Monday, December 10, 2012

Mo Yan, Ai Weiwei, the Pushcart prize, MoMA & more … part 1

Ian McEwan
Although I’ve been on the silent side for the past five weeks, or so, and away from the blog, I have, indeed, been busy – reading (Nobel Prize & Pushcart Prize literature; Jewish Jocks: An Unorthodox Hall of Fame; On Chesil Beach & the new novel, Sweet Tooth, from Ian McEwan); attending all sorts of events (notably hearing a conversation involving Jonathan Safran Foer, Sami Tamimi & the culinary ideas & experiences of Yotam Ottolenghi and his new cookbook, Jerusalem (written with Sami Tamimi; Ten Speed Press, 2012); visiting museums (MoMA & the Hirshhorn in Washington, DC); viewing newly released films (e.g., Lincoln, A Late Quartet) … and more.

Many “items” to discuss & share; I want explore a few of these briefly, in two parts.

Mo Yan
First, upon hearing of this year’s Nobel Prize winner in literature, I decided to seek out one of Mo Yan’s recent novels; fortunately, our local library in Glen Ridge, NJ, and the Essex County  library consortium (“BCCLS”), had many of his works on hand.  I selected a multi-layered, interestingly textured & disturbing 1995 novelistic work entitled The Garlic Ballads, a kind of Faulknerian (think a bit on the order of Absalom, Absalom! and its historical “depth” & geographically circumscribed space).  Like Faulkner’s corner of Mississippi – Jefferson & the surrounding Yoknapatawpha County – Mo Yan’s work, in this case, focuses on his own native territory, the garlic-growing region of Gaomi, Shandong, China where he was born into a family of farmers. The novel is based on an actual event (yes, a true story!) that occurred in the local county, and, specifically, on a small circle of peasant-farmers (within Gaomi Township) and their individual & communal experiences – their exceedingly cruel treatment of each other, one peasant against another, acting individually, or one family against another.

More importantly, though, the novel is about the local peasant farmers who participated in an (almost) ineluctable mass protest and riot against the immediate uncaring municipal government and its corrupt representatives – against the civil authorities, county leaders & bureaucrats, who routinely scowl at & harass the peasants; against the local governmentally controlled farm collective who would not buy their garlic crop; and against any other governmental representative (including the local police) who regularly brutalize them and extract all sorts of penalties from the local (county) farmers who depend for their livelihoods, and their children’s lives, chiefly on the sale of their garlic. 

Amidst all of the protesting is an impossible, and ultimately unrequited, love story between one independent-minded peasant-farmer and a young woman, already “promised” to another man within the bounds of a forced marriage, a contractual agreement involving the “delivery” of two brides for her two (aging, still unmarried) older brothers. Throughout the narrative described, and within a time frame of about two years, both lover and beloved are routinely victimized by her own family’s brutally retributive violent acts thwarting their relationship and blocking their marriage.

Howard Goldblatt
Indeed, while the local government bureaucrats & party officials, the various layers of police, the “state” agricultural king-pins all treat the peasants with scorn, derision, and physical brutality, what is most surprising & alarming, I would think, to the average western reader of this novel (translated with what appears to be cultural sensitivity and linguistic attentiveness by Howard Goldblatt, Mr. Mo’s primary English translator) is the ongoing mistreatment of individual to individual and by family members to each other and to their neighbors … men, women & children of other local families.  The peasant-farmer culture in the region of China depicted in the novel seems to tolerate – even tacitly (historically?) condone and support – the one-on-one physical violence, the cruelty, the aggressive defiance & psychological maliciousness, the utter lack of concern for another’s (the others’) humanity, and the family-on-family brutality reflecting a socio-cultural climate of repression, treachery, and truculent behavior all around.

Yet, given all the “official,” individual & family-based brutality and violence perpetrated within this complex novel (of nearly 300 densely packed pages) revealing events situated in Gaomi Township during the mid-1980s, it is still a difficult book to put down; you simply want to read on in the vain hope that life will get better and things will work out, and that, in the end, the characters we are following will survive and prosper, especially the rare few who appear innately selfless or act benevolently toward others – those few individuals who treat others, external to the family or within its confines – with dignity, humanity, and goodness. 

As you might have guessed from this brief summary, Mo Yan’s novel, The Garlic Ballads, is a memorable work – filled with considerable instances of hatred & pain mixed with the indelible aroma of garlic lingering, a profound smell etched in our hearts & minds, permeating the local geography and bodies of the characters, a la the pervasive smell of bodies & decay in Faulkner’s Absalom! & “A Rose for Emily.” But, while it must be underscored that this is a novel full of violent acts, untoward & routine cruelty, near-desperation, and monumental difficulties that, seemingly, will not be overcome any time soon, it is, at the same time, a poetic novel, filled with lyrical prose and a carefully articulated cast of characters, all scaffolded by short lyrical poems introducing each of the novel’s major sections … “announcing” and anticipating the fundamental emotional, political, and physical "health" of the locale, of the crops & the harvest, of the peasant-farmer inhabitants, and also – our major concern – of what looms, imminently, connecting all of these characters (their hopes & hates and dreams) with the issues confronted and events portrayed.
  Ai Weiwei & Zodiac Head

Before leaving China and things Chinese,  I just want to call attention to two complementary shows – featuring the work of Ai Weiwei – that have been organized at the Hirshhorn Museum (a unit of the Smithsonian in Washington, DC).  One, “Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads” consists of 12 animal heads seemingly impaled high up on stakes & situated in a large circle just outside the museum’s glass (rear) doors, on the plaza between the museum and the Sculpture Garden

Circle of Animals - Dragon
The sculpted animal heads were done in bronze, and, as noted by the garrulous & outspoken contemporary Chinese artist (see my recent blog post on Ai Weiwei & the current documentary feature film of which he is the subject), the purpose of the project has been to reinterpret the original 18th-century Zodiac Heads in order to depict the traditional Chinese zodiac that once, according to Ai, himself, “adorned the famed fountain-clock of the Yuanming Yuan [Garden of Perfect Brightness], an imperial retreat in Beijing.”  The Circle of Animals / Zodiac Heads is the artist's first major public sculpture project and, you might be aware, was brought to New York and shown in 2011 (May 4th – July 15th at the Pulitzer Fountain, Grand Army Plaza). The Circle of Animals is a bold, monumental outdoor assembly and an emphatic & awesome (some heads are, indeed, fierce looking, even frightening!) re-working, re-envisioning, of the signs of the traditional Chinese Zodiac in large, strong & solid elevated bronze figures (through February 24th, 2013 at the Hirshhorn).

Ai Weiwei - Installation at Hirshhorn Museum
The other Ai Weiwei show at the Hirshhorn Museum (extending throughout most of the 2nd floor) is entitled “Ai Weiwei: According to What?” This extensive, diverse, and detailed exhibition demonstrates the scope and breadth of Ai Weiwei’s unique and idiosyncratic artistic practice and includes sculpture, photography, audio/video set-ups, and a variety of site-specific installations. In this sprawling show, the Hirshhorn presents a wide variety of both small & large-scale items, numerous black & white photographs, color photos, posters & “artifacts” depicting his architectural work in Beijing (including design work & planning documentation for the 2008 Beijing National Stadium), and various pieces from his recent sculptural output, amidst his moderate-size topographical, site-specific installations comprising diverse materials (see the photo). 

In summary, according to the Hirshhorn’s online exhibition-related material, Ai, “a leading figure among Chinese artists” since his return to China (from New York City) in 1993, “has continued to create art that transcends dualities between East and West” … focusing on “fundamental questions about the interrelations between art, culture, society, and individual experience.” The show allows for an interesting, multi-dimensional, multi-faceted experience of an important international artist working within a wide swath of contemporary media and (popular) recognizable forms; the show functions as a broad, solid, in-depth introduction to, and examination of, the current & recent work of Ai Weiwei.

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