artist” like a low inventory number.

Send a Thank-you note. As you begin to work with collectors and galleries, your goal is not to sell art. Your end-goal is to create relationships. Relationships will lead to a lifetime of sales. You will be amazed what one simple thing like a hand-written thank-you note can do for your relationships. In this age of digital communication and voicemail interaction, a hand-written thank you note stands out.

When a gallery sends you a commission check you should immediately sit down and write a thank-you note. Keep the note simple:

Dear Tim,

Thank you for your check for the sale of  “Evening Tide”.  I appreciate everything you and your staff do to promote my work. Please let me know of any way I may be of service.

Best regards,


Spend Some Time on Marketing. I am amazed at how many artists will spend long days in the studio, weeks in workshops, but then wonder why their work isn’t selling. Often, these same artists are devoting very little time to marketing. You should be spending 10% of your time marketing. You will be amazed by how much you can accomplish in this small amount of time, and this is one small thing that will make a huge difference in your career.

My upcoming workshop will give you concrete, actionable guidance in organizing the business side of your career. I will also give you an understanding of the art business from the perspective of a gallery owner with 17+ years experience in the business.

If I can give you one idea that helps you sell one work of art would it be worth $59 and four hours of your time? I am going to give many more ideas than just one. If you are ready to put your art career on track and start selling your work, sign up now, before the class fills.


February 16, 2011 @ 2:41 am —

The other night I went for one of those countless lunar-new-year dinners with our extremely Modern upper management, to Bei in the Opposite House, not such a bad place. The subject was an artist, Cantonese like our beloved Chairman, who has a very good exhibition opportunity in front of him in New York which needs a funder. His gallerist and I think it would be fun to have that funder be an enlightened Chinese collector, that the p.r. value of such an intervention would actually do a bit of cultural work, in that 2011, subvert-the-dominant-yellow-peril-narrative sort of way. So we all had dinner, and then the Modern Media cadre left, and the three of us–the artist, the gallerist, and I–went upstairs to Mesh. The gallerist (a lapsed Hong Kong M&A attorney), and the artist (a veteran of the Guangzhou avant-garde of the early nineties) get to talking about when they first met. And what do they talk about? Paul Simon.

The mysterious missing Paul Simon Guangzhou and Hong Kong and Guangzhou concerts--perhaps in the space between Hollywood and Nagoya?

The mysterious missing Paul Simon Guangzhou and Hong Kong and Guangzhou concerts--perhaps in the space between Hollywood and Nagoya?

Yes, that’s right. Apparently the Born at the Right Time tour stopped at the Tianhe Coliseum in Guangzhou back one night in that key reform-era interregnum between the trauma of Tiananmen and Deng’s Tour South. Amateur online research reveals very little, but oral history suggests that after an appearance in Hong Kong, the tour, with its revolutionary entourage of Brazilians and South Africans, followed the only living boy from New York up the (Pearl River) Delta, shining like a national guitar, to what was still the coolest city in China. The Simon fansites can’t pinpoint the date (they make reference to only one China concert, in “Peking,” in October 1991), but the timing suggests that it happened sometime between an appearance on September 27, 1991 at the Hollywood Bowl and another on October 7 in Nagoya. Air China already flew the PEK-LAX route at this point, but I prefer to assume they arrived in Asia by way of the old Kai Tak, and then went CAN-PEK before hopping over to the land of the rising sun.

The standard inside view of Tianhe Coliseum, a 65,000-seat stadium built for the Sixth National Games in 1986, an underrated monument of the first decade of reforms.

The standard inside view of Tianhe Coliseum, a 65,000-seat stadium built for the Sixth National Games in 1986, an underrated monument of the first decade of reforms.

Graceland has always loomed for me as a canonical text of “globalization,” the album we listened to after our first-year seminars with Michael Hardt and Walter Mignolo, even if it was already ten years old by the time we got to it. The mature Simon articulated the sort of beneficent American cosmopolitanism that we could aspire to mainly by doing our nightly readings on transnational logics of capital–even if we didn’t yet realize how those logics structured the “Chinese reading room” where we did most of those readings, kitted out with the spoils of BAT’s man in China. “Aren’t you the woman who was recently given a Fulbright?” we hoped to one day be able to ask each other. And of course we ultimately were. What we didn’t realize in the fall of 1997 was that we lived at the height of the American Empire, which would reach its cultural zenith with the release of Titanic over our first winter break.

Lin Yilin, Safely Crossing Linhe Road, 1995. Performance.

Lin Yilin, Safely Crossing Linhe Road, 1995. Performance.

The Tianhe Coliseum sits right off of Linhe Road, the street which this artist’s longtime collaborator Lin Yilin would “safely cross” a few years later, moving cinderblock after cinderblock in a wall formation from one side to the other, as the skyscraper you see through the stadium rose behind to his right. The Guangzhou concert ostensibly happened just a few months after the legendary “Concert in the Park,” August 15, 1991, in turn just four days before the Avgustovsky Putch. Twelve at the time, I vividly remember one of the lifeguards from our summer swim club leaving work early that day and making the trek from the Philly suburbs up to New York City for the show–a mass gathering weirdly mirroring the energies that loomed elsewhere in those few fraught world-systemic years. If asked, we couldn’t have found Guangzhou on a map. Now I work for a company that got its start there, a few years after that concert. Twenty years later, the fact that these same songs, then, appeared both over here and back there, heard by folks on this side and that, seems to count for something.

Album cover, Paul Simon's Concert in the Park, August 15, 1991.

Album cover, Paul Simon's Concert in the Park, August 15, 1991.

fictive premises

October 19, 2010 @ 3:18 pm —
Simon Fujiwara, Frozen, 2010. Proposal for Frieze Art Fair.

Simon Fujiwara, Frozen, 2010. Proposal for Frieze Art Fair.

Walking out the entrance of a hotel of a city you know only just so well is a very certain sensation, the drag of appearing to all but a very few as a resident of a place you never called home. To a certain kind of person, the offhand utterance “but you know (London)” is a compliment of the highest order, evoking in the receiver a giddiness of a variety more or less obliterated in the long arc since college, for reasons equal parts self and circumstance. To walk a long way across a metropole is a recalcitrant pleasure, decadent in its timelessness, unabated even by a hand-held device that tells you exactly where you are at every step and pulls in greetings and demands from across the chronosphere. Shanzhai flâneurs are we.

Five nights in a sparse room a stone’s throw from the South Ken tube. Alone in a city of conversations overheard or at most half-participated-in, a city in which underlying anxieties seep through the crevices of every speech-act, in which you rightfully obsess about how your scarf has been draped and delightedly wait two minutes, after a knowing rebuke from the butler, in the downstairs lobby of the member’s club for your appointment, a member, whom you know will not be late. In which the bookstores‘ stocks are rotated weekly, and the sale shelves sing of the issues of the day a few months ago. In which an Iranian-born fashion editor may regale you with tales of confounding his homeland’s pavilion staff at the Shanghai Expo by the combination of his peasant shoes and bespoke jacket. In which you you know just how you are to nod when the economist seated to your right tells you about her latest polemic against aid to Africa, or the editor explains, as the ceramic fumes mount, how people come to his magazine by stumbling upon its podcast. In which the new director of the most popular museum of this new century labors to flout to guests, gathered in his honor a few nights before the Frieze-week deluge, the duration of his connection to this place even as he is feted by two stylish benefactors, neither of whom is from there either.

“Art,” says the slowly aging Belgian YBA, “is gold for your walls,” fondling a thick impasto that hangs above the desserts. “No one wants to look at your books.”