CFCCA Curating China conference

Despite the downpour, the trip to Manchester to attend the CFCCA conference on curating china, was highly rewarding. In fact, I wasn’t at all surprised to see that it’s a sold-out event. This is the first time I visited CFCCA after their rebranding campaign. I’m not sure if I like the branding colour (yellow) much, but it works, and it is young and cheerful. I like the modern and clean layout of the place, the addition of a souvenir shop selling artworks, scarves, notepads made by Chinese artists, and the provision of a user-friendly theatre.

Above all, the speakers they invited for the conference are really the kind of experts who should come to the UK more often to share their insights and experiences. Li Ning, curator at the China Art Museum in Shanghai, gave an impressive hour-long presentation on Chinese art history, with a focus on contemporary Chinese art, the diversity of art schools and their reception in China. The artworks she discussed in her presentation are most varied and interesting, from the use of colours and symbolic motifs in early poster art, to the new generation of Chinese artists such as Zhang Xiaogang, Yu Youhan, Yue Mingjun and Liu Ye. What I really like about Li and her attitude as a curator is that she believes in what she does, and comes across as being very sincere in promoting the museum and Chinese art, which don’t always mean the same thing. I wish she could talk more about the relationship between Chinese art and the social demographics, but I suppose one hour is already testing the attention span of the participants.

image

Aric Chen, design curator for M+ museum (within the West Kowloon Cultural District in Hong Kong), shared with the audience the latest development of the museum. As Chen humorously pointed out, this museum hasn’t even been built yet, it has – typical of how Hong Kong people work – accumulated over 300 pieces of artwork for its collection. Someone in the audience asked whether Chen has enough funding to invest in a quality, comprehensive museum collection from scratch. Chen replied that they were given, as a start, a 5-year budget of, em, US$200 million. Humbly, he said that this amount might seem a lot to some people and to some it might seem too little as there are always artworks out there that are astronomically-priced. There was a wave of suppressed excitement in the form of whispers: ‘it’s a lot’. Personally, I am convinced that the capital and lead time for planning the museum is more than sufficient. The ongoing buzz of mobile M+ activities is rather instrumental in building up audience and art education. I just hope that it can achieve more synergy and connection with other existing and planned museums in China, and to encourage new artists and collaborators rather than focus on the prize winners and bestsellers, and to aim at diversity and originality rather than formulaic success.

image

Jiehong Jiang (Joshua), director of the Centre for Chinese Visual Arts at Birmingham City University, highlighted the importance of art curators (at least those in China) to have the ability to raise funds, in addition to the aesthetic judgment anod creative responsibilities. The Asia Triennial he curates for next year also sounds fascinating, bringing the works by leading and emerging Chinese artists on the international stage. He is also curator of the Fourth Guangzhou Trienial, the Unseen, with Jonathan Watkins of Ikon Gallery, Birmingham.

Catherine McDermott, Professor of Design at Kingston University and Donna Loveday, who heads curatorial design at the Design Museum, shared their insights on the development of design practice over the last decade, tracing its humble beginnings in the pre-Design Museum days, to the current design scene and the rise of design curatorial practice. They also highlighted some innovative collaborations on the diversity of international cuisine.

You can also check out the conference contents online on CFCCA website: http://cfcca.org.uk/index.php/Exhibition/curating-the-contemporary-in-china-conference

Musings on the BP Portrait Award 2013: Carl Randall

Among the exhibits this year, what touches me most is the set of commissioned work by Carl Randall, featuring modern life in Japan.

Having spent years in Japan, his paintings of Japanese city workers are marked by keenness of observation and his authentic interpretation of Asian lifestyle. Frequently using flattened images and creating crowds out of homogeneous faces, his paintings such as ‘Shinjuku’ recalls what it feels to live in Asia, or Japan: a pent-up feeling of isolation and homogeneity arising from the lack of personal space, as one dissolves into the crowd, into the world’s busiest metro station, like ‘petals on a wet, black bough’.

I am especially drawn to the figure of the contemplative young girl sitting by herself in the cafe, positioned in the top right corner of the monochrome painting ‘Shibuya’.

ShibuyaLRG

Wearing a striped t-shirt and holding a cup of tea, there is a dreamy gaze about her, as she looks out of the full-length window at the colourful skyscrapers and billboards. Around her, other city workers and a young couple are immersed in their own conversations, and yet this particular girl in the corner seems to be a pivot in the picture, a figure that represents the complexity of the hidden self, the suppressed loneliness and unspoken dreams within. The geisha-looking actress featured on the skyscraper billboard deepens the sense of nostalgia and the surreal. ‘Shibuya’ engages in a very interesting dialogue with ‘Mr Kitazawa’s Noodle Bar‘, a stark portraiture of Japanese diners. The diners all look rather worn out and bored, and the bowl of freshly prepared ramen seems to become a poignant symbol, a comforting ritual, as food consumption becomes a welcome escape from sheer boredom and life’s worries.

As seen from his documentary made in Japan, his paintings are based on numerous close-up observation sessions and sketches of subjects in real life settings, rather than from photographs or replica:

As a wonderful contrast to his realist, caricatured paintings of city workers, the exhibit ‘Fireflies’ is perfect in form and technique. In the darkness of the night, far away from the built-up area of the city, the two girls look at the glow of the fireflies. The motif of the fireflies recalls the animation Grave of the Fireflies or ‘Hotaru no haka’ (1998), directed by Isao Takahata, which highlights the struggle of young children in wartime Japan and their unvanquished, persevering spirit. The faraway moon, the reflection from the glowing fireflies on the girls’ faces, and the mellow light coming from countryside houses, are imbued with a poetic sense of harmony, celebrating the value of innocence, tenderness and hope.

Carl-Randall---Firefiles-LRG

BP Portrait Award 2013 exhibition from now until 15 September 2013 at National Portrait Gallery London. Free admission

Peppering independent bookshops with arts leaflets

I’ve been helping to put together and distribute poetry contest leaflets for Magma – a nation-wide contest opening this month (16 October). Having dished out a considerable batch to the bookshops in London last month, I am most delighted to come across this gem booklet issued by the Guardian last week – the directory on UK’s independent booksellers – which makes it easy for us to reach out to bookshops of reputation and character. It’s sweet to imagine the nicely illustrated competition leaflets appearing at the till or counter at some of these cool and quirky bookshops.

This Guardian pocket guide is a handy who’s who in the literary world. I’m most fascinated to find out from it which authors are the regulars of those independent bookstores.

There is the story of former Macmillan sales director, Tim O’Kelly, who ventures to open up his own bookshop in Petersfield, Hampshire, back in 1994. One Tree Bookshop has now grown into a two-storey local wonder with a remarkable cafe, a bustling coffee bar and an unrivalled atmosphere. Tim’s work has won much respect. The bookstore has been named the independent bookseller of the year.

I also found out that the boutique-like Lutyens and Rubinstein in Notting Hill – a pretty little bookstore with a comprehensive stock of children’s picture books, jam jars and postcards for sale, and which has a snazzy coffee machine hidden in the basement – is set up by two literary agents. No wonder.

Boasting its own literary lineage, Surrey, Dorset, Sussex, Yorkshire and Somerset are places peppered with beautifully decorated bookshops that ooze character and history, and my dream holiday is to embark on a train journey of my own, stopping by all these little gems, poring through packed bookshelves, whiling away the time, finding and reading something completely obscure and rewarding on a warm sunny afternoon.

Even the Queen is said to frequent G Heywood Hills, an antiquarian treasure in Mayfair. I wonder what she likes to read?

This little country, despite its economic struggles, fares well in literature. Look at what the bookseller stalwarts have done to upkeep the reading tradition.

If you’ve been away last weekend, copies of the directory are still available via Guardian. Don’t forget to go online and add your own favourite bookshop on the map!

power of making at V and A: craftsmanship and imagination

V&A’s latest show The Power of Making is a thoughtful showcase of modern craftsmanship and its relationship with imagination.

While the theme is nothing new, I’m struck by the choice of objects in this collection. From gigantic wool knit, a gorilla made of metallic coat hangers, bio-degradable coffins to spray-on fashion, the objects question the boundaries of conventionality and unconventionality, celebrate the play of imagination and such application in different industries. By putting objects outside of their typical contexts, they acquire an exciting dimension. An oversized piece of chunky wool knit displayed on the wall becomes an artpiece in itself. Layne Rowe‘s glass hand grenade is startling, making a social statement out of it. It is almost impossible to imagine the blood that will be spilt with a hand grenade. Equally, Dominic Wilcox‘s gloves with finger prints on the rubber pose a most threatening question: where lies the limitation of the manmade?

The show pays tribute to the value of traditional craftsmanship – teasing objects out of wood, paper, metal, glass, fabric… – providing the fundamental work platform for contemporary designers. I remember Leung So Kee in Hong Kong, so famous for its handmade umbrellas, and the undying fashion of handmade objects in the western world, how you can hardly place a price to something handmade. At the same time, the exhibition reminds one of the necessity of imagination in elevating and transforming a piece of work.

power of making 1

pin dress

Looking at the pin-dress created by Susie MacMurray, I am impressed by its curious texture and authenticity of skill. From afar, the dress seems to breathe a life of its own, taking on the guise of a half-woman, half-bird sculpture.

Altogether, it is a far better show than other recent exhibitions (such as the shows on the Cult of Beauty and Yohji Yamamoto‘s work) put up in the same venue, with more engaging narrative and clarity in presentation.

At the main entrance of the V&A, Amanda Levete‘s sculpture, Timber Wave, stands, beckoning at the passers-by, a commissioned piece from this year’s London Design Festival. Its contemporary design of wooden loops is somewhat at odds with the ornate architectural style of the V&A. I was expecting something more striking and poignant, something that interacts with the venue, such as Louise Bourgeois’s black spider or the rolling bridge by Thomas Heatherwick.

Exhibition at V&A from now until 2 January 2012.

power of making 2

Yohji Yamamoto

I went to see Yohji Yamamoto‘s current show at the V&A, his first UK solo exhibition. There in a room of white light, you see the sheer simplicity of clean lines and shades of red, black and white, whispering fashion.

It isn’t the size that undermines the exhibition but rather the want of a compelling narrative. It is a little sad for the fashion designer who has taken Asia’s catwalks by storm. What I find lacking from the show is something that explains the biography or success of this designer. In what ways is he different from other designers? Apart from pointing out that he is loved by the Bunda school students as ‘an idol’ and that he has got a law degree (unusual for designers), I find little to inform or appeal to me. The blurb for the show points out that he stages his S/S 2011 menswear collection at V&A, but little else, not to mention that menswear is hardly the best selling point about his clothes.

The multimedia element is not very confidently used in the show. The video featuring interviews with Yohji’s teachers, students and friends is placed at the beginning of the route, where viewers have scarcely read or seen anything other than the artist’s profile at the entrance, and the interviews are done in a very matter-of-fact way, a rough sketch.

It is the fashion collection that saves the show. The distinct choice of fabric, thoughtful tailored cuts and the drama in the textiles and craftsmanship. It is a little hard to find the annotations for each garment though, for the catalogues seem to be placed at the far end of the room where no one looked. Nevertheless, the Guardian is right to point out that the show features some of his very interesting collaborative work with other artists or filmmakers.

A quick browse at the exhibition’s souvenirs for the show also disappoints. I went there planning to buy something, almost anything, related to Yohji, and came back home empty-handed: there were only a few plain-style tees featuring paper clip and cliche calligraphy designs, rubbers and pencils, and a few small badges and furoshiki bags. I felt like I have just walked into an H&M cross-over collection.

I would love to know if this is because of the lack of attention from the V&A or the designer himself.

The candid work of Japanese artist and printmaker Emiko Aida

I came across Emiko Aida‘s art prints first at the International Art Fair this year in Royal College of Art, and later at the art print specialist shop For Art’s Sake in Ealing. A 60x40cm aquatint art print called Reverie in the Rain caught my attention. A girl is asleep, in the background a verdant surrounding. It is an apt imagery of an artist’s mind: an active slumber of imagination.

There is a constant play of the wind, the trees, the seasons in her work, tinged with sweet nostalgia. I am drawn to the piece entitled Koinobori, carp-shaped wind socks that celebrate Children’s Day. The poignant choice of colours of those wind socks, the flippant tilt of the pole are put in strong contrast against a more aged background – slate coloured surrounding full of buildings – highlighting the triumph of innocence, the invisible passage of wind and time.

The artist is interested in detail and painting moods. Her work reminds me of the use of imagery in Kazuo Ishiguro’s books: that focus on the introspective, the nostalgic for a floating world. While I think the rich details work in some of the works such as the Koinobori and the sushi imageries, the more abstract artpieces such as The Echo Sounding series might benefit from a bolder, surreal treatment or a stranger use of colour. A tall man in a long coat stands in the rain, looking at the outside world. The fact that his back is facing the viewer provokes curiosity: we can only imagine what will his thoughts are in this rainy weather.

In some of her work there is at times a strange lack of perceptual depth – as if the world has been pressed flat. Check out the perspective she has chosen for the oil painting The Ninten City, with a boy in a hoodie top, overlooking the city from the rooftop, oddly placid. Such perspective gives impetus to the work,  hinting at the unreal, creating a dialogue on the art of perspectives with the work by Matisse and Magritte.

It is most difficult to dwell on the beauty of Japanese art and culture, without thinking about the sorrows of Fukushima.

Murakami’s birthday girl

birthday girl‘The Birthday Girl’ is one of the best short stories I’ve ever read. Published initially in the Guardian in 2006, Haruki Murakami’s story tells of a girl who made a wish when she was twenty, working her shift in a restaurant.

I loved it when I first read this story, and to tell the truth, a few years had gone past and it has grown on me ever since. I feel that it is about what we really want to make out of life, the spontaneous choices or decisions that somehow made us. The girl refuses to reveal what she wished for. She says only time will tell whether the wish has come true. There is a deliberate contrast between her current and past life. Now a mother and housewife with a seemingly comfortable lifestyle as opposed to the poor waitress who worked her long evening shift on her 20th birthday, the girl tells her tale in an unaffected, self-absorbed tone, and there is no letting on whether she is happy or not. This is precisely the magic of the short story – the briskness of it all, the enigma, the uncertainty as to whether one has attained what one has set out to do. Tobias Hill describes it as the refusal to reveal.

The story speaks to many because it is a question on everyone’s mind: if you were to be granted a wish, what would you wish for? What do you want to do with your life? I find it irresistible, the imagery of ‘the dent’ in the front of their car – that imperfection in life that you have to put up with, that stays no matter what. I am impressed that Murakami can crystallise this idea of helplessness in life in a poetic and cinematic way. I am touched to see many readers ponder about the same puzzle in the narrative. There are various websites and dialogues on this. An example is the wiki dialogue (http://wiki.answers.com/Q/What_was_the_wish_in_birthday_girl_by_murakami).

Like many others, I identify with his writing a lot, and I always have the image of him writing away at the kitchen table, daily, in the wee hours after his work at the jazz bar in Tokyo. It left me such a strong impression. In spring 2008, when I was in Tokyo, I went to a bar in Ginza, where a friend used to work and manage the bar business. Many Japanese businessmen went to the bar to chill out after work. In that quaint bar there were posh leather sofa chairs and a long, elegant, dimly illuminated bar where the bartender stood and mixed drinks behind the counter. And I had imagined that it would be similar to what Murakami’s life used to be, managing the bar business, working till late, clouded in that lazy music and dim lights. If he had not become a serious writer instead. If he had not gone back home those nights to scribble down what was swimming in his head. According to what Murakami told the papers, when he was 29 he realised he could become a writer.

In the story, I think the girl wished to become a different person.

Now that Norwegian Wood is going to be out soon across London’s cinemas, I have this longing to reread all his books again. That story still kept me thinking on some nights.

A poem for Gabriel Orozco: the global artist

My hands are my heart

or my heart is my hand

hiding the fingers

in the soft of my palm.

You cannot read

the lines on my palms, but feel

the strength in my arms.

I am the clay man with strong muscles

sitting in front of a kitchen table

in New York, in Mexico, in Paris.

I strip tyres,

I decorate skulls,

I scavenge,

I jumble-tumble.

I’m difficult.

Life is a solo act,

a casual scooter in Berlin,

a bad rehearsal.

The shoe box doesn’t count.

Gabriel Orozco is a Mexican artist who has been named ‘one of the most influential artists of this decade’, and his works are marked by wit and playfulness. He has participated in the Venice Biennale for three times and is represented by Marian Goodman Gallery.

Tate Modern is hosting his first major UK retrospective until 25 April.

Review by Jackie Wullschlager, FT

Review by Richard Dormant, The Telegraph

An essay by George Macchi, TATE ETC

West kowloon arts hub in Hong Kong part 1

m plus Hong KongGraham Sheffield, former artistic chief of Barbican Centre in London has decided to quit his role as CEO of Hong Kong’s HK$21.6 billion (£1.8 billion) West Kowloon arts hub project after five months. He has resigned due to health reasons, although many think that there must be more that triggered his abrupt decision to leave. The Wall Street Journal blog highlights that this follows the government’s decision to abandon Norman Foster’s canopy design for the arts project, while the Hong Kong Standard‘s article pinpoints Sheffield’s unfamiliarity with the local arts scene and his willingness to market the city’s arts hub on the world stage.

With the urgency to complete the 40-hectare cultural district before 2015, the Hong Kong government is now on an immediate global hunt for a new arts director. Words have gone round that Stephan Spurr, GM/director of Swire Properties with substantial arts background especially in theatre education and artistic direction, is tipped to be one of the candidates.

Mastermind behind the thriving Island East district in Hong Kong, a distinct strip of land where art and commerce meets, Spurr has demonstrated much creativity in transforming the landscapes in this skyscraper city. Born in Japan, educated in the UK and Canada, and having worked in Hong Kong’s competitive property development sector for several decades, he has international vision and is strongly supportive of arts development, especially theatre. Over the last few years, he was the volunteer artistic director for Shakespeare4All, directing plays and inspiring local schoolchildren to master Shakespearean drama/literature. He was also involved in advising the strategy of the Hong Kong Philharmonic Orchestra, which has seen considerable expansion in recent years and attracted many new patrons on board. (Read more from SCMP‘s article)

Hong Kong is a heavily built-up city, and the project land area reserved for the arts hub is a rare piece of land for new architecture, property developments and museums. With a first high speed rail soon to be built across this region, it is a great location that will soon be connected directly with the Beijing capital. Many interests are involved. Many. In my opinion, this factor calls for leaders with vision as well as diplomacy.

We are yet to discover what top-notch candidates may register their interest in this artistic director role, and the jury’s still out as to how far this arts hub project will transform the arts scene in Hong Kong or even Greater China. Yet one thing is for certain: it is time for Hong Kong to address the need for a workforce of diverse talent, to create opportunities to fuel the long term growth and development of the city’s arts and culture. It is high time to cut back bureaucracy that will poison arts development and the retention of human capital.

Much work needs to be done.

Bridget Riley and her galloping colours

Viewing the show of Bridget Riley’s latest works at the Sunley Room, the National Gallery, has been a real treat. It seems always apt that her work is shown here, at the gallery where the genuine paintings of old masters like Seurat, Mantegna and Raphael, whom she admired, are exhibited. I have always been quite interested in optic art, the way simple geometry and combination of colours can ripple one’s mind. My favourite piece from the range of works shown in the National Gallery’s exhibition is ‘Arcadia’, last seen at the Paris retrospective exhibition in 2008. The combination as well as the subtle differences in the alignment of green, blue, white, terracotta and pink curves, resemble a feast of colours and lines. The white or the blank spaces in between the chunky curves are especially engaging, as if the spaces were a glimpse of bare flesh underneath a face painted over with cosmetics.

arcadia by bridget riley
Arcadia

The black and white wall-length piece, ‘Composition with Circles’, resembles a million tennis balls dancing about. Some of the circles overlap with each other and some not, which seem to question us as to what we see and what we can make of the painting. What are the circles? Air bubbles? Tennis balls? Car wheels? Her work reminds me of the minimalist style of Agnes Martin, an American painter, whose lines, grids and pastel shades have an almost spiritual quality to them, and reflect an interest in Taoist philosophy (for her inspiration and original approach to art, click the following: an interview with Agnes Martin). In her nineties, she was said not to have read a newspaper for the last 50 years.

Composition with Circles
Composition with Circles

The other painting, ‘Red with Red’, strikes me as the most vivid and passionate, and it makes me smile to think what art can do to people. Celebrating her 80th birthday this year, Riley’s work is full of an unmistakable youthful glow and passion. The entire canvas is painted over with red, blue and terracotta, as if it were saying, ‘look at me, look at me.’

Red with Red
Red with Red

Riley’s highly graphic, playful and distilled works are a delight for the eyes, and fascinating to review how they have assimilated influences of post-impressionist artists like Seurat, known for his jovial dot painting ‘A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande-Jatte’. It teases the viewer’s mind with such potency. I enjoyed them because despite the abstractness of the shapes and forms, there is such clarity in the use of primary colours and patterns, and this unspeakable, very visual sense of clarity even seems to hint at the unnecessary clutter or fuss in language, photography or realist art. If you are interested in her work, check out what she has to say about the physical experience of her art at her BBC Four’s audio interview.

Bridget Riley paintings and related works at the National Gallery, London, from now until 22 May 2011.