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China artist comes out… as a Frenchman

A man who has made a name for himself over the past ten years as a Chinese artist has revealed that he made the entire character up and that he's actually French.

China artist comes out... as a Frenchman
The Red Gate Gallery, in the Corner Watchtower; Dongcheng District, Beijing. Photo: Aidan Wakely-Mulroney/Flickr
For someone who cites his “oriental identity” as a source of inspiration, China-based artist Tao Hongjing is remarkably white.
   
According to the biography distributed at his exhibitions, Tao is a stereotypically Chinese man.
   
“The big change came when his father bought a TV, the first one ever in the neighbourhood. From then on, Tao could see the world and understand his country,” it read.
   
Except that China was not his country. Tao Hongjing was the fictional creation of French artist Alexandre Ouairy, born in Nantes, who assumed the pseudonym a decade ago to sell more art as an unknown foreign name in China.
   
He lays his conception to rest with an exhibition opening at Beijing's Red Gate Gallery this weekend titled “Death is Going Home”.
   
Ouairy's art trades on digestible Chinese symbolism familiar to foreign audiences: gold-plated Buddha statues, prints of bowdlerised funeral currency, Chinese characters in neon lights, and scenes of heavy industry stamped in red ink with signature chops on rice paper.
   
The “Tao Hongjing” idea was based on a suggestion by his gallerist in Shanghai a decade ago, when the country's contemporary art market was soaring but the Frenchman's early exhibitions proved flops.
   
“Public interest was limited, zero even,” he recalled, offering a simple explanation: “It was because I was a foreigner.
   
“The collectors were primarily foreigners and they wanted to buy Chinese work, because for them it was a good investment.
   
“In Shanghai, I saw all that counterfeit Louis Vuitton and Prada, and I said to myself: If they make fake bags, why don't I make a fake Chinese
artist?”
   
The name was taken from a fifth-century Chinese philosopher “who was a bit of a jokester”, he said.
   
Humour aside, it worked. He began to sell one or two works a month, rather than one or two per exhibition.
   
“Presenting myself as Chinese, it made a difference,” he said. “There's a whole economy and financial interests that aren't the same.”
   
But attention and press interest have had to be handled carefully. He avoided the openings of his own exhibitions, or described himself as “Tao Hongjing's assistant”, while media interviews were carried out by phone, said Ouairy, “and my Chinese gallerist pretended to be me”.
   
Chinese contemporary artists have risen to global prominence in recent years, their auction prices driven up by newly wealthy compatriots.
   
According to the Artprice databank, 17 of the 50 top-selling artists in the year to June were Chinese, and Chinese artists accounted for 21 percent of total global turnover in contemporary art, second only to Americans.
   
Yang Yang, founder of Beijing's Gallery Yang, which exhibits both local and foreign work, said: “Contemporary art is tied to a territory, and the so-called 'internationalization' of art doesn't really exist.”
   
“Nationality is obviously very important.”
 
Different perspective
 
Ouairy's exhibition comes after white US poet Michael Derrick Hudson triggered heated debate when he admitted a poem of his, rejected for publication 40 times under his own name, was only accepted for this year's edition of “Best American Poetry” after he submitted it under the pseudonym of a Chinese woman, Yi-Fen Chou. A New Yorker contributor termed it “Orientalist profiteering”.
   
The prices at the Beijing show range as high as 200,000 yuan (more than $30,000), a far cry from the 1,500 yuan that works signed in Ouairy's own name used to sell for.
   
He said he was going public with his Tao Hongjing identity because he felt he had exhausted its potential. Having intended at first to “play on the market and stereotypes”, he said, he did not need Tao any more to open up a dialogue.
   
“Cultural differences between Chinese and foreigners are smaller now,” he said. “And I'm sufficiently well known.”
   
Critic Luo Fei, curator of the TCG Nordica gallery in Kunming, said that Ouairy was “playing a very interesting game with identity”.
   
“His sensibility towards China is different from that of a Chinese person; his mode of expression is one that's looking in from the outside.
   
“If it were a Chinese artist, they'd avoid making art like this, because if they did, people would say that they're copying others.
   
“But if you're a foreigner, then people will know that you're looking at things from a different perspective.”
   
In a 2009 blog post, Evan Osnos, author of the critically-acclaimed Age of Ambition: Chasing Fortune, Truth and Faith in the New China, praised a Tao Hongjing work in neon lights called “To Get Rich is Glorious”, a reference to comments by Deng Xiaoping as he began to reform China's economy.
   
“I'm not really shocked that the artist was not as advertised,” Osnos told AFP. “It seems like this French artist truly absorbed the determination to get rich. We can call it performance art — but not Chinese art.”
 
By Ludovic Ehret

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HISTORY

‘Lost’ manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

A book by one of France's most celebrated and controversial literary figures arrives in bookstores this week, 78 years after the manuscript disappeared

'Lost' manuscript of pro-Nazi French author published 78 years later

It is a rare thing when the story of a book’s publication is even more mysterious than the plot of the novel itself.

But that might be said of Guerre (War) by one of France’s most celebrated and controversial literary figures, Louis-Ferdinand Celine, which arrives in bookstores on Thursday, some 78 years after its manuscript disappeared.

Celine’s reputation has somehow survived the fact that he was one of France’s most eager collaborators with the Nazis.

Already a superstar thanks to his debut novel Journey to the End of the Night (1932), Celine became one of the most ardent anti-Semitic propagandists even before France’s occupation.

In June 1944, with the Allies advancing on Paris, the writer abandoned a pile of his manuscripts in his Montmartre apartment.

Celine feared rough treatment from authorities in liberated France, having spent the war carousing with the Gestapo, and giving up Jews and foreigners to the Nazi regime and publishing racist pamphlets about Jewish world conspiracies.

For decades, no one knew what happened to his papers, and he accused resistance fighters of burning them. But at some point in the 2000s, they ended up with retired journalist Jean-Pierre Thibaudat, who passed them – completely out of the blue – to Celine’s heirs last summer.

‘A miracle’
Despite the author’s history, reviews of the 150-page novel, published by Gallimard, have been unanimous in their praise.

“The end of a mystery, the discovery of a great text,” writes Le Point; a “miracle,” says Le Monde; “breathtaking,” gushes Journal du Dimanche.

Gallimard has yet to say whether the novel will be translated.

Like much of Celine’s work, Guerre is deeply autobiographical, recounting his experiences during World War I.

It opens with 20-year-old Brigadier Ferdinand finding himself miraculously alive after waking up on a Belgian battlefield, follows his treatment and hasty departure for England – all based on Celine’s real experiences.

His time across the Channel is the subject of another newly discovered novel, Londres (London), to be published this autumn.

If French reviewers seem reluctant to focus on Celine’s rampant World War II anti-Semitism, it is partly because his early writings (Guerre is thought to date from 1934) show little sign of it.

Journey to the End of the Night was a hit among progressives for its anti-war message, as well as a raw, slang-filled style that stuck two fingers up at bourgeois sensibilities.

Celine’s attitude to the Jews only revealed itself in 1937 with the publication of a pamphlet, Trifles for a Massacre, which set him on a new path of racial hatred and conspiracy-mongering.

He never back-tracked. After the war, he launched a campaign of Holocaust-denial and sought to muddy the waters around his own war-time exploits – allowing him to worm his way back into France without repercussions.

‘Divine surprise’
Many in the French literary scene seem keen to separate early and late Celine.

“These manuscripts come at the right time – they are a divine surprise – for Celine to become a writer again: the one who matters, from 1932 to 1936,” literary historian Philippe Roussin told AFP.

Other critics say the early Celine was just hiding his true feelings.

They highlight a quote that may explain the gap between his progressive novels and reactionary feelings: “Knowing what the reader wants, following fashions like a shopgirl, is the job of any writer who is very financially constrained,” Celine wrote to a friend.

Despite his descent into Nazism, he was one of the great chroniclers of the trauma of World War I and the malaise of the inter-war years.

An exhibition about the discovery of the manuscripts opens on Thursday at the Gallimard Gallery and includes the original, hand-written sheets of Guerre.

They end with a line that is typical of Celine: “I caught the war in my head. It is locked in my head.”

In the final years before his death in 1961, Celine endlessly bemoaned the loss of his manuscripts.

The exhibition has a quote from him on the wall: “They burned them, almost three manuscripts, the pest-purging vigilantes!”

This was one occasion – not the only one – where he was proved wrong.

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