philip tinari

TRUE BLUE

September 20, 2011 @ 9:46 am — — / home / 2011

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.

THE NEW NORMAL

September 15, 2011 @ 7:33 am — — / home / 2011

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.