Ai Weiwei: So Sorry, Mark Siemons & Ai Weiwei (Prestel) €19.95
Ai Weiwei is almost as prolific a blogger as he is an artist. On Twitter hundreds of immitators use variations of his name as their monikers, making it almost impossible for the government—or even Weiwei’s own admirers—to find the man himself. His routine criticism of the one-party rule in contemporary China finds him officially unpopular, but his international fame allows him the freedom to continue voicing his opinions. The art in So Sorry, which accompanies many of his unusually eloquent blog posts, mostly philosophical in tone, ranges from his thousands-of-backpacks mural commemorating the students who died in the Sichuan Earthquake to his photographs of himself flipping the bird to their Eiffel Tower and Tianamen to the Beijing 2008 Olympic Stadium.
Throughout Ai Weiwei writes eloquently, as in his first included post, “Forget about It,” about the Sichuan Earthquake in May 2008, translated fluidly by Lee Ambrozy:
The question is, does karma really exist in this world? At least I’m not a believer. For if it did, retribution would have come long ago, and wouldn’t have dragged on so long; fate and efficiency are both unreliable. If there were karma, at the very least it would show itself within a certain scope, or let even a fraction of its spirit reveal itself, rather than allowing tens of millions of people within a few million square kilometers to collectively descend into sky-toppling desperation. It’s all too vague and imprecise, it’s enough to add to the sinking faith of the skeptics.
My favorite chapter, a diamond among gems, is 07, “Furniture and Wood Works,” which contains a great selection of photographs almost entirely by themselves. So Sorry is a great introduction to the work of an artist with an ouevre almost as big as the nation he hails from.
Maira Kalman: Various Illuminations (of a Crazy World), Ingrid Schaffner (DelMonico Books/Prestel) $34.95
Maira Kalman’s traveling exhibition that accompanies this book just left Philadelphia’s Institute of Contemporary Art, headed for the Contemporary Jewish Museum in San Francisco, where it will be on display until its arrival at the Skirball, here in Los Angeles, in early November. Despite her fame as a painter and illustrator, Various Illuminations is true to the Various of its title; the book includes photography, textiles, embroidery, columns from The New York Times, fabrics for Mizrahi, and theatrical sets. The one consistent theme in this year’s monographs from Prestel is their subjects’ versatility.
Kalman’s work is often described as off-kilter, but with a slight suggestion of whimsy. This book does contain her kaleiscopic landscapes and portraits, but united with more somber work, like 2002’s The Planes Attacked, featuring two airplanes of black shadow headed toward two simple white towers against a bright nursery blue, as well as paintings that fit somewhere between the two poles, like Annual Misery Day Parade.
Schaffner’s critical writing, which accompany Kalman’s art for most of the book, is refreshingly organized into brief chapters she calls “Exaltations/Observations,” including sections on recurring character Max, Dreams, Mapping, and Milton, which begins with an anecdote about Kalman’s one word response—the great poet’s name—to The New York Times when asked “what she would like to see someday in Times Square.”
The book ends with photographs of an installation, Many Tables of Many Things, from Kalman’s collection of furniture, objects, and ephemera, a deeply personal exhibit that collects in simple yardsale format things as various as antique Persian phrasebooks, a card catalogue of Long Island mosses, and an order of onion rings from 1969, arranged atop a square of felt. All the furnishings of a crazy world, perhaps, but organized in a meticulous fashion entirely Kalman’s own.
Shilpa Gupta, ed. Nancy Adajania (Prestel) $60
Gupta’s art channels the fire of Arudhati Roy’s nonfiction writing about India in a different, more abstract direction, achieving, at least in part, the poetry Roy suggests necessary to confront culture and politics in contemporary India. The monograph includes very recent work, like 2009’s Threat, an exhibition of bar soap imprinted with the work’s title, shown at Yvon Lambert, where viewers were invited to take the soap home so its label could be washed away if used. In some ways that show extended the social experiment enacted in 2007’s There is No Explosive in This, an exhibit that encouraged UK viewers to carry away with them briefcases stencilled with the exhibit’s name: on the bus, on the street, at work, and at play.
The book begins with Peter Wiebel’s very stylized conversation with Gupta, which I first found annoying and contrived. After further time with her art, though, and with decidedly more patience, I came to enjoy the playfulness and experimentalism of the interview. Gupta’s monograph continues the Prestel trend, featuring work as diverse as her untitled Mobile MS Gate, her photographic interpretations of the Gandhian “Don’t See, Don’t Hear, Don’t Speak,” and her online exhibition for the Tate, Blessed Bandwidth, an incisive commentary on contemporary religion in India.