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Detained Chinese Artist Ai Weiwei To Exhibit At MCASD

Above: Two chairs from Chinese artist Ai Weiwei's "Marble Chair" series, currently on view at MCASD.

Audio

Aired 4/19/11

This week, protesters in LA and New York sat peacefully in front of Chinese embassies to protest the detention of prominent artist Ai Weiwei. Ai's work will be on view at MCASD at the end of April. We'll learn more about his work and the experience of a group of San Diegans who traveled to his Beijing studio last fall.

Internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at his studio last November.
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Above: Internationally acclaimed Chinese artist Ai Weiwei at his studio last November.

A protest in front of the Chinese embassy in LA and New York last weekend called for the release of one of China's most well known artists. Ai Weiwei was detained 3 weeks ago in Beijing and hasn't been seen since. China has been cracking down on people it considers dissidents, afraid that the fragrance of the "Jasmine Revolution" in the Middle East could be wafting in their direction.

The work of Ai Weiwei will be on display at MCASD as part of a group exhibition called "Prospect 2011" beginning April 30th.

The Guggenheim has launched an online petition to express concern for Ai’s freedom and call for his release.

Guests:

Kathryn Kanjo is a curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Hugh Davies is the David C. Copley Director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego.

Read Transcript

This is a rush transcript created by a contractor for KPBS to improve accessibility for the deaf and hard-of-hearing. Please refer to the media file as the formal record of this interview. Opinions expressed by guests during interviews reflect the guest’s individual views and do not necessarily represent those of KPBS staff, members or its sponsors.

ST. JOHN: A protest in front of the Chinese embassy in LA and New York last weekend called for the release of one of China's most well known artists, Ai Weiwei, was detained three weeks ago in Beijing. China has been cracking down to people it considers dissidents, afraid that the fragments of the jasmine revolution in the Middle East could be wafting their direction. San Diego will put some of Ai Weiwei's art on view at the end of this months. And our guests in studio are hew Davies are director of the museum of contemporary art in San Diego, and Catherine Kanjo, who's a curator there. Thank you so much for coming in.

DAVIES: Thank you for having us.

ST. JOHN: So what is the latest news with Ai Weiwei's detention.

DAVIES: Well, he was detained on April 3rd. So it's now been 16 days. And we don't know where he's being held, there's been no official statement as to why he's being held. But we did learn this morning from Angela Carone what his attorney has been released.

ST. JOHN: Ah, ha.

DAVIES: And is unharmed.

ST. JOHN: Okay. And how was he apprehended?

DAVIES: Ai Weiwei was apprehended while he was attempting to board a plane from Beijing's international airport, and was arrested by, I gather, state police.

ST. JOHN: Ah, ha. So why was he detained? What is their reason for it? He's been pretty controversial.

DAVIES: The phrase that's been used is financial crimes.

KANJO: I think economic irregularities.

DAVIES: Yes, which is apparently a euphemism for anybody who's upset the state in some way.

ST. JOHN: Okay. Well, talk a bit about how he's been controversial then.

DAVIES: Well, he's always been provocative. His father was a dissident, a poet who was widely read in the thirties and '40s, and then in 1957 he was banished to western China to live on a farm. I guess the year that Ai Weiwei was born was the year he was banished. So Ai Weiwei has grownup with a family history of protest and challenging the government. And obviously during the communist regime, this has not been an easy thing to do. For instance, after the Sichuan earthquake which killed so many school Children, Ai Weiwei drew a lot of attention through websites and twitter and that sort of thing to the fact that these buildings did not comply with building regulations, there had been briberies, and that the contractors had used inadequate materials, and if you see the photographs, these schools had collapsed killed these children where the apartment buildings and shops and offices are untouched. And the government doesn't like this attention being brought to --

ST. JOHN: That's just one example. Okay. People may remember that he helped to design the stadium for the Olympics, the bird's nest, although he did pull out before it was completed, I guess. So cath Lynn, talk a little bit about his art of describe him as an artist.

KANJO: Well, he is -- he works through men different media. You mentioned his role as I designer in the architecture of the bird's nest. But he's also a sculpture, a photographer. And his work -- his artistic work really draws from the past and relates it to the present. So he'll take styles that have sort of potent historical meaning, and he'll update them in some way. So he uses motifs that suggest Chineseness, and then it's the context which changes everything.

ST. JOHN: And the work that's going to be on view at the end of the month at the museum of contemporary art is called marble chairs. How does that fit into his whole body of work.

KANJO: We have two pieces, and they are nearly identical pieces that represent -- they look like a which I think dynasty chairs, they look like our kind of stereotypical image of what a Chinese chair is, except instead of being made hand carved and wooden jointery, they're carved from a single piece of marble. So they're these sort of splendid unlikely sculptures that read like western monument, right? We see marble sculptures and we think of the west, but the imagery is of the east. And the chair, it's a very simple, minimal form. But in this translation, and in this isolation, it becomes, I think for Ai Weiwei, it become ace human figure and he talks so often about the individual among the collective. This is one of his themes. What is the place for the individual voice? So I think we can look at this chair, the empty chair, we have two, so we've set up a dialogue, if you will, by bringing in two, but we can look at it as a stand in for the individual voice.

ST. JOHN: So this is two chairs, but he did have a pretty famous exhibit, I understand, with 1001 chairs.

KANJO: 1001 chairs. I think that it's interesting that he doesn't do just of a thousand chairs, he does 1001, to remind you that that mass is made up of individuals.

ST. JOHN: Right.

KANJO: This was for a project he did in Europe for a very important exhibition called Documenta, where he took his -- the opportunity of showing them this very high visibility international exhibition, instead of making a traditional work of art to make a painting, he arranged to bring 1001 Chinese citizens to this town in Germany, to Kassel Germany, which is where the Grimm brothers are from, are so he culled the piece fairy tales, 1001 Ching Dynasty chairs. So it was this idea of displacement and translation and the kind of wonder of moving one population to another place.

ST. JOHN: And that's what was reflected in the protest this weekend where people sat on chairs.

KANJO: Yes.

ST. JOHN: I saw pictures. It looked almost like an art exhibit.

KANJO: In Germany, he brought the people out, but he also did bring literally 1001 chairs, and they were, you know, sort of arranged in groupings and serpentine forms throughout the exhibition. So they became a place to gather where people could go. It's not that the people had to be sitting in the chairs. So this is a formalization of that.

ST. JOHN: So hew, you took a party of people to China last year, I believe, and met him in person, tell us about that.

DAVIES: Yes, Catherine and I led a group of about 20 of our museum supporters. And [[]] on the outskirts of Beijing, and for us, that was the high point of the trip. He was an extremely gracious host. Gave us a complete tour of his home and studio. And it was during that visit that we -- I gently negotiated with him to bring these two chairs to San Diego. And in fact, it was in discussion with him, I was saying how many chairs makes sense? Should it be one chair, and he was very insistent that it should be a pair, almost like a couple. And as Catherine says, they're carved out of blocks of marble. But they're quite different in the sense that one is white marble, and the other one is very variegated marble.

ST. JOHN: What was he like as a person?

DAVIES: He was quite taciturn, speaks English extremely well since he lived in New York for 11 years. He was not forthcoming with information but quite responsive as we prompted with him with questions. And I think he enjoyed our company, but it wasn't necessarily a highlight of his week.

ST. JOHN: He probably had a lot going on. Catherine, what was your experience of the studio when you visited it?

KANJO: Well, it was -- I mean, it was quite wonderful. He had really just returned to China from a major installation he had created at the Tate in London. And as Hugh said, he was taciturn. And we were trying to be good guests, you know, and show that we, you know, respected him and knew his work. And we really didn't know if he would move us even into his, you know, from the garden into his living space, and from the living space into the studio. None of that was a foregone conclusion. So I think he really responded to the fact that people cared about him and about his art, and he took us into these different levels. And it was stunning, right? Because we were able to see sculptures, you know, in -- this is part of the appeal of a studio. They weren't installed in the sort of white halls of a museum. There was -- things were kind of tucked into the corner, there were studies for projects, sketches, you know, just gathered. So you really got the sense of process. You saw him working on multiple projects and in multiple media. There were porcelain pieces, carved marble pieces and wood. As well as his photographs. So you feel like you're stepping into, you know.

ST. JOHN: His creative environment, it sounds like. And in terms of the context, I understand that some of what he was working on were surveillance cameras.

DAVIES: Yes, he likes to make things issue objects we're familiar with out of other material it is of so for instance, the wooden ming dynasty chair made out of marble. And these ubiquitous surveillance cameras that you see at every intersection in China. And the same sort of cameras we see at traffic rights here in the United States. But they're made out of marble. So obviously they don't function, and they're somewhat memorial, these associations with marble. But highly charged symbols.

ST. JOHN: And even just drawing attention to them in a sense is I is statement, isn't it? Yes. Do you have a sense as to how closely he was being monitored before he was taken at the airport? Did he talk about that?

DAVIES: He had been arrested a couple of years ago, and beaten by the police to the extent that he had bleeding in his head and had to, in Germany, be operated upon to relieve the pressure on his brain. So he had had brushes of -- physical brushes with the authorities before. And he has been, I think, quite deliberately provocative in his engagement with the authorities in China. So I don't -- I don't think his -- as much as I deplore the fact that he said been incarcerated without being charged with any crimes, without informing his family as to where he is, I don't find it surprising that had this has happened, and I don't think he would be surprised by it either.

ST. JOHN: How has the museum and the art community here in San Diego reacted to his detention.

DAVIES: Well, I have addressed letters to the Chinese embassy in Washington, and to the council in Los Angeles. Of we have joined the Guggenheim's very good attempt to have as many signatures as possibly, signing on electronically to protest this imprisonment. We're trying to make as much noise as possible hoping that by drawing attention to this, it may result in his being released. The hope is that there's enough trouble that he's not worth the bad press that the Chinese are receiving. I'm also hoping at some point there may even be some kind of boycott authorized. Either a boycott of traveling to China or a boycott on Chinese products, which would be very hard to do.

ST. JOHN: Yes, life without Chinese products. Yes, uh-huh. But so this exhibit is called prospect 2011, and it's actually going to be a part of a collection of exhibits I understand that are gonna be voted on to see whether the museum will actually acquire them. How does that work?

DAVIES: Every year we have a dinner. And at the dinner are most important, most generous supporters contribute funds. And then the funds are used to buy art. So Catherine and I and the other curators round up half a dozen pieces, and the group's combined funds can acquire perhaps half those pieces. And we present them to them, in this case it'll be five artworks, and can them then to vote, to rank their preference, which they do. We never tell them what the works cost because we want them to make an esthetic decision rather than a financial decision. And then after we've totted up the votes, we announce the top vote getters, and then once their money has been spent then the other pieces, we hope somebody privately might acquire, or then we return them to the artists or the galleries. So it's a very interesting process, and this year, we're pleased that the Union Tribune is joining us, and they will have images of these works on their websites, and currently the public to vote as to what their first three choices would be.

ST. JOHN: Oh, okay. Cathy Lynn, how could they see it, see the different options?

KANJO: They actually come to the museum. Of the exhibition is gonna open at the end of the month. It opens April 30th, and it runs through May. It's at our downtown location, and we have other exhibitions on view there. So it's a focus exhibition with these five pieces the Hugh mentioned, and then we try to show a little bit out of context by showing some other works which we already own. So that's one way. But there's also accessing it on our website or as Hugh said, through the vote that the Union Tribune is going to be --

ST. JOHN: Right, but if your gonna vote --

KANJO: Right, you must see it in person.

ST. JOHN: Yes.

KANJO: And especially for any work for art, but for the chairs to be able to circle them, you know, to be able to see them in the round, and you know, really see these subtle differences that hue's talking about between the pure white and the variegated white. And I think it's important too for people to look at the range of works that we're offering, not just the pieces by Ai Weiwei, but the other artists to think about the richness of the contemporary art world and the different types of things we're collecting.

ST. JOHN: Are you collecting any other art from China?

KANJO: In this case, his is the only -- he is the only Chinese artist. We are actually having an exhibition open at the end of May with photographs from China by San Diego photographer Schultz Ritterman. So we do have this sort of Chinese theme running through this one proposed acquisition and up coming exhibitions.

ST. JOHN: Interesting. And I should guess that the voting process sometimes gets pretty heated huh?

KANJO: Well, each patron has a single vote, and my task as the curator is to convey the necessary art historical information for them to, you know.

ST. JOHN: Make a decision.

KANJO: Feel they can make an informed decision.

ST. JOHN: Good, well, we'd like to thank you so much for coming in, that's Hugh Davies, director of the Museum of Contemporary Art San Diego. Thank you Hugh.

DAVIES: Thank you Alison.

ST. JOHN: And Catherine Kanga who is the curator.

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