The Main Hall, Where East Meets West: “Formes” by Yiming Min

Photo by Nolwenn Voléon

“Formes” the sculpture by Chinese artist Mr. Yiming Min may combine the artistic heritages of East and West, however, it profoundly divides student opinion.

Mr. Yiming Min – the Chinese visual artist behind the sculpture that was installed in the main hall on February 8th, “Formes” – has displayed some of his artwork in London and Paris, and has also worked on an architectural project in Germany. In 2004 however, he shifted towards more contemporary art, seeking to deconstruct shapes and predefined perceptions, to allow us to interpret his work more freely. Formes first arrived in France in 2014 and was exhibited in Paris. It is heavily inspired by the Louvre’s Hellenistic sculpture of Nike, “The Winged Victory of Samothrace” this time, with an Oriental twist: pagoda roof-looking tiles fused with the feathers, on which porcelain doves give a military salute. After the inauguration of the sculpture, musical performance by students Mark Ma and Ziyu Deng took place to honor our prestigious guests. Then, in the presence of Dean Florent Bonaventure, representatives of the Chinese Embassy in Paris, and the Mayor of Le Havre, Mr. Yinming Min gave a talk to the student body in Mandarin, being translated live by student Meixi Zhang. The essence of his talk was his development of a comparison between Oriental and Occidental Art.

According to Mr Min, art in the Eastern world is more figurative, less realistic, and less scientific than it is in the West. Seeking to use Western techniques, he took what he called an impressionist approach to his work. This crux of his talk came down to the following sentence: Western art emphasizes on objective perception and accurate representation, while Eastern art concerns of the “whole picture”: the atmosphere, the imagery. The artist further showcased his transition from statues to his works in landscape and architecture. Mr. Min told us how happy he was about the increase in cultural exchanges between China and the West, as he believes these dialogues are as crucial as economic exchanges. We, as students on the Euro-Asian campus also have a role to play in these increasing cultural relations, and this was reflected in the way Mr. Min addressed the student body by saying, as a conclusion to his first speech, “The world is yours and the future is yours.”

Meixi Zhang:

“I believe that as much as our campus is honored to have Mr Min’s work showcased here, the work itself is quite crude. I do not appreciate how he considers Formes as the embodiment of the convergence and proof of similarities between Eastern and Western art. The simple reference to The Winged Victory of Samothrace representing the West, and changing the wings to resemble the traditional Chinese eaves does not, in my perspective, have much value and artistry in reflecting the ideas it claims to represent. During the Q&A session, someone asked why birds were included in Formes, why there were so many, and why they were posed as if it were saluting; Mr Min let out a crisp laugh and answered that he thought it would be fun.

There was another question raised by a Chinese student from a nearby University in Le Havre. She asked in genuine concern, what direction is the Chinese art world heading towards? She continues, saying that society has become to an extent, materialistic and superficial. How can art and artists stay true to themselves? This question pins directly to the heart of Chinese art turmoil. How can art, as a form of expression, survive in its true forms in a world that has no place for personal diverging expressions? Mr. Min was optimistic and vague, responding “I think it is heading to a very positive direction.”

Nolwenn Voléon:

“I walked into the hallway last Thursday and found myself having to stop. Something did not feel right. The usually open, bright corridor that I liked so much now seemed like it had been cut in two. Standing in my way was a brown statue with saluting birds, elevated on a pedestal and looming way above everything else to appear friendly. Other people stopped and we all shared our curiosity, doubts and observations concerning the cumbersome newcomer. Although confused as to what the artist’s intention was, I decided to give the statue a chance and wait for the explanation scheduled to take place in the afternoon.

I think that the whole reason of how the statue got to our campus remains rather mysterious. Why is this statue standing in our hallway, when it was given to the city of Le Havre? How long is it going to stay here for? While I believe we need more art to be displayed around campus, I also think the priority should be given to our students. We are gifted with a talented batch of students practicing their art in a variety of domains, yet visual artists don’t have the occasion to showcase their work as often. By doing so, we miss out on the artistic prowess of our fellow students who enjoy photography, writing, or other forms of visual arts; students who are not necessarily performers but have stories to tell, and images to share. During the BDA campaign, plenty of candidates expressed their will to provide a platform for students to share their personal artwork. While LDD has begun to display our artists’ work, it should also be a recurring presence on campus. I believe through whatever means possible, individual artists should have the opportunity to publicize their work to allow us to have the chance to get to know them and their artwork.”

But not all students have such a harsh opinion of the installation.

Alice Morisseau:

“I took some time to reflect on the meaning of this statue and ended up liking it. It is a singular and pedagogical embodiment of European and Asian cultural exchange. The “Winged Victory of Samothrace” is a direct representation of European culture: like the Joconde or the “Venus de Milo,” it has been celebrated as a masterpiece of ancient Greece sculpture since its discovery in 1863.

Mr. Min’s “Winged Victory of Samothrace” comes with a twist, namely bamboo-shaped tiles in its feathers, which are not really noticeable at first and come as a symbol of Europe’s subtle links with Asia. On top of the statue, little porcelain doves come to reinforce the idea. The artist seems to have put the emphasis on both culture’s art traditions: classical Greek sculpture for the West and porcelain for the East. As for the military salute of the birds, which the artist said to have put it “for fun”, I still like to see a link between the idea of victory and triumph that the “Winged Victory of Samothrace” embodies with the idea of military triumph for the birds.

I think that as our campus really embodies the link of Europe with Asia, the choice to put the sculpture in our lobby is logical. The fact that a famous and recognized artist would accept to have his production in our little campus rather than anywhere else in Le Havre is pretty impressive and shows that the spirit of the piece is in line with the one of our campus. What I like with this sculpture is that it conveys a message that is not totally blurry to us. Through some observation, it is easy to come up with subjective interpretations.”

Visibly, the sculpture has been a divisive topic on campus. Its location is less than ideal. Indeed, between cheerleading and Bollywood practice, the main hall of our campus has a functional use that is now being impaired. Indeed, students fear accidentally toppling the installation. Furthermore, the color of the clay sculpture, placed in direct sunlight since the hall has a glass roof, already seems to be fading. It is an honor for our campus to receive such a gift from the city of Le Havre, and the idea behind it truly does reflect the philosophy or our campus: intercultural dialogue, particularly between Europe and Asia. We will simply have to wait and see if students get used to its presence.

Nolwenn Voléon is a first year French student at Sciences Po Paris, Campus du Havre.

Alice Morisseau is a second year French student at Sciences Po Paris, Campus du Havre.

Meixi Zhang is a second year Singaporean student at Sciences Po Paris, Campus du Havre, and was the Mandarin – English translator for Mr. Yiming Min’s conference on Thursday, February 8, 2018.

Edited by Emma Dailey and Paxia Ksatryo.

Leviathan (2014)

Leviathan (2014)

A Film Review

Violence, love, corruption, heroic tales and tragic fates, so many subjects exploited to depletion by the great cinematographic industry of modern times. Today, directors of modern dramas destined to be projected on the big screen, live for the most original screenplay, the most unhinged realisation, the most upsetting result or the deepest message, so much that our screens are now seldom without bankable star-riddled, anglo-saxon centred, glamorous but empty sob- stories destined to re-examine the place of you or me in modern society.

Caught in this head-spinning profligacy operated by the great producing houses, one might, upon arriving at saturation-point, wish for a breath of fresh air and seek to spend a worthy couple of hours watching a mind-opening, enriching piece of cinema, an insight into a world that one might not even know exists, or a refresher on a region that is so often forgotten by the dictatorial principles of pop culture.

The appeal.

Enter Leviathan, directed in 2014 by Andrey Zvyagintsev, and starring Aleksei Serebryakov, Elena Lyadova, and Vladimir Vdovichenkov. Russian cinema, it will have been difficult to miss. Despite the frequency with which she appears in the news, the potency of her reach in international relations, or the relevancy of her participation in world conflicts, rarely is Mother Russia depicted on our screens, with the notable exceptions of cold war history films, or subjective politico-mafioso documentaries on Putin and his cronies.

But Leviathan is another story altogether, one that comes straight from the source. Zvyagintsev’s picture brings a depiction of mundane, industrial Russia which, to the non-Slavic layman, has something of an authentic feel, allowing us to peek through the keyhole and discover life in today’s Russia – in all its complexity and with all the challenges that come to bear.

The story.

A coastal town in Northern Russia. A fisherman, Kolya, fights against a corrupt local town official, a mayor fixing to expropriate him from his house and land to construct a new property. The protagonists war with the weapons at their disposals – the former with an old army pal turned Muscovite lawyer, and his second wife, the latter with the full force of the local Courts, the muscle of Russian thugs and the sermons of the Orthodox Church. As the plot patiently unfolds, leading Kolya from bad to worse, the characters reveal their complexity and many facets – a loving but unrestrained son, a power-wielding Orthodox pope, a drunken local police chief, a thick but friendly industrial plant worker, flocks of brutalising ruffians.

The cinematography.

An opening on stills of broken, rotting, wooden vessels half submerged in water. Every shot is drawn out, patient, crystalline, the exact reverse of Bresson’s decisive moment. Every scene is a scene that was present a decade ago, and will still be present a decade from now – shots that can do nothing but evoke a static, unchanging image of Russia and its vast territory, a life scale model of the five year plans, the Soviet economy and its industrial wreckage. Despite the pain represented on screen, the mind can do nothing but appreciate such a slowness of tempo, being used to action-packed scenes unwrapping at the speed of light. Quand tout va trop vite, penser à ralentir! In Leviathan, the photography reveals a vast, cold, wind-stricken bay where whales occasionally venture, a rundown town where its inhabitants struggle to scrap a living off the derelict economy. Close on stills of the same broken, rotting, wooden vessels, and the immutable ebb and flow of the ocean pounding on rocks.

The effect.

In all its measured and deliberate rhythm, the plot packs a nail-biting suspense, as we are drawn into the fate of Kolya and find ourselves rooting for David in his fight against Goliath, so much so that the more dire the situation becomes, and the better we start to apprehend its inexorable end, the more anxious we are. This stunningly beautiful but dishearteningly sad narrative offers to its viewer a commentary on the unforgiving slaughterhouse that a society can become when power and scheme collide with booze and high stakes – it is not for nothing that the title itself evokes Thomas Hobbes’ Leviathan, a monumentally well-known and seminal text on the role, inter alia, of the State in modern societies. Finally, make what you will of the beached whale skeleton half submerged in sand, that appears at times, perhaps the symbol of a derelict and bereft world leading itself to its own demise?

The controversy.

As with many manifestations of the seventh art, Leviathan has elicited a huge reaction, and not an entirely positive one at that. The movie’s representation of Russians in their daily lives as brutal and agressive, men and women alike, permanently drunk on absurd quantities of vodka, corrupt on all levels and having as sources of enjoyment violent activities have caused some to take issue as to their characterisation in Zvyagintsev’s movie. This has in turn allegedly, and one must here appreciate the sense of irony, led the Russian Ministry of Culture to issue some guidelines as to movies produced on Russian culture and with governmental funds, as to the characterisation of Russians on-screen.

The critique.

Leviathan has reaped a significant number of awards across the board, including Best Screenplay at the 2014 Cannes Film Festival, Best Foreign Language Film at the 72nd Golden Globe Awards, and Best Foreign Language Film at the 87th Academy Awards. Yet, and as much as the critics hail it un obra maestra, Leviathan first and foremost packs a simple but powerful message – a fresco of the weak against the strong, of the frail against the powerful, of the downtrodden against the mighty.

À aller voir, Antoine Faure