Art Rant: Ai Weiwei’s intellectual shenanigans

(Art Rant: because sometimes you just gotta vent!)

Ai Weiwei has the jovial face of a Chinese Santa. Albeit a slightly creepy one. Then again aren’t all Santa’s a bit creepy ? Ai Weiwei’s trade is to denounce. Denounce the way the Chinese government treats dissidents, denounce the way ancient Chinese art is used for political propaganda, denounce his own country’s unyielding rules to the point of becoming a martyr of his own game and getting arrested. That in turn becomes more material to make very effective grand installations, successfully exhibited in important art venues around the world.

True, giving the finger to the (painted) face of one of 20th century’s biggest murderers, or photographing a nymphette (wearing Birkenstocks no less) showing her white undies on Tiananmen square must feel quite good. Denouncing the abuses of a totalitarian regime, even by using shrewd visual effects, is not exactly new and it hardly constitutes the premise of sustainable art. But we, Western society bombarded by narcissistic vacuousness eagerly and greedily want it to matter.

ai-weiwei-study-of-perspective-tiananmen-1995

Shameless self promotion is not exactly new either, recent examples abound; Tracy Emin (oh sister, please !) Damian Hirst, (don’t get me started!) Jeff Koons (whom I happen to adore). Are we to assume erroneously that because Ai Wewei is Chinese he would be a little more crude and insensible ?

But wasn’t Marcel Duchamp, the chic looking, pipe smoking chess player of Cadaquès, the ultimate provocateur ? Wasn’t he the one who got this whole mess started with his exquisitely funny LHOOQ, and Rrose Sélavy. To say nothing of his pissoir or bicycle wheel, thus throwing a series of extraordinarily stupefying bombs in the face of early 20th century convention. The French humorous contrarian was onto something. Something that has sustained the test of time and free our minds to question.

Why, pray tell, do we put Ai Weiwei’s eruptions into the “art” department ? Because, merci Monsieur Duchamp, we have now been trained to understand that when you take a common/usual element, fact or event and bring it out of its habitual context, we accept that it can be considered in a different manner, a new interpretation process is awakened. Dear Marcel started it more than 100 years ago, so the concept has had time to become accepted as natural in our minds. This way art performs its own transubstantiation. (had to use that word!)

So, where does one draw the line? apparently nowhere as Mr. Weiwei seems to tell us in his use of little Ilan’s tragic death. To denounce Europe’s handling of the refugee crisis, Mr. Weiwei has himself photographed face down on a beach just as the little boy from Syria was horrifyingly found.

I suppose after the tepid and lovely bourgeois pleasing renditions of Chinese dragons at Le Bon Marché in Paris, (Aah, the mellifluous lure of LVMH millions!) he needed to get back in the media circus with something more in tune with his idea of self relevance.

And so, again, he has won, in shamelessly raping an atrocious personal and public tragedy for his own promotional purposes, Ai Weiwei is back in the news and Google algorithms everywhere percolate his name to the top of the list…

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Robert Mapplethorpe: Ad Maiorem Corii Gloria

In 1983, I was working as a trainee at Christie’s in New York in the Modern Paintings department. One of my duties was to be on the exhibition floor making sure clients inquiries would be attended.

One particular winter morning I see, from behind, standing intently in front of a Magritte, a perfectly coiffed blue rinse bouffant. As I approach to offer my help, I notice a frail heavily bejeweled hand clasping a small alligator bag against a fluffy white Lynx coat.

” May I help you, Madam?”

“Madam?! “ Alexander Iolas screeches, “Oh not Madam yet Darling!”

Alexander Iolas was a Greek art dealer who had made a very good life for himself selling, among many other classics, late Picasso’s to Greek shipping tycoons with Swiss residencies.

Albeit our awkward beginnings, I spent a lot of time with this ageing “Grande Dame” of art dealing prone to peremptory sayings:  “A Great work of Art is Always equally very simple and very sophisticated, mon Chéri !” 

The first time I saw Robert Mapplethorpe’s work was at Le Palace in Paris in the winter of 1980. A very grand and very chic party was held in the “it” place of the day. Do remember that the idea of a “Gay only” disco was just not in style yet…

A slide show of the X Portfolio was projected on the immense screen above the stage. Golden showers, fist fucking and many other intricate delicacies were glanced sideways by smoking luminaries, granting a Gallic shrug at what was to become a seminal work of contemporary photography.

Andy Warhol had introduced me to Robert at a “kids” lunch at the Factory in early 1979.  I, blond Park Avenue cutie part of Andy’s “chickens” was simply of no interest to this sexy, energetic, intense looking, leather clad, ambitious waif from Long Island.

But, as chickens tend to follow roosters, we arranged to meet Robert for a late dinner followed by a visit to one of his favorite places TheAnvil.  Andy left early, others, bewitched, bothered or bewildered, did not.

The essential image: “Man in Polyester suit”, just imagine the sheer terror or delight this image conveys! The manifest crass cliché it implies: primal and poor black men in polyester suits will rape our wives and molest our boys with their huge cocks!

The Political implications of the image in Ronald Reagan’s America as in Barack Obama’s are manifold. In simply taking a photograph of what Robert loved and knew intimately (Milton Moore, one of his trysts), he threw a spongy bomb in the face of all the prejudiced, racist, homophobic, and fear mongering prophets.

Ultimately, Robert created an image that fits the standards of a great work of Art; simple in its “raison d’être” and concept, formidably sophisticated in the interpretations and ripple effects they cause.

Also, time has proved, it had staying power, historically and economically. Did Robert know he was making great art? He certainly always intended to.

Robert used all that New York can give with gluttony. Re-invention; by meeting all the right people, loosing those along the way that are no longer profitable, and quickly becoming the “Enfant Chéri” of the Uptown swells, photographing pretty flowers and making portraits of their children.

He reminded me of Lou Reed’s brilliant evocation of an earlier down town:

“Candy came from out on the Island
In the back room she was everybody’s darling
But she never lost her head
Even when she was giving head
She says, “Hey, babe,
Take a walk on the wild side.”

In 1987, I went to one of his last shows at Robert Miller Gallery in New York. An emaciated, leather clad old man, looking at me through eyes clouded by malady, flashed his carnivorous smile at me, his slow burning and wiry intensity still glowing softly.

Robert’s generation, such as Peter Hujar or Lynn Davis, with the help of their dealers, were pivotal in the transformation of the Photography market, from an infinitely reproductive process into the controlled and limited edition Fine Art we know today.

His images can be interpreted as staged, cold, manipulative, pornographic, violent, too classic, scary, and gross or boring, but they are crucial. For Photography, for LGBT studies and for a global understanding of the mortiferous mendacity of the eighties, Robert is an undisputable and unavoidable icon.

XYZ, the current show at Thaddeus Ropac Gallery in Paris is an absolute must see!    (Three Portfolios were made, X for SM sex, Y for floral still life and Z for African-American male nudes)

A masterful selection of the portfolios, show beautifully printed images that are powerful, raw and disturbing.  Exactly how Robert should be remembered.

Oh, and last but not least, the Ropac exhibition is curated by Peter Marino, über Architect of the grandest fashion names and 21st century’s living representation of the glorification of leather!

 

Written for and published on UK’s most read Photography Blog SMBHMag            (warning: seriously “Not Suited for the Meek” images on there)

All images ©ROBERT MAPPLETHORPE FOUNDATION 

In Praise of: “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972

Today I am starting a series that will show up regularly on ArtWise: “In Praise of” is a short tribute to a particular work of an artist, contemporary or historical, that constitute the wide pantheon of sustained enthusiasms of my ever curious mind. Basically, they “Rock my World” and make it ever so enchanting!

Hockney peter by pool

 “Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972

David Hockney takes time to work on his canvases, so indeed this particularly beautiful California view, which shows Peter Schlesinger at the edge of the pool and John St Clair swimming, was painted in his London studio. His technique of using various photographs, taken indifferently of time or place and then re-organising them, is a form of masterful manipulation of the eye.

Playing with our perception and distorting perspectives has always been a key element of Hockney’s work. We can see that in his very early work, his photography compositions of the ’80’s or his magnificent late large canvases of English landscapes.

Having been in love with the California sun and the boys glowing under it since his childhood, in 1964 as soon as success came about, David left his native dreary England for Los Angeles where he would live, love and work, off and on, for a large part of his life.

“Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures)” 1972, is a dreamy composition imagined by Hockney. Peter Schlesinger, young Art student at UCLA, then David’s lover, stands above the pool, considering, looking, without looking at another human being gently swimming silently underwater. A sense of foreboding in this idyllic surrounding impregnates the painting: Peter was becoming more distant and moved out while David was painting it. This magnificent canvas filled with yearning reminds me of a short poem by Constantine P. Cavafy, (poems from which David would make a series of illustrations):

“I was always struck by beauty, moved by it’s perfection, it was always there, other, and I, here, flawed.”