Last week, I spent two and a half very pleasant days at the Aspen Ideas Festival, an annual meeting of intellectual leaders from around the planet, with a focus this year on China. I moderated two panels, one on telling stories through film, another on re-imagining public space. In no particular order, here is my take away:
1. If “anything is interesting if looked at in enough detail,” why are so many cultural institutions (especially museums) devoted to bland, meaningless generalities?
At supper with David Weinberger, author of the highly acclaimed book “Too Big to Know,” I forced the poor man to summarize his thinking about the Internet, information and knowledge, which he did thusly: “Anything is interesting if looked at in enough detail.” There was some wine involved, and a lot of plate clattering and busy waiters passing to and fro, so I think that’s only a partial summary of only part of his book. But I immediately thought this: Why don’t people in the museum world understand this? Why do they resort to generalizations and broad emotional narratives and attempts to bring visitors to faux epiphanies, when they ought to instead focus in, and help people understand art, science and culture at the level of detail that is, in fact, genuinely interesting? Show us detail!
2. What will happen to art music in age of “aesthetic singularities”?
At a panel that included Academy Award-winning composer Elliot Goldenthal (“Batman Forever,” “Titus” and “Frida”), the young pianist and composer Conrad Tao described his works as “aesthetic singularities.” By which he meant that he felt free to borrow across cultural lines, across wide spans of musical history, and from anything he found on the Internet (an almost infinite and ever-surging archive of musical material), to create works that are sui generis each time, or “aesthetic singularities.” It’s a very apt way of describing the artistic age we live in, with anxieties about being too eclectic or too heterogeneous no longer tormenting young composers and artists. His remark came during a panel that also included musician and master sheng player Wu Tong, and so part of the discussion was about preserving traditional Chinese music in an age of globalization. So here’s what troubles me about music in the age of aesthetic singularities: If no one actively preserves musical traditions—connecting works to each other and to an authentic performance tradition—where does the material come from to create aesthetic singularities? And will aesthetic singularities form any connections to other aesthetic singularities, the way, say, the string quartets of Haydn and Mozart were interconnected? Or do they remain monads in an age of artistic “one offs”?
3. Will Chinese cities need to be radically reconstructed in 20 years? Or sooner?
At the panel on re-imagining public space (with Elizabeth Diller of the architecture firm Diller Scofidio + Renfro and Chinese film maker, critic and curator Ou Ning), the discussion turned to remaking architecture that is bland, authoritarian and outdated. Liz Diller, whose firm is working on the Hirshhorn “bubble” project described her work with Lincoln Center, built in the middle of the last century as a monolithic acropolis of art, set apart from the fabric of the city. And Ou Ning described his efforts to provoke meaningful artistic and social interactions at the 2009 Shenzhen & Hong Kong Bi-city Biennale of Urbanism and Architecture. He staged the biennale in one of the most grand, pompous and arid squares in China, and was happy for the dissonance between the often-playful work on display and the rigid architectural enactment of state power. It was a radical act, and the slides he showed were fascinating. Looking at China’s ghastly, over-scaled government plazas (which I remember vividly from my most recent visit to Beijing), and thinking about Diller’s efforts to undo the massive scale and pomposity of Lincoln Center, I wondered: In 20 years, will there be architects hired to rethink and humanize the grand spaces of China? Is there a Diller Scofidio + Renfro out there now, learning their trade, whose task it will be to remake the bad architecture currently being built all over China? I asked Ou Ning about this, but he wasn’t optimistic.
4. Is Fan Lixin the next great Chinese documentary maker?
You decide. His film, “Last Train Home,” explores with poetic concentration one of the great stories of contemporary China, the migration of rural workers to the country’s exploding megacities. Lixin appeared at Aspen on a panel with Louie Psihoyos, Academy Award winning director of “The Cove.” But it was Lixin’s film that made the stronger impression on me, for its eloquence and discipline. It’s available streaming on Netflix. Stick with it until the end, when its minimalist story telling comes together with extraordinary punch. Lixin spent three years following one very ordinary family, separated every year by more than a thousand miles as the parents head off to earn a better living in the big city. He then trekked his film all over China, trying to find an audience for it. That’s devotion.
5. Is Lil’ Buck the greatest, or what?
There was a lot of buzz about a video of dancer Lil’ Buck, using Lincoln Center as a backdrop for his own spectacular form of free dance. Stay tuned till 3:53, where he gets hassled by a security guard. How dare he dance at Lincoln Center without the proper permit? A telling comment on the rules that govern public space. No matter how open we say they should be, our rules often prove otherwise.