…continued from the previous blog

Day 4. I tend to think of the Chinese as long-term planners. But in fact, if lastminute.com was not created by the Chinese, it could have been. A few times during the conference already, agendas had been switched at no notice. Upside of this: our hosts could pull it off. Someone suggested to me that this ability to switch course at the drop of a hat was born of dealing with capricious bosses in a hierarchical system; I don’t know whether this is true or not.

Saturday morning, the last day, we think we are headed for a full day of round-table debate. Instead, we are given two very useful presentations on the public-gallery situation in China. Very informative. In some ways not unlike Ireland – basically, a scramble for funding.

Chen Zhe and Lao Zhu

Chen Zhe and Lao Zhu at the conference; image held here

Then comes the blood-freezer. Our third speaker, Chen Zhe, is a quietly spoken emissary from the culture ministry. Art in China, it seems, is to develop in line with government policy. Needless to say, government policy does not encourage criticism of government policy. Art is to be Chinese, for the greater good of China.

Over the previous three days we had touched again and again on the issue of political art in China, but I can’t say I had got any feel for what was going on. The issue was central, but being skirted the whole time. What is art criticism doing, when the art is under such apparent constraint? Now the sanctum of the conference hall had been breached, and someone different was among us.

artistamp by Michael Thompson

Michael Thompson: an artistamp – not featuring the Dalai Lama, but probably not too popular with Chinese officials either; image held here

But it was not a Westerner, but Jiang Qigu – admittedly now a US citizen – who flung the cat among the pigeons. He related how a colleague of his, Chicago-based artist Michael Thompson, an American who practised Chinese ink painting, with variations, had recently been expelled from China. He had arrived, but officials in the airport somehow knew the artist had made an ‘artistamp’ – a fake but real-looking postage stamp – which depicted the Dalai Lama. He was given 30 minutes to purchase himself a ticket back out of the country. Jiang, looking at the official, wanted to know why. The official: art and the national good, etc.

Richard Meyer had been right in saying the previous day that we, the Westerners, were not ‘the West’, that we differed greatly from each other. Nevertheless, we were collectively very unhappy. I was the only Westerner not to address the latest turn-up. The others spoke politely but trenchantly, apart from James Elkins, whose role was a bit different.

A few things held me back, one of which was this: the government official had mixed art and nationalism, and nationalism had already caused trouble at the conference – see my previous blog. I don’t think there was a Chinese person there who bought into the official’s line on political restriction – in fact, one Chinese person was particularly brave in his attack on the subject. However, I had no stomach for being swept back along the nationalism path.

CAFA entrance hall

CAFA entrance hall

Cue lastminute.com and a sort of deus ex machina. Suddenly the Westerners are all off in taxis to the new contemporary-art museum, CAFA. All big spaces and curvy walls. In the cavernous foyer is a stunning, gigantic ink painting; frustratingly, I don’t know the artist’s name and can’t find it online, and so will call him X. Upstairs, among other things, is a weird diving-bell-cum-rocketship-cum-igloo artwork still being installed. Remarkably, it is also by X. Because the architecture has thrown up awkward spaces, in the big area outside the main igloo construction hang various planet-like things, not doing very much. To one wall there is a sign that says on one side, “This is my art" and on the other, in Chinese, “This is not my art." Seems appropriate for what we had all been up to, somehow.

…to be continued