Ningbo Museum

The Ningbo Museum, which won a Pritzker prize for architect Wang Shu last year, is a challenging edifice. Combining traditional elements and materials with monumental modernism — in its most uncompromisingly brutalist manifestation — it realizes a peculiar complex of delicacy and terror.
NingboMuseumWang’s signature facades already display the same ambiguity in embryo. His vast sheer planes, shown in the Ningbo Tengtou pavilion at the 2010 Shanghai World Expo (2010), memorialize a demolished past. The bricks and tiles from obliterated villages are recycled into exquisitely tessellated, endlessly absorbing surfaces, sparsely punctuated by irregularly oriented and distributed windows. The tension between crushing scale and intricate composition is immense (and intimate). Subtle drifts of texture and color from the non-uniform materials make the walls into sensual displays of abstract pattern, whilst their massive geometric rigor approaches a state of absolute menace (with an unmistakable military-totalitarian edge).

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The Mandate of Heaven (天命) belongs indisputably amongst the most ancient and conceptually richest political ideas. Dating back to the transition from the Shang to Zhou dynasties, over three millennia ago, it refounds the legitimacy of government in a conditional natural right (in contrast to the unconditional natural right asserted by the supplanted rulers of the Shang, and by divine right theorists in the occidental world). Tianming invests regimes whose performance expresses virtuous capability. Legitimacy is not, therefore, a formal endowment, but a substantial discovery, demonstrated through the art of government.

The claim that Tianming amounts to a realistic theory of political legitimacy requires far more support than this tentative short post will offer. In particular, it has to be defended against the objection that Tianming reverts to a tautology, either empirically or logically (or both). The Mandate of Heaven might be formulated: For so long as a regime succeeds it will endure.  Is this not, from the perspective of empirical history, an empty retrospective judgment, or sheer redundancy, and under logical consideration, a thinly disguised pleonasm?

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The Shape of Time (Part 2)

In the first part of this series, we introduced John Michael Greer’s ‘druidic’ framework for the evaluation of cultural ‘time shapes’ – based on a presumption of dominant cyclicity, according to which any prolonged deviation or unbalanced process is exposed as an unsustainable exception. Within a sufficiently expansive great cycle, any continuous progressive trend is complemented by a proportionate regression (and, of course, inversely). The cyclic assumption marks out each and every image of absolute progress as illusory. In this way, the cycle, when applied to any particular figure of time, describes an enveloping structure that provides pointed critical perspective. (Criticism of the cyclic assumption itself — or ‘in turn’ — is best delayed until Greer’s most significant positive results have been sketched.)

The presently-dominant global civilization – when apprehended at a level of extreme (ecological) abstraction – is the fossil-fuel burning runaway spurt that Greer calls “modern industrial culture.” Central to this culture is an expectation of growth, founded in an unsustainable ecological process, and expressed through distinctive time shapes. The plural here is essential, because Greer’s complete ‘morphological’ description of modern time unfolds within a tripartite system of classification.

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At ATol, Willy Wo-Lap Lam provides an overview of the 5th-generation PRC economic reform agenda:

Premier Li has set an overarching goal to “let go of administrative powers and return to the market whatever can best be handled by the market”. The Chinese media have reported that the Central Committee Third Plenum in October will approve overhauls of economic and social policies to address the following key areas: financial, monetary and fiscal policies; creating a fair competitive environment for private enterprises; liberalizing the prices of producer goods and utilities; trimming the number and procedures of bureaucratic reviews; narrowing the income gap between rich and poor; and liberalizing the land ownership and household registration systems so as to speed up urbanization. […] While the State Council has ordered 1,400 manufacturers in sectors including steel, cement, copper and glass to curtail output because of oversupply, the Li cabinet is set to resume long-stalled investments into the nation’s ambitious railway and highway networks. Moreover, while apartment prices have been going through the roof, the State Council has avoided drastic measures to cool the real-estate bubble so as not to upset the delicate socio-economic balance. 

With bubble trouble a near-inevitable learning experience at some point, the long-term measure of success will be the quantity of investment that doesn’t disappear into froth. Strengthening socio-economic storm shelters, without unnecessarily scaring people, counts as an especially responsible course. Sustainable urbanization, functional transport and communications infrastructure, and the continuing development of a resilient enterprise culture are all good candidates for that. Once the top blows off the market, it will be easier to see what has really been built. (Our confident expectation: A lot.)

Emergent Properties

Economics is complicated, but at least in certain respects it’s not that complicated. Chart almost any market-sensitive variable and what emerges is a wave pattern, varying in amplitude, frequency, and trend, but clearly conforming to a general pattern, mixing an irregular rhythm with a random walk.

The irregularity and randomness are predicated by elementary economic theory, since determinism and regularity are strictly equivalent to bank notes lying on the street, no sooner glimpsed than seized. Zero-risk speculative opportunities – of the kind any intelligible pattern presents – are quickly arbitraged back to noise, the equilibrium state, in which all significant information is absorbed into price.

The residual rhythm is more unexpected, and attests to an irrational factor, stimulating intellectual and practical controversy. Regardless of such disputes, it is possible to be confident about two indefinite points. Firstly, market rhythms are (almost) never easy to accurately predict, and thus exploit. Secondly, off-trend deviations will eventually be corrected, unless – very rarely – the trend itself changes shape. The qualification of the second point deserves special examination, because unrealistic expectations concerning trend-line transformations lie at the root of the most notorious error in practical economic reasoning – the belief (typically hardening in direct proportion to the inflation of a bubble) that “this time is different.” This slogan, which encapsulates the stubborn and disastrously expensive syndrome of downwards correction denial, should be written on the shirts of those who will soon be losing them.

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When art history invokes the ‘contemporary’, it refers to now, the current moment, and thus points into an unresolved perplexity. Now remains undefined, whether by science, philosophy, or mystical religion. Our contemporary ‘now’ is not merely an instant — not even a stretched or dilated instant. It is a time that is still with us, or which we continue to participate in, at once proximate and elusive, still awaiting its sense, obliquely intersecting the narrower present of chronological location and practical schedules.

The visual arts, at their most reflective, enter into this perplexity as into an animating spiral. Whilst succumbing to categorization — or time definition — within a still obscure and incomplete contemporaneity, the art work can also make the act of definition its own, reaching out into the now, and telling us what it has found. In doing so it tests itself against an ultimate abstraction.

In some such now, current but chronologically indeterminable, Chinese visual art encountered a critical threshold. The difference between heading forward or backward, advancing or retreating, ceased – at some ‘point’ — to be an option, or a choice. Instead, for that complex cultural trend and inheritance at once defined as — and defining — neotraditionalism, true modernity was discovered in the acceptance of tradition as a path. This wave of creative – even explosive – experimentation was also an excavation, and a recovery. It demonstrated that innovative variation was inextricable from the maintenance of a course, directed into a future already cryptically indicated by the past.

Beyond Black and White: Chinese Contemporary Abstract Ink, on show at Pearl Lam Galleries (until September 7, 2013), focuses with glorious intensity upon the neotraditionalist current. In keeping with this focus, it both fulfills and deranges expectations, through the audacious explorations of a heritage made new.

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