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Ai Weiwei and Joan Baez Receive Amnesty International Honor
by Nadja Sayej

For the first time, Amnesty International awarded their annual Ambassador of Conscience Award to a visual artist.

Ai Weiwei received the international honor, which was presented at an award ceremony Thursday night at the Berliner Festspiele in Berlin, in absentia. The artist can’t leave China, being under government surveillance and having his passport revoked.

In place, he designated London’s Tate Modern curator Chris Dercon to accept the award on his behalf. The award is devoted to human rights activists, proactive protesters who speak out and contrast Edmund Burke's famed statement that “all that is needed for evil to triumph is for good people to stand by and do nothing.”

As it turned out, Dercon called Ai Weiwei’s six-year-old son, Ai Lao, to join him at the awards ceremony. Ai Lao jumped on the public stage for the very first time (“aside from classroom presentations,” said his mom) to accept the award and say into the microphone, “I really hope my dad gets his passport back.”

Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon and Ai Weiwei's son Ai Lao accepting the award on the artist's behalf.
Courtesy: Amnesty International / Henning Schacht


This year, the Ambassador of Conscience Award was given to Ai Weiwei alongside American folk singer, Joan Baez, who has released 30 albums over the past 50 years. Patti Smith showed her support, introducing Baez’s award with a tearful recitation of the singer and activist’s accomplishments, which range from performing at rallies alongside Sammy Davis Jr. to singing at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial in 1963 before Martin Luther King Jr.’s infamous speech “I Have A Dream.”

“We have to keep being a thorn in the side of injustice and to draw as much blood as we can,” said Smith. “Life seems more corrupt than ever but I pin my faith on new generations.”

The Ambassador of Conscience Award, founded in 2003, recognizes human rights leadership. Previous winners include Nelson Mandela, U2, and Peter Gabriel. This year, the Art for Amnesty director Bill Shipsey was happy to announce the award went to two cultural heroes “who are not only activists but also artists,” he said.

Curator Cheryl Haines presented a touching speech on working with Ai Weiwei on his Alcatraz exhibition (the back of her glittery gold coat read “Ai Can’t Be Here”). “It’s a great privilege for working with Ai Weiwei, but it became much more than an art project,” she said. “He couldn’t leave the country and I had to go to Beijing six times. I remember asking him how I could help. He said, ‘You can help bring my art to a broader audience.’”

Since detained and beaten without charge in 2010 and 2011, Ai Weiwei is censored on the internet in China after inspiring a politically-critical, individualistic movement through his artwork. Instead of winning a gob of cash—it isn’t a money award—“Weiwei is using the award to address the fate of those who have given much more than he does and speaking up for other people,” said Dercon.

Activists the artists considers in way worse situations than himself include civil rights lawyer Pu Zhiqiang, who faces eight years of prison, imprisoned Nobel Peace Prize-winning poet Liu Xiaobo, journalist Gao Yu, women’s rights activist Su Changlan, activist Liu Ping, and academic Ilham Tothti.

Smith offered some insight on her own ways of helping. “My activism is just in the form of smiles, prayers, singing a song, helping a kid get up who has fallen down,” she said. “You have to do something little every day, no matter how small it is.”


Nadja Sayej


(Image at top: Patti Smith and Tate Modern Director Chris Dercon, who accepted the Ambassador of Conscience Award on Ai Weiwei's behalf this week. Photo: Nadja Sayej)

Posted by Nadja Sayej on 5/23 | tags: ambassador of conscience award joan baez Patti Smith Ai Weiwei activism Amnesty International chris dercon

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Elaine Sturtevant
Hamburger Bahnhof - Museum für Gegenwart
Invalidenstrasse 50-51, 10557 Berlin, Germany
May 30, 2015 - August 23, 2015

The Prescient Plagiarist: Sturtevant’s Works on Paper
by Teodora Kotseva

It’s often said that originality is simply undetected plagiarism. In the past couple of years, several major art institutions and museums have revisited the work of American artist Elaine Frances Sturtevant (1924–2014), known simply as Sturtevant, who was both as original as they come, but also a well-known plagiarist. Recent exhibitions include Double Trouble at the MoMA, New York City, and MOCA, Los Angeles (2014–2015), Leaps Jumps and Bumps at the Serpentine Gallery (2013), and Image Over Image, at the Moderna Museet, Stockholm, and Kunsthalle Zürich (2012). And now Berlin’s Hamburger Bahnhof has opened an exhibition dedicated to Sturtevant’s graphic works on paper.

Elaine Sturtevant, Working Drawing Warhol Flowers Lichtenstein Pointed Finger, 1966. © Collection Paul Maenz, Berlin


A predecessor of many contemporary artists who employ appropriation and repetition in their practice—e.g. Richard Prince, Jeff Koons—Sturtevant questioned the very notions of originality, authenticity, and authorship in an image-based economy. With a growing number of high profile copyright cases, fair use in art remains a blurry concept in our digitally-based world of re-makes and image saturation. Well ahead of today's copyright and appropriation polemics, Sturtevant made her name as a fine duplicator of works by her mostly male contemporaries—Warhol, Johns, Oldenburg, Lichtenstein—oftentimes before these artists had achieved their stardom status. Showing how truly prescient her practice was, the Hamburger Bahnhof exhibition focuses exclusively on Sturtevant’s graphic oeuvre. With some 100 works on paper, the exhibition sheds light on her meticulous drawing methods. She employed no forms of mechanical reproduction, no photographic or digital processes—the very tools that have made copyright and ownership discussions particularly challenging today.

Even though the exhibition is purposely devoted to her graphic works, examples of Sturtevant's installation works, as well as her film and video, are missed. Inclusion of works in additional media would have created a broader context and reflection on her complex practice, particularly since Sturtevant worked mainly in video and new media art after 2000. Without the additional context the show feels, at times, rather dry. Nevertheless, it offers a complete overview of her graphic work and reaffirms the position of pop icons like American flag and the hotdog in the contemporary arts image book and popular imagination.

Elaine Sturtevant, Johns Flag, 1991. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris, Courtesy Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg


The recent interest in Sturtevant—better late than never—questions the hierarchies and power in the art world, which prevented her from having notable recognition in the early years of her career. In addition to the growing institutional attention, in 2011 she was awarded the Golden Lion for Lifetime Achievement at the Venice Biennale. Sturtevant might have been a fine imitator, but history is starting to better portray her as a distinguished actor who insightfully critiqued consumption and production in the ever-expanding commercialized art world—a woman who began to probe the concept of repetition before her contemporaries, male theorists like Barthes, Foucault, and Deleuze, had published on the subject.


Teodora Kotseva


(Image at top: Elaine Sturtevant, Lichtenstein Laughing Cat, 1987. © Estate Sturtevant, Paris, Courtesy Galerie Thaddeus Ropac, Paris/Salzburg)

Posted by Teodora Kotseva on 6/1 | tags: conceptual drawing repetition copyright imitation Sturtevant plagiarism Jasper Johns Roy Lichtenstein

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