Published today, an atmospheric fictional account of the days of Mao and the Stars Art Movement

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Brushstrokes in Time by Sylvia Vetta, Claret Press Paperback £7.99

I suppose I did not find this an easy read. This is a story which starts in that most turbulent time in 20th century China during the days of the excesses of the Red Guards and The Gang of Four, all presided over by Mao Tse Tung at his most ruthless and insouciant. Many of these passages are intensely disturbing to the reader: a mark of the success of the author, Sylvia Vetta, in taking us back to this traumatic time of fear and loathing. As the book moves on to the late 1970s and the short-lived The Stars Art Movement, there is time for some humour amongst the repression of the artists and their supporters. For a while, optimism flourishes.

At one level it is a bitter critique of the political process in China, at another a reminder of the tortuous development of the artistic process in a country which had long repressed individualism. At yet another, it is the story of the young and sensitive Xiaodong (trs. ‘Little Winter’), her loss of innocence and her painful rites of passage. The schoolgirl Xiadong recounts, ‘I went on the rampage. At the back of an old temple were niches filled with little statues of Buddha. Over excited, we smashed the heads off. It didn’t feel right but my friends were screaming with excitement . . . Our holy places were where Chairman Mao had walked, lived or swam . . .’.

Seen through the eyes of a young girl born to be an artist, there is a constant disturbing ring of authenticity about this book. Much of that, I giuess, can be traced back to the genesis of this book when Sylvia Vetta met Qu Leilei, himself one of the Stars, and a series of long interviews resulted.

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The climax of this book comes as The Stars display their paintings, woodcuts and sculptures outside the National Gallery in 1979 in an act of impetuous boldness. That, of course, actually did happen. But we have to remember this is a novel and not a factual account. Perhaps because it is so skilfully executed by Sylvia Vetta, I had considerable difficulty in seeing this book just as a novel: the suspension of disbelief is challenging as we meet the various real participants in the Star Art Movement, including the now internationally renowned Ai Weiwei. When the author writes of the actions of the fictional characters like Ai Weiwei, Qu Leilei, Ma Desheng, Huang Rui, Yan Li, Bo Yun and Wang Keping, who were actual participants in the Movement, I found myself saying, ‘Did Ai Weiwei really do that?’, ‘Is this drawn from fact, or is it simply fiction?’ Of course, it is a bit of both.

This is a problem with this book, the problem of the invisible coalescing of fact and fiction. For me that raises more questions than answers. Perhaps I am being over critical. It should certainly be on the ‘must read’ list of anyone interested in the politics and the art of 20th century China. The Stars were crucial in provoking change in China: not just in art but in politics and consciousness. What about another book, drawing upon your excellent sources, Sylvia: the real story of The Stars Art Movement?

Paul Harris

In the worst possible taste, Ai Weiwei reaches a personal low

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We have, from time to time, reported on the activities of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. He is, of course, an iconoclast; the archetypal artist without walls who operates entirely on his own personal agenda and who does not seek the approval of anybody, least alone the Chinese government who he has actively combated for many years.

However, it now seems that his personal judgement can no longer be trusted. The photograph which has recently appeared of him posing as a shipwrecked hapless refugee dead on the beach on the Greek island of Lesbos represents a new low for the artist. It is in the worst possible taste and displays an inability to discern between acceptable art and degrading trash. In our view, an apology is called for.

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Photograph copyright Rohit Chawla reproduced for the purposes of review and criticism

The black and white image, taken by Indian photographer Rohit Chawla, shows the artist lying on pebbles on the beach, with his palms upturned in the same manner as Kurdi.

Ai and his team “actively helped in staging this photograph for us,” Mr Chawla said. “I am sure it wasn’t very comfortable to lie down on the pebbles like that. But the soft evening light fell on his face when he lay down,” he said.

Come off it!


Ai Weiwei breaks auction record with bronze animal heads

Circle of Animals Zodiac Heads Ai Weiwei

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads by Ai Weiwei  Photo courtesy Phillips Auctioneers

A group of 12 large bronze animal heads by China’s dissident artist Ai Weiwei this week led Phillips’s 18.2 million pound ($28.6 million) contemporary art evening auction in London.

Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads, which depicts the signs of the ancient Chinese zodiac, fetched 3.4 million pounds on Monday June 29, within its presale estimate of 3 million pounds to 5 million pounds but setting an auction record for the artist. It was also the top-selling lot in the sale.

The auction took place as global equities slumped amid concerns over fallout from Greece’s financial crisis. However, the art market did not appear to be concerned about global economic problems. It was the first of three big contemporary evening auctions in London this week, from Sotheby’s and Christie’s as well as Phillips.

The 50-lot sale’s tally exceeded the low estimate of 17.2 million pounds and was an 84 percent increase from Phillips’s auction a year ago, when 23 lots totaled 9.9 million pounds.

Ai’s animal heads are displayed on individual stands, with the largest piece, a rooster, at 12.5-feet-tall. The 2010 work, which is the first in an edition of six, has been exhibited at the Sao Paulo Biennale in 2010, New York’s Pulitzer Fountain near Central Park in 2011 and the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden in Washington in 2012.

Ai’s previous auction record of 2.9 million pounds was set in February, also at Phillips, for a smaller, gold-plated version of the 12 zodiac animals. Set in the context of Ai Weiwei’s more challenging works, the Zodiac head series are rather more conservative and, indeed, appealing to the traditional collector.


Not just any old bicycle – it’s Ai Weiwei’s!

From Paul Harris in BeijingSONY DSC

Ai Weiwei’s bicycle, Caochangdi Art Village, Beijing.  Photo Paul Harris

It’s not just any old bicycle, it’s Ai Weiwei’s. As such it is treated with some reverence around here. Around here is the Caochangdi Art Village: a burgeoning centre of art in the suburbs of Beijing.

The tyres may be a little flat but, it is said, Ai Weiwei comes out every morning and arranges newly picked flowers in the basket. As such it qualifies as a priceless work of art.


Ai Weiwei lives the other side of the high wall with enormous steel gates guarding the compound where he lives and works. Of course, as we all know, he is pretty much constantly engaged in a war of wits with the Chinese government. our guides tell us the CCTV cameras are placed there by the authorities to record any movements in and out the compound.

One of our number picks up a flower from the basket to inhale its scent, thereby violating a priceless artistic object. It is rapidly replaced, in more or less the same place, hopefully.

The plaque on the wall announces (Number) 258 FAKE. Another little Ai Weiwei joke.

SONY DSC Outside no. 258

Highlights of 2014 on

As 2014 drew to a close, we selected some highlights of the year in the world of Chinese art here in the UK as reported on



In January, we launched our now popular series of Unusual Chines Art Images. This magnificent oil painting (1910) by Matilda Auchinschloss Brownall of a viewer at The Morgan Collection in New York was featured as one of our early images.

January brought in The Year of the Horse.

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Details of this painting (artist unknown) from Chinese Art in Scotland



Xiao Wei and Yi Fei Li symbolise the new wave of adventurous fashion photography in modern China. Picture by Barrett Sweeger for Cream Magazine.



March saw the tragic and mysterious loss of Malaysian airlines flight MH270 on a March 8 flight out of Singapore. There was a party of 19 Chinese artists, relatives and supporters on board, pictured above at their exhibition in the city state.


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Shanghai businessman Liu Yiqian opens his third private museum in the city and shells out US$33.6 million for a tiny chicken cup

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Lucy Liu Olympic Fashion shoot 2008

We featured this stunning image of actress and model Lucy Liu, shot in 2008, Olympic Games year, for Harper’s Bazaar


£427,250 moment of sale

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A record £427,250 for Edinburgh auctioneers Lyon & Turnbull when they sold this blue and white charger, estimated at £2-3,000.


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The Fiorentini collection of 30 pieces of porcelain was exposed for sale at Bonham’s, Edinburgh and took £105,000. This sang-de-boeuf bowl was knocked down for £11,250.


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Shanghai-based Chinese sculptor Chen Dapeng appoints Paul Harris Asia Arts as his agents in the UK in advance of a series of exhibitions.


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Major UK exhibition for Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace



The 17th Asian Art in London event opens. Our picture from an exhibition mounted by Michael Goedhuis of outstanding ink and watercolour paintings by Yang Yanping.

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Woolley & Wallis Chinese expert Freya Yuan cradles the top selle, one of a pair of bowls which exceeded £420,000 from their £3.2m. November sale.


Royals Will and Kate visited New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art. This was one Chinese picture they didn’t see . . .  Art critic Jerry Saltz posted it on Instagram and got booted off the site. We wonder why!


Brought Christmas, as ever, but this Santa Claus print from Andy Warhol, offered by Artron in online auction, failed to find an owner.


. . . and on to 2015. Happy New Year everyone!

Unusual Chinese art image 50 Cycling with Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei 'Forever Bicycles'

Ai Weiwei’s Forever Bicycles  Installation at the Tapei Fine Arts Museum Picture by The Toronto Star via Tumblr Orientally Yours

Ai Weiwei’s dramatic installation is made up of 1,200 stainless steel bicycles from the historic Chinese brand Yong Jiu (‘forever’) which has produced bicycles in Shanghai since 1940. Weiwei appears to be reflecting upon the social and environmental changes in today’s China as the once ubiquitous pushbikes are replaced by cars.

Major UK show for Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace

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Always controversial and challenging, Chinese artist and activist Ai Weiwei‘s work is to go on show as the launch exhibition of the Blenheim Art Foundation.Opening at Blenheim Palace, near to London, this autumn, the exhibition will showcase more than 50 artworks by Ai Weiwei produced over the last 30 years in the artist’s most extensive UK exhibition ever.The show will cover the breadth of Weiwei’s career, spanning the early photography dating from his New York period in the 1980s, through to new works conceived in China specifically for the exhibition.A renowned political activist, Weiwei has not been able to leave China since 2011, resulting in his working with the Blenheim Art Foundation team from his home in China on 3D plans and models of the site and grounds.Notable pieces on show will include Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads: Gold (2010) and He Xie (2010), comprising 2,300 small porcelain crabs.A series of 55 photographs by Ai Weiwei documenting his time spent in New York from 1983 to 1993 will also be showcased, alongside Marble Surveillance Camera (2010), a poignant reminder of Ai’s current situation, and Slanted Table (1997), a piece drawing on the artistic heritage of the Qing Dynasty.

New works created for the exhibition will include the site-specific carpet Soft Ground (Great Hall), and hand-painted porcelain plates with ‘freedom flower’ details.

Ai Weiwei at Blenheim Palace is the first major contemporary art exhibition to be presented at the UNESCO World Heritage site, which dates back to 1704 and is famously known as the birthplace of British prime minister Winston Churchill.

The exhibition will run from October 1 – December 14.

blenheim art foundation

The Foundation has just presented its mission statement in the following terms. ‘Offering visitors a unique opportunity to experience contemporary art in the historic setting of the Palace and its celebrated Parkland and Formal Gardens, the not-for-profit foundation aims to give the greatest number of people access to the most innovative contemporary artists working today.

It is founded by Lord Edward Spencer-Churchill, son of His Grace 11th Duke of Marlborough. A dedicated collector of contemporary art, Lord Edward has long held the ambition to launch a contemporary art programme at Blenheim Palace. He realises Blenheim Art Foundation with newly appointed Director, Michael Frahm.’

Weiwei ‘mad’ about destruction of 7,000 year-old vase

Legendary Chinese artist Ai Weiwei was today reported as being ‘mad’ about the destruction of a 7,000 year old Han dynasty vase. That is mad angry, not mad insane, of course, although he has himself deliberately broken a similar vase as a piece of performance art back in 1995  . . .

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The Ai Weiwei exhibit at Miami’s Perez Museum   Photo courtesy EPA

Last Sunday, a  local artist picked up and maliciously dropped one of the vases Weiwei incorporated in his exhibit at Florida’s Perez Museum of Art. Apparently, he was protesting against the Museum’s showing of the work of international artists, as opposed to local artists. The destroyed vase is said to be worth around $1m.

Purists might take the view that Weiwei had effectively destroyed much of the value of the vases in his display by liberally applying paint to same in a sort of gaudy imitation of flambé vases. Of course, in that process he has, however, probably created an artwork worth rather more than their original cumulative high value. . .

Today Weiwei was making the point that it was quite aright for him to break his own vase, but not quite OK for some other person to break one of his vases. The miscreant has been arrested and charged with criminal damage. He faces five years in jail if convicted.

Ironically, the destruction of part of the exhibit has ensured that it is now world famous and has increased its value accordingly. And, anyway, the Han dynasty pots don’t look to us as if they are worth $1m., even on a good day in the saleroom.

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Weiwei’s own pot dropping stunt in 1995