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July 25 2012

Ai Weiwei: power games

Ai Weiwei withdrew from the Beijing 2008 Olympics opening ceremony and was declared a threat to the police state. Here he explains why he hopes the London Games will be different

The Olympic Games are highly commercialised. They purport to follow the traditions of an ancient athletics competition, but today it is the commercial aspect that is most apparent. I have seen how, through sport, cities and corporations compete against each other for financial gain. The Olympics are beholden to the wishes of various commercial operations, which in turn shape our understanding of the event and of the world. They are no longer connected to the idea that humanity can be expressed through athletics.

In China, the Olympics have always served as a tool for propaganda. China uses its gold-medal count to affirm its position in the world order and its strength as a nation. Many other countries have the same attitude. But flaunting gold medals, in the guise of fighting for a country's glory, is done at the expense of many lives. For one, athletes sacrifice their physical and emotional wellbeing for this vanity. This is a tragedy in itself.

I don't believe in the so-called Olympic spirit. I speak from personal experience. When China hosted the Games, it failed to include the people. The event was constructed without regard for their joy. The state and the Olympic committee failed to take a position on many major social and political issues. Afterwards, the state tightened its controls; China became a police state. "Friendship, fair play, glory, honour and peace": the Olympic slogan is an empty one.

My memory of the Beijing Olympics has not changed. It is a fake smile, an elaborate costume party with the sole intention of glorifying the country. From the opening to the closing ceremony, from the torch relay to the cheers for gold medals – these all displayed the might, and the desperation, of a totalitarian regime. Through authoritarian power a country can possess many things, but it cannot bring joy or happiness to its people.

I see the Beijing National Stadium as an architectural project. I accepted Herzog and De Meuron's invitation to collaborate on the design, and our proposal won the competition. From beginning to end, I stayed with the project. I am committed to fostering relationships between a city and its architecture. I am also keen on encouraging participation and exchange during mass events that are meaningful for humankind.

I have no regrets about the role I played; the stadium is a work of great quality and design. I only withdrew from participating in fake performances laden with propaganda. I disagreed with the approach, and did not want my name associated with it. The Beijing opening ceremony had no sensitivity for the Chinese people; it even had the police force dancing on the fields. This is the fantasy of a totalitarian society. It was a nightmare.

By publicly announcing that I would not participate in the opening ceremony, I became a minority, an alternative voice. To the media, I have become a symbolic figure, critical of China. According to the government, I am a dangerous threat. I only expressed my personal opinion of an occasion that many people are passionate about. Unfortunately, such an occasion has no room for differing stances. Mine posed a challenge to the Games themselves. What did I say? Only that I didn't like the government propaganda. I don't feel obliged to approve of it.

I don't watch TV. I did not watch the Olympics last time; I am not very interested in watching it this time, either. I have no interest in activities that are dissociated from the emotions and struggles of everyday people. I enjoy watching any kind of competition – but it must be carried out in fairness, adhering strictly to the established rules. Any competition that cannot demonstrate fairness and abide by a set of openly acknowledged regulations violates civil society. It is also in conflict with the principles of human, social and legal rights.

I have visited London two or three times. I have good impressions of the city. It has a strong and natural continuity with its traditions. At the same time, people enjoy their lives and the city is full of culture. It was a pleasant experience to work with the Serpentine gallery, as well as Herzog and de Meuron, on this summer's pavilion. From the response, I can see that Londoners are very savvy about art and architecture. Tate Modern is also a unique cultural institution, a standard-bearer for quality contemporary art and activities.

I am interested in seeing what the 2012 Olympics has done to London, but I am not free to travel. If I were free, I'd like to see how people will respond to the event, and how members of a different society, living in different social conditions, will participate in the Games. I don't know how London will cope, but I believe it will be more relaxed than Beijing. In London, the people will be able to participate in and celebrate the joy of the Games. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 20 2012

Ai Weiwei barred from court hearing by Chinese police

Dissident artist says police warned him to stay away from court hearing on company's lawsuit against Beijing tax authorities

Police in China have barred the artist Ai Weiwei from attending a hearing on his company's lawsuit against Beijing tax authorities, and blocked filming at the courthouse..

Ai told reporters police had ordered him to stay away from the court, and that he complied.

Chinese authorities detained Ai for three months last year and his design company was ordered to pay 15m yuan (£1.53m) in back taxes and fines in a penalty interpreted by activists as punishment for his criticism of the authoritarian government.

The company has appealed against the fine and separately filed a lawsuit that accuses the tax bureau of violating laws regarding the handling of witnesses, evidence and company accounts in the case.

Ai said police have not explained why he was barred from the hearing.

"This society has become a scary and dangerous one now, because there are too many things that violate people's rights and that happen with no explanation," Ai said.

Ai's wife, Lu Qing, who is the legal representative of his design company, Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, attended with lawyers and an accountant. It was the first hearing in the case, and details were not revealed on Wednesday.

Plainclothes and uniformed police were stationed outside Ai's home and studio in north-east Beijing, registering journalists who turned up to interview Ai and report on the case. Ai argued briefly with them and demanded to know why they were interrogating his visitors. Reporters were also blocked from filming at the courthouse.

Liu Xiaoyuan, a legal consultant who has been staying at Ai's home, was missing after being taken away by police on Tuesday night, Ai said.

Rights activist Hu Jia claimed he was prevented from leaving his Beijing home to attend the hearing on Wednesday and in the evening was beaten by three men he described as plainclothes state security officials as he tried to leave the premises. They grabbed him by the collar and wrists, choked him and punched him, Hu said.

Since he emerged from detention last year, Ai has been refused permission to travel and is under constant surveillance. He still frequently criticises the government on Twitter, which is blocked in China but accessible to tech-savvy citizens. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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June 18 2012

Rock of ages: Australia's oldest artwork found

Archaeologist discovers Aboriginal rock art made 28,000 years ago in Northern Territory cave

An archaeologist says he has found the oldest piece of rock art in Australia and one of the oldest in the world: an Aboriginal work created 28,000 years ago in an outback cave.

The dating of one of the thousands of images in the Northern Territory rock shelter, known as Nawarla Gabarnmang, will be published in the next edition of the Journal of Archaeological Science.

The archaeologist Bryce Barker, from the University of Southern Queensland, said he found the rock in June last year but had only recently had it dated at the radiocarbon laboratory of New Zealand's University of Waikato.

He said the rock art had been made using charcoal, so radiocarbon dating could be used to determine its age; most rock art is made with mineral paint, so its age cannot accurately be measured.

Barker said the work was "the oldest unequivocally dated rock art in Australia" and among the oldest in the world.

The oldest known rock art is in Spain, where hand stencils and red discs made by blowing paint on to the wall in El Castillo cave are at least 40,800 years old, according to scientists using a technique known as uranium-thorium dating.

Sally May, an archeologist from the Australian National University who is not involved with Barker's research, said his find was "incredibly significant".

"I don't think it will surprise anyone that rock art is that old in Australia because we know people have been here a lot longer than that, and there's no reason to believe they weren't producing art," she said.

Barker said he had found evidence that the cave where he found the rock art had been occupied for 45,000 years. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

June 07 2012

Pressure grows on China to investigate activist's hospital death

Thousands sign petition over alleged suicide of Li Wangyang, imprisoned for 22 years after Tiananmen Square crackdown

Online petitioners have stepped up pressure on China to investigate the death in hospital of a labour activist after he spent more than 22 years in jail for his role in the 1989 pro-democracy protests in Beijing.

Li Wangyang, who was only released from prison last year, was found dead in a hospital ward in Shaoyang city in Hunan province on Wednesday, his neck tied with a noose made from cotton bandages. Authorities said it was suicide.

He was being treated for deteriorating health, but details were not available. The group Human Rights in China said Li lost his sight and hearing as a result of torture during his years behind bars.

"We saw that his body was still hanging by the window, and his two feet were clearly still standing on the ground. But they [hospital staff] did not let us get near him … Then they dragged his body away," Zhao Baozhu, Li's brother-in-law, was quoted as saying by Human Rights in China.

As of Thursday afternoon, 2,700 people had signed an online petition, including prominent Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei, scholars, lawyers and writers who called for an authorized forensic investigation.

Li had been one of the first Chinese activists to push for independent labour unions in China, but was punished after the 4 June 1989 crackdown for his participation in the pro-democracy movement.

Li's death comes after the high-profile case of blind activist Chen Guangcheng, whose escape from village confinement and subsequent flight to freedom in the US became a diplomatic flashpoint and raised global awareness of China's poor human rights record.

Hong Kong's Information Centre for Human Rights and Democracy said a number of rights activists, lawyers and citizens had arrived in Shaoyang to assist the family in its bid for justice, but many were unreachable and had probably been detained by authorities.

"It's very difficult to accept the official explanation of events," said Wen Yunchao, a prominent Chinese blogger and journalist now based in Hong Kong who helped initiate the online petition.

Several dozen activists and lawmakers in Hong Kong protested outside Beijing's liaison office, carrying white flowers.

Just last week, Li had said in a television interview that he'd never regretted his fight for justice.

"The souls of the martyrs deserve to finally find some peace," said Li, referring to the Tiananmen Square protests and the subsequent crackdown in which hundreds, if not thousands, were killed. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

May 27 2012

Sydney opera house 'collapses' in spectacular light show – video

An installation light projection on the Australian landmark makes it look as if its roof crumbles to the ground

May 22 2012

Japan's Skytree tower opens – video

At 634 metres Tokyo's new Skytree tower is the world's second tallest building, after the Burj Khalifa in Dubai

Tokyo Skytree, the world's 'tallest tower', opens to the public

Japan's biggest new landmark, a broadcast tower for TV and radio, expected to draw 8,000 visitors on first day

The world's tallest broadcasting tower and Japan's biggest new landmark, the Tokyo Skytree, has opened to the public.

Nearly 8,000 visitors were expected to take high-speed elevators up to the observation decks of the 634-metre (2,080ft) tower to mark its opening. Some reportedly waited in line more than a week to get the coveted tickets for a panoramic view, although Tuesday ended up being cloudy in Tokyo.

Skytree is recognised by Guinness World Records as the world's tallest tower, beating the Canton tower in China, which is 600 metres (1,968.5ft).

The world's tallest structure is Dubai's Burj Khalifa, which stands at 828 metres (2,717ft). That is in a different category because it is classed as a skyscraper – habitable and designed for office and commercial use.

The Skytree will serve as a broadcast tower for television and radio, as well as being a tourist attraction. It replaces the 333m tall (1,092.5ft) Tokyo tower – a symbol of Japan's capital since 1958 – as the broadcast hub. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 27 2012

Ai Weiwei thinks inside the box

Ai's work, a cactus and a crab, goes on display for a month at a micro space in the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London

After the vast emptiness of the Turbine Hall, the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei will on Friday fill a London space that could not be more of a contrast: a white cube that is precisely 40cm by 40cm by 40cm.

Ai's work, a cactus and a crab, goes on display for a month at a micro space in the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery in London. "It is a very exciting moment for us," said Houldsworth. "He is a very inspirational person. We want to do anything that can help him and anything that can help get his message across."

The artist is prevented from leaving China by the authorities but is not in jail after his release last year. Ai was jailed for three months on suspicion of "economic crimes", although his family and supporters say it was retaliation for his social and political activism.

He is keen for people to make their own interpretation of his latest work, called A Living Sculpture, but it is hard not to read parallels between the piece and the artist's own situation. There is the living cactus – hardy, resilient, prickly – surviving in a confined space under the glare of a spotlight. Then there is the small crab with its nasty claws, making a move on its spiky partner.

The gallery has had to source the cactus, an Echinopsis, which turned out more tricky and time-consuming than it expected.

"It was not that easy at all," said the gallery's Carsten Recksik who spent a large part of last month on the telephone trying to find a suitable specimen. "Ai was very specific on the variety. I was calling dozens, hundreds of garden shops. I'm not really into plants but I am a bit now – it's fascinating."

The result is a 15-year-old cactus, they think. "It's difficult to tell," said Recksik.

The space is a kind of black incision in the wall within which there is a suspended, brightly lit box. "We commission emerging and established artists to do whatever they want in the box," said Houldsworth. "Whether they want to do a conceptual piece or want to take it away to work in their studio or paint on it. It is a terribly difficult space but very exciting."

Ai, who is a cacti collector, came to the attention of the wider British public when he filled Tate Modern's Turbine Hall with 100m porcelain sunflower seeds. His work will also be on display this summer when he designs the Serpentine Gallery pavilion with the architects Herzog & de Meuron, with whom he collaborated to design the Beijing Olympics' Birds Nest stadium.

• Ai Weiwei's A Living Sculpture is at the Pippy Houldsworth Gallery, 27 April - 26 May 2012. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

April 17 2012

Letters: The web's new world order

The British people fought wars and went through a great deal of civil strife to construct the form of democracy we currently have. Thus there is nothing wrong with our government seeking to ensure that within its national boundaries activity in cyberspace conforms with its laws. The alternative proposition, that the law of the internet is coterminous with the decisions of the US supreme court, is unacceptable everywhere except the US.

The internet of course is magical and wonderful. But we should not have to put up with all the bad stuff in order to benefit from the good. By failing to deal with significant levels of online crime, I'm afraid the high priests of the internet industry, of whom Sergey Brin is most certainly one, have created the situation of which he and they now complain (Web freedom under threat – Google founder, 16 April). It may not be too late to halt or reverse some of the processes Brin is anxious about, but time is running out and laissez-faire will not cut it.
John Carr

• I recently replaced a defunct mobile phone and, a week in, find that the new phone's default settings included backing up "application data, Wi-Fi passwords and other settings to Google servers". Is Mr Brin a suitably qualified glasshouse stone-thrower, or does the above sit uncomfortably with Google's previous sniffing for Wi-Fi networks while making photographic surveys?

Internet freedom must rely upon a sea of small providers rather than disproportionate control by nations or global corporations. I will be looking to remove other Google services from my phone.
Mike Brown
Newcastle upon Tyne

• "Internet freedom" is just a vehicle for transnational corporations such as Google, Amazon, Apple and Facebook to impose their ideology of rightwing libertarianism on the world – strident capitalism, no taxes, no government, no community. They are a threat in the same way as Murdoch has proved to be, but for some reason we talk about them as if they were the post office or the library.
Dr Stephen Dorril
University of Huddersfield

• Ai Weiwei's comments on the power of the internet to achieve freedom (China's censorship can never defeat the internet, 16 April) remind me strongly of the prescience of your former Communist affairs correspondent Victor Zorza (died 1996). I recall the characteristic enthusiasm with which he told me, almost certainly as far back as the 1970s, that he was convinced that fledgling information technology would prove to be a death knell for totalitarian regimes. As your other articles demonstrate, however, this is not quite so straightforward a matter, given the partially successful attempts at censorship in today's authoritarian countries. But the general conclusion still holds, as Ai Weiwei suggests. Once the monopoly of information slips out of the hands of the rulers of such countries, political consequences are bound to follow sooner or later.
Peter Roland
Bognor Regis, West Sussex

• Russia's alarming restrictions on internet freedom, including the imprisonment of pro-democracy bloggers (Nervous Kremlin seeks to take back control, 16 April), are inconsistent with its membership of the UN Human Rights Council. When he first became president in 1999, Vladimir Putin promised to defend freedom of speech. When he returns to the post next month, Putin would do well to honour his word – and that of his country.
Hillel C Neuer
Executive director, UN Watch, Geneva

• Re your editorial (14 April), New South Wales police have set up a social media community engagement project called Eyewatch. Each of our 80 local area commands has a Facebook page. Each day, police publish local crime issues and crime prevention tips. We are now formulating neighbourhood watch closed Facebook groups across the state so communities can be in touch with police whenever they want to. Our pages have attracted 93,000 fans and over 30m page impressions. Crime is being solved; communities and police are working together to identify problems and create community solutions. This programme – applying the Peelian principles to the 21st century – could be easily adopted in the UK.
Chief Inspector Josh Maxwell
Manager, Project Eyewatch © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 29 2012

Ai Weiwei refused public hearing for tax case

Chinese authorities say Ai's company owes 15m yuan for allegedly evading tax

Chinese authorities have told dissident artist Ai Weiwei he will not be given a public hearing to reconsider a 15m yuan (£1.5m) tax evasion penalty allegedly due from the company he works for. Ai denounced the move on Thursday as "inconceivable".

Supporters of Ai, whose 81-day secret detention last year sparked an international outcry, have said the tax case is part of Beijing's efforts to muzzle China's most famous social critic.

Ai, 54, told Reuters by telephone that he received the notice, dated 23 March, from tax authorities on Tuesday. It said Beijing Fake Cultural Development Ltd, which has helped produce Ai's internationally renowned art and designs, will only be given "a written hearing" and not a public trial.

"I think this is inconceivable," Ai said. "Our lawyer said: 'Which country in the world doesn't dare to face their own taxpayers?'"

"We can't understand the problem. I can only think that anything that cannot be made public is due to embarrassment at making it public," Ai said.

"As the people who've been charged, we aren't afraid of making it public. But as a country, how can you be afraid of being transparent?"

Beijing tax authorities were not immediately available for comment.

Ai paid a bond of 8.45m yuan last November - all contributions from tens of thousands of supporters - that allowed him access to an administrative review of the tax evasion charges. He told Reuters then that he was pessimistic about successfully contesting the charges.

The company's lawyer, Pu Zhiqiang, said written decisions are legal, but are "a bad sign" because they usually uphold the original decision of the case.

Pu said the authorities have not shown him any original documents with evidence of the alleged tax evasion and held a closed hearing last July.

Pu said it was illegal for them to do so. Ai was barred from attending, but his wife, Lu Qing, was present.

"All these circumstances have led me to firmly believe that the handling of Ai Weiwei's company's [case] is a form of persecution, and that the tax authorities are helping the public security organs do their work under orders," Pu said.

Ai was detained without any charge in April and held mainly in solitary confinement until his conditional release in June.

But the artist has ignored efforts to silence him and has instead become a rallying point for China's dissidents and activists since a government crackdown last year brought a wave of detentions and arrests.

Ai had collected more than 9m yuan, that he says he will return, from about 30,000 donors, for the tax penalty. The tax authorities have until the end of April to give Ai a decision on the administrative review of the case, Ai said. When he was released on bail last June, the government said Ai remained under investigation on suspicion of economic crimes.

Ai said previously that he had not received a formal notice to explain "suspected economic crimes". © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 28 2012

Cambodia's art of survival

The country's rich artistic culture was destroyed in the 70s by the brutal Khmer Rouge regime. Today, despite terrible poverty, a revival is taking place – and it is gaining international recognition

Down a dusty road littered with motorbikes and tuk-tuks, past the charred red monument to independence and through a leafy courtyard populated by stray dogs, there stands a derelict-looking, 1960s cinderblock school in Phnom Penh where, on weekends, the atonal sounds of Khmer opera waft out of its shuttered windows.

In this ad-hoc dance studio, 15 pairs of feet are pointing delicately upwards, in geometric contrast to the checkered tiles on the floor. As the partners twirl side by side, their fingers bent backwards, shy smiles on their young faces, repeated patterns emerge in their footsteps. "Cambodian folk dance is a visual form of storytelling, about religion, nature, weddings and funerals," whispers Neang Visal, 21, a dancer who is looking on. "This dance, the krama dance, is about farming."

It is hard to imagine a paean to agriculture that would have the same clout in the west today. But in a nation that lost 90% of its artists, musicians, dancers and intellectuals to the brutal Khmer Rouge regime of 1975-79, remembering the past is a vital aspect of safeguarding the future. Now that a UN-backed war crimes tribunal is investigating past atrocities, studios such as this one – part of the American not-for-profit Cambodian Living Arts (CLA) organisation – as well as government-run art and music courses, international funding and determined local artists, are helping Cambodians to embrace their cultural heritage once again.

Long known for its artistic traditions – most famously demonstrated by the temples of Angkor Wat – this nation of 14.8 million was once home to a vibrant contemporary art and music scene that saw psychedelic rock groups, led by Sinn Sisamouth and Ros Sereysothea, take south-east Asia by storm.

But when the Khmer Rouge took power – with their slogan "To keep you is no gain; to lose you is no loss" – many artists were a direct target of the new order that killed an estimated 2 million Cambodians within four years. Twenty years of economic hardship followed, preventing Cambodia from regenerating itself artistically. Now the nation's cultural future depends on organisations such as the CLA, which was founded by a Khmer Rouge survivor. It teaches classical Cambodian dance and music to some 300 students, aged five to 30, relying on "masters" – those few dancers and musicians who survived the Khmer Rouge – to instruct students in a circular education programme where students become teachers once they have learned their trade.

Most artists earn just $50 (£31) a month, so it is unsurprising that many would-be musicians and dancers look for more lucrative trades. Yet Khmer artists must pursue their art, says Long Oun, 48, a roneet (xylophone) teacher who doubles as a musician for the ministry of culture and fine arts and regularly performs for the king in royal ensembles for less than $2 a day. "Cambodia is a developing country, so we focus on healthcare and education, but we need to cultivate the arts sector, and the government has a lot to do," he says. "But as individuals we also need to work hard to make a viable future for ourselves."

That, however, requires a capable government, says an insider with close ties to the ministry, who requests anonymity. "The reality is that the ministry of culture and fine arts is one of the poorest in Cambodia and has very limited power. They focus on keeping Cambodian arts alive, but there's simply not enough money to do that."

Consequently, much of Cambodia's artistic regeneration is left to NGOs and large international funders, he says, which "inherently puts a neocolonialist edge on the art that's created. But if you gave artists a living salary, then you wouldn't have to cater to what the west wants to see."

Contemporary performing arts group Amrita recently faced a similar dilemma after funding cuts from their main donor, the Rockefeller Foundation, says project coordinator Kang Rithisal. "We had to rescale: instead of having lots of different projects in both contemporary and traditional arts, we decided to stick to what we were really good at – the contemporary," he says.

Amrita's shows focus on modern-day issues: in Breaking the Silence, Khmer Rouge victims are forced to face the soldiers who killed their families. The play toured Cambodia to rave reviews and is now heading to Rwanda, another victim of genocide.

But, like many contemporary art groups, Amrita faces a "cultural barrier" in getting Cambodians interested in an essentially very new art form. "People come to see us and they wonder what we're doing, but the more they see it, the more they'll get used to it," Rithisal says, admitting that money is an issue. "Cambodians say they like going to performances, but they're not willing to pay the money to sustain a performance or dancer's salary."

That's why some organisations are now targeting the Cambodian middle-class to create a sustainable, local culture scene that transcends those "neocolonialist" tendencies. At Romeet Gallery, on Street 218, Kate O'Hara exhibits contemporary work from up-and-coming Khmer artists from Phare Ponleu Selpak, an NGO in Battambang in the north-west of the country. Here, huge black-and-white watercolour portraits of Khmer Rouge prisoners hang next to moody, Rothko-like abstracts. "Our buyers are definitely international right now – some are visitors to Phnom Penh, others are working here on the UN [war crimes tribunal] case," she says. "But we're trying to encourage local buyers by capturing the middle-class, fashion-week market, showing them that art is worth investing in."

On the international art scene, at least, Cambodia is becoming increasingly popular. From April to May next year, New York City will host the first-ever Season of Cambodia, which will see 200 Khmer artists perform across an interdisciplinary platform. The date already has culture hawks talking. "There's a buzz about what's going on here," says contemporary art-buyer and director Andrew Fitzgerald of the Toronto-based pop-up gallery East. "With the Season of Cambodia show coming up, we want to include more peripheral countries in south-east Asia in our gallery. What's interesting about Cambodia particularly are these common themes of self-identity and memory."

Bands such as Dengue Fever, with their Khmer-surf rock influences, and Krom Monster, which mixes traditional Khmer music in an electronic format, have helped to create a new sense of Cambodian identity and memory. But not everyone is ready to deal with such themes, it seems, particularly the government, which some say could strike against artist or gallery at any time. "This fear of being shut down at random, of threats against artists – one was recently told he'd have his hands cut off – terrifies me," says one gallery owner, requesting anonymity. "People here just disappear. It's not about the law, it's about what goes unsaid. That's why self-censorship is so rampant."

Photographer Lim Sokchanlina, who co-founded the conceptual art space Sa Sa Bassac to explore themes such as sexual identity, social justice and urban development, says the only way around that is by being sneaky. In his series My Motorbike and Me, he poses on a motorbike as an illegal country doctor, selling bogus medicine; as a policeman, asleep on the job. "There's a saying in Cambodia, 'Flow with the river'," he says. "You can say what you want, but you have to be clever about it – and for me that means being funny."

However hard things may be now, they are a welcome break from the past, says Ros Veasna, 63, a classical Khmer singer who trained with Sinn Sisamouth before the Khmer Rouge marched to power in 1975. "I could have done any other work when I left the work camp," she says. "But it was, and still is, only singing that makes me happy." © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

March 05 2012

Tate buys eight million Ai Weiwei sunflower seeds

The 10 tonnes of porcelain sunflower seeds are only a 10th of the number that covered the floor of Tate Modern's Turbine Hall

The Tate has acquired approximately 8m individual sculptures, its largest number of works of art ever, although each is smaller than a little finger nail: 10 tonnes of Ai Weiwei's famous porcelain sunflower seeds.

There won't be enough to cover the floor of the Tate Modern's Turbine Hall in London, as in the Chinese artist's installation in 2010, where the first visitors romped deliriously on a gritty beach until within 48 hours it was roped off, the ceramic dust condemned as a danger to health.

Sunflower Seeds 2010, the work that the Tate has bought, represents less than a 10th of the 100m seeds, all individually sculpted and painted by Chinese craft workers, used for the installation.

Instead the artist has suggested the seeds can be arranged either laid out as a square or, more dramatically, as a cone five metres in diameter and one and a half metres tall – as they have been displayed at Tate Modern as a loan from the artist from last June until earlier this year.

The Tate acquired the work with the help of a grant from the Art Fund charity, but has not revealed the price. However, at a Sotheby's auction last year a similar quantity soared above the top estimate and finally sold for just under £350,000, or £3.50 per seed.

Ai Weiwei has become China's most famous living artist not just for the internationally admired quality of his work, but for his troubles with his native country, where he has recently faced house arrest, investigation for "spreading pornography" and the demolition of his studio. The Chinese authorities have charged him with tax evasion, but most commentators are convinced their real problem with him is his outspoken defence of human rights and criticism of China's treatment of dissidents.

He is collaborating with the architects Herzog & de Meuron, the design team responsible for the bird's nest stadium for the 2008 Beijing Olympics, to create this summer's temporary pavilion for the Serpentine Gallery in Hyde Park, London. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

February 24 2012

China's Cultural Revolution remembered

Although officially branded disastrous for the country, discussing the Cultural Revolution in China is strictly controlled. Despite this, artist Xu Weixin has spent five years trying to make sense of that turbulent decade

February 07 2012

Ai Weiwei and Herzog & de Meuron to make Serpentine pavilion

Chinese artist and Swiss architects who together designed stadium for 2008 Games collaborate on London 2012 project

Four years after designing the spectacular Bird's Nest Olympic stadium in Beijing, the Swiss architects Herzog & de Meuron and the Chinese artist Ai Weiwei are to reunite for a London 2012 project.

The Serpentine Gallery announced on Tuesday that the Beijing team would collaborate once more to design this year's pavilion – the 12th commission in what has become a major annual event on the architecture calendar.

Julia Peyton-Jones, the director of the Serpentine, said it was "tremendously exciting". She added: "What is so fantastic is that it is this extraordinary link of the two games, a Beijing-London axis.

"These are old and dear friends, so for them [Jacques Herzog, Pierre de Meuron and Ai Weiwei] they are picking up where they left off – it is a continuation of a conversation that began in Beijing to great effect and they have conceived something really remarkable for our lawn."

The involvement of Ai will be cheering news for anyone familiar with the tumultuous year he has had.

In 2010 he won global attention for his Tate Modern turbine hall commission in which he filled the space with 100m porcelain sunflower seeds. Things then took a dramatic turn last April when he was arrested and held without charge for nearly three months by the Chinese authorities, a move generally seen as a punishment for his outspoken views and activism. He was held incommunicado and interrogated more than 50 times for, the authorities later said, supposed breaches of tax laws.

In an interview with Guardian last November Ai admitted that the threat of being arrested once more was always there – "Every day I think: 'This will be the day I will be taken in again.'"

Ai has been planning the project with Herzog and de Meuron using Skype and it remains to be seen whether he will be allowed to leave China by the time the pavilion is up in June.

A few details of their plans have been revealed including the indication of it being the lowest pavilion ever, with the roof barely 5ft off the ground. People will be able to go under it because they also plan to dig down a few feet.

In a joint statement they said they would celebrate all the past pavilions as well as their own but it would not look like anything that had gone before. "So many pavilions in so many different shapes and out of so many different materials have been conceived and built that we tried instinctively to sidestep the unavoidable problem of creating an object, a concrete shape."

There will be 12 columns – 11 representing the past pavilions and one for the present – supporting a floating platform roof 5ft from the ground. That roof will collect rain water and reflect the sky as well as being capable of being drained and used for special events "as a dance floor or simply as a platform suspended above the park".

The pavilion, they promise, will become "the perfect place to sit, stand, lie down or just look and be amazed".

It will go up in June as part of the London 2012 festival, a jamboree of events across the UK which will mark the culmination of the Cultural Olympiad.

The pavilion designers follow some impressive names, starting in 2000 with Zaha Hadid and including the Brazilian architect Oscar Niemeyer, Olafur Eliasson and Peter Zumthor, who designed it last year. © 2012 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 23 2011

Kim Jong-il on the escalator: dictatorships are going down | Jonathan Jones

This photo of the North Korean leader in life is as surreal as those of mass mourning for his death, but democracy has won

Dictatorship rides the down escalator of history in this photograph. For me it is picture that shows why 2011 was a good year for the world.

Kim Jong-il stands apart from the officials who carefully compose themselves on the steps above him. He gazes directly at the camera from behind sunglasses, the all-powerful observer of his people. The others do not look directly at the camera but seem unsure where to cast their eyes.

They are entering a new supermarket, full of produce. Canned food and fluorescent lights – clearly North Korea is a land of plenty. No wonder there is such reverence for the man who brought this economic success. Kim Jong-il seems isolated by his power. A magic circle, a force field of charisma, keeps him apart. After all, according to reports that have followed his death last Saturday (at 8.30am, on his special train, according to state media), natural prodigies marked the passing of this miraculous man. Best stand back from a man of such uncanny attributes.

This picture of Kim Jong-il in life is as surreal as the images of extravagant collective mourning for his death that have filled the state media of North Korea this week. Yet surrealism is in the eye of the beholder. The comedy of this photograph is fringed with blackness. It is known that many North Koreans live on the edge of malnutrition and starvation. The well-stocked supermarket that the great leader graces with his presence is cruelly deceptive – a show supermarket, a Potemkin image of plenty (or at least, by the standards of neighbouring countries, normality).

That is cruelly obvious. What is really interesting about this, and other images from North Korea, is how we react to them. True, the state over which the man on the escalator presided has nuclear weapons and other potent military assets. The country cannot be ignored, any more than a man with a gun on the street can be ignored. But this picture raises a wry smile. North Korea's political system strikes outsiders as freakish and bizarre and grotesquely out of step with history.

On the down escalator, and approaching the bottom. Behind our reaction – baffled and, let's be honest, amused – lies a success story. In our lifetimes democracy has won. It has established itself as the best of all political systems. And in 2011 the democratic idea made amazing, unexpected headway.

The point about this photograph of the isolated totalitarian mirror universe ruled by Kim Jong-il is that it is a curiosity. Like a two-headed snake, it is worth keeping in a jar. But 50 years ago this picture would not have seemed strange at all. Such propaganda scenes were depressingly normal in a large part of the world. The Soviet Union and a huge tract of Europe were governed by autocratic parties. From Prague to Moscow, party leaders were posing in show factories and shops all the time.

Go back further, to the 1930s, and large parts of western Europe were ruled by dictatorships of the right. Totalitarian leaders stood apart and were apparently revered, just as in this photograph.

At the time they were winning. "If you want a vision of the future," wrote George Orwell, "imagine a boot stamping on a human face – forever." Comparisons between today's economic travails and the crisis of the 1930s are misplaced because totalitarianism was then the wave of the future. That is simply not the case today.

2011 has been a great year for democracy. People demanded their rights across north Africa and the Middle East. Authoritarian, corrupt rulers suddenly found themselves denounced as tyrants by people they believed safely under their boot heels. In a benign version of John Foster Dulles's cold war "domino theory", the virus of democracy spread from one Arab state to another. If Kim Jong-il had a heart attack, Colonel Gaddafi of Libya died in far gorier circumstances. We are definitely not living in the 1930s, when dictatorship was on the rise. Today the last dictators are an endangered species.

In China, the state's attempt to silence dissident artist Ai Weiwei merely strengthened his voice. And that voice has consistently expressed what also seems fundamental to the Arab spring: democracy and human rights are universal imperatives. Just because these ideas originated in Europe and America in the 18th century does not make them somehow less relevant outside the affluent west. The right to free speech and free elections is a basic human need, everywhere, say the revolutionaries of 2011.

Europe itself might be accused of democratic backsliding this year as "technocrats" came to power in Italy and Greece. But it is a melodramatic fantasy to see democracy in danger in the eurozone. Once again, the comparison – or rather the glaring contrast – with the 1930s should cheer us up.

In 2011 democracy was on the march. This is a picture from a nightmare that most of the world will never endure again. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

December 18 2011

Asian art turns from plaything of Hong Kong's young rich into moneyspinner

Demand for high-end Chinese art booms as the growing number of millionaires seek alternative investments

In a luxury apartment perched on the leafy hills of Hong Kong, Kai-Yin Lo browses through a trove of Chinese art acquired over several decades, reflecting how her niche, scholarly pursuit has hit the mainstream.

Despite giddy Chinese art prices showing some strain from global economic uncertainty, collectors like Lo think values will continue to rise due to limited supply and continued strong demand as Asian collectors become more affluent.

"As east and west get into more of a confluence in taste and in the market place, it will still go up," said Lo, a Cambridge-educated writer and jewellery designer known for wearing mismatched designer shoes.

Lo is one of Hong Kong's leading art collectors, her home stacked with rare Chinese furniture, stone carvings and paintings, including an inkbrush panorama of the Grand Canyon by 20th-century Chinese master Wu Guanzhong.

Hong Kong's auction market turnover trebled between 2009 and 2010. The Mei Moses Global Art Index – a broader measure – showed an 11.8% rise in the first 11 months of 2011, statistics belying the global fiscal crisis.

Despite the art market's vulnerability to shocks, including the collapse of Lehman Brothers in 2008, when unrealistic estimates left scores of unsold lots amid tepid bidding even in the red-hot Chinese ceramics market, Asia's rapid wealth accumulation is likely to result in more cash flowing into art and other alternative investments.

Asia's wealth management and private banking industry remains a growth area for banks, with an estimated 3.3 million high net worth individuals worth more than $1m, according to Capgemini and Merrill Lynch's latest annual World Wealth report.

With a combined wealth of $10.7tn (£6.88tn), Asia's wealthy have eclipsed the $10.2tn held by Europe's generational millionaires. "The exponential growth in the number of emerging market [millionaires] ... is expanding the global market for investments of passion," the report said.

"It may not be a good time for sellers but it's an excellent time for buyers. During late 2008 and 2009, I highly advised clients to buy," said Bobby Mohseni of art consultancy MFA Asia. "With Chinese contemporary art, some prices have gone exceptionally high and that's just over a decade ... so it's best to look at upcoming or mid-tier artists."

While stocks on the S&P 500 in New York have outperformed western art over the past 25 years, according to Mei Moses data, Chinese and Asian art is still comparatively cheap compared with the Impressionists or American contemporary art. A Mei Moses index for traditional Chinese art showed a 24% jump in the first threequarters of this year.

"Confidence in the Chinese contemporary art market remains high despite art market confidence dropping sharply in the US and European contemporary market," said Anders Petterson, head of art research consultancy ArtTactic.

Even for those with less purchasing muscle, experts say bargains can still be had, including modern Filipino and Indonesian painters, as well as photography and Chinese snuff bottles, to name a few categories.

"Collect what other people aren't collecting," said Tony Miller, a former top Hong Kong government official who collects Chinese art. "If you can't afford Qi Baishi paintings, and they're going at HK$2m a throw, well, go for prints."

Qi is one of the masters of inkbrush paintings and his pieces routinely sell for millions of dollars.

Owners of Hong Kong's art galleries, many of them crammed along the winding Hollywood Road in the Central district, say timing is key.

"If you get good works of art, then without any question it is a safe haven, but it doesn't have the liquidity. That's the difficulty," said Sundaram Tagore, whose galleries in Hong Kong and the US feature a stable of culture-bridging artists.

"If you're trying to sell at the wrong time it becomes part of the distressed market, but if you're selling at the right time then you could make 100 times more, maybe more than property or any bonds can provide you."

The search by Asian investors for alternative assets has extended beyond art into wine, gems, watches, postage stamps and other memorabilia – the rarer and more exclusive, the better.

With about two-thirds of the world's stamp collectors in Asia, the stamps and collectibles market has surged, says Geoff Anandappa of stamp and memorabilia retailer Stanley Gibbons.

Hong Kong-based InterAsia Auctions – which specialises in Asian stamps – broke world records for Chinese stamps in September, taking $12.6m over four days. A 1941 Dr Sun Yat-Sen inverted centre stamp fetched $221,000, up 66% from a similar sale a year ago.

Chinese and Asian buyers have cornered the fine wine market, with a Hong Kong Acker Merrall & Condit wine auction in December bringing in $9m, including a single super-lot of 55 Romanee Conti vintages that fetched a record $813,000.

Similarly, Asian buying is behind the boom for diamonds and gems. China is on course to become the world's top diamond buyer and retailers in Hong Kong report a rise in the number of men coming to buy loose diamonds for investments.

A Hong Kong jewellery retailer recently raised $2bn in one of the city's biggest initial public offerings this year to fund expansion in the region.

"It's not the old days of 'safe as houses', put your money in the bank and that will sort you out," said Jon Reade of the Art Futures Group, a Hong Kong-based art investment firm. "Those are the days probably of my parents' generation … people are getting more creative with their money." © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 21 2011

Ai Weiwei supporters strip off as artist faces 'porn' investigation

Nude photographs posted in riposte to Chinese police interrogation of videographer for picture of Ai and women naked

When artist Ai Weiwei disappeared, supporters made online appeals for his return. When authorities handed him a £1.5m tax bill, they sent money to help pay it. And now that he faces an investigation for spreading pornography – his admirers have stripped off.

Internet users began tweeting their nude photographs after Ai announced that authorities had questioned his cameraman over pictures which showed the artist and four women naked.

Many Chinese contemporary artists have taken pictures of themselves without clothes, and the pictures of Ai that have emerged so far do not appear sexually charged. Some suspect that it may be an attempt by the authorities to smear the artist, whose 81-day detention this spring caused international outrage.

Officials accused him of economic crimes but supporters say the authorities are engaged in a vendetta because of Ai's social and political activism and criticism of the government.

While a couple of internet users tweeted full-frontal shots, others have come up with more decorous – and ingenious – variations on the theme. Some posted pictures of themselves as babies; one photo shows a row of nine unclothed women and one man – with images of Ai's head superimposed over their genitals and nipples.

Li Tiantian, a Shanghai lawyer who was herself detained earlier this year, appears partially concealed by a picture of a "grass mud horse", a creature invented by internet users to mock censors; its name is a homonym for a graphic curse.

"It is an expression of support for Ai Weiwei and scorn to the Chinese government. It shows our attitude and anger towards the government's behaviour," she said.

"We are simply using an eyecatching way to attract people's attention. There are so many pornography websites in China: they don't regulate them, yet say that this is spreading pornography."

Wen Yunchao, a blogger in Hong Kong who posted two nude photographs of himself, told Reuters: "This is a matter that has made many people very indignant. The interpretation of people's naked bodies in itself is an individual freedom and a form of creative freedom. Also, we don't see any pornographic elements in [Ai's] photographs. So we are using this extreme method to express our protest."

Zhao Zhao, the videographer who took the original pictures of Ai last year, told Reuters that Beijing police interrogated him about them for about four hours, telling him the photographs were obscene.

Ai told the news agency that police had also questioned him about the pictures. He said they did not have a hidden political meaning and were not meant to criticise the government, but noted that authorities might nonetheless see them as a "rebellious act".

Separately, the artist has encouraged supporters to call bloggers and commentators he described as leaders of the "50 cent" – pro-government – internet users, tweeting their phone numbers.

One of them, Wang Wen, told the Guardian he had received between 100 and 200 calls and innumerable messages since Sunday and that another man had received about 1,000 calls. He complained that posting the number was not fair, but refused to comment further. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 18 2011

Ai Weiwei investigated over nude art

Chinese artist says he is under investigation for spreading pornography, after pictures including One Tiger Eight Breasts

Ai Weiwei is under investigation for spreading pornography, the Chinese artist has said, as the authorities turned their attention from political subversion and tax evasion to online images of nudity.

He said police had questioned his cameraman Zhao Zhao on Thursday over pictures Zhao had taken of the artist. "They clearly told him this is an investigation, now, they are doing on me, on pornography," Ai told the AFP news agency.

One of the pictures, One Tiger Eight Breasts, shows Ai posing nude on a wooden chair flanked by four naked women who are giggling and smiling.

"Netizens came to take photos with me, so we said why don't we take nudity photos, then everybody agreed so we did it and they were put on the internet, and that's it, we forget about it," Ai said.

This year Ai has been held for 81 days in a secret location, questioned about subversion and then accused of tax evasion and given a fine of 15m yuan. Several of his assistants have been detained for lengthy periods and interrogated about Ai's political beliefs, business and personal life.

His lawyers say the investigations are politically motivated to silence Ai, who has used his high profile to speak out on police brutality, official corruption and human rights violations.

Police have been reluctant to discuss his case and there has been little or no coverage in most domestic media outlets. But the Communist party newspaper Global Times said on Wednesday that dissidents such as Ai could only exist because of the support of the west.

"For 30 years Ai Weiweis have emerged and fallen. But China has kept rising despite their pessimistic predictions. The real social trend is that they will be eliminated in the rising process of China," said a comment article in the paper.

Ai has attempted to turn the tables by mounting an internet campaign against his accusers. He says 30,000 people contributed a total of more than 8m yuan to his online appeal for loans to challenge his tax fine.

A pornography or obscenity charge based on the pictures revealed so far is likely to incur ridicule and anger among Ai's supporters. Many Chinese contemporary artists have appeared naked in their work.

Ai said police had previously questioned him about the images, but he doubted they understood art. "If they see nudity as pornography, then China is still in the Qing dynasty," he told Associated Press. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

November 09 2011

Ai Weiwei's mother accuses officials of hounding her son

Mother of Chinese artist and activist tells Guardian the actions of officials were 'creepy, crooked, evil'

The mother of Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei has accused officials of hounding her son, describing their approach as "creepy, crooked, evil".

Gao Ying said she was speaking up because she feared Ai – who was detained for almost three months this spring – would lose his freedom again. He faces a £1.5m tax bill, which well-wishers have pledged to help him pay.

"My heart is hurt … How come they don't act according to the law?" she asked.

"As a mother, I love this country, I love the people and I want this country to have a good image globally. But these events are too shameful. How come so many things of this kind happen to him? Isn't this hounding him?"

She said officials did not want her to talk to the media, but told the Guardian: "I don't care … I have to stand up to speak, otherwise I am not qualified to be a mother.

"This is what I want. I am having my voice heard and want them to hear what I believe."

Ai's family believe the 15m yuan bill – and his earlier detention – are retaliation for his outspokenness and activism, but state media have accused him of evading tax.

In a separate interview with the Human Rights in China group, Gao complained the tax bill was "astronomical", adding: "The deadline for payment is so tight that not even robbing banks could help."

She said her son had merely stood up to defend the rights of ordinary people, asking: "Is it fair to casually turn a person into an enemy, and an object of hatred? I have these words for the authorities: [it is a] creepy, crooked, evil way."

The 80-year-old added that Ai had to inform officials every time he visited her and that he had been tailed by a state security officer throughout her birthday celebrations.

The family once enjoyed much better relations with authorities. Gao's husband, Ai Qing, was one of China's most revered poets; when he died, Hu Jintao – now Chinese president, and then a member of the Politburo – visited their home to pay respects on behalf of the leadership.

Gao said she had replaced a photograph capturing that meeting with a family snapshot, because looking at it had made her uncomfortable during her son's detention.

Thousands of supporters have sent Ai money to pay the first part of the tax demand, allowing him to challenge the charge. He has said he is accepting loans, rather than donations, and will repay his well-wishers. © 2011 Guardian News and Media Limited or its affiliated companies. All rights reserved. | Use of this content is subject to our Terms & Conditions | More Feeds

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