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Land of milk, not honey … Ai Weiwei’s map of China, an installation constructed from 2000 baby formula cans. Photograph: The Asahi Shimbun via Getty Images
Who will be the star of this year’s Venice Biennale? Ai Weiwei. Not since Joseph Beuys created his sublime installation Tram Stop in the German Pavilion for the 1976 Biennale has Venice foregrounded an artist so much at the peak of his powers.
Ai Weiwei will show work in the very German pavilion whose turbulent history Beuys illluminated, and also has a solo exhibition running as a “collateral” event of the Biennale. Since he matters so much more than any other living artist right now, and operates in his own personal sphere where he can make the slightest things significant – the other day he witnessed and filmed a street fight and it became world news – there is little doubt that he will be the star. He makes art matter, and the Biennale needs an artist who can do that.
Meanwhile, a new installation by Ai Weiwei invites a comparison with the work of Beuys, his German pavilion antecedent.
Ai Weiwei has made a map of China entirely out of cans of formula milk. It comments on another of those running national sores he loves to rub salt into: in 2008, tainted baby milk made 300,000 children ill in China and killed six babies. People no longer trust domestic formula milk and now try to get it from abroad.
The dissident Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who is currently banned from leaving China, is creating a major work for this summer’s Emscherkunst triennial art festival (22 June-6 October), to be held in the Ruhr region in western Germany.
Aus der Aufklärung (Out of enlightenment) will consist of 1,000 tents, installed along the Emscher river. The festival, now in its second edition, is closely tied to a €4.5bn eco-project, scheduled for completion in 2020, that is designed to bring the river back to life after 100 years of industrial pollution. The festival is spread out over 47 sq. km between the participating cities of Duisburg, Dinslaken, Oberhausen, Essen, Bottrop and Gelsenkirchen.
Ai is currently overseeing the production of the tents, each of which will be unique and able to house two or three people, in his Beijing studio. Visitors will be able to rent them for the night for “a low, symbolic price”, says the festival’s curator, Florian Matzner. “The idea is to let normal [sic] people participate, and their activities will give the… work its sense.” The installation carries numerical and conceptual echoes of Ai’s Fairytale People project at Documenta 12 in 2007, for which he brought 1,001 of his compatriots to the town of Kassel, encouraging them to interact with the city and record their impressions. The work was accompanied by Fairytale, 2007, an installation of 1,001 historic chairs from China.
Ermanno Rivetti and Julia Michalska
The Art Newspaper
Two leading collectors have transformed a former dairy in the heart of London into a vast gallery that will compete with the Saatchi collection for the attention of contemporary art lovers.
Frank Cohen, a Mancunian DIY magnate whose collection is second only to Charles Saatchi’s, and Nicolai Frahm, a Dane based in London since 1997 with postwar European abstract art among his collecting passions, will stage shows drawing on their respective collections as well as loans from other sources.
Situated near the British Museum, the 12,500 sq ft warehouse was the former milk depot for Express Dairies, and Cohen and Frahm are retaining the building’s raw, industrial design. Entry will be free and there will be a bar lounge because, in Cohen’s words, “we think that art should be for everyone”.
Comparisons with Saatchi, who also opens his gallery to the public, are inevitable. There will be some overlaps, but the Dairy will stage one-man shows rather than the group exhibitions favoured by Saatchi. The opening show in April will be devoted to Swiss artist John Armleder. He is among older artists who, Cohen and Frahm believe, have been eclipsed by the art world’s obsession with youth.
“We’re trying to give London another space which has a completely different feel [from Saatchi's Chelsea gallery],” said Cohen, 69, who made his fortune with DIY stores, having started as a market trader selling wallpaper from an old ambulance “in the freezing cold seven days a week”. The son of a factory machinist, he left school at 15 and recalls that his family seemed never to have money but never starved. Over decades, he has built a collection of modern British artists including LS Lowry, as well as contemporary American, German, Chinese and Indian art.
In the Borghese Gallery, in Rome, when you first see Gian Lorenzo Bernini’s Apollo catch up with Daphne, you would swear that her flesh is turning into a tree, although both she and the tree are made of marble. An interlocking mosaic of carbonate crystals has become the medium for a metamorphosis, a tour de force of drama, like almost everything Bernini did. As a sculptor and setter of scenes, he made Rome the pace-setting city of Europe in the 17th century, the age of the Baroque. Materializing out of the marble, his popes, kings, horses, and women set the style for an era.
Then neoclassicism took over, and his renown was eclipsed for more than 200 years. The Fountain of the Four Rivers, with the most marvelous of all his horses, was still there in the Piazza Navona to delight all foreign visitors, but somehow their delight did not build him a reputation for genius. While he was alive and working, even his enemies thought he was a great man. During the next two centuries, almost nobody did. His luster was still on its way back when I was young in the late 1950s and saw his statuary photographed in black-and-white for the Phaidon album that bore his name. Years before I got to Italy and saw the actual objects, the pictures of them bowled me over.
It was the effect he wanted. Bowling people over was his aim in life, along with making money with which to raise the status of his large family to a princely level. The two goals were closely connected. Almost to the end of his life, a string of popes wanted his theatrical best from him, to swell the crowds of marveling visitors to Rome. Bernini could turn churches into histrionic events. Most of the drama in Saint Peter’s comes from various achievements by Bernini, headed by the Baldacchino, the enormous gilt-bronze edifice—the tent for the throne of Saint Peter—at the center of the church. Outside, those are his colonnades framing the piazza where people gather 100,000 at a time to hear the pope speak. Bernini had an organization of assistants to handle all the work, and they had to be paid. But still, by today’s standards, millions of dollars were left over for Bernini to put under his mattress.
Bernini’s new biographer, Franco Mormando, is good on the scholarship and the account books but less so on the dramatic detail… In a standard scholarly way, Mormando blames the rise of neoclassicism. But the same thing didn’t do much to diminish Michelangelo, whose fame has never faltered. A better explanation might be that Bernini was simply too good. His chisel could make marble flow like water, and much as we love the results, we tend to think that the sculptor’s talent had no merit, because it was too facile. When Donatello and Michelangelo sculpted David, they transmuted his rock-throwing dynamism to monumental potential. Bernini’s David actually swings the sling, his face all screwed up in concentration like yours or mine would be, with every little muscle picked out and straining. One tends to think there is a dimension missing, when in fact there is an extra dimension present: natural humanity.
Everyone was enjoying sex all the time in the 18th century, to judge by its art. The century of the American and French revolutions was also a time of open-minded, unstuffy attitudes to love and desire. News that a 1766 edition of a popular sex manual called Aristotle’s Masterpiece is to be auctioned next week in Edinburgh is incitement enough for us to explore some Enlightenment erotica.
The most important thing about Aristotle’s Masterpiece, first published in the 1680s, was its advice that women needed to experience sexual pleasure as part of the reproductive process. This argument for equality in bed chimes with images of the boudoir as a female domain in Rococo art. William Hogarth’s satirical depiction of an aristocratic bedroom from his series of paintings Marriage à la Mode shows a countess at her toilette surrounded by flunkeys (including a eunuch singing opera) while her lover suggests they meet later at a masked ball. Her bed is a pink curtained place of pleasure.
What Hogarth laughs at, French Rococo artists indulge. Antoine Watteau’s intimate painting of a woman naked in her bedroom is based on a sketch of one of his friends. But the most daring nude in 18th-century art is surely François Boucher’s portrait of Marie-Louise O’Murphy lying on her stomach on a divan. Mademoiselle O’Murphy, daughter of an Irish emigre and mistress of Louis XV, shows the artist her buttocks in a self-consciously sexy pose.
In a simple house in 7th-century Arabia, a woman drapes an embroidered curtain with pictures of living creatures on it across a doorway. When her husband returns, he is displeased and pulls it down. But the material isn’t wasted: the woman turns it into cushions, which remain in sight without causing further conflict.
This is no ordinary house, and no ordinary husband and wife. It is the prophet of Islam, Muhammad, and his spouse Aisha, who related the story that has been passed down for nearly 1,400 years. And this seemingly trivial domestic incident has had huge ramifications, as part of a body of revelation and tradition on the question of images in one of the world’s great religions. But it also demonstrates an important ambiguity. Muhammad’s objection wasn’t to images per se; in this case it was their prominence, which risked distracting him during prayer. As a covering for cushions, they were fine.
It is an ambiguity that hints at a more complex relationship to the realm of art and representation than is suggested by footage of exploding buddhas in Afghanistan, or riots sparked by cartoons and films showing the prophet. And it is the starting point for Jamal J Elias’s erudite but unsatisfying study of Islam’s attitude to imagery through history.
Anyone who has a more than superficial knowledge of Muslim cultures will be aware of what can seem like a contradictory approach to the issue. There are strong theological precepts against the creation of likenesses of living things, and above all of religious figures, especially Muhammad. And yet lush vegetation in mosaic form garlands the façade of the Umayyad mosque in Damascus, devotional pictures of members of the prophet’s family are common among Shias, and merchants in the Tehran bazaar sell pendants with Muhammad’s portrait on them. Animals prance across carpets, and manuscripts and miniature paintings bustle with human activity. So what’s going on – does Islam prohibit such images or not? How come the bazaaris can carry on plying their trade, while Danish newspapers get picketed?
What’s clear is that the intent behind the creation of an image has a bearing on how it is perceived. It’s less a matter of theology than of reaction to a provocation – a deliberate insult – that brings some Muslims out on to the street. As to prohibition, Elias implies that the west’s search for an easy answer comes down to its broadly Christian viewpoint. At two defining moments in the history of Christianity, arguments about visual art were central. The Byzantine iconoclasm, a period of image-destruction that began in the 8th century, has traditionally been put down to competition with anti-image Islam, growing in strength on the Christian empire’s eastern fringes. Elias points out that this is a story told by later “iconophiles” to discredit their iconophobic forebears by linking them to a barbarian faith. Instead, it’s likely that these ferocious debates were indigenous, as were those that surfaced during the Protestant reformation. Either way, Christianity as a result has a comprehensive theology of imagery, and Christian cultures tend to look on Islam, which lacks one, with perplexity.
I just want to take a moment to salute Britain’s greatest living artist.
A few weeks ago I was in an American art museum looking at the modern masters. Pablo Picasso and Richard Serra share space with Sol LeWitt and Jackson Pollock in the tremendous collections of the National Gallery of Art in Washington DC. But not far from Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross paintings, an unexpected thing from home caught my eye.
It was like seeing a ghost. In fact, I was seeing Ghost – a sculpture by Rachel Whiteread that I first encountered, what, 20 years ago, in the London whose Dickensian chill it reproduces. Ghost is a cast of an entire room in an old-fashioned, perhaps Victorian, house. It is the solid trace of all the air that a room once contained. Empty space has become solid. Because it is solid, it is closed. Nothing can get in or out. On this side of the white surfaces of the massive block, engraved with negative images of fireplace, door, window and light switch, we wonder at the dark invisible silence within. Vanished lives, lost voices, forgotten loves are trapped in that fossilised room like prehistoric creatures in limestone.
Ghost is the closest living relative of Whiteread’s destroyed artistic masterpiece House. She made Ghost in 1990; three years later she took the same casting process to its logical conclusion by preserving the inner world of a house scheduled for demolition.
Exactly one year ago, the collector, dealer and sometime columnist Adam Lindemann was roundly criticised for an article he wrote in the New York Observer, in which he announced: “I’m not going to Art Basel Miami Beach this year. I’m through with it. It’s become a bit embarrassing, because why should I be seen rubbing elbows with all those scenesters, people who don’t even pretend they are remotely interested in art?”
In what he now says was a satire (he did indeed come to the fair), Lindemann exhorted those who care about contemporary art to “Occupy Art Basel Miami Beach” to “correct the ills of global art fairdom once and for all, and to send the dealers, the artists and especially the art-fair companies our message of protest”.
In the months since, however, others have started to express doubts about the state of the contemporary art world. Recently, a number of art-world figures have broken ranks, claiming that the high prices being spent on art invite trophy-hunters and oligarch investors, not serious appreciation.
Although there have always been complaints about the pernicious influence of the market on art, and the ease with which rich patrons sway taste, this was counterbalanced by the critical discourse about the cultural value and meaning of art. Today, the noise around the market has amplified, while independent critical debate is diminishing. “Art and money have slept together since the beginning of time. It’s the same as it ever was, only more so—there are more people with more money, spending more money more publicly,” says the critic Jerry Saltz.
The Art Newspaper
Early in 1939, Georgia O’Keeffe, the artist most famous for depicting the arid Southwest, suddenly decided to paint America’s diametrically opposite landscape — the lush tropical valleys of Hawaii. In an era when advertisers often hired fine artists to add a touch of class to their campaigns, the “least commercial artist in the U.S.” (as Time Magazine described her) was persuaded by the Dole pineapple company to visit the remote Pacific archipelago and produce two canvases. The offer came at a critical time in O’Keeffe’s life. She was 51, her career seemed to be stalling (critics were calling her focus on New Mexico limited, and branding her desert images “a kind of mass production”), and her marriage to Alfred Stieglitz was under serious strain.
Despite initial reservations about the project, her many letters back home show that her experience of the then little-known Territory of Hawaii was a revelation. O’Keeffe ended up spending nine weeks on different islands, of which by far the most productive and vivid period was on Maui, where she was given complete freedom to explore and paint. Back on Oahu, where she had first arrived, she had been incensed that Dole officials refused to let her stay on a working pineapple plantation because it was unseemly for a woman. When they delivered to her hotel a pineapple already peeled and sliced, she tossed it out in disgust. But on Maui she was able to seek out an unfiltered view of nature, and went directly to the most remote, wild and verdant corner of the island: the port of Hana.
She reported back to Stieglitz about Hana’s dark rain forests, exuberant flora, black sand beaches and lava washed into “sharp and fantastic shapes.” Staying on the Kaeleku sugar plantation, the notoriously prickly artist was given Patricia Jennings, the 12-year-old daughter of the plantation manager, as her private guide, and the two became unlikely friends; for 10 days the pair visited sea caves, ruins and beaches, and later, with Patricia’s father, made excursions to the dramatic Iao Valley and Haleakala Crater.
New York Times
Ancient hunters and gatherers etched vivid petroglyphs on cliffs in the Eastern Sierra that withstood winds, flash floods and earthquakes for more than 3,500 years. Thieves needed only a few hours to cut them down and haul them away.
Federal authorities say at least four petroglyphs have been taken from the site. A fifth was defaced with deep saw cuts on three sides. A sixth had been removed and broken during the theft, then propped against a boulder near a visitor parking lot.
Dozens of other petroglyphs were scarred by hammer strikes and saw cuts.
“The individuals who did this were not surgeons, they were smashing and grabbing,” U.S. Bureau of Land Management archaeologist Greg Haverstock said last week as he examined the damage. “This was the worst act of vandalism ever seen” on the 750,000 acres of public land managed by the BLM field office in Bishop.
The theft required extraordinary effort: Ladders, electric generators and power saws had to be driven into the remote and arid high desert site near Bishop. Thieves gouged holes in the rock and sheared off slabs that were up to 15 feet above ground and 2 feet high and wide.
Los Angeles Times