Ai Weiwei Released

Mr. Ai was reached on his cell phone shortly before 12:30 a.m. Thursday. “I’m released, I’m home, I’m fine,” he said in English. “In legal terms, I’m — how do you say — on bail. So I cannot give any interviews. But I’m fine.”

via, NYTimes.com

Free Ai Weiwei

by Jonathan Blaustein

Photograph by Hugo Tillman

America loves a good bad guy. We’re never really at our best until our backs are against the wall. Just look at Rocky Balboa. He was fat, tired and lazy until Clubber Lang came along. Or was it Ivan Drago? Regardless, Manifest Destiny aside, we see ourselves as a nation of good-guy gunslingers, out to make the world safe for democracy.

So what are we to do now? Osama Bin Laden, our Number one foil, is dead. Execution style, no less. We’ve just begun the second decade of the 21st Century, and we’re lacking a proper Bond villain to whip us into fighting shape. Don’t worry, I’ve got an idea. Aside from consuming, what’s more American than Freedom? Nothing, right? From Patrick Henry on down, we’ve always been willing to scrap over our freedom to drink, smoke, and say whatever the hell we damn well please. Honestly, I’m writing this article for an audience who sometimes treats the comment section like an after hours speakeasy on the Jersey Shore. Freedom of speech is something we can all believe in, and unfortunately we probably take it for granted.

Enter Ai Weiwei. He’s the most famous Contemporary Chinese artist in the world. (Which probably makes him slightly less famous than whatever teenaged bimbos are pimping on MTV at the moment.) Anyway, for those of you who haven’t yet heard of Ai Weiwei, he’s a multi-media artist and architect, and the son of one of China’s most prominent poets. His work drips with rebellion and epitomizes the freedom of expression at all costs. He once made a photo series in which he’s photographed giving the middle finger to the White House, the Eiffel Tower, and the Imperial Palace in Beijing. He also champions the rights of the less fortunate China, having undertaken significant risk to investigate the death of so many rural schoolchildren in the aftermath of the Sichan Earthquake of 2008. He just showed 100 million hand painted ceramic sunflower seeds at the Tate Modern in London, and of course recently unveiled a set of sculptures near the Plaza Hotel in New York.

Oh, yeah. And he was also kidnapped by the Chinese government last month. I’d say disappeared, but it was reported last week that his wife was able to visit him and confirm he’s not dead yet. Ai Weiwei was taken off a plane by government agents in April, his studio was destroyed, and he was locked away indefinitely for the vague, trumped up charge of “economic crimes.”

Which brings us back to my nomination for America’s new Enemy Number 1: The cadre of ruthless assholes who runs the Chinese Communist Party. (There’s a bit or Orwellian double-speak for you. Calling the worlds largest sovereign wealth fund Communist.) Really, I know this will sound naivé and simplistic. Barack Obama has no leverage with these guys right now, you’ll say. They own our debt, so they can do as they please. Even Google backed down from a fight, so they must be some pretty bad dudes. I’ll stipulate that. They might even hack my email after we publish this article.

But hear me out. Ai Weiwei was locked away not because he was horribly critical of the CCP. He wasn’t, really. I mean, who can get angry with someone who honors dead schoolchildren? He also helped design the Bird’s Nest stadium for the 2008 Olympics, so they couldn’t have hated him that much. Ai Weiwei wasn’t a threat because of the content of his art, it was because of his process. He spoke his mind, made what he wanted to, built an audience on his blog and Twitter. Sound familiar? Basically, he acted like a digitally literate, free human being in the 21st Century. Just like us. How many of you make the pictures you want to make, say the words you want to say, write the comments you want to write?

Ever since I first saw Zhang Yimou’s “Hero” seven years ago, I knew this day was coming. (Yes, he’s the same guy who choreographed the 2008 Olympics opening ceremonies that gave so many people the heebie-geebies.) I’d say spoiler alert, but the film was made in 2002, so you had your chance. Jet Li, the film’s lead, spends the entire movie trying to track down and assassinate the Chinese Emperor, back in the day. At the end, just as he’s about to do the deed, the Emperor talks him out of it, convincing Jet Li to instead give up his own life in service of the Empire. Our land. Kneel before Zod. It’s the Anti-Hollywood ending, and given Yimou’s favored-son-status with the government, I read the writing on the wall. The individual will always take a back seat to the Empire, the authority figure.

That’s why Ai Weiwei got locked up. He was the living embodiment of the power of ideas: ideas that are particularly dangerous to the Powers That Be right now, what with the Arab Spring and all. These are the same CCP leaders that own our debt, and just flew some Steath Fighter jets over Bob Gates’ head. So let’s have no more illusions that we’ll all just get along, or that they’ll allow us to corrupt their system with our dysfunctional democracy. Not. Going. To. Happen.

So Free Ai Weiwei. Tell your friends. Tell your kids. Speak your mind a little louder in your new photo project. And maybe next time you’re in the local Walmart, you’ll consider buying some cheap crap from the Phillipines, or Bangladesh. Or better yet, maybe you’ll spend the extra $3 to get something made in the USA. We still make tractors, right?

Jonathan Blaustein Acquisitions

APE contributor Jonathan Blaustein told me about acquisitions of his work by the State of New Mexico and Library of Congress. I wanted him to write about it, because like me I’m sure many of you are curious how this whole process works. He was reluctant to write about it and be too self-congratulatory on the blog (he is paid to write for APE), so I asked him a few questions instead.

APE: Tell me what the acquisitions were?

JB: The State of New Mexico recently purchased a unique portfolio of the entire “Value of a Dollar” project for the State’s permanent Public Art collection, at market value. The Library of Congress purchased a portfolio of the project as well, from the 16×20 edition,  which will reside in its permanent archive, and be accessible to the public online and in person, I believe.  I’ll be delivering the work to them in the next month or so, so it’s not in their database yet.

APE: Can you give me a brief background on how you got into fine art photography? What was your path to get where you are now?

JB: I picked up a camera for no particular reason back in 1996. I was moving back to New Mexico from New York, and bought some black & white film before I took a solo cross country drive through the South. I was hooked immediately, and decided to go back to school to study photography at UNM, since I was a state resident, and it was cheap. The program was fine art based, and I studied with Tom Barrow and Patrick Nagatani, who were both steeped in conceptualism. So from the beginning, I used photography as a means of creative expression. After Albuquerque, I lived in San Francisco and started showing my work in local galleries and art spaces. From there, I moved back to New York to get an MFA at Pratt, which totally rocks, and then came back to New Mexico in 2005. I’ve been fortunate that we have a great collection of talent, resources and photographic institutions out here.

APE: I know nothing about acquisitions, so tell me how important they are to fine art photographers?

JB: I think most artists would like to have their work collected by museums and institutions.  It offers credibility, and the opportunity for the public to actually interact with your work.  Also, it’s tough to sell work nowadays, so public acquisitions can be a great source of income. In this case, the size of the two acquisitions was equivalent any of the biggest grants or fellowships around, so now I’ll be able to pay the bills, and catch my breath for the first time in a long while.

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APE: What is the process like, how do you get on someone’s radar for an acquisition? Walk me through what happened to you in these cases?

JB: Well, as I wrote last year, I attended the Review Santa Fe portfolio review in 2009 and 2010.  The first year, people really liked “The Value of a Dollar,” but nothing popped.  Last year, there seemed to be a bit more buzz around the project. I had a twenty minute review with Josh Haner, an editor for the New York Times Lens Blog, and he said he’d like to publish the work on the spot. I also had a review with Verna Curtis, a curator from the Library of Congress, who was really taken with the series.  She said she’d like to figure out a way to acquire it for the collection, but that it would take a while to sort out the logistics. So I followed her instructions as to how to stay in touch, and it played out over the course of six or seven months.

The State of New Mexico purchase came out of a great program that we have here that’s run by an organization called New Mexico Arts. Each year, they buy work from New Mexico artists through the Art in Public Places acquisition program. They put out an online call for entries, and I submitted some work. A friend who’d been funded before suggested that I email some of the staff directly to introduce myself and get some advice, so I did. As a result, the director of the program ended up on my email list.

Last fall, the New York Times followed through and published “The Value of a Dollar” on the Lens Blog. The story went viral immediately, and I had 500,000 hits to my website within a week. It was unexpected, and totally insane. I sent out an email blast about the Lens Blog publication and the viral mania, and the AIPP program manager responded to my email, saying he’d like to talk about acquiring a portfolio of the work.  It took 5 months of patient follow up, and then I got the meeting in February of this year.  We negotiated and shook hands on a deal that day, and it was all wrapped up within a couple of months.

APE: What’s next? Obviously, like with commercial and editorial photography, success begets success so how do you capitalize on this?

JB: It’s a good question. I’m hoping the momentum continues, but it’s tough out there. Like everyone else, I’d really like to get the photographs on the wall in New York.  It’s the center of the Art world, obviously, as well as the rest of the photo industry.  But lately, my primary focus has been on making new work. I’ve been busting it out in the studio since January on a follow up project so I can take advantage of the publicity, and the fact that people will probably pay attention to what comes next.  It seemed important to come up with a new idea that would be as good or better than the last, so that I don’t end being the Dollar guy like some early 80’s one hit wonder. I’d also like to establish a solid relationship with a dealer in one of the prime art markets, like New York, LA, London or Berlin.

Really, I think that many art photographers are trying to re-evaluate what success even means in 2011 (See Aline Smithson’s recent post on Lenscratch).  This photo series connected with countless people across the planet through the Internet, and the ideas have continued to resonate.  So I’m also asking myself if my goals should extend beyond the gallery and museum wall, into a more active role within the politics of food.

Photography Is Still In Its Infancy And Some Doors Still Need Kicking In

Matt Henry, a UK based photographer wrote today’s post.

There’s an interesting précis here of photographer Paul Graham’s lecture at the first MoMA Photography Forum which took place this week. I’m gonna précis a précis here by saying that he was claiming that the art world doesn’t take photography that isn’t somehow representing art in the traditional sense at all seriously. So unless you make sets out of paper and photograph them, like Thomas Demand, dress yourself up in all sorts of elaborate costumes and take self-portraits, like Cindy Sherman, or recreate scenes that you’ve spotted out and about a la Jeff Wall, you ain’t getting written about in any high brow art journals, or splashed about the right gallery walls.

His argument was that the process of snapping ones surroundings in an instinctive fashion like William Eggleston, Gary Winogrand, Walker Evans, or Stephen Shore isn’t understood by an art world obsessed with due thought and process; unless you’ve been slumped in a chair thinking about it for at least five minutes, it somehow doesn’t count. But then he goes on to say that the ‘straight’ photography of these old guys is finally getting its recognition, and it’s more the modern straight photographers that aren’t getting their credit. Perhaps he has a few friends then frustrated that their own recognition doesn’t rival his.

But ‘straight’ photography gets more than its fair share of due; Alec Soth is the rising star of the moment after all, and there are countless others like him. Thanks to the brilliance of Eggleston and pals, most of the language of photography is couched largely in these ‘straight’ terms; if it’s not found, and it’s not real, it’s not worthy of gallery walls (unless of course it’s more recorded sculpture, in the Demand or the Sherman sense). And this is why every other photograph seems to be of an empty car park, a left-over meal in a diner, a suburban home, or an aerial shot of beach goers. Even Jeff Wall’s narratives are often recreations of real events, which is probably what made them palatable to the art world in the first instance.

Which makes me think photography as a medium is still in its infancy and some rotten doors need kicking in. Sure the documentary is a big part of cinema, but most people choose narrative fiction as means of communicating those same themes that artists touch upon; themes that we all need to explore as human beings: life, love, loss, purpose, faith, hope, friendship, ambition, desire, duty…. Yet few have used this medium in any meaningful sense in photography, mostly because those that do are allied to the commercial sector, which in many (though not all) cases is liable to dilute self-expression. Fashion photography is the one genre that openly embraces narrative, yet it’s reliance on great looking people in great looking clothes kind of guarantees a general vacuity. Aside from Crewdson, who doesn’t personally appeal, all my coffee table books are dedicated to ‘straight’ photography. I would very much like a few that explored the world through fiction.

Exit Through The Gift Shop Star Mr. Brainwash Sued By Photographer

If you haven’t seen the Oscar nominated documentary Exit Through The Gift Shop it’s well worth checking out and available to stream on Netflix. The film tells the story of Thierry Guetta AKA Mr. Brainwash a French appropriation artist who many believe is simply a made up character/actor created by British graffiti artist Banksy. The film also stars Shepard Fairey and goes into good detail on the history and rise of street art. What’s fascinating, if you read up on the hoax theory before watching the film, is that Banksy might have pulled off an elaborate modern “Emperor’s New Clothes” tale and certainly Guetta and to some degree the popularity of street art reads that way in the film.

Last week The Hollywood Reporter uncovered an ongoing lawsuit between photographer Glen E. Friedman and Guetta for his use of an iconic Run DMC image and THR draws parallels between the now settled AP vs. Fairey lawsuit. In an article for Boingboing (here) Sean Bonner explains why this use would not be considered “Fair Use” but the Fairey use would. It all hinges on the Friedman image being iconic where the Mannie Garcia image is thought of as “a random press image.” My problem with this perfectly logical argument is that you’re creating a new gray area for a type of use (fair) that is full of gray areas. At what point does an image become iconic or a clearer way of looking at it, at what point does it have value. Fairey admitted that he looked a thousands of images before settling on the perfect one (Garcia’s) so that indicates value. Any image an artist decides to use immediately has value, so in my opinion if an artist want’s fair use they need to transform it into something else or only use a small piece. Deciding if it has value is impossible and certainly not something we want the courts to decide. Visit the MOMA to see a blank canvas, ripped canvas and canned shit if you think otherwise.

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You do have to play by the art market rules

This story in the Financial Times Magazine on Annie L. is fascinating, but not because I want to revel in her financial misfortune or the “disparity between Annie’s importance as a photographer and the price fetched by her work in the art market.”

I recall a very smart quote from one of my commenters admonishing readers to “make no mistake, fine art photography is as commercial as commercial photography.” So, for me the thread in the story on how the photography art market works and how difficult it is for editorial and commercial photographers to play is very fascinating. As Michael Wilson, a producer of Bond films and owner one of the largest private collections of photography in the world puts it: “Art is basically what a bunch of collectors and curators say it is, there is no getting around that.”

The Leibovitz story, however, is more than a tale of a photographer who got absorbed into the high-spending world of the people she portrays. It is a reflection of something unexpected – that, despite all her celebrity and talent, Leibovitz lacks earning power as an artist.

The whole story is (here).

via, conscientious.

7 Year Old Exhibits Her Work At Photo Biennial

Seven year old Carmen Soth will be exhibiting her work at the Brighton Photo Biennial, October 2– November 14 2010. The Biennial, entitled New Documents is curated by Martin Parr.

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Of course there’s more to it than that, but I thought I’d bait you with a sensationalist lead. Carmen is the daughter of Alec Soth and while she is the author of the photographs, many were taken under his direction. He also edited the 2000 frames she took in Brighton, into a cohesive body of work.

It all came about after he was told by customs officials in Heathrow that he could face up to two years in prison if he was caught taking photographs without a working visa. If this seems like a giant FU to the UK for not allowing him to work Alec isn’t saying so, but instead asserts that “working with Carmen reminded me that the greatest photography is vernacular. Sometimes, not being professional can be an asset…” In the gravity defying art world I tend to agree with him on that. In The Guardian, where the story on all of this appears (here), he was asked if her photographs are any good to which he replied “Yes, I think they could stand alongside any other professional work.”

Personally, I would have preferred to find out the work was shot by a 7 year old after the exhibit had started and the reviews had come in. That would have been a fascinating experiment.