Monday, August 11, 2008

Reading Between the Rings; the 2008 Olympics Opening Ceremony

In the 2004 Olympics Opening Ceremony, Philly was representin’, as our own MattyBoy Hart was on the director's team. For this 2008 round, props go to Zhang Yimou.

As a graphic conscience, the celebrated references to historical Chinese mediums such as papermaking, calligraphy, and printmaking in an event watched by a large portion of the world population made me cheer (see image of movable type, from the Official Site of the 2008 Olympic Games). Though such things as handmade paper and printmaking are now considered art forms, at their invention, they were the height of technology. And, despite all our technology today, paper in particular is still its basis. It takes the form of our money, our marriage licenses, the deeds to our homes, our insurance forms, and all contracts too important to risk in an email black hole or computer crash. So it was exciting to see their origins hailed, and recall that these origins are really the origins of modern society.

It goes without saying that China underwent an enormous amount of construction and design for this event. During the ceremony, one of the American commentators mentioned that the dancers in the electrified green costumes were originally in black. In rehearsal, Zhang Yimou decided he didn’t like the affect, in three days, he had two thousand green costumes. As a conscience, I remembered another Philadelphian, Jeff Gammage, who commented in his book, China Ghosts, (2007) “Alongside of highways we saw tons of dirt being pushed and shaped – and not an earth-mover in sight. No machinery, just a hundred men with shovels, and down the road from them, a hundred more.” (Page 102). I can’t help wondering, who slaved for three days to make two thousand costumes of a different color? Moreover, who were the unrecognized construction workers who built the extraordinarily beautiful Bird’s Nest Stadium, and did they even have power tools?

I’ve always been blown away by the material sensitivity, feeling for light, and restraint of certain Asian artists. Artists such as Xu Bing, Rie Hachiyanagi or Sun Young Kang have the ability to evoke both the transcendental and the mundane, saying exactly what they need to express without clutter. It is this ability that I find lacking in Western minimalism, which seems hollow and plastic in comparison.

Zhang Yimou addressed both the past and the future in his ceremony. He referenced the threat of global warming towards the planet in his ceremony, and went on to imply that through openness and coming together and supporting one another, we can solve problems. The Olympics has brought attention to China as a place of human rights violations, but we should not discount solutions to problems that might be found there and in their philosophies. As threats to the environment continue Zhang Yimou and other artists of Asia and Asian descent’s ability to create works of art with material sensitivity and harmony to their environment becomes more and more important. As we consider our future, perhaps we should take these ideas into consideration.

To see images of the Olympics, including the opening ceremony, visit the 2008 Olympics Official Site. More images of the opening ceremonies can be seen on this video on YouTube.

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