Ai Weiwei casts a shadow over the Milwaukee Art Museum’s Summer of China
"The Emperor’s Private Paradise" and other Chinese art exhibitions at the MAM face local criticism due to Ai's arrest.
As the Arab Spring rippled through the Middle East, calls for a similar “Jasmine Revolution” in China led to government censorship of the Internet and numerous arrests. “This is a society lacking in discussion, in frankness,” Beijing-based artist Ai Weiwei told Time Out Hong Kong in March. A few weeks later, Ai was arrested. His “crime” appears to have been criticizing the Chinese government on his blog, which was shut down in 2009, and on Twitter.
Ai’s imprisonment put the Milwaukee Art Museum in a difficult position. In June, the MAM launched five exhibitions of Chinese art, which I saw last month. The centerpiece of the museum’s “Summer of China,” which ends September 11, is “The Emperor’s Private Paradise: Treasures from the Forbidden City,” which the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem, Massachusetts, curated in partnership with the government-run Palace Museum in Beijing, and in cooperation with the World Monuments Fund.
“The Emperor’s Private Paradise” presents approximately 90 objects that China’s Qianlong Emperor, who reigned from 1736–95, commissioned for his two-acre Beijing retirement residence, which the WMF and Palace Museum are restoring to its former glory. According to the show’s organizers, once the emperor’s over-the-top paintings, vases, cloisonné works and pieces of furniture finish their U.S. tour, they probably won’t leave China again.
Before the “Summer of China” shows opened, observers such as Milwaukee Journal Sentinel art critic Mary Louise Schumacher asked if the MAM should join other museums in protesting Ai’s detention. “The Emperor’s Private Paradise” focuses so tightly on the Qianlong Emperor’s connoisseurship and the process of restoring his exquisite possessions that it seems divorced from modern-day China. But one doesn’t have to be a Boddhisattva of Enlightened Wisdom (pictured in first photo) to deduce that the Chinese government probably hopes 18th-century bling distracts the world from its contemporary human-rights abuses.
Unfortunately, MAM director Daniel Keegan refused to sign the Guggenheim Foundation’s petition requesting Ai’s release. “I would say very emphatically that we should not protest ever,” he told Schumacher, who reported that Keegan “believes it’s ineffective.” (Ai was released on bail June 22, but he can't leave the country or talk to journalists, and still faces charges of tax evasion.) Under pressure, the MAM added a July 7 panel discussion, “Ai Weiwei: The Collision of Art and Politics,” to its “Summer of China” programs. Asked for a comment about that discussion, and the MAM’s response to concerns about Ai, Keegan would only say through a MAM spokesperson that the panel “was balanced with diverse voices, informative, well-attended, and the audience asked good questions.”
Critics were bound to link the Chinese government’s actions to “Summer of China,” which includes two exhibitions of contemporary art: “On Site: Zhan Wang,” which highlights the Beijing artist’s stainless steel sculptures of scholars’ rocks, and “Emerald Mountains,” which assembles lovely 20th-century ink paintings from art historian Chu-tsing Li’s collection. Neither is controversial—but on July 12, the museum added Yue Minjun’s politically pointed installation Contemporary Chinese Warriors (pictured in last photo, 2006) to its contemporary galleries.
Wondering how China’s crackdown affected artists other than Ai, I contacted art historian and curator Wu Hung, Chicago’s foremost expert on contemporary Chinese art, but he did not respond to requests for comment. Barbara Pollack, who’s covered the Chinese art market for The New York Times and Vanity Fair, among other publications, tells me by phone that when she visited China in May, “Younger artists that I talked to…felt like they might have considered making political art, but now they would be too scared to do it.”
Pollack, who speaks about her book The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic’s Adventures in China at the MAM August 11, thinks expecting the museum to cancel “The Emperor’s Private Paradise” is misguided, however. “The Chinese government is very interested in soft power and sees art as a way of raising its profile in the world,” she confirms. “[But] when China was an isolated country, this was a terrible period, both for China and for the West.… The arts have played a central role in ending that isolation.” When I viewed the “Summer of China” art, which also includes sculptures from the Han, Tang and Ming dynasties, as well as 18th-century European chinoiserie ceramics, I couldn’t see the benefit of withholding its works from American audiences.
Still, Pollack wishes that American museums wouldn’t “censor themselves in anticipation of problems” with the Chinese government. Many younger officials at the Ministry of Culture “were educated in the West and know a lot about contemporary art,” she explains. “Instead of playing along with the rules that they set, it would be good if we could negotiate for more liberal dialogue.”
Barbara Pollack speaks at the MAM August 11 at 6:15pm.