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Ai WeiWei, Cai Guo-qiang, Cao Fai

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Ai WeiWei, Cai Guo-qiang, Cao Fai

I love the art21 series because each segment is 15 minutes and a perfect video entry into a lesson. The DVDs are available from, but you can also stream directly from their website. I have put the links in below.

I have featured here the 3 artists born in China: Ai Weiwei, Cai Guo-Qiang, and Cao Fei. Each of them is very different, but they make a great vision of artists working today, engaged with the materials and ideas of the present. Some of their art, or choice of materials makes connections to Chinese history, but some do not.

The segment on Ai WeiWei shows the artist under house arrest and he is subdued. A better film to really get the scope of Weiwei’s personality and scope of his work is in “Ai WeiWei Never Sorry” (rated R, so not good for classroom) and I will review that film on another post and it is an excellent introduction to WeiWei’s career. There is a 2.5 minute promo for this film on, which is probably enough for your students to see the change in his demeanor over time. This segment on art21 show the artist keeping his artisans busy with more formal (and less controversial) projects such as making a marble servailance camera, and gorgeously crafted wooden forms I will call “soccer balls.” It gives you a clue as to the importance of WeiWei’s patronage keeping some Chinese artisans alive in their traditional practice.

Cai Guo-Qiang is an exciting artist. His main medium is the gunpowder and minerals used in fireworks. He creates drawings with these media, and then the fireworks are ignited in performance. The drawings are the evidence of the performance. I was lucky to be chosen as a studio assistant to the artist for his MOCA show and we worked cutting stencils, and eventually on the pyrotechnic team to insure that his drawing did not burn up! In this video, you see the artist show a scroll painting, and tiny “matchbox” paintings that are an influence on the artist today. Cai studied set design, and you can see this in the magnitude of the installations that he creates. In the classroom his work could be used many ways- first, chemistry, what makes fireworks work, 2nd, metaphor of drawing with fire, 3rd: the themes of china in his large scrolls, 4th: the theme of the “alien” he has embraced since moving out of China. More of his work here:
Cao Fai is the youngest of the artists, and she is working mainly in the realm of the digital. Her early videos showed the adaption of Rap Music into Chinese culture, and the role of Cosplay on spoiled teens. She since has gone on to do an interesting collaborative with corporations, where workers in a lightbulb factory dance out their fantasy lives on video. Her most recent project includes the creation of an avatar, and then an entire section of city in the game Second Life. I think young people will relate to her themes. She could be used to talk about how the world is flat and the internet allows anybody with access to have a universal experience.

All of the text below is taken from the art21 pbs website as posted here in the links.
Ai WeiWei
Starts at minute 41:00- 55:00

From the web site:
About this video
During his incarceration, artist Ai Weiwei's assistants, E-Shyh Wong and Inserk Yang come to New York in his place for the unveiling of Ai's public artwork near Central Park "Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads" (2010). Wong and Yang provide insight into his working processes and their belief that neither they nor we should remain silent about his detention. During his September 2011 interview with Art21, Ai comments on his marble sculpture of a surveillance camera, an object increasingly present in modern life in all societies, which, he says is used to "secretly monitor people’s behavior". "But once it’s marble" he continues, "it’s only being watched. It's not functioning anymore."

Cai Guo-Qiang
Starts at minute 00:00- 15:00
About this video “My work is sometimes like the poppy flower. It has this almost romantic side, but yet it also represents a poison,” says Cai Guo-Qiang, who harnesses the explosive power of gunpowder to create epic works that are born in violent on-site acts of performance. For his show "Inopportune" at MASS MoCA, Cai explores catastrophe, pain and the meaning of terrorism in the world since September 11th with an installation of tumbling cars that follow a path through the air. In neighboring galleries, a video imagines a car bomb in Times Square and a series of stuffed tigers pierced by arrows elicits a disturbing, visceral reaction. “Behind all this is a very earnest and frank look at our society today,” says Cai.
About Ai Weiwei Ai Weiwei was born in Beijing, China in 1957. An outspoken human rights activist, Ai was arrested by Chinese authorities in April 2011 and held incommunicado for three months. Upon his release, he was prohibited from traveling abroad, engaging in public speech, and was subjected to continued government surveillance. Ai’s position as a provocateur and dissident artist informs the tenor and reception of much of his recent work. He infuses his sculptures, photographs, and public artworks with political conviction and personal poetry, often making use of recognizable and historic Chinese art forms in critical examinations of a host of contemporary Chinese political and social issues. In his sculptural works he often uses reclaimed materials—ancient pottery and wood from destroyed temples —in a conceptual gesture that connects tradition with contemporary social concerns. He also employs sarcasm, juxtaposition, and repetition to reinvigorate the potency and symbolism of traditional images and to reframe the familiar with minimal means. A writer and curator, Ai extends his practice across multiple disciplines and through social media to communicate with a global public and to engage fellow artists with projects on a massive scale. Ai Weiwei attended the Beijing Film Academy and the Parsons School of Design in New York. He has received an honorary doctorate from the Faculty of Politics and Social Science, University of Ghent, Belgium (2010), as well as many awards, including the Skowhegan Medal (2011) and the Chinese Contemporary Art Award (2008). His work has appeared in major exhibitions at Kunsthaus Bregenz (2011); the Victoria & Albert Museum, London (2011); Asia Society Museum, New York (2011); Tate Modern, London (2010); São Paulo Bienal (2010); Haus der Kunst, Munich (2009); Mori Art Museum, Tokyo (2009); and Documenta XII (2007). Ai Weiwei lives and works in Beijing, China.

About Cai Guo-Qiang

Cai Guo-Qiang was born in 1957 in Quanzhou City, Fujian Province, China, and lives and works in New York. He studied stage design at the Shanghai Drama Institute from 1981 to 1985 and attended the Institute for Contemporary Art: The National and International Studio Program at P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City. His work is both scholarly and politically charged. Accomplished in a variety of media, Cai began using gunpowder in his work to foster spontaneity and confront the controlled artistic tradition and social climate in China....

Cao Fei Season 5: Fantasy Begins at minute 39:00 About this video
“Dear ladies and gentleman, I’m China Tracy—the avatar of Cao Fei—and I’m her interpreter.” Cao Fei’s digital Second Life alter ego acts as the English translator for the Chinese-speaking artist throughout the segment, guiding the viewer through seven multimedia projects. A day-in-the-life is captured in the sensitive "Milkman," corporate culture is critiqued in the surrealistic "Rabid Dogs," while the assimilation of American pop culture by Asians is celebrated in Cao's series of "Hip Hop" videos. Through a blend of documentary and magical realism, the artist investigates various aspects of role play: costumed youth and their families, workers’ dreams come to life at a Siemens light factory, and the simulated romance between avatars. The segment culminates in the artist’s ongoing project, "RMB City," an artificial island built in the 3D virtual world of Second Life that resembles a postmodern collage of landmarks, urban over-development, and Chinese landscape painting.

Cao Fei was born in Guangzhou, China, in 1978. She earned a BFA from Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in Guangzhou, China (2001). Cao Fei’s work reflects the fluidity of a world in which cultures have mixed and diverged in rapid evolution. Her video installations and new media works explore perception and reality in places as diverse as a Chinese factory and the virtual world of "Second Life." Applying strategies of sampling, role play, and documentary filmmaking to capture individuals’ longings and the ways in which they imagine themselves—as hip-hop musicians, costumed characters, or digitized alter egos—Cao Fei reveals the discrepancy between reality and dream, and the discontent and disillusionment of China’s younger generation. Depictions of hyper-capitalistic Pearl River Delta development abound in images that echo traditional Chinese landscape painting and in the design of her own virtual utopia, RMB City. Fascinated by the world of "Second Life," Cao Fei has created several works in which she is both participant and observer through her "Second Life" avatar, China Tracy, who acts as a guide, philosopher, and tourist. Cao Fei’s work has appeared in solo exhibitions at the Serpentine Gallery, London (2008); Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, California (2007); Museum Het Domein, Sittard, Netherlands (2006); and Para Site Art Space, Hong Kong (2006). She has participated in the New Museum Triennial (2009); Carnegie International, Pittsburgh (2008); Prospect.1 New Orleans (2008); Yokohama Triennial (2008); and the Biennials of Istanbul, Lyon, and Venice (2007). Her work has appeared at New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (2008); Walker Art Center, Minneapolis (2007); P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center, Long Island City (2006); and Asia Society, New York (2006). Cao Fei lives and works in Beijing.
edited by jmcmanus on 8/10/2015