“THE LIGHTING’S ALL wrong! I have been to all of the world’s major art museums, and I know, paintings like this need to be lit from directly above!”
June 11, 2011. The opening ceremony for the exhibit “Jin Shangyi: Compliments to Vermeer” at the Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum (CAFAM) in Beijing. After the rounds of speeches by various important personages, all the invited VIPs stood up on stage to cut the ribbon for the exhibition. Only Jin Shangyi— the 77-year-old Chairman of the Chinese Artists Association and former CAFA president— stayed put, sitting all alone in his front-row seat. And only after the whole tedious ceremony was over was he ready to stand before three of the works on view and, swarmed by adoring art students, spectators, photographers, and journalists, blurt out the above words in the presence of CAFAM director Wang Huangsheng and CAFA vice president Xu Bing. The three lights in question shone from a distant corner, illuminating the hot faces of the packed-in guests standing in the way, and oozing gaudily off the surfaces of the paintings they eventually reached.
The whole exhibition was a glorified game of “spot the difference” between Jin Shangyi’s paintings and the original Vermeers. Attendees who could were supposed to award themselves a small red flower. Yet those who weren’t up to the art-historical task had nothing to worry about; they had “high-tech” interactive stations to walk them through the discrepancies in “facial expression” and “hands” between Jin’s The Terrified Girl with the Pearl Earring and Vermeer’s un-terrified original. Throw in the accompanying display of catalogues— once upon a time, personaly handled by Mr. Jin himself— and the many documents and explanatory blurbs scattered around the exhibition, and you’d have no trouble wrapping your mind around the “post-classicism” of the works on view, as current CAFA president Pan Gongkai admiringly praised them.
Almost as if in response to this wave of “Compliments,” over the next few days Weibo exploded in an outbreak of digitally manipulated creations. Some of CAFA’s most eminent personages suddenly found their beautiful faces arrayed in three-quarter profile, swapped by devious Photoshop masters into the spot formerly occupied by Vermeer’s Girl. It was funny stuff, and it spread like wildfire across Weibo, driven by reveling onlookers. Even though they kept their true attitudes carefully ambiguous, the piquant scent of provocation was readily detectable. These were students and teachers at semester’s end, after all.
But that was hardly the end of the story. Two weeks after the opening ceremony, during a brief break in what would prove to be an entire evening’s worth of torrential rain, CAFAM staged a “Night of the Netizen” in its main hall. At the event, Jin was the recipient of a “bespoke” iPad loaded with the full range of pearl-earringed parodies. The netizen creations so enthusiastically posted and re-posted in the days prior now rolled across the big screen for the audience’s enjoyment, their presence like a telegram from the masses, articles of tribute offered up in the hall of the masters.
Just for one night, this “Night of the Netizens,” the unruly hordes of online rebels were granted refuge inside the palace walls. And, interestingly enough, no sooner had the rainy night’s event ended than the torrent of reimagined Vermeers dried up. As Xu Bing expressed to the youthful participants who braved the rain to attend, “You, who have turned up tonight, are the masters of the future!”