Tyler Green Modern Art Notes
Archive for May, 2011
Longtime readers know that MAN’s summer tradition is to shift to a four-day-a-week, Monday-through-Thursday publishing schedule. Enjoy your Memorial Day weekend. I’ll be back on Tuesday.
Chinese authorities seem to be trying to force the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego to return to China artwork by Ai Weiwei that MCASD recently added to its collection, MCASD officials have told MAN. The works at issue are two sculptures from Ai’s Marble Chair series (2010, at right).
“The Chinese have contacted us through the shipping company that delivered the chairs and has demanded their return,” MCASD director Hugh Davies told me. “We’re in a bit of a dilemma trying to work around that. Needless to say, until compelled by the authorities to return the chairs, we have no intention of doing so. The situation is complicated because we don’t want to get Ai in trouble. He’s accused of economic crimes.”
The Guardian and other news outlets reported on May 20 that the Chinese have charged Ai with tax evasion and other financial crimes. MCASD officials say they aren’t sure if the demand for the return of the art is originating with Chinese government officials or if the Chinese shipping company, for reasons that are unclear, is acting on its own.
The story dates back to November, 2010 when MCASD started working with Ai’s studio on the acquisition. Ai’s studio shipped the work to the United States in March for presentation to the relevant MCASD collection committee, which formally voted on May 11 to acquire the work. The Ais are currently on view in MCASD’s “Prospect 2011,” a recent-acquisitions exhibition at the museum’s downtown, Jacobs Building location. MCASD’s recent 24-hour protest of the Chinese government’s detention of Ai was given its form — a sit-in — in part by the acquisition of the chairs.
According to MCASD, the Chinese are basing their demand on the export license that the museum acquired so that the works could be sent from China to California. MCASD, which has extensive experience in acquiring work from non-U.S. artists, says that it found the entire process to be business-as-usual up until it was told to return the work.
“We worked with the customs broker that handles most of our international shipping on this,” MCASD deputy director and chief financial officer Charles E. Castle said. “They have an office in China and they worked with Ai’s shipper to get the sculptures to us. The shippers made the decision that what made most sense was to export them with a ‘temporary with right to purchase’ export license on the theory that the works were going to be exhibited at the museum — which they were — and that they would then be shown to the museum’s collection committee for approval, which they were.”
Castle said that there are a range of potential export licenses that museums use, but given that the planned acquisition of the two Marble Chairs was the reason they were to be shipped to the US, MCASD’s selection of its export license seemed fairly clear. Castle said that typically the way temporary, with-right-to-purchase licenses work is that the work is released from the country-of-origin with no customs duty paid, and that the receiving party has a six-month option to make a purchase decision and to then pay the duty (or to return the work with no duty paid). MCASD received the artwork in March and voted to acquire it in May, even though under the terms of its export license it did not have to make that decision until September. [Image: Christine Forester and Megan Nesbit participate in MCASD's protest for Ai.]
“[After our committee's approval of the acquisition,] we asked our customs broker to notify the shipping agent that we would like to exercise our option and that we’ll keep the works here and pay for them,” Castle said. “The shipping company returned to our broker and said, ‘No, the option is not going to be honored,’ and that the works need to be returned within the six-month option.”
Castle said that the museum is unsure exactly who is telling the museum to return the art: The Chinese government or the shipping company, which Castle declined to name. “I can sit here in my office in La Jolla and assume that’s [it's the government demanding the return of the work], but the only contact we’ve had is the shipping company and our customs broker,” Castle said, adding that it’s not clear why a shipping company would insist on the return of art. “I assume the shipping company is being told [to retrieve the work] by the Chinese customs authorities,” he said.
MCASD’s situation is complicated by China’s ongoing imprisonment of Ai. The museum had worked out the expected purchase of the works from Ai between last November and March, with the understanding that the relevant committee would formally approve the acquisition in May. The museum expected a routine procedure, by which it would pay for the works after the museum’s collections committee approved the acquisition. However, since China imprisoned Ai and several colleagues in April, MCASD has been unable to find out where to wire the funds for the acquisition and its emails and phone calls to Ai’s studio have gone unanswered.
MAN has contacted major American museums in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Minneapolis and New York, and has been unable to find another American museum with an Ai acquisition in a comparable state of limbo. The Los Angeles County Museum of Art announced the acquisition of an Ai in April, but it acquired the work from a New York gallery. A museum spokesperson told MAN that the work had been in the U.S. for three years and that the museum had received no communications of any sort from China. Two U.S. galleries with which Ai has a relationship, New York’s Friedman Benda and San Francisco’s Haines both told MAN that they were unaware of any current situations comparable to what MCASD is experiencing.
Castle said it was unclear what the museum’s next step would be. “We’re trying to figure out what our rights and responsibilities are,” he said. “Our investigation has begun and is ongoing. We’re getting the best advice we can get, trying to make the most informed judgments that are best for everyone.”
The fourth time I saw Robert Grosvenor’s Tenerife (1966) at the Whitney Museum of American Art, I was as astonished as I was the first time: What am I seeing? What’s holding that thing up? What is this thing made of? How? What? Whoa.
Art historical references rushed to mind: A line of illusionism in art that runs from Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Ambassadors (1533) through to Robert Lazzarini’s Payphone (2002)? Yes, sort of… except, no, not quite. Those artworks present definable objects that have been push-me-pull-you-ed: A skull, a pay telephone. Maybe the Grosvenor is rooted in Dutch Golden Ager Daniel Vosmaer’s A View of Delft Through an Imaginary Loggia (1663), which abstracts architectural space into distortion, kind of like what Tenerife does to itself (!) and to the space around it? Nope: Vosmaer’s painting may be of an imaginary space and an imaginary viewpoint, but it’s still representational. Tenerife is a shape, suspended.
Grosvenor’s Tenerife isn’t really anything, except a hunk of fiberglass, plywood, steel and synthetic polymer lacquer carefully engineered to hang from a ceiling. Unless, of course, Tenerife is a reference to the gorgeous concrete masterpiece Auditorio de Tenerife? I looked up the Auditorio on my mobile phone, only to feel like a dolt when I discovered that while the building is intensely mid-century modern, it was designed by Santiago Calatrava and completed in 2003. So, no.
I also thought of John McCracken’s fetish-finish leaning planks, the first of which McCracken made the same year in which Grosvenor made Tenerife, 1966. But the finishes are different. The finish of the Grosvenor is more like the iridescence of a Ken Price sculpture, the ones that somehow flatten out shimmer, even when the shimmer is applied to a curved form. But no, for lots of obvious reasons that doesn’t apply. Then my mind wanders to Robert Irwin’s description of how his passion for muscle cars and fantastic paint finishes led him to light-and-space art, descriptions that fill the first third of Lawrence Weschler’s “Seeing is Forgetting the Name of the Thing One Sees.”
But Tenerife is none of these things. Eventually realized that part of the reason I dig the piece isn’t just because it’s really whiz-bang neat-o, but because it flirts with so many other wonderful things.
Last week the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego became the first significant U.S. art museum to organize a community-engaging public protest of China’s imprisonment of artist Ai Weiwei.
On Friday afternoon I talked with MCASD director Hugh Davies about his museum’s response to China’s imprisonment of Ai and about how it differed from the response of other museums that are conducting ‘business as usual’ with government-controlled Chinese art museums.
Davies has been at MCASD for over 25 years and is a former president of the Association of Art Museum Directors. As you’ll see below, he’s more outspoken regarding another museum and another museum director than I’ve heard a museum boss be in quite some time. [Image: Ai Weiwei on the occasion of a visit from MCASD donors, trustees and curators in November, 2010.]
MAN: How did MCASD come to the decision to do something public in protest of Ai’s detention?
Hugh Davies: As a museum, we had first come to know Ai Weiwei’s work at Documenta in 2007, by way of the chair piece he did there. It was just a brilliant piece, and very hard to pull off. It was very effective, all those empty chairs all over Kassel.
So we’d been interested in his work and had seen pieces in group shows. So when we made a trip to China [last November] with some trustees and collectors, we made it a priority to visit his studio. As it turned out, that visit was on our first morning there. After flying the entire previous day, every single person in our group got up at 6:30am to make it to Ai’s studio, the only time he could see us. As you know, his English is very good, having spent a decade in New York and all of us were thrilled at the chance to see the new things he was working on. We arranged to acquire two of his chairs for our permanent collection. Over a period of six months we arranged for shipping and all that sort of thing.
Since the chairs arrived back in March, we’ve been following the incarceration with increasing concern. There have been no charges brought against him. [Ed.: On Friday evening, after Davies and I talked, China formally charged Ai with tax evasion, charges that were immediately criticized as trumped-up.] It was very troubling to hear of his wife’s report of his condition, but I don’t think it would take long in a Chinese prison — or any prison — to have your spirit broken. So who knows what conditions prevail in that form of detention?
MAN: I’m sure plenty of museum groups and curators have visited Ai’s studio, but now that you’ve done a 24-hour public protest, I find myself kind of surprised no other institution has done something similar. As I understand it, you drove a ton of San Diego and Los Angeles media coverage to the issue; art museum effectively used as bully pulpit.
Davies: It was instigated by Kathryn Kanjo, our chief curator, who suggested to us that we have to do something to draw attention to Ai’s plight. I was traveling and I sent an email back to staff asking, ‘Why don’t we hang a banner like the Tate?’ Various staff members replied and said that we need to brainstorm and come up with something a little stronger.
Rebecca Handelsman, who runs our communications department, and our new curator of education Cris Scorza came up with the idea of a sit-in bcause they thought it was a symbolic way of showing solidarity with the artist. We hoped it would rally our members and the art community and generate some press. Along with many others, my wife and I sat in those two wooden chairs for an hour. They’re similar to the marble chairs we acquired. We had people sitting in the dark in the museum throughout the night. On one hand it’s like meditation. On the other hand it’s like being trapped, and can you imagine being in jail for 43 days without knowing what your fate might be. [Image: Davies and Lynda Forsha at MCASD's protest.]
It drove attention to Ai the way we hoped it would: The local NBC affiliate covered it. Our local PBS station, KPBS, covered it. The local newspaper and its non-profit rival have been covering it too.
MAN: Do art museums who have relevant collecting or exhibiting foci have a responsibility to do something or to say something or to organize something when a prominent artist’s basic human rights are violated by an authoritarian regime? Or is it more complicated than that? I’m particularly struck by the contrast between how MCASD has responded to China and by what the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts is doing and how its director Alex Nyerges answered questions about China and Ai last week here on MAN.
Davies: I keep thinking about what the equivalent would be. I think it would be if our country had put Andy Warhol in jail or if Banksy or Damien Hirst was put in jail. This is the best-known artist in China. So it’s a very troubling move. The art world, as you and I know, is a very small world. [Image: Ai Weiwei during a visit from MCASD donors, trustees and curators in November, 2010.]
Or think of it this way: We’ve shaken Ai’s hand and we’ve visited him in his home. Last year we went to Ellsworth Kelly’s studio and did the same things. The idea that Ellsworth Kelly could be put in jail…?! It’s astounding how primitive China is at this stage.
So, to have a museum director comment that an exchange of exhibitions has nothing to do with Ai because it’s about art history shows a pretty thin [consideration] of the role artists play in making art history. I don’t think you can compartmentalize these things.
Knowing I was going to speak with you I was thinking of analogies. Obviously you can point to the Soviet Union or Nazi Germany when artist were imprisoned without charges and this is the same thing.
In terms of how we respond I think the better example is apartheid South Africa. In response to that situation, Westerners organized cultural and sports and economic boycotts. Some people said that’s not fair to South Africans to make them be more withdrawn from the world community, but the opposite proved to be the case. Pressure at all levels brought about change. I would hope that more museums and more galleries and more collectors and more artists would join a boycott and bring pressure to bear. It can only help. The fact that the U.S. Secretary of State, Hilary Clinton, is calling Ai’s detention an outrage and that an art museum director or directors aren’t willing to do that is very confusing. [Image: Ai Weiwei, Marble Chair, 2010. Collection of the MCASD.]
MAN: The VMFA has come under some examination for acting ‘business-as-usual’ with China. Meanwhile, you, a contemporary art museum and not a historical art museum, have done something. Is part of what goes into how various institutions react the difference between being an historical art museum and being a contemporary art museum?
Davies: I don’t know about that. They have a very strong contemporary program in Virginia, a highly regarded contemporary curator too. I can see it would be perhaps more in our DNA, as you say, but if you work in any kind of art museum you understand the role and the importance of artists. All art was contemporary once. If you’re preventing artists from making their work, if you’re silencing artists voices by imprisoning them without charges and trumping up charges of economic crimes or pornography or whatever the case may be, you can’t ignore those things. They are related.
This is a very small community of artists and museum directors and dealers and auction houses. When on of the most important antagonists, one of the most important creative people in the world – he was even on Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential people in the world [the Ai entry was written by the then-US ambassador to China] – you have to take note and respond.
I can only speak for myself and my institution: We are aghast that this has happened and intend to protest as best we can. My prediction is that increasingly other museums will as well. I’ll be very surprised if Michael Govan and LACMA don’t do something soon, same also Annie Philbin [at the Hammer] or Jeffrey Deitch [at MOCA]. [Image: Ai Weiwei during a visit from MCASD donors, trustees and curators in November, 2010.]
Sure, it’s hard to be in the position of a museum and to have spent three or four years arranging something with the Palace Museum and to have this happen, but to ‘ostrich’ and to ignore the context is not a responsible thing to do culturally.
It’s about the exchange of personnel as much as about the exchange of art. The idea of having an exchange of staff is… it gets to what you asked [VMFA director Alex Nyerges] about propaganda. I wouldn’t go myself.
- The LAT’s Barbara Demick reports that China has finally filed formal charges against Ai Weiwei.
- The Menil Collection and the Dallas Museum of Art have jointly purchased this Maurizio Cattelan, reports the Houston Chronicle’s Douglas Britt.
- The MFA Houston may have a hit-and-miss collection and a reputation for renting exhibitions from museums with better art, but it’s sitting on top of a billion-dollar endowment. That makes its vacant directorship a plum job. The Houston Chronicle’s Douglas Britt finds a lot of similarities between the Houston job and the just-filled Philadelphia job.
- The best thing MFAH does is Latin American art. The Houston Chronicle’s Douglas Britt details how the museum is putting critical documents of Latin American modernism on the web and into a 13-volume series the MFAH is co-publishing with the Yale University Press.
- The Houston Chronicle’s Douglas Britt (geez!) reviews two collection exhibitions at the Menil. Both focus on the art of indigenous peoples. Not something I knew the Menil had much of, you?
- In a related story, this weekend bounty from the Houston Chronicle — think museum advertorial — serves to remind me that the Chronicle should be how the world finds out about art and art museums in Texas and instead is not. At all. The paper should be reporting and reviewing Houston (and Texas) like this every week, not once every couple of years.
- In the Philly Inky, Ed Sozanski bemoans the death of the Barnes Foundation and shakes his head at the crassness of the new guard there.
- Peter Wegner has long been an under-appreciated conceptualist — maybe his work is too colorful and, well, delightful? — so I’m delighted to see the LAT’s Jori Finkel writing him up on the occasion of a weird, wild installation at the Stanford busines school.
- Artinfo’s Kate Deimling reports that the Cold War is back on when it comes to museum loans: The Metropolitan is refusing to loan objects to Russia.
- Kenneth Baker reviews “The Steins Collect,” a mammoth show at SFMOMA that investigates the impact of the Stein family on the development of modern art.
Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego curator Robin Clark and photographer Philipp Scholz Rittermann sat for one hour at the MCASD to protest the Chinese government’s detention of Ai Weiwei, yesterday. They participated in the museum’s “Sit for Solidarity,” a 24-hour sit-in that both protests China’s treatment of Ai and raises awareness about it.
The “Sit,” which continues through 11am today (PDT), also references Ai’s sculpture series Marble Chair. MCASD recently acquired two chairs from that series. They’re on view now.
I don’t know of an American art museum that has held a more public protest for Ai. MCASD’s response to Chinese authoritarianism contrasts with the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts’ approach, which I discussed with VMFA director Alex Nyerges yesterday. MCASD director Hugh Davies will come on MAN on Monday to discuss how and why his museum chose to protest Ai’s detention.
The above image is stolen from MCASD’s Facebook page, which you may want to “like.”
Last week, Virginia Gov. Bob McDonnell and the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts announced that the VMFA will be the first museum to exhibit its collection in the Palace Museum in Beijing. (The dates for that exhibition are to be determined.) The Palace Museum, which is part of the Forbidden City complex, will reciprocate by sending an exhibition of its collection to Richmond in the summer of 2014.
The VMFA announced the deal with the Chinese as China’s detention of Ai Weiwei was in its second month. The arrangement prompts the question: Is it appropriate for an American art museum to be engaged in this kind of transaction with the Chinese when the Chinese have demonstrated their hostility to — and fear of — their country’s most internationally prominent artist? [Image: Alex Nyerges, via VMFA.]
Earlier this week I talked with VMFA director Alex Nyerges about his museum’s arrangement with the Chinese. I started by asking him to describe the scope of the two museums’ exchange:
Alex Nyerges: Let me give you the big picture of what is actually a pretty interesting and amazing relationship. The part of the agreement that we made front-and-center was the exchange of collection exhibitions, but clearly the heart-and-soul of it is a much broader and deeper partnership between the Palace Museum and the VMFA. It’s really predicated on the simple notion of collaboration and sharing. First is the exchange of personnel from each of our institutions at two levels: One, where we introduce everybody from our head of exhibitions design, to our head of conservation, to people in other areas of the museum to the Palace Museum for a week, two weeks, relatively brief visits. And then the same thing happens from the Palace Museum. Part of that is in preparation for exhibitions, but part of it is on the basis of having a collegial exchange of ideas and processes and approaches and the rest. Then we’re going to exchange longer terms for three-month segments, such as having someone, say a paper conservator for example, to have a three-month residency at the VMFA working with our people on works of paper of Chinese origin.
Then the most public part of this partnership is that the Palace Museum curators will come to VMFA and curate an exhibition from our great treasures. Our initial conversations have been focused on American collections and European decorative art collections — we excel in French art nouveau furniture, English silver, Tiffany and Faberge. Basically we’ll have the entire museum at their disposal to essentially mine, to do a ‘highlights of’ or ‘treasures of,’ depending on how marketing people package it later. We’ll be doing the same from the Palace Museum side. Our curator, Li Jian, will spend time [in China] and do research, so that the focus [of the show at VMFA] is more finite than a ‘best hits’ kind of show. We’re going to do something much more from a scholarly perspective than that. [Image: Palace Museum, Beijing, via Flickr user Wilson Loo.]
MAN: For how long have you been working on this?
Nyerges: This has been in the works for two years in terms of serious conversations, but really we started talking with them three years ago. We have a couple of other projects in the development stage in China that aren’t actual projects yet, in Shanghai for one.
MAN: As you know, Ai Weiwei has been detained by the Chinese since April 3. Did your staff and your board talk about whether it was appropriate to make deals with the Chinese at a time when China has imprisoned the Chinese artist who is best known internationally?
Nyerges: Maybe to answer the question backwards, it hasn’t become a policy question for the board at all. On a practical level in terms of the staff, certainly Ai Weiwei’s arrest was a topic of conversation, but quite simply our partnership and relationship with the Palace Museum has nothing to do with the Ai Weiwei situation whatsoever.
We’ve signed on with a memo of understanding for a long-term exchange. We’ve concluded it’s a relatively straightforward approach by our two institutions. By continuing this relationship, we are helping to bridge the gap of understanding and appreciation between China and America, whether we’re talking Chinese culture in general, and Chinese art in particular. For every misconception there is about China in our country, there are an equal number of misconceptions in the US. We think the good that comes of this outweighs any other consideration. [Image: Palace Museum, Beijing as seen from Jingshan Park via Flickr user thewamphyri.]
MAN: Are you concerned that the VMFA’s exhibition/deal with China could be a propaganda coup for the Chinese, that the Chinese government can point to a deal such as this one and say, ‘Look, prominent American museums aren’t concerned about our treatment of Ai if they’re making deals with us’?
Nyerges: No, never once would that thought have crossed my mind.
It’s an interesting thought though, because our conversation and our partnership with with the Palace Museum predates all this by several years. [The conversation about Ai] is not a conversation that’s come up between us. We’re two institutions that are both governmental agencies – we’re part of Virginia and they’re part of the national patriomny there in China — and we deal with each other on art-historical levels. We focus on that as an important educational vehicle for our respective audiences. Speaking for my counterparts in Beijing and for that matter anywhere, their focus is about art history, education and cultural exchange. So I guess they probably would be equally surprised by the question as I am. [Image: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts via Flickr user rvaphotodude.]
MAN: The United States doesn’t have a culture ministry or a culture-focused cabinet agency, which is a little unusual among Western democracies. That means that individual museums and such are effectively ambassadors of a cultural sort, independent entities that conduct a particular part of our nation’s foreign policy on their own. So when an American art museum deals with the Chinese government, what are its moral or ethical obligations? Should an art museum consider anything outside the exhibition it offers to Beijing and the exhibition Beijing offers to the US?
Nyerges: Certainly in our case, working with our museum colleagues across the entire country of China, they are as thoroughly professional and modern in their practices and outlooks as any art museum in the US — or anywhere in the world.
The history of art in China is an important facet that is often neglected. If you look at traditional art history programs, which are Eurocentric, one of the things I’ve enjoyed starting when I was the director at the Dayton Art Institute was starting to bridge that lack of understanding.
So no, it’s no different. We did two major Chinese exhibitions when I was in Dayton. Working with our Chinese colleagues is easier than any international relationship, and we’ve been involved in a lot. We have not encountered a single piece of red tape in all of those years. Not in the local, provincial or cultural bureau level. [Image: Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, via Flickr user mimmyg.]
The lack of understanding between the two countries always encourages me to do more in terms of working with China. I love the country, I love the history. The people could not be more wonderful.
When the Olympics were awarded to Beijing I was in China working on something. In the newspaper, a reporter had gone out to where they were going to build one of the Olympic stadiums and went to talk to a man on the street, one of the fellows with the whisk brooms. The reporter walked up to him and said, ‘Have you heard about the Olympic bid?’ The guy said, ‘It’s wonderful.’ And the reporter said, ‘Aren’t you concerned that people will come here and there will be police on every street and military patrolling and don’t you think the foreigners will be frightened?’ The guy kept sweeping and said, ‘No, this isn’t Chicago or New York.’
I have to say that I’ve been in little villages in the middle of the desert and I’ve been to virtually every major city in China. I go out in the morning at 5:30 or 6:00 to run and I run past soldiers marching and police on corners. All ti takes is one ‘ni-hao’ and their faces light up and they try to say, ‘Hello’ back in English. The friendliness and openness of the Chinese people is amazing.