What with Alex coming clean about his whereabouts, and the Olympics on the way, and Tibet in uproar, and Lang Lang about to create some controlled uproar of his own when he plays Tan Dun’s new piano concerto with the New York Philharmonic, and The First Emperor returning to the Met—what with all that, my mind turns to, well, Lower Manhattan in the 1980s and 90s. It strikes me that much of what gets called contemporary Chinese culture – and that will be on display as such in the opening Olympic ceremonies – was in fact incubated in New York.
Ai Weiwei, the Beijing-based artist who helped the Swiss architects Herzog & De Meuron designed the bird’s-nest-shaped stadium where the ceremonies will take place, lived in New York during the 80s and early 90s. He may have absorbed a certain punk defiance at CBGB: “I designed the stadium as a toilet seat,” he said in an interview recently. “I don’t care if this is a great cultural event or a national symbol. It has nothing to do with me.”
Then there’s Cai-Guo Qiang, the Olympic special effects designer, artist and fireworks wizard who is now getting a spectacular retrospective at the Guggenheim (the original, NYC one). He has lived in New York since 1995 (and Tokyo for ten years before that). And Tan Dun came to New York in 1986 as a graduate student at Columbia, lived in Chinatown and hung out with John Cage. (He now shuttles between Chelsea and Shanghai.) I guess when you’re coming from China, the barriers between Uptown and Downtown music, which seemed so impassable to so many composers at the time, look pretty puny.
One thing that makes these artists so alert to their own “Chineseness” may be the fact that they developed it abroad, in the way that, say Stravinsky, Prokofiev, and Diaghilev were self-consciously Russian in Paris. I’m not sure if this is a good thing, but you might say that the opening Olympic ceremonies will be at least partly an American showcase.