Ai Wei Wei is currently (yet again) a trending topic. On February 16, 2014, Dominican-born artist, Maximo Caminero was arrested at the Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) after smashing one of Ai's painted urns from Colored Vases to pieces. Caminero has alternately said that his action protests PAMM's choice of displaying international (rather than local) artists, and that his performance shows solidarity with Ai's dissident stance. Apprehended by police, Caminero was charged with criminal mischief and released after posting bail.
Here's an installation view of Ai's work:
Here is an example of a painting by Caminero:
Ai himself is no stranger to run-ins with the law. Undertaking performative acts that are deeply steeped in political messages, Ai almost appears to be challenging the authorities to censor him or restrict his activities. For example, after the Sichuan earthquake in 2008, Ai became a vocal critic, calling for an acknowledgment that a lack of solid infrastructure may have lead to the increased number of school children deaths in the area. In 2009, he was allegedly beaten by the Chinese police in Sichuan while trying to testify on behalf of Tan Zuoren, another Chinese activist.
With respect to the incident at PAMM, Ai has been reported as stating that he does not agree with Caminero's strategy: "You cannot stand in front of a classical painting and kill somebody and say that you are inspired" by the artist.
At issue, here, is whether what is legally defined as an act of criminal mischief can be considered an artistic act with a political message that is worthy of protection. Under Florida law, a person commits criminal mischief if "he or she willfully and maliciously injures or damages by any means any real or personal property belonging to another, including...the placement of graffiti thereon or other acts of vandalism thereto." Therefore, according to this specific definition, just as much as Banksy cannot paint one of his iconic graffiti works on the side of a building he does not own if he intends to do harm, Caminero is similarly not permitted to break one of Ai's painted urns out of intended spite. However, Ai drawing a Coca-Cola logo on a Han dynasty urn or smashing a Han dynasty urn to pieces and creating artwork out of such actions is permissible, as long as Ai rightfully owns the urns. This being the case even if Ai's very act of purchasing and defacing cultural antiquities in the name of creating new art is impudent, co-optive and destructive.
It will be interesting to see whether criminal charges against Caminero continue to be pressed. Upon a plain language reading of the law, it appears that Caminero most likely committed criminal mischief, unless there is not enough evidence that he maliciously intended to damage Ai's work. In my view, though, the situation is a bit more nuanced than just proving whether a criminal act was committed. If I were PAMM's in-house lawyer (and of course, I'm not, and views in this post and throughout this blog are my own, made in my personal capacity, and not the views of any institutions with which I am affiliated), I think it would be important to discuss with PAMM's management the various risks involved in pressing criminal charges against an artist from the local community. While what Caminero did was disrespectful to the exhibited artwork, does it serve the interests of the general public to prosecute criminal charges? Would it not make more sense to hear Caminero's thoughts, identify his reasons for his actions, have him issue a public statement or apology--ideally, voluntarily-- and then document the event in a legally and art historically appropriate manner? Simultaneously, management should alert the insurance company that was covering the display of Ai's Coloured Vases, have an appraiser determine the value of the damaged urn (in relation to the composite whole), and make Ai financially whole.
Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is a well-curated group exhibition of work by contemporary Chinese artists from the 1980s to the present. Choosing to use, or focus on, the medium of ink painting--at times for its formalistic qualities, and at other times to signify the long history of the traditional art form--these artists create thought-provoking works with a wonderful variety in output.
Some artists appear to deliberately use the traditional medium in a confrontational manner by depicting modern imagery. An example of this is seen to the left: Han Jar Overpainted with Coca-Cola Logo (1995), by Ai Weiwei (b. 1957), perhaps one of China's best-known contemporary artists. Displayed in a gallery even before the exhibition space, Ai has branded an ancient Western Han jar with the ubiquitous Coca-Cola logo, alluding to the complex nature of modern China as it moves on its path towards globalization.
Another such artist is Yang Jiechang (b. 1956). Yang's Crying Landscape (2002) is a set of five triptychs in which he paints beautifully detailed man-made structures, alluding to a portrayal of modern society and its progress. While depicting structures that appear infallible in grandeur, however, Yang implies that these interventions are artificial and thereby have the possibility of being toppled.
Other artists interpret the traditional medium using newer media. For example, Yang Yongliang (b. 1980) uses the horizontal hand scroll format to present a traditional-seeming Chinese landscape of mountains with pines and lapping oceans in View of Tide (2008). Up close, however, one notices that Yang's medium is photography. Yang has printed a composite photograph where the mountains reveal themselves to be skeletal crags of high-rise buildings and the pine trees are actually power lines. As a format, ink hand scrolls have been used to tell a story as the narrative progressed through its unfurling. Here, Yang tells a story of how the effects of industrialization have affected the venerated Chinese landscape.
Reminiscent of German artist, EVOL, Duan Jianyu (b. 1970) appropriates some of China's best-recognized landscape images and paints them onto small pieces of cardboard in Beautiful Dream, 2, 3, 4, 7 (2008). Using a silhouette style, Duan signifies how trivialized some of the most iconic images of China are, especially because she uses the quotidian material of cardboard as her canvas. In doing so, however, she also succeeds in creating small intimate scenes that make good use of the texture of the recycled cardboard.
The highlights of the show were, perhaps as expected, the works by Xu Bing (b. 1955). Known for his expansive works that examine the significance of the written word, the selection of Xu's iconic works proved to be the show's climactic end. In the early 1990s, Xu had begun to experiment with the representation of English words in Chinese calligraphic forms. Known as "square word calligraphy", Xu created a system by which each English word was composed into a Chinese calligraphic-like square structure. Xu allows non-Chinese-character-readers the opportunity to understand that each Chinese character represents not just a sound, but also a concept, and that each character is composed of different parts. Seen to the left is a detail from Xu Bing's 'colophon' to The Song of Wandering Aengus by William Butler Yeats (1999), a pair of hanging scrolls on which Xu has transcribed the Yeats poem using square word calligraphy.
Xu's Book from the Sky (ca. 1987-1991) fills up the last room of the exhibition. As an installation of hand-printed books and scrolls that cover the ceiling and the walls, the printed material contains invented Chinese characters that cannot be interpreted even by a Chinese-character-reader. The characters were created by Xu and then hand carved into wooden printing blocks to create the printed material. The mass of black marks on the page cannot be decoded, posing questions about the linkage between language and culture.
Ink Art: Past as Present in Contemporary China is on view at the Metropolitan Museum of Art until April 6, 2014.