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While the West embraces Karl Marx …

'Com'on, You Reds' by Klas Eriksson

If the contemporary art world materialized as a physical place, a large chunk would resemble Disneyland. With its stock characters, whiz-bang technology and theatrical vignettes of conflict with no actual threat – there is a definite resemblance.

An example of such fluff and mirrors was Swedish artist Klas Eriksson’s contribution to the 2012 Bucharest Biennale (May 25-July 22), where he set the looming Intercontinental Hotel ablaze with optical pyrotechnics. His visually dazzling display used flares to simulate duel fires raging up the sides of the hotel, but his title “Com’on, You Reds” seems contrived and forced to fit the themes, which are wearily Marxist.

Part of an enduring fascination with all things communist, dead or alive, the theme for the Bucharest Biennale is (surprise!) Marxist-related: “Tactics for the Here and Now.”

The Intercontinental is long symbolic of capitalism and high living in Bucharest, and Eriksson’s faux-arson feat had a tenuous political weight, although quite obvious to the Biennale viewers, if no one else.

Art Info’s Benjamin Sutton termed the work “cheekily titled,” but like so many political statements from the left, it deadens and twists the impact of art forced at any cost to serve an outdated and unpopular cause. They are also overwhelmingly irrelevant to life since at least the fall of the Berlin Wall.

Anne Barlow curated the Bucharest blow-up and described the works of recruited artists as engaging the “subjects of territories and histories” in the context of economics, politics and culture. The themes of risk and encounters with authority “characterized by ambiguity, non-linearity and the quasi-fictional” give a broad intellectual space for artists … but are only “quasi’ coherent.

The terminology tends to cancel itself out, but you’re still left with the definite impression of political/social commentary of vast import. It sounds like a thesis paper in a class like “Post-Fordism, Eco-Consciousness and Class-Antagonism.” In reality the works are attractive, conceptually clever and technologically innovative, but most are political in title only and the stretch is obvious.

An exception or two slips past. Marina Naprushkina, an artist from Belarus presents her “Office of Anti-Propaganda” as an installment of real publications and database in criticism of her nation’s rulers. Considering that Belarus is old-school Soviet and truly oppressive, Naprushkina may indeed be anti-Marxist. Since most of her materials are in Belarusian, perhaps no one has caught on yet.

The planners of many Western art fairs and events promote a cloying, sentimentalized Marxism in place of current reality, pressuring artists to follow suit. Substituted for real terrorism, genocides, war and rights abuses are the bogeymen of capitalism, and against them ride the heroes of the red masses.

Like children playing with their parents, everyone understands the rules and pretends to be endlessly delighted with the repetitious outcomes: “Oh where are those little darlings hiding this time – could it be the curtains again? We never would have guessed!”

Everyone is happy, the Biennales are wrapped up for another few years and nothing really changed.

Ai Weiwei

While these planners and academics attempt to convince the world of their profound relevance with tired Marxist rhetoric, some artists actually live with those realities through necessity or choice. Chinese artist Ai Weiwei is hands down the most famed, living artist-dissident at this time. Rather than duel with straw men, he faces giants in the form of policemen, officials and prisons in the People’s Republic of China – and the world is watching.

Weiwei first incurred the dragon’s wrath by criticizing shoddy government schools, which increased children’s deaths exponentially in a 2008 earthquake. His conceptual artwork memorialized the dead and simultaneously accused authorities of cover-ups, gross neglect and abuse. Now, the People’s Republic of China, or PRC, may be corrupt, greedy and oppressive, but some things are even too much for them – such as bad PR.

A testy balance remains between Weiwei and the PRC, one which they would like to tip. After the government’s incarceration, assaults, threats and demolishing his beautiful new studio, Weiwei remains quietly defiant. He is fortunate to have survived this long but also calculating and deliberate.

“I feel like a chess player,” Weiwei said, “my opponent makes a move, and then I make the next one.”

Weiwei claims no particular political loyalty, nor does he call for counterrevolution, but stubbornly sticks to his ideals of freedom of thought and creation. Those concepts were ingrained during his sojourn in the U.S., mostly in the New York art community, as he acknowledges in interviews.

Weiwei’s fame spreads daily, fueled by artistic success, public statements and his unique personality. Expansive, educated and well-spoken, his appearance is disarming: a jolly, bearded proletariat Buddha in overalls. Promoting a quiet, technologically fueled resistance using social media, he deems the Internet the biggest tool for freedom ever invented.

Using electronic tools, he’s turned the tables on China’s leaders using good-humored satire of their attacks in his work. Omnipresent video cameras following his every move are immortalized in art: rows of cast marble white video cameras require no explanation to anyone watching the news.

A new full-length film on Weiwei’s struggle came out June 2012 with much critical acclaim from Sundance, the Berlinale and other film festivals. “Ai Wiewei: Never Sorry” narrates the story of his life as leading dissident for the digital age and one who blurs and redefines the boundaries of art and politics.

In the film he explains his actions: “I don’t want the next generation to fight the same fight I did.”

He comes across feisty, fearless and energizing, hoping to influence the next generation of Chinese who are just realizing the power and possibilities of the new media. Weiwei also warns the West that we are “very corrupt and short sighted to sacrifice morals just to become rich.”

Interestingly this comes from a man who isn’t particularly religious or conservative in the American sense, just observant.

But while the world’s eyes keep the PRC from finishing off Weiwei, two relatively unknown victims languish in cells there because of art.

Nils Jennrich, the German manager of an art-freight company, has been jailed since March without specific charges in China. Jennrich is vaguely accused of undervaluing the price of art he imported to avoid stiff Chinese customs tariffs (to the sum of 10 million yuan or $1.6 million). He’s been harshly treated, and the outside world seems either unaware or too busy leading trade delegations to China to care.

His Chinese colleague, Lydia Chu, has vanished since being detained. Jennrich, 32, faces possible punishment up to life in prison. They take our money very seriously there.

In another Karl Marx resort, Cuban artists work around both U.S. embargoes and outright government control. A funny thing happened in Cuba, the art there is tremendously popular with American and Europeans, causing it to suddenly matter greatly to authorities. Artists are treated with grudging respect, as the art commands big prices and is given some leeway, although outright criticism of the authorities isn’t tolerated.

Just last January, Salt Fine Art in Laguna, Fla., attempted to bring in 11 Cuban artists for a multi-media exhibition called “¡Cuba!” Billed as “sly political commentary,” they had a problem when the majority of the 11 artists weren’t given permission to attend by the Cuban government.

"History of an Old Fisherman," by Esterio Segura

Esterio Segura’s works (one of the non-attendees) was” rife with innuendo and satire.” Cuban satire is low-key – no names or specifics. Segura’s “History of an Old Fisherman” is a 3-foot likeness of Pinocchio in a birdcage. Balanced on the long nose of the boy is a fishing pole with a lure in the shape of a sickle. Another symbol, the hammer, is clutched in the hands of the puppet, an obvious critique of communism.

Another of his pieces has a telling name, “Enjoying Ideology.” No wonder they didn’t let him out of the country; he may have muddied the philosophy of some American leftist.

Artists in Cuba (theoretically) make more money than physicians, but they are not legally allowed to actually keep it, a nasty capitalist notion. The government kindly does that for them when income reaches a certain state-mandated level. Since librarians or poets haven’t been so lucrative, many of them still languish in Cuban prisons from offending the sensibilities of someone important. Poet Maria Elena Cruz Varela noted that Castro’s restrictions made Cubans more hungry for capitalism and was forced to literally eat her poems and imprisoned for sedition. Hopefully Cuban poetry will be the next big thing, and they’ll haul them out soon.

Ai Weiwei said, “I act brave because the danger is really there,” while many Western artists attack soft targets constructed from their own imagination where there is no danger and no effect. No wonder the world is watching him while Western art turns inward on itself.