Urban Rooftop Farms, Hens & Bees

By Kimberly Sevilla
Owner of Rose Red & Lavender, and life-long gardener

I remember my first “rooftop garden,” in a walk-up on Avenue D in Manhattan. I attempted to grow some tomatoes in five gallon buckets, nothing fancy, and certainly not pretty. I quickly discovered that on hot summer days tomatoes drink a lot of water, and over a long weekend vacation, get destroyed. Hauling water up three flights of stairs and hanging out on a hot rooftop was no fun. My first year as a rooftop gardener was a big disaster, and I learned that no amount of love can revive a crispy tomato plant. I retreated, to my terrestrial garden, where the elements were a little more forgiving, and put my rooftop endeavor on hold for a few years.

If you look across the rooftops of Williamsburg, Greenpoint, and Bushwick you can see a lot going on up in the sky. Rooftop gardens are sprouting up all over. Take a trip across the Queensboro Bridge and you will see lots of green on the roofs of Long Island City, too. Been to Roberta’s? The Bushwick-based eatery has some wonderful gardens on their roof, specifically a building they’ve created out of shipping containers (It houses Heritage Radio, their online radio station-—heritageradionetwork.com—dedicated to the practical arts: gardening, making beer, and anything that has to do with making your own stuff.)

Who builds these gardens and why? What do they grow  and what challenges do they face?

In the early spring of 2009, a few months after I had opened Rose Red & Lavender, an Organic Gardening Center and Floral Studio in Brooklyn. I was riding the subway from Manhattan and noticed a thin, cleancut young man mapping out a complicated vegetable gardening scheme. A very, very large vegetable garden scheme. This is a pretty rare site,  More > >

A Chocolatier in Our Midst

Maribel Lieberman, once a fashion designer, in her Dobbin Street (Greenpoint) chocolate factory. Photo by William Hereford

Maribel tempering chocolate. Photo by William Hereford

MarieBelle
484 Broome Street
New York, New York 10013
(212) 925-6999
www.mariebelle.com

It’s a humid day in North Brooklyn and Maribel Lieberman has on a pretty vintage dress adorned with an elaborate diamond pin at the waist. Even on a day when she’s working on candy molds in her Greenpoint factory, she’s dressed like she’s ready to attend a cocktail party at the drop of a hat.

If anyone can sell luxury chocolate in a recession, it’s Maribel, with her deep-dimpled smile, her effervescent charm, and the inspiring story of a young woman who came to New York from Honduras to study fashion design, but ended up owning one of the most stylish chocolate companies in the big city.

It was 11 years ago when Maribel introduced her haute chocolate. The unique design— colorful, abstract art printed on one square inch of chocolate candy—caused a sensation in the culinary world. Daily Candy, the trend watcher website, immediately featured it on their web page. New York Magazine soon followed, and before you knew it, it was one of Oprah’s favorite things. And then, of course, Neiman Marcus came calling. Her product was special, created when the technology of printing on food products was still in its infancy. “When I started, people had very simple designs with one or two colors silk screened onto the chocolate, but mine had four or five colors,” she said.

Famous for their ganache chocolates (pictured here), MarieBelle silk-screens graphics onto a sheet of acetate, and then transfers them onto pieces of chocolate.

From the start, most of the chocolate manufacturers she approached were resistant. “They told me there were too many colors in the design, it couldn’t be done.” But she kept pushing, and a few months later, after many trials and errors, a company in Europe perfected the silk screening technique. Her chocolate, infused with exotic flavors like cardamom, rosemary or saffron, looked stylish enough to delight any modern day princess. The designs were wild enough for artists and fashionistas, yet elegant enough for corporate gifts.

Maribel came to New York to study fashion. “I was one of eight children and my mother worked as a seamstress. I always had to wear a lot of hand-me-down dresses. But my mother would alter them, adding a pocket here and there to make them look new again.” So Maribel too decided that she had a flair for fashion and enrolled in Parsons School of Design. “I loved the designing part, but the pattern making part, not so much,” she laughs. She also found out the fashion business was really mainly about “business.” “I thought it would be like the way my mother had done it. You get a piece a fabric and you make a dress. But of course, it’s not quite like that in a city like New York.”

Elegant packaging for MarieBelle’s hot chocolate mix.

Soon Maribel found another avenue to channel her creativity. “I discovered that I love to cook.” She didn’t go to a cooking school. She learned everything from cookbooks and the Food Network. She was married to New York painter Jacques Leiberman by then, and found herself giving fancy dinner parties that showcased her cooking. Soon she turned it into a catering business. She says she even had Bill Clinton as a client.

To promote her catering business, Maribel put her design training to work, creating chocolate candies, packaging them beautifully, and sending them out as promotional gifts. “Soon I had a lot of requests for my chocolates. In fact, I was making more money selling the chocolate than doing the catering business.” She quickly set up a “pop up” store on Prince Street (Lunettes et Chocolat) in 2000. Business slowed after September 11, but she made a comeback by opening MarieBelle Soho on Broome Street in the winter of 2002. Today, it is one of the most blogged about shops in the city. Its beautiful designs are reminiscent of old European cafes, with delicate chandeliers and turn-of-the-century style wood and glass cabinetry. It even has a Cacao Bar and Tea Salon, where customers can enjoy her Aztec hot or iced chocolate drinks, fine teas, and smoothies, along with her chocolate truffles and pastries.

Over the years, she has created several dozen fillings for her candies, including passion fruit, lavender, dolce de leche, and gianduja. Her most recent creations are dried fruit and nut barks and toffees. Her hot chocolates have made their way onto the shelves of Whole Foods and Dean and Deluca. “I didn’t change the product to meet Whole Food’s price point,” she says. “I just changed the size.” A 6 oz. can of MarieBelle hot chocolate mix goes for about $11.

For years, Maribel’s products were made in a small factory in Soho, but she wanted more space and the rent was getting ridiculous, so she decided to move the production out of Manhattan. “I looked at warehouses in Red Hook and other places, but I like Greenpoint. I want to work in an area with parks, and local shops,” she says. Her next challenge is to get her products into the gourmet stores in Brooklyn. After all, MarieBelle chocolate is now “Made in Brooklyn.”

The Dedicated Swimmers of the Met Pool

Members of a 25-year long tradition of morning swims at the Met Pool (the Met Swim Team). 1st Row (l-r): David Hildebrand, Tamara Rosenberg, Doug Safranek, Margie Neuhaus, Ethan Herschenfeld. 2nd Row: Linda Daniels, Rob Herschenfeld, Penelope Coe, James Sheehan, Barbara Campisi; 3rd Row: Pete Heatley, Jen Kuipers, Matt Kebbekus, Shannan Shaughnessy, Lewanne Jones. Photo by Eric Ryan Anderson

Members of a 25-year long tradition of morning swims at the Met Pool (the Met Swim Team). 1st Row (l-r): David Hildebrand, Tamara Rosenberg, Doug Safranek, Margie Neuhaus, Ethan Herschenfeld. 2nd Row: Linda Daniels, Rob Herschenfeld, Penelope Coe, James Sheehan, Barbara Campisi; 3rd Row: Pete Heatley, Jen Kuipers, Matt Kebbekus, Shannan Shaughnessy, Lewanne Jones. PHOTO BY ERIC RYAN ANDERSON

Swimmers in the Middle Lane

There’s something about the Metropolitan Pool that attracts physical talent. Maybe it’s the stunning pool with its skylit gabled ceiling. Or maybe  it’s the neighborhood’s creative energy that generates good swimmers.

Penelope Coe, a longtime resident of South Williamsburg and avid Met Pool swimmer, says, “I think it’s unusual for a pool to have that many good swimmers. I don’t know why it is, but [Met swimmers] really are very good.”

Whatever the reason, Doug Safranek is probably part of it. Safranek, a painter who has lived in Williamsburg for over 25 years, is one of the original members and the de facto leader of a group of swimmers that calls itself the Met Swim Team.

If you’ve ever gone for a swim at Met Pool on a weekday morning around 8:30 or so and found yourself getting pointers on butterfly technique from a handful of artists and writers, an indie-rock front man, a freelance Highland bagpiper, a couple of restaurateurs, or maybe a world-class opera singer, you’ve probably met Safranek and his teammates. An eclectic bunch, to be sure, but they also happen to be among the best amateur swimmers in the city.

Existing in one form or another since the mid ‘80s, the Met Swim Team, has developed into an unofficial master class for committed swimmers of all stripes, whether they’re former competitive swimmers or just dedicated newbies.

About 30 people in all turn out regularly for weekday swims, with a dozen or so showing up on any given day. Each morning’s swim is developed by a different member, and they coach each other in technique.

“It’s just so much easier to push yourself when you’re swimming with a group,” says Matt Kebbekus, a recent New York transplant who started working out with the Met swimmers just over a year ago.

That enthusiasm is a vast change from the early days, says Safranek. When he started coming to Met Pool in 1986 as a young MFA grad new to the city, few people used it. Back then, he says, Williamsburg was a rough place to live. “All of Bedford was either boarded up or dark. South Williamsburg was a crack neighborhood. No one came out here.”

But when the pool reopened after renovations in the 1990s, Safranek and a small core of dedicated swimmers decided to build up the quality of the swimming there, inviting others to join their group, coaching beginners, and educating pool users on proper swimming etiquette.

Before long the Met Swim Team had become a true neighborhood fixture. Oslo Coffee, the group’s traditional post-swim hangout, recently had branded swim caps made just for them. To keep things fresh, the team bikes en masse across the Manhattan Bridge in summer to swim at the outdoor pool at Hamilton Fish Park where they compete—and often win—in the Parks Department’s annual city-wide swimming competition. They take group trips out to Rockaway Beach to swim along the coast, and several members take part in long-distance swims in the Hudson River. The most harrowing expedition is a 28.5-mile marathon swim all the way around Manhattan Island that has an entry fee of nearly $1,500. That’s a hefty expense that member Rob Herschenfeld plans to help his fellow members shoulder through sponsorships from his Brooklyn Roasting Company.

If you ask Kebbekus, this is the real appeal of Met Pool: not the swimming, but the camaraderie. “When you move to Williamsburg, it’s easy to meet other transients,” Kebbekus says. “But it’s tough to meet people who are settled, who are part of the neighborhood. Swimming with these guys is a way to instill community.”<

“The people at Met Pool are part of my family,” says Coe. “It’s my social network.”

Safranek agrees. “You meet someone in the pool and start swimming with them, and then you discover they have these interesting lives,” he says. “Nearly all of my friends I’ve met in the middle lane at Met Pool.”

Off the Wall: Northside Open Studios Event This Weekend: June 18 & 19

Screen shot 2011-06-16 at 8.11.57 AM

Off the Wall is written by the staff of Hyperallergic.com, a Williamsburg-based art blogazine covering Brooklyn and beyond—exploring the exploits of the North Brooklyn art community outside of the traditional art gallery.

Sure, Chelsea gallery openings are nice, and hitting up a Manhattan museum every once in a while keeps us all on our artistic toes, but when it comes to the cutting edge of contemporary art, the best place to see the newest work is right in the artists’ studios. The upcoming Northside Open Studios, running from Thursday, June 16 to Sunday, June 19, is an opportunity to take in the latest in visual aesthetics without having to deal with the middle man. This art is straight from the source.

Northside Open Studios grew out of Greenpoint Open Studios, an annual event founded in 2009 by local writer, food scene figure, and art impresario Joann Kim. A longtime resident of Greenpoint, Kim noticed that the neighborhood was packed with artists and studio space, but the artistic community lacked any opportunities for a unified presence. What better way to show off North Brooklyn’s creative capabilities than to open up these private spaces to the public eye?

Obsessed with 1970s American male pop icons, Chasse has a mustache-filled studio at Fowler Arts Collective.

“By allowing artists to open their studios to the public they have an opportunity to share their work in a way they often don’t have to,” says Kim. Through open studios, “the general public can create some sort of dialogue, a conversation and relationships with local artists.”

The original neighborhood event has been expanded in collaboration with L Magazine’s Northside Festival, a “four-day showcase” of the best in recent music, film, art, and ideas held within a walkable radius of Williamsburg and Greenpoint. That area is loosely defined as everywhere north of Grand Street.

Visual art is important in this Brooklyn cultural mix “because it’s a huge part of the many components that make Williamsburg one of the most inspiring places in the world,” says Northside Festival’s Sarah Shanfield. “Just like Soho’s galleries were a huge part of what made Soho what it was, the visual art scene in Williamsburg has its own aesthetic, feel, look, and design … The culture here is thriving, full of people who aren’t afraid to take risks, and that is always the best ingredient for artistic media,” she says.

The colorful studio of Bizzid, one of the many artists in Greenpoint.

Williamsburg Notables

On the Williamsburg side, neighborhood staple Parker’s Box gallery (193 Grand Street) will feature an exhibition by French artist Briac Leprêtre called Like It Is, presented in collaboration with Rennes, France, alternative art space 40mcube. The show features delicate paintings of half-finished domestic interior spaces, but tweaks these traditional works with more conceptual sculptures, a trompe-l’oeil architectural column, and tiny monuments made of cast concrete. Like It Is closes June 19, so Northside Open Studios will be your last chance to check it out.

Ventana 244 Art Space at 244 North 6th Street, also in Williamsburg, will be showcasing interactive digital and multimedia work during Northside Open Studios. INTENSITY includes four separate projects, ranging from Brett Murphy’s interactive “soundstage” table to Martin Bravo’s “Skittish Tree,” a sound-reactive sculpture that “responds with skittish behavior to loud noises,” swaying gently in calm audio environments, but “getting scared and dropping its leaves” at higher volumes, says the artist. INTENSITY will be on view Thursdays and Fridays from 7pm to 9pm through the end of July.

Some more Williamsburg studio and show picks for Northside Open Studio-goers:

Christopher Clary’s studio is worth a visit if you like your art homoerotic and conceptual
87 Richardson Street, #300J

Get on the Block at Camel Art Space
722 Metropolitan Avenue

Eight members of the Cohort Collective are mounting a group show titled The Myth & the Mountain, which will explore “personal mythologies and the landscapes or the atmospheres in which they occur.”
143 Richardson Street. 1st floor

Brooklyn Street Art presents Last Exit to Skewville, which they promise will be a LIVE urbanscape by street art team Skewville
82 North 11th Street

And Hyperallergic HQ will be the venue for a unique mail art exhibition all weekend, featuring mail art from around the world
181 North 11th Street

Greenpoint Checklist

Stacy Fisher’s impressive sculptures were on view during last fall’s open studio event in Greenpoint.

Janet Kurnatowski Gallery, located at 205 Norman Avenue in Greenpoint, is one of the commercial art spaces participating in Northside Open Studios. The gallery will be hosting a project by artist collective Temporary Antumbra Zone, open Saturday from 1 to 7pm and Sunday from 12 to 6. “The artists in Temporary Antumbra Zone have come together,collaborating through the lenses of painting, photography, video, and mixed media sculpture,” says gallery director Janet Kurnatowski, promoting collaboration “as an invaluable mode of artistic production.” With over two dozen artists in the collective, the show is sure to be a party.

The very cool and Greenpoint-based Fowler Arts Collective will be hosting a group project in their own studio space, a warren of cordoned off artist cubbies and exhibition areas located in the Greenpoint Terminal Market warehouse (67 West Street). Their collaborative work, called Paint it Now, is “an immersive painting installation that has covered all of the walls of the Fowler gallery with black and white images” created jointly by the 19 participating artists and curated by participating artists Scott Chasse and Thomas Buildmore, says Fowler Collective founder and director Lia Post. And while you’re there be sure to check out the 24 artist studios. The Northside Open Studios reception for Paint it Now will be held Friday, June 17 from 7 to 11pm

Aimee Lusty, a Brooklyn-based zine expert, will be curating an exhibition of printed matter to coincide with Northside Open Studios called Master of Reality. The exhibition is intended to give zine artists “a gallery space and fine art platform to show their non-print/zine work, allowing them to show original pieces, to work larger and with fewer restrictions,” Lusty says. “It’s really all about the artists!”

Hosted at Booklyn Art Gallery (37 Greenpoint Avenue, 4th floor), Master of Reality will include site-specific installations as well as paintings, drawings, and sculpture. The four participating artists will also produce a limited edition collaborative zine, Lusty tells us.

Some of our Greenpoint studio picks and solo-artist shows:

Rachel Sussman’s studio will present a small show titled, The Oldest Living Things in the World, which are photographs of exactly that.
(940 Lorimer Street, 4B)

Scott Chasse is an artist who can’t resist a good Burt Reynolds moustache, so his show at Brouwerij Lane, The Man, The Myth, The Moustache, should come as no surprise.
(78 Greenpoint Avenue)

The Mobile Tea Garden is a roving art work that welcomes you with a cup of tea and a piece of random writing to induce your inner self to explore
(61 Greenpoint Avenue, #305)
255 Calyer Street is an artist studio-rich stop, but make sure to check out Kristine Moran’s studio (3rd floor, Studio 11) for her vibrant paintings that are equal parts surreal and abstract.

A view of the ethereal landscapes by Christopher Saunders in The Pencil Factory.

The famed Pencil Factory (61 Greenpoint Avenue) is also filled  with studios, so if you make it there we recommend checking out the work of studio mates Jackie Hoving and Christopher Saunders (3rd floor, #9). Hoving produces trippy figural works and Saunder’s space is filled with ethereal landscapes that have a zen-like quality (sadly, Saunders will only be opening his space on Sunday)

With help from L Magazine collaboration and the open’s studio’s expanded reach into Williamsburg, the event is “bigger than it’s ever been” in its third year, says Kim. “There are more artists in Greenpoint now than I remember, and every year there’s a growing number of artists who want to participate,” she says.

For more information about Northside Open Studios and the location of participating artist studios and spaces, visit www.northsideopenstudios.org.

Ai Weiwei Recognized by an American Scholar 25 Years Ago

Artist and political activist Ai WeiWei in meditation. Photo via aartlife.com

Artist and political activist Ai Weiwei in meditation. Photo via aartlife.com

Interview with Professor Philip Gould

Ai Weiwei as a Young Artist Chooses Western Way and Surpasses It

By Sarah Schmerler

I didn’t realize Professor Philip Gould was a few days away from turning 90 years old when I requested he meet me outside the Plaza Hotel. Were it me, I probably would have responded with something like “that’s quite a shlep for me, young lady.” But not Gould. He was cordial, vibrant, and more than happy to meet me on my own terms. After all, it was Gould who’d given the now infamously incarcerated Chinese artist Ai Weiwei his first-ever U.S. group show. To my reporter’s mind, interviewing him while sitting somewhere between the bronze rooster and bronze dog’s head of Ai Weiwei’s newest public sculpture seemed just the ticket.

Gould’s dossier is an impressive one: 33 years as a professor at Sarah Lawrence, along with teaching tenures at Columbia, Pratt, and Teachers College in Beijing; and a personal collection of some 6,000 objects from Africa and the East. I’d prepared some pretty generic and academic questions for him, but Gould wanted to stay on point. He was passionate about politics: the East and its love of ancestors and the West’s compulsion to topple cultural heroes as fast as we mint them. And he had more insights into Dada-ism’s reach than I’d previously imagined possible.

Well, it’s not every day you get to talk to someone who’s lived through a near-century’s-worth of culture!

Can you tell us when you had your first significant encounter with the art of China? While I was at Sarah Lawrence in the 1960s, New York State developed what they called the Seed Program to introduce Chinese art to the curriculum of schools of higher learning, and so they selected 15 art history professors from around the state to join this seminar, and I was one of them. We had the best teachers, scholars, museums to orient us in this new discipline in Chinese art.  It was a fabulous program, and the only condition was that you teach Chinese art to your colleges in the years after.

Sounds great. Yes, it was, and I took that commitment very seriously and have taught Chinese art ever since. The Seed program in New York was followed up the following summer by a Fulbright summer seminar in Taipei. We had a very good leader, a curator from the Smithsonian’s Freer Gallery. Besides our formal classes he would take our group of 12 or 13 people to different galleries in town. I should point out that Taiwan had been under Japanese rule for 45 years before World War II, so much of the cultural commerce was Japanese. My fellow Fulbrighters were happy to buy Japanese paintings while I preferred to wait to find Chinese works. Eventually I did when I went out on my own. I found a Chinese folding fan with a painted landscape which was later authenticated by our Freer Gallery expert as an eighteenth century work.

Is that when you started collecting? I was thrilled by my new acquisition and encouraged to forage the antique shops for more. Good paintings were hard to come by but folk pottery was plentiful, just ordinary stuff that people bought and used. When I got back to the United States I had six cases filled with the folk art. The very next year I organized an exhibition on Ming and Ch’ing Dynasty folk pottery. When my friends from Taiwan came to view the show they said, “My God, we never paid attention to this stuff.”

The bronze heads for Circle of Animals/Zodiac Heads (Photograph © AW Asia) currently on view outside New York's Plaza Hotel

It sounds like you’re good at assessing the value of things. Over the course of my time at Sarah Lawrence College I organized over 30 exhibitions drawn from my collection, or with material borrowed from museums and collectors. My main focus was on China, but the arts of other Asian cultures were included as well.

In the light of my activities at Sarah Lawrence College, I couldn’t help but pay attention to the influx of Chinese artists from mainland China. China was going through a period of detente following the end of the Red Guard movement [1967–1976], which, for artists, meant the possibility to travel abroad. Art students in China could follow two lines of study, one was traditional painting using ink, paper, and a soft brush, or a modern [Western] approach, which meant working with oil or acrylic, canvas, and a stiff brush.

Tell us more about that detente period, and how you found these artists. The artists who opted for the Western style of painting were in the forefront of those traveling to Western countries. I encountered many newly arrived Chinese artists in the streets of Manhattan. They were making portraits of people for five dollars a pop to make a living. They were without exception excellent draftsmen, knocking out terrific likenesses of New Yorkers. But I knew they had another mission, namely to live and study in the proximity of the art and artists they emulated.

Is that where you found Ai Weiwei? I recruited some of these artists to form the show “Artists from China—New Expressions” and Ai Weiwei was among them. They were very talented, and they skilled and outclassed most of the Western artists. That show was in 1987.

Tell us more about the West-East mindset of art history. First, the East. The issue for these artists was to discover the motivation of their American counterparts. Chinese artists have a long tradition of respecting their predecessors. They would often inscribe a little note in their paintings that they are working in the style of such and such an artist, who lived two or three hundred years ago. In fact, the paintings bore little resemblance to their respected antecedents, but the overture of respect was still there. The past was revered, and respect for tradition was maintained. The Chinese artists in New York discovered soon enough that a very different attitude guided American painters, who were only too glad to trash tradition as they eagerly sought to displace their predecessors. This American syndrome explains why we have so many different styles of painting, one following another in rapid succession. The drive for change and competition stands in stark opposition to the Oriental respect for tradition.

So what’s the Western psychological mindset? Diametrically opposed. The history of Western art has been one generation kicking the last generation out of place, and rejoicing!! I had American friends, artists; they took cans of paint and went to MoMA and threw it into the lobby in revolt.

That’s a tall order, no? As a contemporary artist you need to win the notoriety, the publicity with the art critics, the space. It’s really a challenge to displace your antecedents and replace them.

It shouldn’t surprise you to learn that the art Ai Weiwei loved most was Dada; its artists became his model. Dada was a movement to wipe away bourgeois aesthetic values. That’s where you get the urinal. The most vulgar things were thrown in the face of the public. Well, that was bound to be trouble for him.

[PAUSE, as we look over at the Plaza, to our right. We watch what appears to be a steadily moving stream of black limos and unmarked black cars out front.]

You think this is posh? China had a very sophisticated society, certainly from the Tang Dynasty on: women enjoying a big place in court, wearing the most exquisite silk gowns and carrying themselves with such elegance and bearing, you know they played an important role in the life of the country. The point here is that China had the most advanced culture in the world in the eighth century. The Chinese wish to recapture that role … to be the top dog in the world today. China has made fantastically rapid progress in catching up with the West in industry, in manufacturing, in technology, in military prowess. Why would they not want that distinction in the arts as well?

How do you mean the “center of the world”? What does the art of the [Chinese] past do? It reflects the opulence of the court. Art today, out of China, even the contemporary art, has to represent the effort of the best again, the best of nations. It sounds very chauvinistic, I know, but countries compete. And the Chinese want to be the best.

Here is the problem. Ai Weiwei is promoting China’s standing in the arts by being exhibited and fêted around the world, but in that process he is a threat to his own country by asserting an independent voice. China has to drive a difficult course of both embracing Ai Weiwei and curbing him. Artists, in general, are a threat to the status quo because they inevitably express the sentiments that infuse society. Artists are political whether they realize it or not. The paintings by Ai Weiwei in my 1987 exhibition representing Chairman Mao were tongue in cheek representations, ironic.

Do you think that art and activism—or to put it another way, art and cultural change—go hand in hand? Yes. What artists do is concretize political sentiment. They give it a tangible form. I know that a lot of people in China right now must be desperate for greater liberalization—but they don’t openly announce it. That’s where Ai Weiwei talks for them. On the one hand his art is attractive; on the other hand it is feared. It is political [at its core] and a good artist expresses that.

Is radical change a service that “Art” provides to “Culture” in general? It’s like I just told you: art concretizes values. It gives values that are circulating in a moment of history—the ideas floating around—a form that you can see or feel or hear. You can grasp it. Of course, often artists do this unwittingly—in fact, most of the time they do.  [smiles]

If you could pick a favorite work of art, from any culture or time period, what would it be?

Well I’m very partial to Chinese painting, and my favorite painting is called “Six Persimmons by Mu Chi” from around 1200. It’s small, an 8” x 10” vertical scroll. It has no chiaroscuro; it has no foreground, and no background and no light source and no color. It’s done only with brush and ink on paper—and it’s still my greatest painting.

Where do you think it’s heading—this explosion of contemporary art? That’s almost a moot question. It’s no longer what happens here or there; it’s happening everywhere. Ai Weiwei is a perfect example; he has shows everywhere. This sculpture [he points to the fountain] was planned before he got arrested. He already achieved a level of art that speaks for the rest of the world.

American scholar Philip Gould. Photograph by Fred Yu

Do you have any advice for budding art historians or cultural pundits who might be reading this right now? I’m not worried about art historians; I’m worried about artists! Artists may be a threatened species. Look what happened to Ai Weiwei and his fellow artists. They were brutalized in prison. They have something to worry about, not historians. I’m in a safe place to speak my mind. You know, you remember, what happened in Russia! The artists there were way ahead of the West, the rest of the world. It was Russian artists who invented abstract painting, before Picasso or Braque, but they were seen as a great threat to the State. Why? Because anything that deviates from the traditional is threatening. Anything that challenges the status quo is a menace.

Other articles about Ai Weiwei early years: “Before Fame or Jail Ai Weiwei was a Starving New York Artist”