Ai am the Wei and the truth and the life -inside Ai Weiwei’s Istanbul exhibition.

“Life is art, art is life, I never separate them.” Ai Weiwei (AWW)….and everything is political.

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If you take the view that I do, which is that even drawing breath is a political act, then Ai Weiwei’s exhibition, in Istanbul is a great expression of the philosophy that Art is Life and that everything in life is political.

I slipped, almost literally, through the front door on a rainy, slippery, Istanbul day. For a cultural illiterate, such as I, who normally can’t tell the difference between Mahler and Wagner or between a Rembrandt and a Vermeer and who thinks a Concerto is a brand of Honda car, an Ai Wei Wei exhibition is perfect.

You don’t need to know anything about art or about Ai Weiwei. You just need to know something about life and politics. Everything else is explained.

Vases as columns against a backdrop of scenes depicting refugees, emigrants, prisoners and other similar groups

The exhibition is eclectic ranging over the Sichuan earthquake, Palestine, tigers, refugees, freedom of speech, the destruction of his studio,  attitudes to power and authority, Chinese labour camps, beatings, stone age tools, war, iconoclasm, still life, traditional art.

For those who haven’t been to an Ai Weiwei exhibition here is a virtual tour……

Countries as art and political statements – as you enter you are greeted  by a map of China in ceramic, it’s a form of jigsaw in a way, and it’s really reflective of the rest of the exhibition which binds together art and political statement – with interesting cultural bits of information about the use of iconography as political dissent.

Much of the exhibition utilises common place objects as a link between the everyday and the political and cultural. A coat hanger as the basis for a portrait and car window winders to demonstrate the absurdity of totalitarianism which attempted to prevent protests from moving vehicles over Tiananmen Square by removing all the window winders from cars.

Between 2008 and 2011 Ai Weiwei became the subject of political persecution by the Chinese Government, a process that began with his investigations of and blogging about political corruption that had allowed shoddily built buildings to kill tens of thousands of people during the Sichuan earthquakes in May 2008. The dead included 5000 schoolchildren killed by poorly-built schools throughout the region. AWW named each of the dead children.

There are echoes of history in his subsequent detention. His father, the famous Chinese poet, Ai Qing, who was exiled to the Gobi Desert, said in 1946: “I believe that art and the revolution must go together; they can never be separated. We are political animals, and sometimes we write as political animals. If the revolution fails, the art will fail, but in as far as is possible the artist must be a revolutionary. As a revolutionary and as an artist he must represent his times.”

Left: the earthquake zone, centre: ceramics recreating twisted metal reo from the buidings

Ai responded to the deaths in Sichuan with a series of angry blog posts, and by the next year had set up the Citizens’ Investigation on Sichuan earthquake. The police responded by making a threatening visit Ai’s home, and a few months later, when Ai was in Sichuan to attend the trial of an earthquake activist, police broke into his hotel during the night and beat him. He was left with a cerebral hemorrhage and required emergency brain surgery.

AWW filmed part of the earthquake zone and superimposes a series of negative responses from officials that he received when he tried to get information on the impacts of the earthquake and who was responsible.

A part of the exhibition uses the beating and the brain scans that led to surgery as as the basis for two ceramics using a scan of his brain.

It was during this period that AWW was arrested, as he was boarding a flight to Taiwan, and then detained for 81 days. Subsequently he was barred from overseas travel and the studio he had been invited to build was torn down by the Chinese Government.

In literally 24 hours the entire building was demolished, razed to the ground and the rubble trucked away so that not one shred of evidence of the buildings existence remains – a sort of instant re-writing of history (at left, below, the building before demolition and then the paddock shown after the building’s removal at right, below). AWW documents the process in a video.

 

From here the exhibition moves on to document a series of images of AWWs response to authority in a very simply and symbolic series of images of iconic buildings which in some form or other represent wealth, power or images of a society’s culture…such as, in the case of Australia the opera house. In each AWW stands with finger raised as we all wish to do to authority figures, much of the time.

Similarly he uses images such as those of massed crabs to document mechanisms of secret protest against authoritarian regimes. Chinese people use the word for the crabs as a synonym for censorship as it sounds similar to the Chinese word for “harmonious” and refers directly to Chinese attempts to create a harmonious society via censorship.

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Massed crabs

Following AWW’s arrest and detention he was put under house arrest and then had his passport removed so he could not travel abroad, specifically, in the beginning, to prevent him receiving his nobel prize. His resistance to the removal of his travel rights is documented in a series of images of flowers (perhaps resonant of the famous 1967 images of George Harris and Jan Rose Kasmir using flowers in the face of the rifle barrels of National Guardsman.

Jan Rose Kasmir (left and centre photographed by Marc Riboud) and George Harris (right photographed by Bernie Boston) – at a rally of 100,000 against the Vietnam war

Over a period of 600 days Ai Weiwei placed flowers in the basket of his bicycle to protest against the loss of his passport. His use of flowers as a symbol of protest is repeated in a number of works in the exhibition and the centrepiece (centre, below) is a wall-papered room showing each of the bunches of flowers that were placed in the bicycle basket.

The rest of the exhibition follows similar themes using a variety of artistic mechanisms to document his views on Palestine through his videos of the last tiger, starving in Palestine’s zoo following the Israeli blockade (the tiger was later saved) and documenting the treatment of refugees and other groups around the world (bottom images).

 

All these images on Flickr here

The Art of Nothing

Nothing: nothing to do, nothing to fix. No work to go to, no garden to tend. No meetings to go to, no dance classes…absolutely nothing to do except watch the world go by.

It’s perhaps the greatest indulgence of travel, especially travel where you hang out in a place or places for a long time. Sit on the great meeting place of the Bosphorus, the great melting pot of Istanbul and watch the people and the ships go by.

Such is my pleasure, at least for now. I can stand or sit in the autumn sun and watch the leaves fall. Watch the gardeners in Emirgan Park planting the bulbs for the Spring Festival. Just ahead a single worker is marking out into which areas which colour bulbs will go.

Planting out bulbs for Spring

Up the hill a couple are practicing for their wedding day, this coming weekend and the photographer is taking a few pre-wedding photos. Other wedding couples walk the paths.

The fishermen cast their lines as they do every day along the Bosphorus, hundreds of them line the water catching God knows what from the murky waters below.

Into the distance a line of ships shimmies up the Bosphorus heading for the Black Sea just an hour away. At this time of day they are all heading north. In a few hours the line will reverse and head for the Mediterranean. Oil, bulk carriers, containers.

The cafés are full. The men play backgammon. Families pass, soaking up the autumn sun. The call to prayer starts, the sound flowing up the hill from the minaret framed by the Bosphorus Bridge.

Just nearby a group of older homeless men are listening to four young Turks playing guitar and singing

Each five minutes a ship from a different country passes along the Bosphorus and under the bridges linking Europe and Asia while, if you stand and listen carefully, you will hear a dozen different languages in 30 minutes. The main road is a melee of traffic, Mercedes and BMWs mixing with the ubiquitous scooters. Traditional Turkish cafes sit just up the road from a mess of McDonalds and Starbucks. Across the road Ai Wei Wei is hanging out his latest exhibition in the local museum.

The park is a blaze of autumn colours and sunlight peopled with walkers, sitters, basket ballers and the emptiness of the off-season, absent of tourists.

Turn left out of the park entrance and head down past old Ottoman buildings.

Just on the left part of that past is being redeemed – an old Ottoman building – forbidden from being knocked down is being renovated at huge expense. Right takes you up the cobbled street past the car wash and the hairdresser, along past the giant old plane trees and past a bit of the old Ottoman past boarded up and yet to be redeemed.

Finally the last 100 metres and it’s back to the flat. All in a walk of just a kilometre, easily strolled at quarter pace in just 30 minutes.


Europe 2017 (Episode 5): The Black Sea, the Beach and the Bosphorus

As an Australian there are few more bizarre experiences than visiting a popular European beach. Yes, there are remote(ish) beaches in Europe and beaches with surf. Some of the Atlantic beaches of France meet these criteria. But if you want a cultural experience utterly foreign to the average Australian then accept an invitation to a popular city beach or swimming spot near a major population.

This is, to the average Australian beachgoer, as instant coffee is to the Australian coffee snob or as a British national park is to an Australian wilderness area.

The key to the experience is to take every single thing one might expect from Australian beaches and invert it. Space, solitude, waves, free access, freedom, quiet, nature, walking, wind. None of these are on offer. In essence the aim is to take the urban experience and transfer it to the coast adding just one thing, saltwater.

European Beaches: no solitude, no waves, no space, no nature

We leave Istanbul at 10 am. This is the first difference. Almost nothing starts early on a weekend in Europe, whereas for me the one of the joys of the beach is the early morning light and solitude. It’s forty minutes to the Black Sea, if one is lucky. If the traffic is bad it can take 90 minutes but no one who lives in Istanbul would really care since it can take two hours to travel 5 kilometres, along the Bosphorus, on a bad day.

The aim of the urban European beach experience, it seems, is to remove almost any element of the natural. If you can concrete it, do so. An urban shopping experience, at the beach is an aim through the creation of a food court on the beach, among other things. Removal of any risk is essential. Avoidance of quiet is a critical element.

The louder, the more populated, the less natural and the more urban the better. Even better have motorised hang gliders pass over every ten minutes and, if humanly possible, offset the unpleasant natural hum of the ocean with regular passing jet skis. If they happen to mow down the occasional swimmer to provide some light entertainment so much the better. One less person with whom to fight over the beach lounges.

Is any beach complete without Pringles and the Pringle Girl?

As you approach the beach you can hear the bass from about a kilometre away. It sounds more like the average Byron Bay doof than a beach. We park and follow a stream of beachgoers, longer than the average airport security queue, down to the beach entrance. 

The first impression does not lie because, while the beach is technically public, somehow private companies are allowed to control most of the beach and charge for entry. To ensure this, fences and security guards are employed. But they are not employed to keep you and I safe from imminent terrorist threat, but to keep the food and drink franchisees safe from economic terrorists who might undermine their economic security by bringing bottled water or food onto the beach.

 

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And every beach shall have multiple cafes, bars, boom boxes and dance floors cos that’s what beaches are for

Once our contraband (water) has been confiscated we are allowed onto the sacred shore. Here, for our $10 entry fee we can fight with the hoi polloi for our share of the beach furniture. With the advent of climate change it’s about 45ºc in the shade, so an umbrella is essential.

We haven’t arrived early but, fortunately, manage to find four of the five remaining beach chairs – these are vacant because because they are immediately adjacent to the largest of the beach speakers ensuring that not only can we not hear the ocean but we can’t hear each other either. This leaves the sole remaining, non-swimming, forms of entertainment as reading and trying to re-position one’s beach umbrella to keep in the shade as the planet revolves.

Access to the beach, which remains forty metres away, is complex since it involves passing through a teeming maze of people and beach furniture (assuming furniture can teem) set up to prevent any direct route to the water. If you weren’t hot before you left your seat you are by the time you reach the water.

This is partly because you have fried your feet on the white hot sand, having failed to bring any water tolerant footwear, and partly because fighting through the crowd to actually get at the water is more difficult and sweat inducing than being first at a bargain bin at a Boxing Day sale. 

 

 

You may swim if you can fight your way to the water

Once at the water, the nanny-state regulations Australia look like a paradise of risk taking. Technically you are not supposed to go outside the restricted (buoyed) area in case you (a) drown or (b) get your head taken off by passing high speed boats/jet skis or (c) get run down by a supertanker heading for the Bosphorus. As a result you can’t actually get more than waist deep because the water depth on the Black Sea increases by out 1 centimetre for each 20 metres that you head out to sea. So you are halfway to the Ukraine before you are neck deep.

Nevertheless I take my life in my hands and, abandoning all hope of rescue should I start drowning, I head out into the 15 centimetre surf. Once I am chest deep, and thus outside the marked area, I am subjected to numerous and repeated urgings from both the onshore lifeguards, in their tower, and the surf patrol on their board to save myself from imminent death by returning to the safety of the buoyed area.

However being blond/grey haired and light eyed I am able to ignore their urgings by posing as an idiot tourist, shrugging and waving my hands about. Hopefully they think I am a north-Italian since we wouldn’t want the Turks to think badly of Australians.

Beware of rips and do not swim outside the rubber duckies, due to dangerous, large, surf

Despite both the costs and risks of visiting the Black Sea, we nevertheless pass a pleasantly indolent day doing nothing and I finish several chapters of my book Birds without Wings an epic of Turkey’s years between the 1880s and 1930s where, judging by the number of slaughters of Greeks, Turks, Armenians, Kurds etc etc, it is a wonder than anyone at all survives in Anatolia and its surrounds.

Our day at the Black Sea follows on from our sailing trip with a local group from InterNations. Had this been a commercial trip it would arguably have fallen foul of the Trade Practices Act since the promotional email advertises it as sailing around the Prince’s Islands in the Sea of Marmara, just south of the Bosphorus whereas in reality the sailing boat does not sail and we don’t go anywhere anyway but anchor firmly for the entire day off Heylbeli Island.

Sailing, Turkish style. Put down the anchor and do nothing

Nevertheless this form of stationary sailing trip has the great advantage that (a) no one gets seasick (well one person only) and (b) we don’t have to put up with a diesel motor all day. Like the trip to the Black Sea, the sailing trip allows our group to indulge the Turkish passion for socialising, lying in the sun getting skin cancer, eating, music, dancing and swimming.

Despite the unforeseen passing of a sedentary day on the ocean waves, a pleasant, albeit overlong, day of doing nothing is enjoyed by everyone. It allows everyone to drink too much, eat well, keep cool with repeated swims and for the men to regress to being ten year olds. They do this by repeatedly jumping off the highest part of the boat much to the apparent pleasure of the women watching them from the water, who encourage the regression to adolescence.

As the day wears on the music becomes progressively louder and eventually the crew manages to persuade the increasing inebriated passengers to commence dancing, an invitation to make fools of ourselves. This invitation is stubbornly resisted by Kaylee, her nephew, Jesse, and I who all require substantially more alcohol before we can be persuaded to overcome our inherent northern caucasian inhibitions. After all one wouldn’t want to enjoy oneself too much.

 

 

Let there be dancing – except for Australians who must not enjoy themselves

As evening falls we fire up the diesel for our return to Istanbul a trip which is leavened by the entertainment of a typical day in Istanbul traffic but transferred to the water – where our skipper decides that he has been offended by another boat which has failed to give way, as required.

This allows us all the hilarity of witnessing a Mexican standoff where both boats come to a standstill mid-ocean while the two boat captains harangue each other for five minutes from a distance of 20 metres. Fortunately, not being the US, neither are armed so we all survive.

This post is the fifth and last in the series Europe 2017 – From Corsica to Bosnia – links to previous posts in the series are below:

  1. Corsica
  2. Florence
  3. The Balkans
  4. Mljet

For the Flickr archive that contains all all the images from which the photos in this post were selected click on the links below:

Black Sea

Bosphorus/Sea of Marmara

 

 

Istanbul: across the European and Asian divide…riots, Ramadan and revolution

I normally sleep well on planes; but then often I have two or three seats. There is a technique. First, check in online and book the very rear of the plane, selecting a row that is completely empty at the time and near other empty rows. Not the back row because the seats rarely recline due to the bulkhead wall behind it, but the second or third row from the back.

If the plane is not fully booked the back will always be emptier because people find it noisier and bumpier so, even though the difference is marginal, if there are going to be empty seats they will be there. The back of the plane is also safer. Invariably, if anyone lives, they are most likely near the back. This is God’s punishment for the rich and selfish and, even if you die, you can take consolation that the rich bastards died first. Even better if the rich bastards are Liberal Ministers.

In 747s and some other planes the narrowing of the planes means the seats are only two wide on the sides so you get a mass of space next to the window for books, shoes etc making this the ideal space for a long flight.

Then you must always make sure you are the very last passenger on board. Wait until the third or fourth final call…or when they actually call you name. Then board  – this gives everyone else the shits, of course since half the plane has been boarded, waiting, for at least 30 minutes. Never mind – everyone else will already be seated so you can see if there are any empty or part empty rows. Don’t worry about your allocated seat just head straight for the vacant spaces. If there aren’t empty seats naturally you take your pre-allocated seat.

On this occasion, I don’t sleep so well. Kaylee, with whom I am traveling, has discovered the joys of traveling next to someone you know, which is that you can raise the armrest and take up half of your traveling companion’s seat as well as your own. Having claimed she never sleeps on planes, she now sleeps like the proverbial log for at least half the entire journey.

I, on the other hand, do not sleep as well as normal. But there is consolation in that there are fewer complaints from the traveller in the next seat about having nearly drowned en route. This occurs, normally, as a result my standard travel sleeping technique, which involves looking like the local village idiot with my mouth wide open and drooling in a stream over the adjacent passenger

The drool as you travel technique is less problematic when traveling with Kaylee, as I can drool on her rather than a complete stranger. This leads to less embarrassment all around.

We fly Turkish Airlines that, contrary to the stereotype of Turkey as still chaotic and relatively poor is excellent. New planes, efficient and friendly service and, miraculously, a video system where the sound you “enjoy” while listening to films doesn’t sound like someone first smashed the system and then submerged it. I enjoy three films en route. One of my choices is the Book Thief. It’s a classic tear-jerker which means that, aside from being great and informative, is a bad choice because I spend half the film weeping and surreptitiously wiping my eyes since I have never managed to get over my childhood indoctrination that boys don’t cry.

The plane sweeps over the Bosphorus with a view south over the Sea of Marmara and north to the Black Sea. If one can ever say that a view from a plane is a taste of history, this is it. Constantinople is truly a cross roads which has led us to the current morass in Syria, Iraq, Iran and throughout Europe. In one glance you can see, metaphorically, where two great empires, two continents and two religions collided.

Around the Bosphorus: apparently every fish MUST be caught. And a few of the old extent Ottoman houses

Below the waters lie the wrecks of British and French warships, the  Bouvet, Ocean and Irresistible, were sunk by mines and the battlecruiser Inflexible were damaged by the same minefield.  The loss of Bouvet and two other British battleships during the 18 March attack was a major factor in the decision to abandon a naval strategy to take Constantinople, and instead opt for the Gallipoli land campaign.[10]

The subsequent defeat and break of of the Ottoman Empire then led (in its most simplistic form) onto the creation/independence of Syria, Iraq, Lebanon, Iran and the establishment of the borders of Turkey and Greece and from there to the present morass in the middle east.

We land at Ataturk Airport, in European Turkey, in the very early hours of the morning and we take a taxi to our AirBnb accommodation just a couple of minutes from Taksim Square. Our host, Dev, meets us at 6am and, as we invariably found with AirBnB, gave us a great welcome including a wealth of information including a recommendation to go to the Gay and Lesbian Pride March, that evening.

After a short sleep we take to the streets walking up the Bosphorus for about six kilometres towards the Black Sea, under the bridge which joins Europe and Asia, and onto the Bosphorus-side suburb of Bebek.

The walk provides a form of Turkish smorgasbord incorporating as it does, European coffee stops, traditional Turkish tea houses, advertising for Galatasaray Soccer Club (named for the area around the Galata Tower), markets, the Bosphorus, museums, ancient palaces and a myriad other miniature experiences of the richness of Turkey, with the biggest downside being that much of Bosphorus side walk is blocked by private or Government property and buildings.

A taxi back to the Hotel gets us back in time for the Pride March and we walk the 10 minutes up the hill to Taksim Square, just adjacent to Gezi Park where massive protests against a proposed shopping centre flared into riots in 2013 (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gezi_Park_protests).

As we arrive at the top of the hill the march is leaving the square and heading down the road. It gets about 50 metres past us and then, just as quickly hundreds of people start sprinting the other way as a phalanx of riot police come up the road, batons drawn. The brutality and deaths of 2013 are apparently very fresh (http://tinyurl.com/ow5n4zn).

We move with the protesters back to the square that is blocked on every side by riot police. Just a month after the election in which the authoritarian Government of Erdogan lost its majority (but the Justice and Development Party remained the largest party), it is trying to assert itself by banning the rally and march and preventing it leaving the square. As an Islamic Government, it is also affronted by the fact that the rally is occurring during Ramadam – but as with most things in Turkey it’s not as simple as an Islamists vs. Secularists issue, with many of the protesters wearing headscarfs and other Islamic dress (later we were bemused at the beach to see women in bikinis and headscarfs).

Refusing to be moved on, we are all soon confronted by water cannon. Kaylee, in her wisdom, deciding the water pressure in the flat is insufficient for a good shower, goes to investigate the efficacy of water cannon, before a friendly nearby Turkish woman advises us the perhaps it would be wiser to move in the opposite direction.

At this point the tear gas starts and people start scattering and then re-grouping nearby. The rally is, apparently, also a spectator sport and thousands have gathered higher up the hill to view the action and the crowd surges back and forth, eventually breaking through the police lines on the far side of the square, a victory of sorts and it issues down the streets by Gezi Park. Now the rally begins to disperse and move into the nearby bars as dinner approaches. We take ourselves off for a couple of gin and tonics and then on to dinner. An eclectic first day in Turkey moves to a close.

 

 

 

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