Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Foreign Dispatch

I went on holiday. How was it? None of your business. Our business here is art, and despite my best efforts I did end up seeing some art on my holiday.


This labour of love is one of the most interesting art museums you’ll never find. It’s located in the basement of a gigantic housing block on an estate in Shanghai’s French Quarter, and it can be a struggle to locate. It’s worth it, though.

Owner Yang Pei Ming has amassed more than 5000 works from postwar China, mostly centred around the Cultural Revolution. Ordered chronologically, it’s a visual tour through a half century of evolving ideology, but just as intriguing is the way art intersects with politics. This was a period (or succession of periods) when Chinese artists were required to create work that promoted particular Communist ideals, but the propaganda aspect often overshadows the fact that these were still the country’s top artists. If Van Gogh or Picasso or Warhol had to follow the party line, would their creations be any less fascinating?

There’s an extra layer of significance given the way much of this work directly represents sides of China’s past that not everyone might want to remember – in the West, at least, there’s a very partial and skewed understanding of this era of recent history. And given the image of extreme state censorship we have of the country’s government, along with the fact that you’re seeing this stuff in a basement… well, there’s an air of mysterious subversion to the whole affair.

Yang Pei Ming told us that there’s no direct word for ‘propaganda’ in Mandarin. The closest, and the word he uses in the Chinese title of the place, is closer to ‘publicity’. Fitting, when you consider how much art produced in the ‘free’ world is exactly that. Publicising a particular politics is often today seen as a degradation of art’s lofty ideals; this disengagement from politics can itself be seen as an affirmation of consumer-oriented, laissez-faire capitalism’s attitude, though. I mean I bought a bunch of art from the Propaganda Museum. What does that make me?


To Taipei: this epic piece of physical theatre fits neatly into that genre I know as “people in amazing costumes walking really, really slowly”. It’s visually arresting but eventually very dull. Here’s some video of the show, but like most stage performances translated into YouTube format it’s a different beast once you’re seated and watching it without the benefit of a telephoto lens. Not that we were sitting far away, but even with a dozen rows between the you and the stage there’s a distance that obscures some of the more interesting details of the piece.

It's a bit like Matthew Barney on horse tranquilizers. Choreographer Lin Lee-Chen seems to be a bit of a national treasure in Taiwan. I’m guessing this on the basis of turning up to a 2pm performance on a weekday and finding the National Chang Kai Shek Cultural Center packed to the rafters, and we’re talking a four level auditorium here. In fact the show was sold out but we scored some tickets after somebody cancelled or something. I wasn’t asking questions (which is fine because I probably couldn’t have understood the answer).

It’s hard to imagine Hamer Hall selling out a Thursday matinee performance of a Robert Wilson-style show. Which is what Song of Pensive Beholding really is: one of those massive international pieces of theatre that aren’t really about anything except themselves. It’s the kind of thing that’s memorable because of its budget, not because of any particularly striking originality on the behalf of its maker. There may have been specific cultural references that I missed, but to me it worked in that internationalist style that screams “pick me up for your festival”.


If you’re anything like me, the question “do you wanna see Legally Blonde the Musical in Korean” only has one possible answer. I mean, the Broadway production scored seven Tonys and musicals are HUGE in Korea, but really: it’s Legally Blonde the Musical. In Korean.

I can’t say that much about the show itself since it was, you know, in Korean. It seemed like a lot of fun. There were two dogs in the show who were the crowd favourites, even if they only appeared for the few seconds it took to wander out to the spot where a doggy treat was obviously planted and then head back to the wings where a wrangler was equally obviously planted.
And there was the unfortunate fact of the leading character’s name – Elle Woods – which is a combination of sounds hilariously at odds with Korean phonotactics. Easier to tackle were the English phrases retained – there are a hell of a lot of “OH MY GOD”s here – although I was disappointed that I couldn’t understand the Bend and Snap song.

There was also a scene set in a Lotte department store, and I don’t recall there being such a ridiculous celebration of shopping in the original movie. Moreover, Lotte is a conglomerate of incredible scope – it’s literally impossible to escape. There are Lotte hotels, shops, amusement parks, candy, cinemas, baseball teams, construction companies, and so on. So when Elle Woods and her new boyfriend go shopping for a suit, it’s both unsurprising to find Lotte popping up and completely bizarre to realise that you’re watching product branding in a commercial musical. I’d love to know the deal that went on there. (Trivia: Lotte is named after a character from Goethe’s The Sorrows of Young Werther.)

Would I see the show in English? Probably. It was bright and fast and colourful, and Kevin Jackson’s review of the London version is pretty positive. There’s also the basic disappointment of seeing a musical and being unable to sing along afterwards because you couldn’t understand a word of it.


This is probably the best exhibition of visual art and sculpture I’ve ever been to. I never realised contemporary Korean art was so exciting, but I was almost overwhelmed here. There’s not really much for me to say and less point in saying it, since unless you’re in Seoul you probably won’t get a chance to see it, but if I were a visual artist thinking of applying for an Asialink residency I’d be doing everything in my power to get over to Korea and try to tap into whatever makes that stuff so dang good.

 Yeondoo Jung: hyperreal images often inspired by childhood drawings (literally in some cases, where kids' crayon scribblings are recreated as live scenes)

Sanghee Song: fascinating photographer with a very subtle, ambiguous touch. A bit like Cindy Sherman, maybe.

Osang Gwon - these sculptures shouldn't have the impact that they do, but for some reason they have more of an 'uncanny valley' effect than anything else I've ever witnessed. Just standing in the same room with them is unnerving, and a big part of you believes that there's someone inside.

Dongwook Lee - beautiful sculptures of tiny people, usually forming a kind of physical pun.

Yong-Baek Lee - it's hard to tell from this shot but in these gigantic wall-sized photos and videos are hidden ARMY MEN WITH GUNS. It's gobsmacking when you realise it.

Also situated in the same gallery (the National Museum of Contemporary Art) is a ‘dialogue’ between Nam June Paik and Ik-Joong Kang. Paik’s tower of hundreds of televisions has been in the space for decades, I think, and is much more impressive than the Paik piece that appeared in Melbourne at the NGV a few years back. Kang has long created miniature works, and here he arranges tens of thousands of them spiralling up around Paik’s tower. I hope it’s a permanent installation, because the effect of slowly ascending and comprehending the scope of this exchange is breathtaking. I’d go back.


Seoul is lovely in winter, it really is.

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