Contemporary Chinese Art: the Chinese equivalent of Damien Hirst?

Zhang Huan

The art world success of Zhang Huan makes a compelling story, the postmodern Horatio Alger myth at the heart of contemporary Chinese art. Today, at the age of forty-three, Zhang is a multimillionaire. In New York, he is represented by PaceWildenstein, which held a survey of his latest work in Chelsea last spring. At his factory studio in Shanghai, a hundred assistants living in dormitories churn out labor-intensive carvings of propaganda scenes, photorealistic “ash paintings,” and fifty-foot-tall giants constructed of calfskins stitched with wire. After a decade and a half of privations, Zhang has become a giant himself, one of the artistic titans of the new Chinese economy. But his tale should come with a warning label. Zhang has struck it rich through cunning and compromise and contamination. He embodies all that it means to be a contemporary artist “made in China.”

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Armchair philosophy out, experimental philosophy in?



“If anything can be pursued in an armchair, philosophy can,” the esteemed Oxford philosopher Timothy Williamson told the Aristotelian Society, of London, a few years ago. That may sound like an innocuous truism: No one pictures Bertrand Russell doing his philosophical cogitation anywhere but in a club chair, or perhaps in bed, postcoitally (given his adventurousness in that arena). But, in fact, Williamson’s remarks are fighting words these days, thanks to the rise of a cohort of philosophers who believe that the armchair arguments of philosophers need to be probed and tested through surveys of ordinary people and laboratory experiments using human subjects. If philosophers want to demonstrate that their arguments comport with how the mind really works, say the proponents of experimental philosophy, they need to get off their duffs.

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Early Christmas 2008

Slideshow from our ride on the Christmas Train in Stanley Park

Aran checking out my flowers

The Homeric World

What can we learn from Homer. Lots …



Reconstructing a prehistoric world from literary sources is rife with complications. But there are aspects of life in the Homeric era upon which most scholars agree. Homer paints a coherent picture of Greek attitudes, ideology, customs, manners, and mores that is consistent with the 8th century archeological record, and holds together based on anthropological knowledge about societies at similar levels of cultural development. For instance, we can trust that the Greeks’ political organization was loose but not chaotic – probably organized at the level of chiefdoms, not kingdoms or city-states. In the epics we can see the workings of an agrarian economy; we can see what animals they raised and what crops, how they mixed their wine, worshipped their gods, and treated their slaves and women. We can tell that theirs was a warlike world, with high rates of conflict within and between communities.

This violence, in fact, opens an important window onto that world. Patterns of violence in Homer are intriguingly consistent with societies on the anthropological record known to have suffered from acute shortages of women. While Homeric men did not take multiple wives, they hoarded and guarded slave women who they treated as their sexual property. These women were mainly captured in raids of neighboring towns, and they appear frequently in Homer. In the poems, Odysseus is mentioned as having 50 slave women, and it is slave women who bear most of King Priam’s 62 children. For every slave woman working a rich man’s loom and sharing his bed, some less fortunate or formidable man lacks a wife.

In pre-state societies around the world – from the Yanomamo of the Amazon basin to the tribes of highland New Guinea to the Inuit of the Arctic – a scarcity of women almost invariably triggers pitched competition among men, not only directly over women, but also over the wealth and social status needed to win them. This is exactly what we find in Homer. Homeric men fight over many different things, but virtually all of the major disputes center on rights to women – not only the famous conflict over Helen, but also over the slave girls Briseis and Chryseis, Odysseus’s wife Penelope, and all the nameless women of common Trojan men. As the old counselor Nestor shouts to the Greek hosts, “Don’t anyone hurry to return homeward until after he has lain down alongside a wife of some Trojan!”

The war between Greeks and Trojans ends in the Rape of Troy: the massacre of men, and the rape and abduction of women. These events are not the rare savageries of a particularly long and bitter war – they are one of the major points of the war. Homeric raiders always hoped to return home with new slave-concubines. Achilles conveys this in his soul-searching assessment of his life as warrior: “I have spent many sleepless nights and bloody days in battle, fighting men for their women.”

Historical studies of literature are sometimes criticized for ignoring, or even diminishing, the artistic qualities that draw people to literature in the first place. But understanding how real history underlies the epics makes us appreciate Homer’s art more, not less. We can see Homer pioneering the artistic technique of taking a backbone of historical fact and fleshing it over with contemporary values and concerns – the same technique used later by Virgil in “The Aeneid,” by Shakespeare in his history plays, and by Renaissance painters depicting the Bible and classical antiquity.

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Art World Foofarah

Damien Hirst and Skull (For the Love of God ...)
Damien Hirst and Skull (For the Love of God ...)

An article on Damien Hirst in today’s Guardian:

Robert Hughes, the world’s best-known champion of modern painting and sculpture, is publicly to lay much of the blame for the decline of contemporary art at the door of Damien Hirst. In an uncompromising television essay about art and money that follows next week’s controversial London ‘clearance’ sale of 223 of Hirst’s works, the Australian critic will claim they are ‘absurd’ and ‘tacky’ commodities.

Hughes’s film for Channel 4 argues it is ‘a little miracle’ that Hirst’s 35ft bronze statue, Virgin Mother, could be worth £5m and yet be made by someone ‘with so little facility’. Calling Hirst’s famous shark in formaldehyde ‘the world’s most over-rated marine organism’, the critic will mount a lengthy attack on the artist for ‘functioning like a commercial brand’ and make the case that both Hirst and his shark prove that art has lost all meaning separate from its price tag.

Hughes, 70, became well known in Britain with his acclaimed BBC series The Shock of the New in 1980, which made the theories behind modernism in art accessible to a wider audience. But Hughes says he now fears he is a member of the ‘last privileged generation’ to have visited an art gallery without thinking about the market value of the exhibits.

Hirst’s 1991 suspended tiger shark, The Physical Impossibility of Death in the Mind of Someone Living, is, Hughes judges, a ‘tacky commodity’, even though collector Charles Saatchi sold it for £8m in 2004. ‘It is a clever piece of marketing, but as a piece of art it is absurd,’ Hughes says. The common defence is that Hirst’s work mirrors and subverts modern decadence: ‘Not so. It is decadence,’ says Hughes.

His harsh verdict on Britain’s leading artist is a key part of the new film’s argument about the change Hughes has witnessed over 50 years as a New York-based art reviewer. His film, The Mona Lisa Curse, opens with shots of Hirst’s diamond skull, For the Love of God, which sold for £50m and is now owned by a consortium. Hughes maintains that all works of art now operate in western culture much as celebrities do. He dates the trend from 1962 when Leonardo da Vinci’s Mona Lisa left the Louvre in Paris to go on display in New York. The long queues to see it turned a masterpiece into a mere spectacle, he argues.

The huge sums now regularly paid out by collectors at auctions, placing the lots out of the reach of public galleries, mean that art itself has been redefined. The works, he suggests, are now like film stars, while the galleries have been reduced to the level of the limousines used to convey them to people. ‘Art as spectacle loses its meaning,’ Hughes warns.

Grayson Perry, the Turner prize-winning potter and artist, welcomed Hughes’s intervention this weekend, although he admires some of Hirst’s work. ‘I always enjoy Robert Hughes’s erudite grumpiness,’ Perry said. ‘We get the art we deserve and Damien is the perfect artist of our times of fluff economies, New Labour and celebrity hype. His skull was brilliant for its brazenness and for the debate it provoked. His work has always been largely about money: I fear his accountant has become his most influential artistic adviser.’

Like Hughes, Perry is concerned about the way the significance of artworks is skewed by the price they attain in the market. ‘What has changed is that the market, fuelled by glitzy new wealth, is becoming more powerful than the connoisseurs, museum curators and art academics whose consensus used to decide what was good art. Hedge fund managers and Russian oligarchs are not necessarily known for their sophisticated good taste,’ said Perry.

Although Hughes has always been outspoken about BritArt, he has not attacked Hirst so explicitly before. When Hughes was invited to speak at the Royal Academy of Arts dinner four years ago he made only a glancing, disdainful reference to Hirst, saying: ‘A string of brush marks on a lace collar in a Velázquez can be as radical as a shark that an Australian caught for a couple of Englishmen some years ago and is now murkily disintegrating in its tank on the other side of the Thames. More radical, actually.’

Ironically, this summer the Royal Academy, the venerable institution in Piccadilly, London, that helped make the names of the BritArt pack with the Sensation show of 1996, is still waiting to hear whether or not Hirst will accept the honour of becoming a Royal Academician – the highest accolade for a working British artist.

Hirst’s fellow BritArt stars, Gary Hume and Tracey Emin, are already members of the academy, but the invitation to Hirst to join a club that he once called ‘a big, fat and stuffy old pompous institution’ is significant. The letter went out to Hirst in the early summer and he has until October to reply.

· ‘The Mona Lisa Curse’ is to be shown on Channel 4 on 21 September at 6.30pm

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Palin under fire after grudging U-turn on global warming

Here’s an editorial on Republican VP candidate Sarah Palin from todays’ Guardian newspaper:

“Sarah Palin, who presents herself as half of a Republican team of maverick reformers, yesterday edged away from her outmoded views on climate change, conceding for the first time that the problem might be man-made.

The admission from Palin, during an interview with ABC television, brings the Republican running mate into line with the views of the party’s presidential nominee, John McCain. “I’m attributing some of man’s activities to potentially causing some of the changes in the climate right now,” she told ABC’s Charlie Gibson.

The statement contradicted Palin’s assertions within the past year that she did not believe global warming is a result of human activity. The Alaska governor strenuously denied expressing such doubts in her ABC interview, but she told the Fairbanks Daily News-Miner newspaper last December: “I’m not an Al Gore, doom-and-gloom environmentalist blaming the changes in our climate on human activity.”

Even so, yesterday’s acknowledgment of a human component in climate change was grudging – and Palin still supports drilling in the Arctic wilderness preserve, which McCain opposes.

She also suggested that agreeing on the causes of climate change bore no relation to finding a solution, and left open the possibility that the phenomenon was merely cyclical. “Regardless of the reason for climate change, whether it’s entirely, wholly caused by man’s activities or is part of the cyclical nature of our planet … John McCain and I agree that we gotta do something about it.”

The exchange came during a series of three interviews Palin granted to ABC, her only exposure to the national media since McCain chose her as his running mate a fortnight ago.

Most of Palin’s responses during those interviews seemed carefully scripted, almost a recitation of Republican talking points absorbed during intense cramming sessions with McCain campaign aides.

Critics saw her performance as evidence that she was not conversant with many of the issues that would occupy a vice-president, especially matters of foreign policy. She was on shaky ground on several occasions. At a military ceremony on Thursday, Palin again clung to an outmoded world view, linking the Iraq war to al-Qaida and the 9/11 attacks. The Washington Post reported that Palin told a contingent of troops deploying to Iraq, including her son, Track, that they would “defend the innocent from the enemies who planned and carried out and rejoiced in the death of thousands of Americans”.

Palin exposed other gaps on national security issues. She told ABC that Washington should not intervene if Israel decided to attack Iranian nuclear facilities, and she adopted a far more hawkish posture towards Russia than Bush, going so far as to commit US troops to the defence of Georgia and Ukraine if attacked.

Yesterday, Barack Obama’s camp was scouring the transcripts of the Palin interviews as part of what it called a bold new strategy to counter a string of Republican attacks. The change of tack comes after mounting Democratic concerns that Obama is not hitting back hard enough.

The Republicans have made a number of false assertions against Obama, accusing him of personally insulting Palin by using the phrase “lipstick on a pig” to describe McCain’s economic policies and of supporting explicit sex education for five-year-olds.”

Better pray the Republicans are not elected –

Turkey 2008 V: Koprulu Canyon and Altinkaya

Not too far from the Mediterranean coast, inland past Manavgat, you will find the Koprulu Canyon. Lots of local tour companies bring people here to go rafting; the river itself is not that difficult to navigate but it’s good for beginners.

Both times that I visited the canyon, it was screaming hot. As you can see, the land here is really dry – this past August a forest fire near this area was the largest on record.

Here’s the canyon itself – fantastic turquoise water and fantastically cold. The contrast between the 50 degree heat of the sunny day and the glacial water is extreme. Many local people come here to sit in the shade and to BBQ.

Here some local boys come down to the river to play. Turkey has thousands of kilometers of coastline but, as a rule, most Turks cannot swim – unfortunately, many drown during the summer.

Here the young boys are jumping into the river from a tree and, hopefully, remerging.

The villagers in this area live as they have done for hundreds of years. Here a shepherd, watching his flock at the riverside, peeks through the trees.

Not too far from this riverside site, a drive up a very twisty and narrow mountain road brings you to Altinkaya (Golden Stone), from where you have a wonderful view over the valley.

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