July 28, 2013 § Leave a comment
At a symposium held at the end of April, Democratic Progressive Party (DPP) deputy Jen-to Yao, thought to be a reliably strident advocate for Taiwan’s independence, sharply criticized his party’s central independence ideology. In response to the controversy that followed, Yao clarified in an online essay that while he was not giving up the fight for Taiwan’s sovereignty, he realized that the strategies and methods in service of the movement needed to change to fit the times. Yao proposed instead that independence supporters push for Taiwan to establish formal diplomatic relations with the People’s Republic of China.
But, wait. Diplomatic relations with the PRC—which means that the PRC would have to first recognize the Republic of China (on Taiwan) as a legitimate state under international law. One might think: How is this any less of a fantasy? The PRC goes into a fit when a third state threatens to recognize Taiwan. What incentive does it have to break its own rule? Doesn’t the PRC adamantly reject notions of “two Chinas,” or even “one Taiwan, one China”?
Very simply, though, it is in the interests of the PRC to recognize the ROC.
If China envisions “peaceful coexistence across the Strait and a concerted effort towards a unified nation” with Taiwan, then normalizing relations with Taiwan is the PRC’s best option. Leaders in Beijing can make a generous offer: “The PRC and the ROC recognize each others’ sovereignty as legitimate states under international law, but as members of the same Chinese nation, the two sides commit to fulfilling a specific unification timetable.” Basically, the deal offers current independence with eventual unification. The PRC could then effectively lock in the status quo, wipe out Taiwan’s independence movement, initiate an actual unification timetable and gain a new ally in the Pacific. For the PRC to recognize the ROC, however, it still needs to hop over the psychological hurdle of “One China.”
China’s attitude towards Taiwan has long been based on the dogma that “there is only one China, and that one China cannot be split.” Taiwan, to hang on to an existence separate from the Mainland, has come up with many compromised interpretations of that dogma. The current state line is the so-called 92 Consensus (which, according to Taiwan anyway, states that “both sides agree there is one China but disagree on what ‘China’ is,” but China conveniently drops the latter half about disagreeing). President Ma’s administration has translated this as “mutual non-recognition of sovereignty but mutual non-denial of jurisdiction.” The essence of this very acrobatic phrase is that while the two sides do not recognize each other as states, they have to accept the reality that the two governments operate independently of each other. Even though China has not responded directly to this stance and officially rejects any deviation from its dogma, it effectively bases its interactions with Taiwan on this framework.
The key assumption of the status quo is that a nation is defined by sovereignty. If China is a single nation, its sovereignty cannot be split into two. However, this formulation is disingenuous because the Chinese concept of “nation” (guojia) is actually different from the Western idea of the sovereign nation-state. Under the nation-state system, a state is merely a government that holds the allegiance of people living within a specified geographic border. In exchange for the perquisites of being a part of the international legal order, the state upholds its responsibilities within that order.
On the other hand, the idea of Zhongguo for the Chinese is a more expansive concept. China’s imperial history has tolerated periods in which multiple states existed within what we consider to be “China” today. These states exercised independent sovereignty and exchanged diplomats even while vying to be the eventual unifier. What drives the Chinese concept of guojia is not just the institution of the state, but also the emotional and cultural connections that goes beyond political boundaries. Therefore, when the PRC clumsily equated Western style sovereignty and jurisdiction with the idea of the one Chinese nation, it unnecessarily obstructed itself from resolving the Taiwan question. Based on historical traditions, the PRC and the ROC can mutually recognize each other’s sovereignty without contradicting the idea of one China.
After overcoming this psychological barrier, the PRC can immediately reap the benefit of not having to live a lie. By continuing to insist that both sides (tacitly) agree to separate jurisdiction without recognizing sovereignty, the PRC perpetuates some absurd gaps between fantasy and reality. President Ma Ying-jeou, who was elected by a wild majority of the Taiwanese people, lost sleep on what PRC officials could call him (Mr. President? Mr. Chairman? Mr. Ma?) on official visits to Taiwan. Tourists on both sides just wanted to enjoy the scenery in Guilin or the oyster omelettes in Shihlin but had to put away their official passports and spend more money just to get a “passport that is not a passport”. President Ma is now pushing for representative offices on both sides. He says, “the offices will offer all the services of embassies, but I have to stress that they are absolutely not embassies!”
Please, is this really necessary? Questions of political symbolism aside, when the two sides refuse to acknowledge the reality that jurisdiction must mean sovereignty, normal relations retreat to ground zero and never emerge: what to do with “official representatives that are not official,” “foreign laws that are not foreign” and all such ridiculous, unnecessary exercises. If China were to recognize Taiwan, the two can deal with each other as two normal states, with its agreements in full force under international law.
The second benefit for the PRC is that it will finally be able to handle those in Taiwan who support “independence” over the “status quo.” Much of the Taiwanese people believe that the status quo is independence, and they want this current independence to be respected. At a fundamental level, the Taiwanese people, regardless of whether they look forward to independence, support the status quo indefinitely, or dream of unification, can all agree that they, at the very least, desire respect from the PRC. If the PRC unequivocally recognized the ROC, wouldn’t that satisfy the majority’s desire to be respected, and erase the independence movement’s main appeal? The movement would then be reduced to calling for an outright revolution to topple the ROC regime—which, despite past grievances, will only become less reasonable as long as the current government continues to operate through proper liberal democratic processes. If the PRC recognizes the ROC, this locks in the legitimacy of the ROC government and eliminates the need for more radical independence ideologies.
After the PRC fulfills Taiwan’s need to be simply respected, what is left for the two sides to talk about except unification? Once the PRC recognizes the ROC, I believe the two sides will sooner or later begin unification negotiations. For the PRC will have shown an amount of goodwill so great that Taiwan must respond in kind. After mainstream independence vaporizes, the pro-unification agenda should dominate public discourse. Furthermore, as China adopts a respectful stance towards Taiwan, the cultural, linguistic and blood ties between the two should naturally bring them closer together. In the era of regional consolidation and free flow of goods and labor, how can two states that share so much history and commonalities not be expected to merge? It is also good news for the international community for the two states to drop hostilities and peacefully agree to unify.
Finally, a China that actively normalizes relations with Taiwan will be seen as mature and responsible. For US-China relations, this removes a large bargaining chip the Americans have played for years: the US could no longer use Taiwan to extract favors from China. Taiwan will also no longer need to keep buying weapons from the US as threats from China simply disappear. The Taiwan lobby in Washington will also no longer be able to argue for “Taiwan’s peaceful self-determination”. All these developments would change the geopolitical map in East Asia in China’s favor by increasing its goodwill in the region while denying the US a close ally.
How should the Taiwanese public react to a deal like this? The most fundamental supporters of the ROC’s legitimate claim over China will not like this, since this forces them to accept the PRC as a state and its rule over the Mainland. However, this is a fringe opinion in Taiwan that requires an even more schizophrenic separation between fantasy and reality. Any pro-unification supporter would likely be in favor of this deal, but for moderate unificationists the question will be what conditions to require of China for eventual unification. Should the PRC democratize? Decrease its wealth gap? Strengthen rule of law? If these demands seem quixotic now, imagine the reaction if they were actually made.
Radical independence supporters will obviously reject any such proposal that legitimizes the ROC, but the moderate independence supporters, those who assert that “ROC sovereignty is independence,” will have theirs goals fulfilled. But what to do with the unification timetable? Would they accept eventual unification in exchange for a limited period of independence? If so, how long should this period be? 50 years? 10 years? Even three years? The pro-independence camp must have better answers to these questions, including what conditions (if any) are required for political talks, the fundamental definition of independence, and how Taiwan should conduct itself after it earns de jure statehood.
One may notice that on the issues, moderate pro-unification and pro-independence supporters are actually on the same page. Why not sit down and hash some of these answers out together?
Also in April, former KMT spokesperson I-hsin Chen published an op-ed in the South China Morning Post, directly calling on PRC President Xi Jinping to “confront the existence of the Republic of China,” and that “if both sides cannot reach a consensus over this…there will be no consensus on anything.” Although he stopped short of saying anything politically incorrect, it was clear to all regular observers that he was calling for the PRC to formalize relations with the ROC. Prof. Xu Bodong of Beijing Union University’s Taiwan Reseach Institute also recently said that “cross-straits consolidation may produce a new Chinese state with a new name, a new flag or even a new national anthem,” which implies that the concept of “China” exists beyond just the current states of the PRC and the ROC.
For too many centuries, China and Taiwan have had a twisted and perverse relationship. Wouldn’t all parties be better off speaking to the desires of the Taiwanese people to be respected before pushing for overall consolidation? In this way, China would not simply be the Western concept of a nation-state, but something that is longer lasting, more encompassing, more worthy of the aspiration of the people across the Strait.
This piece originally appeared in the Taiwanese magazine Commonwealth and was translated by the author.
March 12, 2013 § 4 Comments
I recently wrote a piece on China in this magazine entitled, “We the People’s Republic of China.” In it, I present imperial China as a highly functional cosmopolitan empire built on philosophy rather than an ethnic nation-state. From that reading of history, I suggest that China rethink the legitimacy of its current political arrangement and the fervent nationalism on which it is based.
But is that the only way Chinese history could be interpreted? The Chinese empires ruled over people of many creeds and colors, and their policies had certainly not been tolerant. The Yuan and Qing Dynasties established caste systems segregated by ethnicity; non-Han ethnic kingdoms such as the Jurchen or the Dali were summarily brushed off as anomalies and footnotes. The Confucian examination system itself could certainly be thought of as a destructive force unleashed by the Chinese hegemon on its conquered peoples. Confucianism as it had evolved in China was a way to organize society, placing each person in specific social roles with rigid expectations and responsibilities. Advancement through mastery of the system, then, really meant internalizing and perpetuating those social hierarchies. It is not so different from the French government’s turning Bretons and Basques into Frenchmen through compulsory public education in the late 1800s. If we read history that way, China’s nationalism isn’t a 20th century phenomenon. It’s only the latest iteration of a millennia-old nation-building exercise.
Read that way, imperial China looks exactly like a modern nation-state. It encompassed an ethnic majority plus an influx of minorities and foreigners. It ruled over many aspects of its subjects’ lives through an advanced degree of systematic bureaucracy. It enshrined political stability by homogenizing the populace. The difference is that in the past, peasants and merchants became gentry subjects of the emperor through scholarly indoctrination, but today the nation-building project is predicated on rectifying the humiliation by Western powers.
In other words, China today is predicated on a psychology of revenge.
Which, fundamentally, is the pathology of China’s current strain of nationalism. It focuses on economic and military competition with its neighbors and the West, creating unnecessary tension; it allows for improbable wealth disparities within the state; it is blind to the harms done to minority ethnic heritages by its modernization policies; it necessitates a harmonious and united society over a candid and self-critical one, all as calculated costs for a singular end.
Giving due recognition to China’s cosmopolitan past and the accomplishments of the many nations within China is a first step (albeit already herculean in itself) to tampering this pathology, and many states today offer lessons of success and failure on how to manage ethnic tension within the institutions of the state (federalism, consociational forms of governance, etc). But we are only talking about a part of the problem.
So questions remain: Can China’s cosmopolitan past give us any clues as to how we got here, and what alternative paths China may take? Under what circumstances will China say, we have finished our project of overtaking the West, we have been paid our retribution in full? And once that happens, what will, or should, China become? I will attempt to offer my thoughts in future pieces, and I hope they will at least provoke more reflection on these questions.
September 28, 2012 § Leave a comment
Edgar Degas’ The Rehearsal contains within its four corners almost every major theme that has ever been distilled from or assigned to the artist’s work on dancers. Four dancers are front center in the rehearsal room performing routine battement (a position in which one foot remains on the floor while the other is raised a little above the waistline). A group of dancers are situated behind them—one bent over, two gossiping with each other near a floor-to-ceiling window, one all alone at the barre, and one demurely clasping her hands as she regards her fellow dancers performing their exercises. A scene out of a dancer’s everyday life. There is in theory no mismatch between the common subject and loftier artistic platform, but one does exist as a matter of fact. And so, many have observed that Degas’ paintings of dancers ingeniously elevate the banal into the beautiful. The dancers rehearse in a room part gray, part brown, lit only by natural light from three floor-to-ceiling windows. Paint on the walls is old and peeling. Only one wall is equipped with a barre. Degas knew that the humble, urban condition of the studio was much more a part of the dancer’s craft and culture than the Palais Garnier where she performed. Hence the caption next to The Rehearsal at its home in The Fogg Museum of Art reads, “We see Degas’ concern with painting modern experiences, especially in urban settings.” And finally, we have word from Degas himself that he chose to paint dancers because he was fascinated by movement. Banality, urbanity, movement—all evident in The Rehearsal, but it seems less than satisfying to end the examination of the painting there, for these three can be found in almost any Impressionist painting. We would expect that Degas, with his unique subject and professed realism, brought something different to the table.
Ballet, relative to other art forms, was an anomaly in Degas’ time. When new artistic movements were gathering steam—impressionism, realism, and romanticism at the forefront of the parade of isms—French ballet remained a bastion of classicism. Precision, poise, technical proficiency. These were the objectives of a French dancer. The body never out of position, the classical line held both figuratively and literally, the limbs always in alignment with fingers, feet, and head. In spite of its near-regimental formality, the classical method had a sort of alchemy to it—a way in which strict adherence to technique transformed craft into art. Classical purity faithfully fulfilled that one requirement of good art that seemed so elusive—true understanding of the art form. Virtuosity meant connecting with and personifying the art’s essence, becoming its ideal. Coldly classical, and yet innately balletic.
But Degas operated in realism. There are hints of classical rigor here and there. A visible relic of a grid pattern and the fact that each dancer en battement is in exactly the same position indicates the use of studies and in-depth preparation before oil was applied to canvas. Indeed, Degas would often sketch drawings from life or photographs, transfer the images onto the canvas, and then modify them to comport with the work as a whole. In some cases, the last step was repeated several times as Degas scraped off parts of a painting and redid them, adding new characters or changing the setting. Meticulous craftsmanship is where the similarity with classicism stops, however, as Degas stuck to the realist credo of depicting life as it is without photographic accuracy. The lighting of the room is masterfully exact, the combination of dull palette and natural light from the windows providing the muted glamour of a ballet rehearsal. The dancers’ extremities are vague. Fingers are gnarled if at all visible. Faces of the dancers in the foreground are lightly sketched, but most have no face at all. Their limbs, the cradle of the arm where the elbow is slightly bent, the curve of the calf visible below the tutu, are delineated with special clarity. It is no accident that classical ballet also emphasizes these parts of the body. The one extremity that Degas has chosen to detail is the dancer’s foot, recognized by most as ballet’s trademark. The dancers en battement are given point shoes with little to no shadowing, indicating the foot is perfectly balanced within the shoe; the raised foot exhibits a perfect dancer’s point. Contrast that to the dancer at the barre, whose left foot is slightly leaning to the right while her leg stays straight, indicating imperfect balance. The slight curve of the shoe underneath the foot’s arch owes to the stiff shank supporting the dancer when she is en pointe. In the painting, the feet are as alive, if not more so, than the limbs.
To have observed his subject so closely as to notice and accurately paint these details was more than enough to uphold the realist’s burden. Degas goes further. He leaves the ballet instructor out of the painting. Not all dancers are performing the same exercise, and most are not even rehearsing at all. The impression is one of instinctive order, something unnamed that produces uniform positions and progress despite seeming lack of focus on the task at hand. For the mature dancers in the painting, this would have been a natural and essential byproduct of years of training. On the other hand, these dancers are not mere slaves in the corps. The sashes around their waists are different colors, as are the ribbons in their hair; some opt for flowers in their hair instead, or curls rather than a traditional bun. Degas has strived to ensure the uniqueness of each dancer amid the obsession with uniformity, and with a simple game of dress up, he has succeeded.
It is not a coincidence that the details Degas chose to include—those he deemed necessary for a realistic painting—are all core elements of French classical ballet. Concentration on the limbs and the body because the face only gets in the way. A corps made up of individual, distinct dancers who are recognized as such but move as one and do not draw attention to themselves. Discipline and muscle memory of position that can only be acquired through classical conditioning. Degas may not have shared the classicist’s devotion to unlocking essence through formal technique, but he has demonstrated virtuosity in realism through understanding the essence of his subject. Indeed, if The Rehearsal is more than a rendering of dancers in rehearsal, it is a meditation on the role of essence in classicism and realism, artistic movements on opposite ends of the spectrum. Granted, the two interact with essence in different ways—one seeks to find it within itself, the other seeks to paint its portrait. But they both ultimately speak in the language of essence; it guides them through their art, gives them an objective and a definition.
When The Rehearsal is examined in conjunction with Degas’ other classroom paintings, the connection he draws between classicism and realism becomes stronger and richer still. All situated in the foyer de jour at the Hôtel de Choiseul, where the ballet corps of the rue le Peletier Opéra held classes and rehearsed, the first of the classroom paintings is believed to have been completed a few months before a fire destroyed much of the building’s interior in 1873. The last paintings in the classroom group were perhaps begun before the fire but were completed after when Degas could only turn to his memory and sketches for reference. Given this constraint, a lack of complete pictorial accuracy in his portrayal of the dance classes would be understandable, even expected. What is puzzling is that the physical and artistic attributes of the classroom vary from painting to painting. If this were due to memory, the works would at least be consistent with one another, even if a consistent departure from the actual look of the classes Degas sketched. So if not memory, what other explanation can we turn to? Artistic purpose is a good candidate, and one can sense an almost mischievous one here as the paintings appear near-documentary at the same time that they are coy and noncommittal about the characteristics of their subject.
According to old floor plans and photographs, the foyer de jour measured thirty by twenty-five feet and had three floor-to-ceiling windows overlooking the Hôtel de Choiseuel courtyard, whose two large trees can be seen in The Rehearsal. In The Dance Rehearsal, the first of the classroom paintings, we learn that the interior of the room was divided width-wise by a row of heavy, wooden, round-sectioned columns and that at one side of the room, a dark stairwell surrounded by a handrail allowed access to the basement below. The lighting of the room is dark and muted, reminiscent of a winter day, due to the shadows from the columnade. In The Rehearsal, however, Degas opens the space up by taking away the columns and stairwell and adding warmer natural lighting. The floorboards of the two paintings run in opposite directions and their window jambs are of a different length. The best explanation for the discrepancies can perhaps be found in the fact that there were almost no discrepancies to speak of. Recent x-ray and infrared examinations show that The Dance Rehearsal’s columns and stairway were originally included in The Rehearsal, only to be scraped out later by Degas. This did not mean that Degas believed the open space to be a better representation of the foyer, for the columns and dank lighting appear again in a later painting entitled Dancers Practicing in the Foyer. The final classroom paintings, however, follow The Rehearsal’s uncluttered setting and increase the brightness of its already serene, summery lighting. No photographs of the foyer can confirm either depiction as the more accurate one, nor would we want them to lest we be able to identify Degas’ transformation of reality in only a subset of classroom paintings.
For in the end, the real fun of Degas’ classroom paintings is their proposition that we do not even need truth to have realism. We have no idea which of the foyers captures the characteristic of the actual foyer de jour, but we know that at least one of them, if not both, do not. And yet, we do not have any less faith in the realism of these paintings: they still give the impression of artistically rendered photographs, truly and accurately showing a moment from a dance class. Part of this faith comes from Degas’ grasp of and ability to render the essence of his subject. It also comes from Degas’ ingenious and cheeky insight that realism does not mean lack of artifice. It does not matter that the artist has taken great liberties with his subjects as long as they appear familiar enough to be recognizable. The illusion works precisely because of something classicism first discovered—that art is meant to be artifice. It is a game of suspension of disbelief, one which well-executed art will always win. Realist and classicist methods are not quite symmetric, though, in this area. Classicist art operates by its own rules, creating an entirely different world that is appreciated as such; if any relevance to our own world is established, it is done by our affirmative efforts. Much like their use of the concept of essence, classicism and realism take the fundamental building block of artifice and apply it to promote their own goals—one deceives plainly, the other more stealthily. How unexpected and eye-opening that scenes so mundane could be responsible for highlighting these intersections. For a realist artist painting classical artists at work, the connections could not have been more perfectly made.
April 18, 2011 § Leave a comment
By Rebecca Liao
Uliana Lopatkina, Prima Ballerina of the Mariinsky Ballet in Russia, was set to debut as Juliet in Romeo and Juliet on April 21 at the Mariinsky’s Eleventh Annual International Ballet Festival in St. Petersburg. Last week, we learned that she had pulled out of this long-anticipated performance and would be replaced by first soloist Olesya Novikova. Given how frequently and publicly Lopatkina has voiced her desire to dance Juliet, this was a bizarre turn of events. Even more bizarre was the lack of explanation behind the casting change. Here was my attempt to get some answers:
April 6, 2011 § 1 Comment
By Rebecca Liao
Unveiled at the São Paolo Biennale in Brazil in September, 2010, Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by China’s foremost contemporary artist Ai Weiwei will begin its international tour at the Pulitzer Fountain at Grand Army Plaza near Central Park and the Plaza Hotel. Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads is based on the fountain clock at Yuanming Yuan, an 18th-century imperial retreat outside Beijing, and is Ai Weiwei’s first major public sculpture. Commissioned by Emperor Qianglong of the Qing dynasty from two European Jesuits serving in his court, the clock featured the heads of the twelve animals in the Chinese zodiac spouting water every two hours. In 1860, the Yuanming Yuan was ransacked by French and British troops, and the heads were pillaged. Early 2009, the heads depicting the rabbit and rat were auctioned off by Christie’s as part of Yves Saint Laurent’s estate despite vehement objections from the Chinese government and advocacy groups. (Wealthy art collector Cai Mingchao ended up sabotaging the auction by posting the winning bid and then refusing to pay.) Today, five other heads – the ox, tiger, horse, monkey and boar – have been located; the whereabouts of the other five are unknown.
Four feet high (10 feet when the base is included), three feet wide, and 800 pounds, Ai Weiwei’s heads are far from replicas of the originals. He explained it this way to AW Asia, “My work is always dealing with real or fake, authenticity, what the value is, and how the value relates to current political and social understandings and misunderstandings.” (Full interview)
Sunday morning, officials in China detained Ai Weiwei as he attempted to board a plane bound for Hong Kong. His wife, nephew, and a handful of his employees were arrested and questioned as well. The US, UK, France, Germany, and the European Union have since called for his release. Officials in China remain steadfastly silent on his whereabouts.
Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads will be revealed in New York as planned on May 2–one day after May Day.
In the meantime, here is a preview of the sculptures. Throughout the turmoil, we shouldn’t forget that ultimately, Ai Weiwei views the exhibition as “an object that doesn’t have a monumental quality, but rather is a funny piece.” (If you place your cursor over an animal’s image, its characteristics will pop up. All images are courtesy of AW Asia.)
March 16, 2011 § 1 Comment
By Rebecca Liao
As soon as the first model at the Cour Carrée du Louvre stepped out of her elevator in a sheer skirt, bellboy cap, and fetish boots, the fashion world was paralyzed between feverishly sharing their impressions with everyone else watching the show and catching every moment of the spectacle unfolding. Handcuffs, tightly corseted jackets, curvaceous jodhpurs, lace-up boots, bottomless outfits, Naomi Campbell, and Kate Fucking Moss smoking a post-coital cigarette. Despite the early start, everyone in the room had been sufficiently awakened from their stupor and cheered out of their minds for Le American Marc Jacobs, racing onto the runway and backstage while writing preliminary notes for all manner of fawning, naughty praise in their handhelds for a very successful fall Louis Vuitton collection. Until Jacobs paralyzed them again with this post-show gem: “At Vuitton, it always starts with the bags, I kept thinking about this inexplicable passion and obsession women have for bags, and how the bag became a fetishized object.” Somewhere, Bernard Arnault ruefully thought, “What did I do that my children would turn against me?”
Fortunately, Jacobs ended with this line, “I wanted to celebrate the love and desire that’s part of that fetish,” adding an assuaging glamour to his mockery of the Vuitton customer and decades-long marketing campaign. The fashion season is long, with several collections and product launches between the two pillar collections of fall and spring: the chase for trends is not amenable to narrative arcs. But it is impossible to ignore the connection between Fall 2010 and Fall 2011 for Louis Vuitton. Fall 2010 was a celebration of femininity, opening with Laetitia Casta and closing with Elle MacPherson, deliberately casting curvier models, sporting low-cut corseted dresses showing off the décolletage, bouffant ponytails, and tall pumps with oversized bows and retro block heels, some covered with Swarovski crystals, all parading by a romantic Parisian fountain with the soundtrack to “And God Created Woman,” the film that launched Brigitte Bardot’s career in the states, in the background. Jacobs signed with the Speedy, a bag that normally retails for around $700, redone in luxe fabrics and precious metals to up the price tag to five figures.
Spend long enough with this love and desire, though, and any amount of self-awareness will trigger the realization that it is just unnatural for an unnecessary object to have such power. Even more disconcerting is the subsequent thought that even if the human desire to not be controlled and manipulated resists such power, the bag is just so damn beautiful. If either side won with any consistency, fashion would become an incredibly boring Amtrak of consumerism, ambling along without variation. There are consequences to living this way.
Jacobs replaced the Speedy with the Lockit as the heart of the fall collection in 2011. Accessorized with fur and gilded handcuffs, the subversion comes mostly from “The Night Porter” staging. Point taken, but not every fetishized object is so lucky as to become even more glamorous in a sadomasochistic relationship.
For example, the piano has seen hard times in 2011, continuing to pay for the most unerasable of sins: its existence. Worse, it gleefully affirms that existence at every turn. Like Julio Cortázar’s axolotl, its identity is so unwaveringly strong that it will engulf that of the people who come into contact with it, while remaining itself generally unaffected. To change how a piano is perceived initially feels like a giant victory, but a tainted one when one realizes that that can only mean it was inexplicably considered an enemy. Still, the victories that have come were as abrupt as they are lasting. There is John Cage’s prepared piano–a grand piano with bolts, screws, short strips of felt-covered plastic and other objects placed in between the strings to create a much larger array of percussive sound.
The sounds emitted are tailored to a modern sensibility: not that the piano needs updating, but to claim a part of it as unique for a place and time is a win-win for all parties. That’s especially true for Raphael Montanez Ortiz’s destroyed pianos.
Ortiz has done more than 80 of these performances.
These performances are not junkyard affairs; they are accompanied by ritualistic singing and dancing. The violence is meant to be a spiritual catharsis. I guess that’s one way to solve one’s problems.
Importantly, Ortiz recognizes that smashing sans technique does not make it out of a neighborhood performance space, and so the performers begin by very carefully taking apart the piano, using the ax to almost gently nudge the parts this way and that. It isn’t until the piano has already been largely deconstructed that the honest smashing begins, as though Ortiz is trying to be as respectful and merciful as possible by coaxing the piano to open up to its own destruction. It is this handy feature of calculated demolition that has a lineage in these works of art:
First shown at the Hans der Kunst in Munich in 2008, “Stop, Repair, Prepare: Variations on ‘Ode to Joy’ for a Prepared Piano,” by the artist team Allora & Calzadilla, debuted in New York at the Gladstone Gallery in Chelsea in January 2009. Early December last year, it hit the big leagues with a roughly month-long stint at the Museum of Modern Art. In the second floor atrium, at the top of every hour, one of five pianists would, in a mildly erotic move, climb inside the hole, configure his or her fingers on the keys from the reverse position, and play the fourth movement of Beethoven’s Ninth symphony.
In addition to the occasional missed notes and key changes, which frankly could not be helped by even the most virtuosic players in this position, only frustrating thumps sound when notes in the middle two octaves, the excised portion of the Bechstein baby grand, are depressed. Trouble is, these two octaves contain the most recognizable parts of the movement. A few minutes into the performance, the players would begin to move the piano while playing, some in a more elaborate choreography than others, but the physicality is evident all the same. By the time the movement is finished, the player and piano would have traveled throughout the entire atrium.
“Stop, Repair, Prepare” ticks off all the sensors of artistic reception–it is visceral, emotional, entertaining, technically disciplined, and intellectual, all on many levels at once. But we are still curious: what is it supposed to mean–that is, what did Allora & Calzadilla intend for it to mean? PR for the team emphasizes its socio-political import, namely its ignominious history as one of Hitler’s favorite pieces (it was actually performed on Hitler’s birthday in 1942 at the Haus der Kunst: a Bechtstein was in attendance then as well), the national anthem of Rhodesia, an apartheid state, and one of the few pieces of Western music played during the Cultural Revolution in China. Oddly enough, this emphasis on the work’s latent powerlessness recalls another, less successful, dressing down: Susan McClary famously wrote in the January 1987 issue of the “Minnesota Composers’ Forum Newsletter” that, “The point of recapitulation in the first movement of the Ninth is one of the most horrifying moments in music, as the carefully prepared cadence is frustrated, damming up energy which finally explodes in the throttling, murderous rage of a rapist incapable of attaining release.” The metaphor may have been unfortunate, but its general sentiment that Beethoven’s Ninth hides an exploitable and exploitative spot beneath its majestic celebration of the human spirit finds itself validated.
Where does the piano fit into all of this? In the big picture, it may have been an innocent bystander. The Ode to Joy is rarely performed on the piano, and certainly never in those concerts that become a part of the symphony’s heritage and identity. But would a hindered orchestra à la Haydn have been a more effective medium? Probably not–an orchestra is a body of musicians; a piano and its player make one musical instrument. By choosing a piano, Allora & Calzadilla left little doubt about what was being subverted. There is nothing glamorous about a mangled melody. The piano is brought down with the ship only in its role as an enabler. Whereas a show of impotence emasculates the music, it is instead used by the piano to attack from a defensive position. The visible burden of being pushed around, the hole with its key missing octaves, the difficulty of matching the right minute finger movements while hunched over and viewing the keyboard upside down set the stage for bravura performances.
Which is exactly what each of the five players aimed for and achieved at the MoMA. A picture of “Stop, Repair, Prepare” is absurd, a viewing of it is thought provoking and moving, and a five minute reflection outside the door combines all the above into a Cagean moment. We will never look at a piano in the same way again.
That was the happy story.
Then there was that episode in which a boy from South Florida wanted to get into a great college. At a New Year’s Eve party, he set on fire an old grand piano that his father, J. Mark Harrington, production designer for USA Network’s “Burn Notice,” had rescued from a shoot. Turns out this sort of activity provokes quite a reaction. So Nick Harrington, along with his father and brother, moved the piano by boat to a sandbar in Biscayne Bay and lit it on fire again. Pictures were taken this time.
Given that Nick was facing felony charges and a $5000 dollar fine for dumping the piano around the time the media caught wind of his identity, it’s understandable that he did not give any money quotes about what his work meant. He did, however, throw out buzz words like “artsy” and “surreal”. The poor piano really just had been in the wrong place at the wrong time. Its problem is that the more readily people understand an object’s gravitas, the more readily they can discern its potential for absurdity. Few things are more serious than a beautiful, high-brow object with heritage and the love and devotion that have made it so, other than, of course, a belief in its unassailability so strong that the only deconstruction deemed worthwhile is that done in extremis following a relatively trouble-free decision process.
Bernard Arnault need not fear, however. The bags will still do well. Their pristine nature may be sullied, but they become even more esteemed because they were game. They allowed a moral victory—both sides of the viewing glass get the last laugh, and that is mutuality at its best.
February 13, 2008 § Leave a comment
If Balanchine had been asked to re-choreograph Giselle, Natalia Osipova’s interpretation of the title role would not be very far from the outcome. Osipova’s Giselle, particularly in the Act II Grand Pas de Deux, is so devoid of classical purity that one wonders if she has already dedicated herself to contemporary ballet, dancing one of the most fundamentally lyrical roles with fervent expression and considerably relaxed attention to form. While striving to hyperextend her legs in the arabesque penchees, the foot supporting the body betrayed a highly noticeable wobble. Given how difficult the position is, less than perfect balance is forgivable. However, when the wavering occurs several times, each owing to the hyperextension, it is clear that sound technique is being sacrificed for drama. The positioning of her head had the same motivation—never in keeping with the line of her body, but lifted high in mournful agony or dipped low in resigned sadness. It was her arms, though, that provided the most glaring break with Giselle’s lyricism. Not once during the pas de deux did her arms form the bras en couronne that the original Petipa choreography calls for. Indeed, her arms never seemed to be in any particular position—they hung limply in the air with the elbows bent, wrists broken, and hands above the head, or at her side with her hunched back emphasizing her melancholy. All the usual praises heaped on Giselles (ethereal, breathtakingly beautiful, divine) cannot be applied to Osipova’s performance. It was, however, credible—and this may be what she ultimately intended. This Giselle expressed her unconditional love and grief in a way that would not be out of place in any other art form, or even real life. As a testament to Osipova’s artistry, her breaks with classicism come across as deliberate, as opposed to sincere and emotive but lacking artistic coherence.
It is worth noting that Osipova came dangerously close on a few occasions to rendering her Giselle a daring and admirable but ultimately unskilled performance. Natalia Osipova’s bravura technique is unparalleled. After her debut in Giselle was announced, everyone wondered whether such a technical wunderkind could be right for the role. Their doubts were very nearly justified in the pas de deux as Osipova interspersed the legato movement with chaines tournes executed at lightning speed and jumps that propelled as much as they elevated her body. The effect of the Myrthe-like steps is jarring and leaves one wondering whether she is truly artistically innovative or merely has the intention to be so but lacks the virtuosity to achieve it.
When I first saw Osipova’s Grand Pas de Deux, I thought to myself, “Everyone thinks gymnastic extensions are controversial? Wait till they see this.” Giselle is a classical role, emphasizing expression through form. Osipova’s neoclassical approach does not make her a bad Giselle, for she brings such raw emotion that it might be ultimately superfluous to find a form to capture its expression. Someone once said that Osipova could not be Giselle—she did not have the soul for it. Who would have thought that it is in fact the technique that she lacks?
December 1, 2007 § Leave a comment
The Diving Bell and the Butterfly belongs in the rare category of art that genuinely requires a trip down memory lane to visit the predecessors before we discuss the work itself. At the height of existentialism, writer Andre Gide elevated his fascination with mise en abyme to the status of philosophical puzzle. A thing within a thing, a conical construction funneling into an abyss. That is the most obvious mise en abyme, but it was wholly uninteresting, and more importantly, did nothing to advance the possibilities of art. So what if instead of a visual mise en abyme, we pondered a conceptual one—a thing within a thing, but which is which, and once we determine that, are the things’ statuses stable, or can they easily flip? Simply by reframing, if you will, the mise en abyme, we can use it to discuss problems of perception, perspective, even reality.
Director Julian Schnabel is a brilliant painter, so it is no surprise he understands that the canvas (or broken porcelain plates when his mortgage is past due) is limited. Whereas visual art can only dream of creating a conceptual mise en abyme, movies have a much easier time. Or so this film would have us believe. For as Jean Dominique Bauby (Mathieu Amalric) moves seamlessly between reality and his own imagination, The Diving Bell and the Butterfly moves seamlessly with him: reality as the audience sees it and Bauby’s perspective are inseparable. A man’s telling of his story within his story and both within the film. Yes, the abyss is much less painful, but by the time Schnabel is done, it is impossible to not see that he has created a work of art, and we are privileged to have witnessed it.
The film is based on Bauby’s memoir of the same name. While living the fuck-you life as Elle’s Editor in Chief, Bauby suffered a massive stroke, resulting in a rare affliction known as locked-in syndrome. Completely functional mentally but paralyzed except for his left eye and eyelid, he finds escape in his imagination and memory. To allow him to communicate, a speech therapist recites an alphabet where the letters are arranged by frequency of usage and Bauby need only blink his left eye when the desired letter comes up. Eventually, Bauby forms words, sentences, and with the help of Claude (Anne Consigny) taking down his dictation, a memoir.
And what a memoir it is. The actual book is rather slim, owing to the slow and arduous process of letter-by-letter dictation. Come to life in Schnabel’s hands, however, one would never have suspected it, for the film unapologetically insists on the fullness of Bauby’s life and capacity to live, both pre and post-illness. His obsession with women invites a puritanically-tinted hindsight, but he regards each with such attention to detail and admiration for her unique beauty that while playboy may be a fitting label, sensualist is more appropriate. Josephine is bathed in sepia as Bauby remembers their time in the French countryside. His memory of Ines’ face is obscured, but he is mesmerized by her unaffected movement as she crosses a room to hang a picture in the apartment they share. If women were his only preoccupation, sensualist would be a misnomer. Worry not; they are combined with food. Bauby’s oyster-filled kisses with Claude offer a uniquely French artistic moment: the little death of animalistic primitivism driving the superhuman ingenuity of a kiss with a kaleidoscope of mouths. Breaking with the habit of most severely ill patients, Bauby scorns religion. Bauby’s life is very much the territory of the world, and he shows no contrition for having made it so.
Oddly, however much Bauby is of the world, he never seems to be truly in it. Naturally, this is bound to happen as he transitions into experiencing life mainly through reimaginings of what has already happened. Indeed, the decision to reenter life through writing his memoir triggers a deep withdrawal into his own mind, becoming steadily deeper as the work nears completion. He pictures himself as a Spanish bullfighter, straight from the always-on sports channel in his hospital room, a butterfly escaping a cocoon, an extreme snowboarder, Ozymandias, Marlon Brando. He recalls his face as it was before the stroke, lingers on it, lovingly and longingly regarding what he looked like when healthy. This is not mere indulgence in fantasies; it is palpable separation. As frequently as he imagines the butterfly, he sees himself on a pier surrounded by water on all sides. And as much as he loves his children and enjoys their company, their visit on Father’s Day is met with a droll, “We never fitted this made-up holiday into our emotional calendar.” Reflecting on his memoir as a whole, Bauby flags, without irony, all its elements—the plot, the characters, the internal monologue—retelling the contents as if he were the narrator. As we recognize each item he recites, we realize this is a story within a story—Bauby lives a life within a life.
At this point, Schnabel’s insistence on shooting only from Bauby’s visual perspective could have proven fatal. Butterflies and bullfighters are child’s play compared to more expansive renderings of Bauby’s landscapes. So how to create the illusion of a life within a life without the contamination of a third party? A mise en abyme. It is here that Schnabel ingeniously fulfills the dream of the existentialists. So effortless and natural is the shift from Bauby’s internal perception to a more comprehensive perspective that, at times, we do not see the shift when it happens, and by the end of the film, we wonder if the shift ever happened. When Bauby’s reflection on his memoir is followed by a dream of jumping up from his wheelchair is followed by Claude taking down his dictation for another word of that memoir, it seems just as logical to attribute everything to the same storyteller as it is to be aware that each scene represents different perspectives and therefore different storytellers. If the camera is not chained to Bauby’s eye, capturing his perception down to the pattern of blinks and the odd film of colors the eye sees when it first opens, then it moves around an image as if unable to see all of it. There is rarely a scene in which the cinematography is comfortable, familiar, untrue. With daunting craftsmanship, Schnabel’s mise en abyme realistically captures Bauby’s perspective without constraining the film to it. Any hint of rigging and the illusion would have been shattered, but perfection belongs to the rare artist who is both meticulous and stubbornly impractical. Even if the movie as a whole turns out to be fallible, each shot and the succession of shots are not.
Sadly, the film is indeed imperfect. It forgets in its pursuit of realism and accuracy that art is still fundamentally a contrivance. Its keystone, three-time Cesar Award (the French Oscar) winner Mathieu Amalric, admirably delivers his lines in the voice of a dying man—weak, metallic, emphatic only when provoked. In a visit to Bauby himself, this is what one would encounter. On film, it comes across as tired and indeliberate. One moment Bauby can barely muster energy to think and the next he tosses out a brilliant zinger. His voice is loudest when a nurse turns off the TV right in the middle of a soccer match, softer when the doctor sews up his right eye to prevent it from getting infected. A dying man is spared judgment on the coherence of his expression. Not so easy for one playing a dying man. Illogical, but art has its own sensibility.
Aside for Amalric, the movie was an acting tour de force. Emmanuelle Seigner as Celine, the jilted mother of Bauby’s children, is the perfect embodiment of controlled heartbreak. Max von Sydow as Bauby’s father wrestles Shakespearean tragedy into the realism of this film. Speech therapist Henriette Durand (brilliant and understated Marie Josèe Croze) comforts not only Bauby, but also the audience with her patience and spot-on empathy. Because these actors were shot as if Bauby were looking at them, the camera could only focus on their faces. One misplaced twitch was enough to ruin a scene, and as said before, all scenes are picture-perfect.
If it is of any comfort, at the same time the film suffers from too much realism, it also suffers from too much devotion to art. Not all art is warm to the touch, but Schnabel cannot claim this excuse after a proven track record with powerful emotion. It is therefore all the more surprising that this movie would come across as so cold. There is no lingering feeling when the screen blacks and the credits role, only admiration for having seen such an intelligent film. I suppose we have gotten used to seeing films about severely ill patients inspiring us, saddening us, haunting us. From this film, nothing. And while the mise en abyme is masterfully executed, we still can identify the illusion, even if we believe it. Indeed, if The Diving Bell and the Butterfly has any faults, it is that it reeks of high art. Its passionate nature inspires mimicry more than germination.