Visiting the Lower East Side, Turandot, recent Chinese art, and The Patterning Instinct
by Rob Tiller
Friday before last I went to the Software Freedom Law Center conference, and afterwards Sally and I stayed on in New York to see friends and take in some art and music. We stayed at the Sixty LES (Lower East Side) near Jocelyn and Kyle’s new apartment. Back in the day, we viewed this neighborhood as a place to be avoided after dark, but now it’s what Soho and Chelsea used to be — a lively and relatively affordable area where young people live and new art can be made. It hasn’t yet been completely gentrified — there’s graffiti and trash, and little Bohemian businesses. I enjoyed walking around early in the morning and taking pictures, including the street scenes here.
We went to the Metropolitan Opera on Saturday afternoon and saw Puccini’s last opera, Turandot. My only prior experience with Turandot was from recordings, and I had not particularly loved the music. The story, involving a Chinese princess who murdered all her suitors, seemed far from alluring.
Nevertheless, I absolutely loved it. Opera is a hydra-headed art with many elements, and here the music, sets, costumes, and acting made a compelling whole. For this story, Puccini’s music worked brilliantly. The Zeffirelli production looked fantastic, the orchestra sounded great, and the chorus was excellent. Sopranos Oksana Dyka and Maria Agresta sang beautifully, and the tenor, Aleksandrs Atonenk, absolutely killed in the famous Nessun Dorma aria.
Also on Saturday, we spent some time at the Met Breuer looking at the photographs of Raghubir Singh and at the Met looking at the old masters drawings exhibit, Leonardo to Matisse. On Sunday, while Sally went with Jocelyn to see the NYC marathon, I went up to the Guggenheim to see Art in China after 1989. In that year a decade of relative political freedom in China ended with the Tiananmen Square massacre. Young Chinese artists went in various directions, with many leaving China, and in various landing spots looking to express their political and personal concerns. There were 71 artists and groups represented, and multiple media and approaches. Not all of them spoke to me, but a few did, powerfully.
One of the best known artists in the show is Ai Weiwei, whom I’ve found inspiring as a dissident thinker and conceptual artist. One of his works here was a room that brought to light thousands of unnecessary deaths of school children in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake due to a corrupt system and shoddy construction of schools. The work was as much journalism as art, but that was not by accident. In the exhibition notes he is quoted as saying, “Fight for freedom. Forget about art.” I don’t think he means to be taken literally on the forgetting part, but he’s serious about the fight.
The big hanging sculpture by Chen Zhen of a dragon made of bicycle tires and parts was delightful and thought-provoking, invoking China’s shift from bicycles to cars and other technology. I also liked Chen Zhen’s upside down Buddha room which had little Buddha statues, parts of old computers and other detritus hanging underneath a suspended garden. Liu Dan had a large work that evoked traditional landscape painting but with a severe twist. Others used video with varying degrees of success. I liked the one that had a dozen or so monitors showing people scratching.
Most of these Chinese artists had been influenced both by their traditional culture and by Western culture, just as we in the West are absorbing Asian influences. I’ve been reading a new and intriguing book about how cultures are made and evolve: The Patterning Instinct, by Jeremy Lent. Lent traces the development of several Eastern and Western foundational ideas, including Taoism and neo-Confucianism, which he argues have been successful and remain vital. He also contends that certain core ideas of monotheism and science, including the mandate to dominate nature, are closely related to each other and are drivers in our global ecological crisis. There’s a lot in the Patterning Instinct to process, which is why I’m now working my way through it for a second time.