Category Archives: Denmark

Weiwei-isms by Ai Weiwei


Books come in all shapes and sizes, but perhaps the most potent format is both small and black. The collected quotes of Ai Weiwei should have come in nothing less.

Editor Larry Warsh has trawled through some 74 interviews with the Chinese artist to bring readers in the West a meditation on his life and situation in soundbites.

Then again, his countrymen have always liked to keep things short and snappy. Ai tells us that the quotations of Chairman Mao were rarely more than a tweet-length.

Admittedly, China’s pictographic use of Twitter allows them 140 words rather than 140 characters, but still. Confucius can be quoted just four words at a time, says Ai.

Since these are verbal epithets, Weiwei-isms contains a degree of repetition and odd moments of banality. A modern day Shakespeare, “might be writing on Twitter.” Really!?

But if that obvious statement were to come true, the bard could not do better than this from Ai’s twitter feed (@aiww): “The world is a sphere, there is no East or West.”

The ultimate power of this book lies not in the words, however, but in the free-wheeling attitude they represent in one of the most restrictive societies on the planet.

“Expressing oneself is like a drug. I’m so addicted to it,” says Ai, who has indeed found the most dangerous and least legal narcotic in China.

As has been much publicised, in 2011 he was busted and spent 81 days behind bars. “During the days in detention I thought most about the moon,” he says, incorrigibly.

Ai’s belief in free speech makes interview-giving an important part of his role in the art world. Along with the social media usage, one wants to call it a practice, but that word sounds too academic.

Which this tweet certainly isn’t: “Overturning police cars is a super-intense workout. It’s probably the only sport I enjoy.” This allies him with rebel artists Voina in Russia, who did just that.

Artists in the West have always taken risks, be that earning the displeasure of the church, rejection by the Paris Salon or simply the derision of the gallery going public.

But on the whole making art is a legitimate enough business. Ai meanwhile is risking his neck and this gives his art another dimension. Call it a sort of realism.

Despite our relative freedoms, his little black book really is a manifesto. Ai may be kicking against the pricks, but he makes it look easy, irrestistible, even enjoyable. So join him.

Weiwei-isms (pp125) is edited by Larry Warsh and published by Princeton University Press. Available in all good bookshops, and this bad one.

Review: Christen Købke – Danish Master of Light

Christen Købke (1810–1848), View from Dosseringen near the Sortedam Lake Looking towards Nørrebro, 1838, Statens Museum for Kunst, Copenhagen© SMK Foto

Exhibition: Christen Købke – Danish Master of Light, The National Gallery, London, until June 13 2010

This is an exhibition in which each painting’s title is as precise as the brushwork. View of a Street in Østerbro Outside Copenhagen, on the Right ‘Rosendal’, in the Background ‘Petersberg’ is a case in point.

The picture itself has the gloss and attention to detail of a still from a period drama. It is a leisurely street scene revealing Denmark to be a place of harmony and plenty. Yet the realities at time of painting, during the first half of the 19th century, were social unrest and economic collapse

As in much of the work of Christen Købke a soft light picks out detail which may or may not be authentic. In Frederiksborg Castle, View Near the Møntbro Bridge, he has no qualms about airbrushing a too-modern 18th century staircase out of the scene.

Elsewhere in Portrait of Naval Lieutenant D. Christian Schifter Feilberg he includes a small window, but the finicky touch appears reflected in the end of an epaulette.

There can be no doubt, Købke was an idealist. Recent history, such as the Napoleonic Wars, may have ravaged his homeland but he responds with landscapes and portraits of meticulous calm and a warm, often rosy light.

The only hint of trouble is found in his bold compositions. The Danish painter crops buildings and goes with unusual perspectives.

In Roof Ridge of Frederiksborg Castle with a View of Lake, Town and Forest it is the sky which fills most of the canvas. But Købke’s skies, whether blank, white and eternal, or filled with solid, static clouds also belie the passing of time.

Meanwhile, he paints the national flag, in View from Dosseringen Near the Sortedam Lake Looking Towards Nørrebro, with too much slow care for it to flutter.

But this was in one sense Denmark’s Golden Age. The arts were thriving. Both Søren Kierkegaard and Hans Christian Andersen were then writing. These were the good times which Købke’s aspic-like pictures did so well to preserve.

Written for Culture24.