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Friday 31st July 2015Ai Weiwei's Troubles with Travel

Sometimes, it seems like Ai Weiwei just cannot catch a break. As we discussed recently, he had his passport confiscated back in 2011 when he was arrested by the Chinese government as part of a crackdown on suspected political activists. Ai, who is a vocal critic of the repressive policies of the Communist regime, is admittedly a political activist, in and of itself a brave act within the confines of China. At long last, earlier this year, his passport was finally returned, an apparent victory for the long suffering artist, who missed any number of his own shows and openings due to the effective travel ban. An apparent victory for freedom and cultural expression in China, some humans rights lawyers both in and outside China cautioned that travel may not be actually as simple as having a passport, but the sentiment within the country also appears to be swinging in his favour.

So what sort of a shock would it be to be given freedom of passage by the Chinese government, only to have your visa application rejected by the British government? Extremely unbelievable and frustrating, no doubt. Hoping to visit London in September for the opening of one of his shows, the first outside of China he has been able to attend in 4 years, his application for a six-month visa was rejected and he was granted a mere 20 day business visitor visa.

The grounds for the rejection are almost laughable: some overzealous bureaucrat determined that Ai had failed to disclose a supposed criminal conviction in China - something that is simply flat out wrong. The rejection letter cited a "matter of public record that you have previously received a criminal conviction in China, and you have not declared this”. The problem, of course, is that Ai was never charged, let alone convicted. He was detained on suspicions of a variety of trumped-up charges, which were never actually filed.

Fortunately, as outcry grew, someone higher up the food chain decided to take a hand in the matter: the home secretary herself, Theresa May. Ai was finally granted the full six-month visa he deserved, and received a written apology from May and the Home Office. In a written statement issued, the Home Office said, “The home secretary was not consulted over the decision to grant Mr Ai a one-month visa. She has reviewed the case and has now instructed Home Office officials to issue a full six-month visa. We have written to Mr Ai apologising for the inconvenience caused.”

Enjoy London, Mr. Ai!

Posted on July 31st 2015 on 05:42pm
Labels: ai weiwei, china, visa

Wednesday 29th July 2015Artist Spotlight: Rene Magritte

One of the most enduringly popular genres among both art students and the general public is the exquisite bizarreness that is surrealism. While there are a number of major figures within the movement that capture the popular imagination - think of the wild popularity of Salvador Dali, for instance - today we're going to look at another titan of surrealism: Rene Magritte. Both consummately skilled artist and clever visual joker, Magritte was a Belgian-born surrealist who helped oversee the founding of the movement as a whole. Many of his images are iconic and can be found today, still being taught in art classes and adorning many a wall, both in galleries and in private hands.

Magritte's surrealism was an evolving practice, as he originally started out as a more mundane painter and eventually grew to adopt and embrace the surrealist methodology. Apples, bowler hats and umbrellas are recurring images in his work, but this pattern in and of itself is something of an illusion, and arguably is more about the apparent banality of the middle-class reality he lived in than something more deeply symbolic (though no doubt at least someone has made that argument successfully). Regardless, they are undoubtedly deeply associated with his work and life, especially in the artistic world, and appear frequently in his paintings.

Magritte originally worked as a commercial artist, unlike many of his more flamboyant surrealist peers, and it can be argued that this is partly responsible for the way that he deviated from most other surrealists (think again of the extravagant Dali, and his grand gestures). Once he finally moved on to the surrealist genre, his popularity began to take off and he began to become the legend we know today, arguably the most important Belgian painter of the 20th century.

One of the most powerful things about his work is how it drives us to question; both to question what is in the image in front of us, and our own reactions to it, and by extension, to reality itself.
In his own immortal words: "My painting is visible images which conceal nothing; they evoke mystery and, indeed, when one sees one of my pictures, one asks oneself this simple question, 'What does that mean?' It does not mean anything, because mystery means nothing, it is unknowable." Sometimes, it still seems like he's playing jokes on us - thank goodness for that! 

Posted on July 29th 2015 on 05:27pm

Friday 24th July 2015The Lost Painting Bulletin Board

It's almost a staple of daytime television, and the bread and butter of shows like Antiques Roadshow, among others: Joe or Jane Average discovers that the coffee table they've been using for years is actual an heirloom piece from a famous furniture designer, or the candlesticks they inherited from their mother were once owned by some member of the English royal family, and is worth quite a pretty penny. Typically, finding something with a valuations in the thousands is remarkably rare, and finding something even more valuable almost never happens. So imagine the shock of a Bonham's auction house art appraiser who was making a routine examination of a client's collection when she stopped in the kitchen, and spotted a painting being used as a bulletin board - one that turned out to be worth an estimated $1.5 million dollars!

The piece, 'Arab in Black' by prominent South African artist Irma Stern, is not just a remarkably valuable piece of art, however. Back in the 1950 in South Africa, Nelson Mandela had been arrested for high treason, an offense which carried the death penalty. Though he was eventually completely cleared, the cost of maintaining a legal defense for such a high profile charge is naturally commensurately high, and Stern donated the painting to an auction designed to raise money to help pay for his legal counsel costs. The buyer at that auction eventually moved to the UK and settled down, and gave it to the current owner (who wishes to remain nameless).

The auction house is naturally trying to make some publicity hay with this element of the story, billing it as the painting that saved Mandela's life, which is something of an exaggeration. Nevertheless, as in all of these hidden treasure stories, the value of the piece is only ever enhanced by the history and provenance of the piece - and who knows, maybe they're even correct! It will be sold this September in London.

Hannah O'Leary, the Bonham's appraiser who discovered the painting, explained, “I spotted this masterpiece hanging in the kitchen covered in letters, postcards, and bills. It was a hugely exciting find even before I learned of its political significance.” Maybe it's time to go through all your items that you take for granted around your home - you never know what kind of masterpiece might be turned up by re-examining things in a new light!

Posted on July 24th 2015 on 08:45pm

Wednesday 22nd July 2015Ai Weiwei's Passport Finally Returned

It's been something of a rollercoaster ride for Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei over the past few years. He's launched numerous art exhibitions around the world, had documentaries made about him and his struggles with the Chinese government, and been generally celebrated around the world as a rising star in the art world, but back home, the Chinese authorities have seemed less than enamoured. After being temporarily disappeared back in 2011 by the secret police, questioned repeatedly and subjected to psychological tortures, he was finally released - but without his passport. It was kept by the government to ensure that they could keep an eye on him, and he couldn't flee the country and become an external force for destabilizing the ruling leaders. It was a difficult time for the Communist regime, which was in the middle of a serious crackdown on political activists.

Finally, however, it appears that government sentiment towards Mr. Ai has softened, as today he received it back from the police, as evidenced by the Instagram photo he posted earlier showing the travel document. "When I got it back I felt my heart was at peace. I feel pleased. This was something that needed to be done. I was quite frustrated when my right to travel was taken away but now I feel much more positive about my condition. I think they should have given it back some time ago – and maybe after so many years they understand me better.”

There was a huge outpouring of support on social media as Ai posted his passport selfie, both from within China and around the world. Even some of the Chinese tabloids that are typically pro-Beijing were questioning whether or not it was time to move on from the whole debacle. Curiously, however, this move comes amidst yet another political crackdown throughout China, both regarding human rights and other political activism.

Unfortunately, as a prominent human rights attorney noted on Twitter, "“Congratulations Mr Ai Weiwei on getting your passport back. But having a passport doesn’t mean you can get out of China freely." The Chinese government is notoriously strict about controlling the movements of its citizens in and out of the country, but it seems that Mr. Ai will likely be granted his wish. Congratulations!

Posted on July 22nd 2015 on 04:17pm

Friday 17th July 2015Smithsonian / Cosby Controversy Deepens

Perhaps the most curiously controversial art exhibit in the United States right now is taking place at an unlikely source: that venerable bastion of American culture and heritage, the Smithsonian Museum. The curious aspect is that the pieces themselves have not caused the controversy, but rather the collector who loaned the majority of the pieces in the exhibition, Bill Cosby. Formerly a beloved television father and comedian, Cosby has since been accused of a number of sexual assaults, and even more recently, an unsealed 2005 deposition documents him admitting to at least some aspects of the allegations. While he hasn't been formally charged, he has naturally been the target of much anger and controversy.

The exhibit, entitled 'Conversations: African and African American Artworks in Dialogue,' features an impressive collection of African and African American artists, largely from Cosby's personal collection. The Smithsonian has attracted its own fair share of anger, and recently made a public statement about the decision to keep the show open despite the incredible volume of complaints it has received about the exhibit.

A statement from the head of media relations at the Smithsonian last week explained their position: "The museum in no way condones this behavior. Our current ‘Conversations’ exhibition, which includes works of African art from our permanent collection and African American art from the collection of Camille and Bill Cosby, is fundamentally about the artworks and the artists who created them, not the owners of the collection." That seems reasonable enough, in theory.

It's quite a shame: the Smithsonian is correct, naturally, that the works and the artists should not be thought of in the context of Cosby's actions, but further developments have recently come to light. It's the standard practice of major museums and galleries to disclose donations made, and to make public a list of the names of all major donors. A report by the Associated Press has disclosed that Cosby actually made an extremely significant donation to the Smithsonian - to the tune of $716,000 USD, apparently equivalent to the cost of maintaining the entire show, which runs until April 2016.

Suddenly, the Smithsonian decision begins to seem a little more suspect. Naturally, the artworks themselves should be seen and viewed, but their decision to keep the exhibit open and to accept Cosby's money at the same time begins to suggest that this is really more of a publicity campaign for Cosby during a difficult time for his public image - and that's not really what museums and galleries are about, is it?

Posted on July 17th 2015 on 03:56pm

Wednesday 15th July 2015The Multi-Fake Art Theft

Art theft is one of the biggest dangers that plague the art world, despite the air of romance created by television and movies surrounding the dashing, rogue-ish cat burglar type of character. Sometimes, thefts aren't nearly so grand, but rather become infinitely more bizarre - after all, truth is almost always stranger than fiction. Never was this more true than in a recent case of art theft in China, at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. No dashing cat burglars, but a truly strange story nonetheless.

In fact, our antihero in this story is actually the (now former) Chief Librarian at the university, a man named Xiao Yuan. Over the course of several years, dating as far back as 2006, Xiao began to paint replica pieces of landscapes, calligraphies and other scenes by Chinese grandmasters, and swapping out the real pieces for his fakes, which he then took to the black market to sell. He amassed quite the fortune from this trade, and he managed to swap out over 140 paintings before he was caught. So far, this is actually likely to be much more common than we're lead to believe, but this is also the point when the story begins to get truly strange.

Xiao began to notice something odd happening to the replica masterpieces that he had hung himself on the walls of the galleries - they were suddenly being replaced by other fakes! Speaking during his trial in Guangzhou People's Intermediate Court, Xiao said,
"I realized someone else had replaced my paintings with their own because I could clearly discern that their works were terribly bad."

Xiao had made a huge fortune by selling the stolen works, estimated by Chinese authorities to be somewhere in the neighbourhood of 34 million yuan, approximately $5.5 million USD, and is believed to have stolen several more paintings that are unaccounted for worth upwards of 70 million yuan, or $11 million USD. One is forced to wonder what became of the fakes that he painted that were replaced by other, as yet undiscovered parties - were they sold at auction on the black market as well? If so, there's no doubt some very unhappy people around who are going to be looking for answers. It also begs the question - how many of the masterpieces we have hanging in galleries in the West are unsuspected fakes? 

Posted on July 15th 2015 on 03:25pm
Labels: art, fakes, replicas, theft

Friday 10th July 2015Artist Spotlight: Anicka Yi

Artistic media cover almost the full range of materials available to humanity, but they do seem to usually be restricted to things which can be seen or heard. Any type of tangible material is inherently able to be either seen or touched by the "viewer" (for lack of a better term), but artists are not typically known for their conventional thinking. Anicka Yi is just such an artist, and she's rejected the typical materials that are part of the artist's toolkit, choosing instead to work primarily in the deliciously ephemeral medium of scents.

Naturally, her works lean towards the conceptual, as is almost required when working with something so insubstantial, but her latest piece is almost closer to performance art than anything else. Entitled "7,070,430K of Digital Spit", it is located in the Kunsthalle Basel gallery, in the world-famous Basel, Switzerland, home of the Art Basel art fair that has recently taken the world by storm.

There is a scent at the core of the piece, which has been infused throughout the pages of a book of transcribed conversations with Yi on a number of related topics, as well as essays by a number of other artists in the same vein. The scent was created specifically for the exhibit by Barnabe Fillion, entitled Aliens and Alzheimer's, and you'll have to swing by the exhibit yourself to really get a sense of how it smells. The book is suspended above a flame in a white-tiled alcove, slowly burning itself to ash, and dissipating the scent throughout the surrounding area.

Speaking with Interview magazine recently, Yi best exemplified her views about the essential nature of olfactory experience: "I’ve always maintained that when you’re on death row, you should get last scents or last sounds, the same way you get last meals.” When asked what it was she'd actually like to smell, however, the results are not likely to be to everyone's taste: "Something unpopular, like a human armpit, or maybe scalp, mixed with something a little bit spicy." Probably not what we'd choose, but still a testament to her feeling.

A number of her other pieces are also on display in the Kunsthalle Basel gallery, so if conceptual, ephemeral beauty is your particular cup of tea, be sure to swing by and check it out - it literally won't last forever.

Posted on July 10th 2015 on 03:08pm

Wednesday 08th July 2015Art Travel Ban

Tourism is one of the world's great industries - after all, the world is an incredibly beautiful and exciting place. Over the years a number of specialized versions of tourism have evolved, some more prominent than others, but one that has been gaining steam lately is tourism combined with art purchasing (as strange as it might just seem). Not everyone seems to view this with the same equanimity, unfortunately, which can lead to some strange and perhaps misguided attempts to correct the perceived problem.

Germany, which is home to the second largest art auction market in the world after the United States, has recently decided to propose laws to govern the purchase and sale of art by non-residents. Apparently, it is quite common for visitors to Germany, whether casual tourists or wealthy collectors, to purchase art during the course of their trip, which obviously has cultural and economic benefits for everyone involved. This has provoked a knee-jerk reaction among some elements of German society, which lead to the development of the bill in question.

Needless to say, a complete ban on traveling purchases is a rather extreme measure that has aroused the ire of art buyers, auctioneers and artists all around the world. The theory is that the law will prevent Germany's cultural and historical artifacts from being sold off to wealthy collectors in other parts of the world, but it may in fact become a stifling measure that inspires artists and auctioneers to move to more friendly and tolerant cultural climes.

While the law hasn't actually been formally put on the books yet, it has a serious chance of passing. The Culture Minister, Monika Grütters, plans to bring the draft law to Chancellor Angela Merkel's cabinet for approval during August. This is likely to create a major upheaval in the multibillion dollar world art market if it passes, of course, and who knows what kind of negative impact it will have on Germany's role in the artistic community. It seems a bit strange in a modern, information-friendly global economy that this kind of ban is felt to be necessary, so here's hoping that the rest of the German government understands the negative impacts this ban would have on a whole host of related industries, not just the artistic world.

Posted on July 08th 2015 on 04:18pm

Friday 03rd July 2015Escapee Art the New Hot Ticket?

This is likely one of the strangest stories we've ever written about during the long history of the Gallereo blog - and that's saying quite a bit! If you live in North America, you're probably familiar with the basis of the story, which revolves around two convicts who escaped from a New York state prison in June (both of whom have been "dealt with" by the authorities, by this point). If you live elsewhere, in summary, two convicted killers escaped from a New York state prison using hitherto unsuspected means - in other words, the authorities initially had absolutely no idea how they managed to escape, aside from the tunnels they left inside the prison walls.

What eventually came to light after a number of gruelling weeks for officials in both government and the prison itself was that the inmates escaped with the help of some of the corrections officers themselves. But rather than the presumed tactics of violence, blackmail, or other types of coercion, it turns out that one of the guards involved aided Richard W. Matt, one of the escapees, for a remarkably unlikely reason: Matt's talent as an artist.

Over the course of several months, Matt convinced the guard in question, Gene Palmer, that his intentions were honourable, and Palmer helped to smuggle any number of objects into the prison, from paints and brushes to frozen meat with escape tools embedded deep within. In exchange, Matt gave Palmer a number of his artistic creations, most of which were not released to the media. The only exception is the photo attached to this article, which comes from the New York Times, with all photo credits due to CNYCentral.

Apparently, this isn't the only occurrence of this particular form of bribery, although it seems to be the only case that involved an actual escape. Speaking to the New York Times on condition of anonymity, an official said "“It happens all the time. Pictures are often done by inmates and offered up to staff and I’ve even seen them given to wardens.”

So remember - even if you're not the next Picasso, if you ever find yourself unjustly imprisoned, you may very well be able to utilize your artistic talents to help make good your escape! (Not that we would ever condone breaking the law, of course!). Happy creating!

Posted on July 03rd 2015 on 04:28pm
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