Articles / Essays

Cai Guo Qiang: I Want to Believe

by Alexandra_Munroe on June 10, 2008

Originally published in Cai Guo-Qiang: I Want to Believe. © 2008 The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York. Used by permission.


Artists have a way of filling their work spaces with images and artifacts that have talismanic power, and Cai Guo-Qiang is no exception. A Chinese stone lion guards the entrance way to his large, garden studio in Manhattan’s East Village. A full-page newspaper advertisement reproducing a majestic El Greco painting is taped to a door, and a multipanel gunpowder drawing of an eagle with wings fully spread – Cai’s Man, Eagle, and Eye in the Sky: The Age of the Eagle (2004, fig. 80) – occupies a place of honor, watching over and blessing the studio’s activities. The most unexpected and arresting icon, however, is a poster depicting a UFO hovering in the sky above a bucolic landscape printed over with the words “I Want To Believe.”

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Alexandra_MunroeCai Guo Qiang: I Want to Believe

Palimpsest: Nearby Mu Xin

by Alexandra_Munroe on July 1, 2001

Originally published in The Art of Mu Xin: Landscape Paintings and Prison Notes. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.


Palimpsest: Nearby Mu Xin
By Alexandra Munroe

The single imperative of modern Asian artists is to define a space that absorbs the cultures of traditional Asia, the classical West, and of modernity. Few artists are able to arrive at an authentic synthesis. Fewer still are able to create a genuinely original art that goes beyond a mere integration of artistic forms and styles to achieve an intelligence that transcends the boundaries of, yet resonates with, all three cultures. The artist and writer Mu Xin does this with uncommon grace, so that one feels not that a pastiche has been made, but that a self-evident wholeness has been discovered.[1]

A child of privilege, educated in the Chinese literati tradition and a profound student of Western art and literature, Mu Xin responded to modern China’s catastrophes and the deprivations of imprisonment by practicing his faith in art as the ultimate human touchstone. From early on, he sought to “take from the spirit of Chinese tradition” but aspire toward “a high level of freedom necessary to create international art.”[2] By necessity, he found that freedom in a state of absolute mental reclusion. The will to nurture the “ivory tower” of his creative and intellectual life while sentenced, both literally and figuratively, to a “prison tower” of horrifying desolation lends to his work a rare depth of moral austerity and imaginative power.

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Spirit of YES: The Art and Life of Yoko Ono

by Alexandra_Munroe on May 11, 2000

 Originally published in YES YOKO ONO. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.


Yoko Ono. What comes to mind?

Extremes of opinion have shaped the public’s idea of Yoko Ono since she first emerged in the New York art world in the early 1960s. While her work has often confounded critics, her faith in the power of art to open and uplift the mind has touched millions. As an artist, poet, and composer working alternatively at the fringe and mainstream of culture, she has irked those who resist boundary-crossing. Yet she emerges, over and over, as a forerunner of new art forms that mix and expand different media. Her work as an antiwar activist, like the global ads for peace that she orchestrated with her husband, John Lennon, have offered a kind of public instruction that carries a profoundly positive and transformative message: Imagine.

For decades, people around the world have celebrated her meaning while critics looked on, perplexed.

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Postwar Japanese Photography and the Pursuit of Consciousness

by Alexandra_Munroe on November 3, 1999

Originally published in Daido Moriyama: Stray Dog. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.


Postwar Japanese Photography and the Pursuit of Consciousness
by Alexandra Munroe

In 1961 Daidō Moriyama left his native Osaka for Tokyo, where he was determined to join VIVO, a radical collective of contemporary photojournalists. Bearing an introduction from a prestigious colleague,[i] Moriyama headed for the VIVO studio in Tsukiji, the fish-market district bordering the Ginza, in downtown Tokyo, and a burgeoning haven for the avant-garde. There he encountered the young photographers Eikoh Hosoe (b. 1933) and Shōmei Tōmatsu (b. 1930) and was told the despairing news that VIVO was to disband within a week. Undeterred, Moriyama persuaded Hosoe to accept him as an assistant. Over the following three years, as an apprentice to Hosoe, Moriyama finally realized his ambition—to learn, and then to go beyond, VIVO’s photographic style.

Although VIVO had been active only since 1959, it culminated a movement in postwar Japanese photography with roots dating back to the early 1950s and anticipated and profoundly influenced Japanese photographic style of the 1960s and 1970s. Using a grainy and high-contrast surface, and a cropped and abstract style to depict the fragmented reality of Japanese urbanism and the eerie conditions of Japanese modernity, these photographers forged a discourse on the fundamental questions of photography as praxis—its relationship to social and political revolution, its ambiguous function as both documentary evidence and art, and its structural dialectic between subjective and objective realism. Drawing on the prewar history in Japan of both photojournalism and surrealist art photography, and inspired by contemporary American photography, especially the gritty cityscapes of William Klein, VIVO arose in response to the existential and radical ideas that shaped Japan’s postwar intellectual and cultural vanguard.

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David Kidd: Collector, Writer, Master Orientalist

by Alexandra_Munroe on March 2, 1998

Originally published in Orientations. Reproduced by permission of the publisher.


In his memoir Peking Story: The Last Days of Old China (New York, 1988)[1] , David Kidd describes a dream in which ancestors of the aristocratic Chinese family he was married into appeared before him: ‘Dressed in court robes and crowns and arrayed in shadowy tiers around me,’ Kidd writes, ‘they were angry and upset. Why had I not helped them, they asked?’ Their ancestral temple, located on the shore of the northernmost of Peking’s seven lakes, had fallen into disrepair, and now, at the hands of the communists in the first year of Liberation, vandalism too. Young swimmers, David observed on the day of his dream, had wrecked the altar and sported with its generations of spirit tablets, which were now bobbing in the water. ‘I had no answer and awoke, remembering the twinkle of antique crowns, the dry slither of silk, and the sadness, in a room filled, I saw, with my own private patterns of moonlight cast through the latticed windows.’

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Alexandra_MunroeDavid Kidd: Collector, Writer, Master Orientalist