Thursday 27 September 2012

Ai Weiwei loses appeal over tax evasion

Poster of  2012 Alyson Klayman's documentary
"Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry"
As we reported in several posts here and again here on this blog, the world famous Chinese artist was condemned by Bejing authorities for tax evasion. 

Ai and his company Fake Cultural Development Ltd presented appeal against such sentence, accusing the tax bureau of violating laws in handling witnesses, counterfeiting evidences and company accounts. 

Ai said authorities have repeatedly denied him his legal rights and failed to follow basic procedures. For instance, Beijing court should have given him written notice of its judgment three days in advance, but instead notified him by phone on Wednesday, the day before the ruling. The short notice meant his lawyers weren't able to attend because they were travelling, he said.

Chinese authorities have today rejected  his second and final appeal against a $2.4m tax fine. Ai paid this guarantee in part with donations via wire transfers or from supporters who stuffed cash into envelopes or wrapped bills around fruit and threw the items into his yard. That deposit will automatically be collected by the tax bureau now, artist said.

Ai also claimed authorities have yet to return his passport, effectively barring him from leaving the country. The passport was taken after Ai was detained without explanation for three months last year. Not having the passport prevented him from going to exhibitions of his work and other engagements in Washington, New York and Berlin.

The artist and his supporters have interpreted the penalty as official retaliation against his activism. A sculptor, photographer and installation artist, Ai has used his art and online profile to draw attention to injustices in Chinese society and the need for greater transparency and rule of law.

We guess his celebrity will raise after this final conviction and after a documentary about him, "Ai Weiwei: Never Sorry", which opened in the United States in July 2012, reporting several clashes he had with Chinese regime: in 2011 his studio was destroyed; afterwards police in Sichuan invaded his hotel room in the middle of the night beating him so severely that he had to undergo surgery in Germany for a cranial hemorrhage. When he tried to file a complaint at a police station, his effort was thwarted by bureaucracy.

Sunday 16 September 2012

New Trend in the Art World: Disbanding of Authentication Committees?

"Untitled", Keith Haring, 1984
A trend in the art field seems the end of many authentication committees: several art-authentication boards and artist-endowed foundations have decided that the risks and potential costs associated with determining authenticity are too high.

Few days ago, Ms Julia Gruen - the foundation's executive director of the Keith Haring Foundation - gave the announcement that also this authentication committee will be disbanded. The foundation will be honoring submissions for reviewing requests that were submitted before September 1.

The disbandment comes after the announcements of the Warhol Foundation and the Basquiat Estate that they would end authenticating artworks, because this activity creates many risks of legal actions over such judgement. With reference to the Andy Warhol Foundation, this institution was highly criticized last year for having spent nearly 7 millions US dollars in defending an antitrust lawsuit brought by a collector, Simon Whelan, who had claimed that the authentication committee had denied the authenticity of a 1964 portrait in order to maintain price of Warhol's artworks high.  Also the board decision to downgrade more than 100 wooden Brillo boxes was heavily criticized.In the future, probably most of these Foundations would take care only of the charitable goals and of their catalogue raisonne├ęs. 

How the art market will be affected with so many authentication committees closing? Perhaps, in the future buyers will rely more on provenance, that does not always provide a trustworthy answer though.  In addition, people will be willing to pay more for a work that had been approved by an authentication committee that for one that had not. 

Saturday 8 September 2012

The Stripper and the Taxman: Sexy, but is it Art?

A New York strip club is making headlines with a valiant attempt to avoid paying a rather large tax bill.

The club, named Nite Moves, advertises itself as 'the only gentleman's club in Albany with fully nude private dancers' and is being charged back taxes of between US$125,000 and US$400,000 according to differing sources. But it argued in court this week that its dancers' performances are an art form, and as such the club should be tax exempt. New York state law does indeed exempt revenue from 'dramatical [and] musical arts performances' from tax. But does lap- and pole-dancing qualify?

Nite Moves' attorney, adult industry specialist Andrew McCullough, presented a spirited argument in court that it does. 'It's not the Bolshoi [ballet], but it's good,' he said in praise of the club's dancers, going on to point out that pole dancing is under consideration as an Olympic sport. The judge appeared to disagree; the Associated Press reported him as commenting that the dancers are hired untrained and simply 'do what they do'. State law adds that exotic dancing does not qualify as an arts performance because it is not firmly choreographed.

The law, when asked to define art (often for tax purposes), frequently struggles and sometimes finds itself behind the times. Famously, when Brancusi's bronze Bird in Space was imported into the USA in 1928, it was initially deemed not an artwork but a utilitarian object and 40% import duty was charged on the value of the bronze. As a sculpture it could have been freely imported. However, 'sculpture' was defined for import purposes as representing something real, while Bird in Space was abstract: it didn't actually look like a bird. More recently the EU has held that full VAT (rather than the reduced rate for artworks) was chargeable on works by Dan Flavin and Bill Viola when they were imported into the UK. As the pieces' components were light bulbs, video equipment and other such materials, the EU felt they couldn't be deemed 'art'.

Brancusi's Bird in Space
The arguments raised on both sides in the Nite Moves case as to why exotic dancing is or is not 'art' are illustrative of the difficulties faced when making such a decision; some of them seem only tenuously linked to the question in hand. Why should the fact that the club's dancers are hired untrained, or that pole dancing may become an Olympic sport, make their dancing any more or less an art form? Is a painter less an 'artist' because he or she has not been formally trained? Or is the 100 metre sprint an art form because it's an Olympic sport? Again, is lap dancing less an art form because it may also be considered erotic? On this last point it's interesting to recall that ballet, once considered a dubious profession, today enjoys unassailable status as highbrow art.

The court in the Nite Moves case does not have an enviable task in trying to answer the unanswerable question: What is art? So far as exotic dancing goes, the jury is still out. A decision is expected next month.

Read more in the Huffington Post, the Telegraph and the BBC News.

Wednesday 5 September 2012

Ecce Homo: The Plot Thickens

The botched restoration of the Ecce Homo fresco has received quite a bit of attention lately.  As Jeremy wrote in our post of 23 August, the fresco, located in a church near Zaragoza, Spain, was "restored" by an elderly, untrained parishioner named Cecilia Gimenez.  The result of her efforts was to transform the portrait of Jesus into what one individual describes as "a very hairy monkey in an ill-fitting tunic." This gaffe inspired a great deal of commentary and humor around the world.  (One of my personal favorites here).

However, it seems Gimenez's work may have inspired another, more well-known artist.  Over the weekend this image appeared on 9GAG.  Although the piece has yet to be confirmed as genuine, perhaps world-renowned street artist, Banksy, is paying tribute to Gimenez.  The image is not on Banksy's own website, causing many to question its authenticity.  It would appear that the piece is likely a fake, another part of the ongoing Ecce Homo internet meme.

And if the piece were real?  All of this could be viewed as one vandal paying tribute to another.  However, Gimenez claims to have had permission to restore the fresco.  And Banksy?  Banksy's work is known to sell for hundreds of thousands of dollars, if not more.  That being the case, some would argue his pieces no longer constitute vandalism, as properties graced with a genuine Banksy experience significant increases in their value.  In some cases when a building with a Banksy is sold, the art piece tends to comprise most, if not all of the sale price, with the building a mere afterthought.  

Try your hand at a restoration here on BBH London's Cecilia Prize website.

Tuesday 4 September 2012

The Intersection of Creativity and Ingenuity

New art forms—and the artists who practice them—have transformed and inspired the ad world for many years.  Developments in lithography revolutionized advertising by allowing for large-scale color printing in the 1880s.  Fast-forward to today, and the picture becomes far more complex.  In recent decades artists have used their creativity to push the limits of technology, and the internet provides a platform for unlimited publishing and sharing of these ideas.  Yet, it created perils too, as a little-known artist could abruptly find his or her works copied on the other side of the world.

As some readers are likely aware, ad agencies often seem to be at the heart of these creative contretemps.  New York sculptor Ryan Johnson’s 2007 work, “Pedestrian,” bears a marked similarity to an outdoor sculpture UPS advertisement in Jakarta created by Ogilvy & Mather in 2010.  According to Co.Design, Ogilvy defended the works, stating that the resemblance to Johnson’s sculpture was nothing other than mere coincidence.

In 2010, marketing firm Space150 created a Forever 21 billboard in Times Square that was widely criticized for its similarity to a 2009 piece by artist Chris O’Shea.  In each piece a large screen broadcasts a camera view of the crowd below.  In the Forever 21 billboard, a female model then appeared to play with and photograph members of the crowd.  The billboard was predated by O’Shea’s piece “Hand from Above” which featured a hand tickling and picking up members of the real time crowd below.  According to, after some public pressure Space150 later stated that it was inspired by O’Shea’s work.

During the 2012 Olympic games, Cadbury released a swirling animated ad created by ad agency Publicis Dublin, where the movement of the purple and gold animation mimics that of Olympic athletes.  This gorgeous animation bears a striking resemblance to pieces created by artists Memo Akten and Quayola called “Forms” also based on Olympic athletes.  The artists describe these works as “a series of studies on human motion, and its reverberations through space and time.”  The works were published online several months before the Cadbury ad.

“Hand from Above” and “Forms” both raise some really interesting intellectual property questions.  Not only do the works consist of the moving images viewers see on a billboard or computer screen, they also consist of a back end, computer code, written specifically for the piece.  That being the case, the works present two potentially protectable embodiments within a single artwork.  Under U.S. copyright law, copyright protection extends to all copyrightable expression embodied in a computer program, but not to the ideas, program logic, or algorithms that may underlie the program.  The issue of protecting the code becomes further mired in questions of ownership and whether the works consist merely of a cobbling of appropriated bits from creative code projects such as Cinder or OpenFrameworks.  Use of code from these projects may be subject to simplified licensing requirements such as those set forth under the MIT License.  The willingness of these new media and code artists to share with one another is the basis for dynamic, thriving creative communities.  However, this relatively new medium is also fraught with perils as technical know-how can be bought and creativity emulated for commercial purposes.  Here, at this intersection of creativity and ingenuity, it can be difficult to draw the line between copies, inspiration, and contemporary creative dialogue.  

Monday 3 September 2012

Legal Beauties: the new way to find a wife

Should any reader be in need of a wife, you have one more week to get yourself to the 'Sleeping Beauty' exhibition at the National Art Museum of Ukraine and pick one up.

In what must surely be up there as one of the strangest shows ever staged, the museum has merged art and love (or at least marriage) like never before. Visitors to the show wend their way amongst white, raised beds on which the exhibits are 'sleeping'. These exhibits are five attractive young women in full-length white satin nightgowns, each of whom take turns to act as Sleeping Beauty for two hours at a time.

And the comparison doesn't stop there. If a single male visitor aged 18 or over should wish to take one of the Beauties home, he may kiss her - and hope that while he's at it, she opens her eyes. If she does so, that's when the legal side kicks in. Prior to taking part in the show, each exhibit must sign a contract stating that if she opens her eyes when being kissed, she will marry the kisser. Likewise the visitor must agree that "If I kiss the Beauty and she opens her eyes, I agree to marry her". (Female visitors may kiss the Beauties too, but Ukraine doesn't permit same-sex marriage).

It's an unusual way to find a partner but as some reviews have pointed out, given the number of marriages which end in divorce, the Beauties and their princes may statistically have as good a shot at a relationship as those formed in the traditional way. As one of the Beauties pragmatically told the Independent, 'Anything can happen in life. What if it's my destiny and this is the only way for me to meet my soulmate?'

What indeed. However, it must surely have crossed the exhibits' minds that their Prince, whilst a good kisser, may turn out to be unattractive or unpleasant on further investigation. In that case, would their peculiar contracts be binding? Could a one-line agreement with a stranger hold you to marriage under Ukrainian law? So far, none of the Beauties are reported to have opened their eyes whilst being kissed - so we may never know.

The Sleeping Beauty exhibit runs from Aug 22 to Sept 9.

Read more in the Independent, the Guardian  and Jezebel.