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An interview with Ai Weiwei in the cellar of Munich’s Haus der Kunst, as the artist was preparing to turn the place into a battlefield. With Hanno Rauterberg

What would megalomaniac modesty look like? Is there such a thing as relaxed rebellion? A state of peace which is all get up and go. Well Ai Weiwei certainly exists. An artist who is not afraid to take on the mightiest of enemies, the dictators in Beijing. Who demands democracy at the top of his voice, freedom of speech, equal rights for all! Who refuses to be silenced, even if they lock him up, even if the police break down his door in the middle of the night and beat him to the ground, as they did just recently. He kept up the protest , even as the blood pured down his face, pulling out his camera and photographing the the police as they carried him off. It looks likes a family outing. The whole world should see this image: the terror and the un-terrified.

And now he’s sitting here in front of me, a man of substance and pride, yet so completely withdrawn into himself. His voice, a whisper, his eyes flitting about the room. “I was so shy in school,” he will tell me later, “that I’d blush every time someone looked at me.” A man, who now has so many eyes trained on him, whose voice is heard like no other, a man who is probably the most famous fighter of injustice in the whole of China.

“I’m an ordinary person, very ordinary,” he says and rubs his fac eyes light upe vigorously with both hands. “It was nothing to do with me,” he says. “It was the others, the interviews. I’m probably the most interviewed person in China.” Then he smiles for the first time, shrugs his shoulders cautiously, a shrug of wonder – how peculiar, why me?

Right now, the most interviewed person in the whole of China, is living in the cellar, in the catacombs of a Nazi palace in Munich. There, in the Haus der Kunst, which was built between 1933 and 1937, he has made himself at home for a few weeks, setting up camp with a 20-man team on folding beds all crammed into four rooms, to prepare for his first ever major exhibition worldwide, which opens on October 12. He has everything he needs down there, armchairs, TV, computer, close friends, a cook. He has effortlessly transformed this fortress into a cheerful shared apartment. Every now and tempting smells of Chinese food waft up into the museum halls, a museum attendant tells me.

“I’m not really a fan of museums, it so often feels as if they only display the corpses from long forgotten wars. We want to do something else here. We want to turn the Haus der Kunst into a battlefield.”

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UpStarts: MAD office

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In 2006, a group of young, mostly Chinese, architects working in China accomplished a feat most young architects can only dream of: MAD office won an international design competition to design a 50-story residential tower in the edge-city of Mississauga, Ontario. But not only had they won it, they had become the first Chinese-based architects to ever win a competition outside of China which made them instant media darlings. Now with several other international projects under their belts, MAD is poised to become the first international and global Chinese practice: opening an office in Tokyo and beginning projects in South America and Denmark. In light of such dramatic strides and other recent developments in China’s global position, one is left to wonder what happens when the Chinese start playing the game back?

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E-Waste: There’s an App for That

chinaiphone1Before year’s end, Apple and China Unicom will finally launch the iPhone in China, leaving hundreds of thousands of affluent Chinese cell-phone users with an increasingly pressing question: What should they do with their old handsets? Sure, some will pass them on to friends and relatives, and others will stash them in drawers. But for those precious few who decide that they’d like to recycle their old cell phones in an environmentally sound manner, they’ll be mostly out of luck. Unlike in the United States, Apple doesn’t offer to collect and recycle old cell phones for its customers in China. And the Chinese government, which has long decried the developed world’s exports of e-waste to its shores, has done almost nothing to handle the growing tide of its own, homegrown e-waste, generated by its expanding middle class. In short, as China grows, consumes, and gets hooked on the iPhone, the environmental disaster that is South China’s e-waste processing industry is about to become much worse. ()

Chinese Artist Accuses Government for Injury

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Is China the right country to be the guest of honor at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair? The debate could be rekindled this week following the hospitalization in Munich of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, who believes he suffered a cerebral hemorrhage this week because of an alleged beating by secret police in Sichuan.

Surgeons at a clinic in Munich on Monday performed surgery on 51-year-old Chinese artist Ai Weiwei, after diagnosing a cerebral hemorhage on the right side of his brain. Ai told SPIEGEL in August that secret police had attacked him in his hotel room in southern China’s Sichuan province on August 12. The head injury now being treated is presumed to be connected to the attack.

Ai is considered one of China’s most important artists as well as one of its most well-known abroad, but after repeatedly provoking the government with allegations of human rights violations, he has also become one of the country’s most controversial. Just over a week ago, the artist — who participated in the design of the “Bird’s Nest” Olympic stadium in Beijing — flew from China to Munich to prepare for the opening of his new solo exhibition, “So Sorry,” which is set to run from Oct. 11.

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The Beijing Book Fair?

A censorship scandal has already erupted around October’s Frankfurt Book Fair, whose guest of honour this year is China. This coming Saturday, in the lead up to the fair, Frankfurt will be hosting a symposium on “China and the World”, (pdf) together with the Chinese. One of the speakers, an influential investigative journalist and environmental activist, Dai Qing, has now come under pressure from the Chinese delegation not to give her talk, as Bernhard Bartsch reported yesterday in the Frankfurter Rundschau: “The written invitation issued by the Frankfurt Book Fair, which Dai needed to apply for her visa, vanished into thin air at the behest of the Peking authorities for Press and Publication (GAPP), which is now threatening to pull out of conference entirely if the disagreeable author is allowed to enter the country.”

In the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Henrik Bork reported: “The Chinese have ‘stated unequivocally that if Ms Dai Qing does turn up after all, they will pull out all together,’ according to Peter Ripken, the symposium’s organiser. This has created a ‘catch-22 situation‘, because it would mean that the entire 10-person delegation from Beijing boycotts the symposium.”

It was announced today that Dai Qing has received an express visa from the German embassy and is intent on coming to Frankfurt this weekend, Henrik Bork reports. And the Book Fair? It is making “worried noises about Dai’s insistence on coming to Frankfurt. ‘It could bring the whole event to its knees,’ says Peter Ripken. ‘We want a real debate, but without the Chinese attendees the conference would become a tribunal.’ Last Wednesday he was still under the assumption that Dai would agreed not to come to Frankfurt until October when she would talk at an event that was not connected to the official Chinese programme at the Book Fair.” Hang Hui, professor of Humanities at Tsinghua University and a pioneer of the government-critical “new left” in China who was to give a key note speech at the symposium, will also not be attending. He told the FR that “his visa application had been rejected by the German embassy on formal grounds”.

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Chaos and censorship at Beijing’s inaugural 798 Biennale

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The inaugural Beijing 798 Biennale, held in the sprawling 798 art district in China’s capital, saw a chaotic opening on 15 August, with major works by Chinese artists widely censored by authorities. The biennale was arranged with international contributions operating independently at numerous private galleries in the 798 complex, which were not affected by the censorship and avoided the operational issues that hampered the main exhibition hall.

Billed as the first non-government biennale in China, the event was hampered by a lack of funds, operational support, and some inexperience on the part of the organisers, who were predominantly Chinese art journalists.

In steaming temperatures of around 40ºC, hundreds stood out in the sun to listen to opening speeches by assembled dignitaries. The ceremony was briefly interrupted by a demonstration and water being thrown at the platform. The demonstration, whose purpose seemed obscure, was performed by a group including a deaf mute in ancient Chinese costume, a man wheeling a cart of bedpans and another man wearing a metal mask accompanied by someone dressed as a bride. ()

Thirteen uneasy pieces

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By now, the word has spread everywhere in the art world: China is the future. Everyone is in a frenzy, with all the major galleries jockeying to get a Chinese artist in the rotation. At the Museum of Modern Art in New York, insiders say that the order has come from the top down that all departments should reorient themselves to add a focus on Chinese contemporary art.

This certainly represents, in part, an authentic interest in a thriving Chinese scene, fruit of the transformation of a rural and tradition-bound society into an urban and capitalist one, squarely focused on the future. But the indomitable air that Chinese art has right now is obviously driven by blind speculation as well. The current show of Chinese video art at MoMA satellite P.S.1, featuring work by 8gg, Cui Xiuwen, Dong Wensheng, Cao Fei, Hu Jieming, Huang Ziaopeng, Li Songhua, Liang Yue, Lu Chungsheng, Ma Yongfeng, Meng Jin, Xu Tan and Xu Zhen, co-curated by David Thorp and Sun Ning, shows both sides of this uneasy situation.

The phenomenon can be summed up by exploring the title of the exhibition itself, “The Thirteen.” On the one hand, it’s clearly meant to evoke a kind of supernatural aura, and, in fact, the show is anchored by two longer videos, both with real mystery to them. The 28-minute Drifting Lantern (2005) by Cui Xiuwen (b. 1970) is the first thing one sees as one enters the darkened galleries, with an entire wall dedicated to its projection. It focuses on a single image: a glowing, pumpkin-shaped orange lantern. Accompanied by a lush soundtrack of erhu, flute and voice, and isolated on a black background, the glowing form bobs forward and backwards, in and out of the screen like a playful spirit.

Occasionally, however, fragments of other images break the blackness, allowing the viewer to become aware that the lantern, in fact, is suspended on a chain, carried by a woman who holds it with a ceremonial steadiness as she advances through streets and plazas. ()

China’s wild west

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As ever, history becomes politically charged – historical facts are regularly pressed into service and even falsified in current disputes. In Kashgar’s dusty, little-visited museum, there’s a sign reading: “In 60BC… local government was established under the Han dynasty. Since then Xinjiang has been part of the Chinese state.” That version was the official one for a long time but has now been dropped, as has the idea that the Chinese were the first inhabitants of the region. The magnificent Indo-European mummies found in the Taklamakan desert put paid to that claim. Xinjiang was on the Silk Road and has seen a mixture of races, cultures and warlords. It’s absurd to try to reduce it to a single influence.

On the other hand, dating the “colonisation of the province” to the arrival of the communists in 1949, as the World Congress of Uyghurs would have it (a view accepted by several French newspapers), doesn’t reflect reality either. The first Chinese political presence in Xinjiang dates from the Manchu dynasty in the 1750s. In the wake of rebellions, Daoguang, the eighth emperor, created the first “reconstruction offices” as part of a policy of assimilation in which the powers that be were reluctant to depend on local leaders as they were “corrupt and harmful to the policy of central state”. In 1884 the province became part of China. (By way of comparison, New Mexico became part of the US shortly before that (in 1846), as did California (1850).)

It’s true that history is not linear and Xinjiang has seen several bids for independence. The emirate of Kashgarie survived from 1864 to 1877 thanks to the recognition of the Ottoman empire, Great Britain and Russia. A short-lived East Turkestan Republic lasted from November 1933 to February 1934. And finally, a Second East Turkestan Republic, a vague satellite of the USSR comprising three northern districts, existed from 1944 to 1949. As Rémi Castets puts it, “the feeling of being heir to a powerful empire or kingdoms which have sometimes rivalled China” has left its mark.

Most Uyghurs are not in fact calling for independence, but greater justice and recognition of their identity. “We may be better off than we were a decade ago,” Abderrahman says, “but we’re still lagging behind.” GDP stands at 15,016 yuan per inhabitant in Shihezi (which is 90% Han), 6,771 in Aksu (30% Han), 3,497 in Kashgar (8.5%) and 2,445 yuan in Hotan (3.2%) (6).

These flagrant, ethnically based inequalities are pushing the Uyghurs towards Islam, the only vehicle for their opposition and means of affirming their identity. Already the sight of women in burqas is no longer a rarity. There is a clear danger that the fundamentalists will be the beneficiaries of this shift. Extremist groups are still marginal, but that could change if Beijing refuses to engage in any sort of dialogue.

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Image source: Unkar.jp

Cao Fei – Utopia

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Born in Guangzhou in 1978, [Cao Fei] is one of the key figures from a new generation of Chinese artists. Recent projects have seen her build works in Second Life, a vast 3D online world that has operated since 2003. Second Life has a daily turn over worth more than one million US dollars; the twenty million registered users can purchase real estate, set up businesses, and engage in all manner of virtual interactions. In 2007 Cao Fei sold part of her art work/real estate RMB City (2008) on Second Life for $100, 000 to a private art collector.

RMB City was created by Cao Feiʼs online identity China Tracy (with her platinum hair and suit of armour) on the Creative Commons Island of Kula. Named after Chinese money, RMB City shows a perverse view of Beijing—a blend of communism, socialism, and capitalism. Like Beijing itself, it is constantly under construction, candy-striped smoke stacks suggest continuous industrial production and ships move goods swiftly in and out of port. A giant shopping cart, filled with skyscrapers and religious monuments, floats nearby; and Tiananmen Square has been converted into a swimming pool.

Her work is timely and responds to Chinaʼs rapid urbanization and the giddying pace of social and economic development experienced there and ask us to think about the reorganisation of social interactions through online and social networking sites “Cao Fei is the model of the artist as inventor and explorer, who with infinite curiosity acts as a witness of her time.” Says international curator Hans Ulrich Obrist Over the last ten years Cao Fei’s work has been exhibited throughout the world, including in the Venice Biennale. Cao Fei: Utopia is a joint project with the IMA, Brisbane and ARTSPACE, Auckland. It will travel on to TheNewDowse, Hutt City; and Dunedin Public Art Gallery.

(Hat tip: @pareidoliac)

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Relevant: Cao Fei, Multimedia-Künstlerin zwischen den Welten


Green Power Takes Root in the Chinese Desert

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As the United States takes its first steps toward mandating that power companies generate more electricity from renewable sources, China already has a similar requirement and is investing billions to remake itself into a green energy superpower.

Through a combination of carrots and sticks, Beijing is starting to change how this country generates energy. Although coal remains the biggest energy source and is almost certain to stay that way, the rise of renewable energy, especially wind power, is helping to slow China’s steep growth in emissions of global warming gases.

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