Saturday, August 9, 2008

All That Glitters is Not Gold

One of the early concepts for the opening ceremony of the Olympics in Beijing (北京) considered incorporating the work of artist artist Cai Guo-Qiang. He is noted for his "fireworks painting" – where he draws the outline of a picture with gun-powder and then ignites the powder, creating a three-fold painting effect --"original painting," "fireworks painting" and "ash painting”.

The design team tested their idea out by selecting Picasso's Guernica, an oil painting condemning war atrocities. Performers stepped into a huge remake of the frame, poured gun-powder along the lines of the painting it enclosed, and thus turned it into a line drawing of Guernica. They then ignited the gunpowder from one corner of the painting; the fire soon spread to the entire piece, burning an outline of the artwork into the surface, and leaving behind beautiful ashes in the same shape.

However, the International Olympic Committee rejected the concept, as Picasso's Guernica might rightfully remind the spectators of war, not peace, thereby subtly communicating a truth they chose not to unveil to the masses. Additionally, the Chinese creative design team questioned the reliability and safety of the artform and were not prepared to experience embarrassment on the global stage. Therefore, after continuing to pursue this concept for half a year, they pursued other creative ideas designs for the opening ceremony.

It is sadly ironic that the initial concept of using Guernica was abandoned, for as millions throughout the world watched the opening ceremony of the 2008 Olympic games Russia and Georgia veered closer to all-out war, Mauritania experienced a coup which overthrew the democratically elected president, Pakistan continued their constitutional crisis that threatens its increased instability in the nuclear-armed state, and the remainder of the world continued with its interminable fighting and injustices that have become the “norm.”

The Chinese made inspired choices in their Olympic opening ceremony design team-- Zhang Yimou as artistic director and Zhang Jigang and Chen Weiya were selected as deputy artistic directors, Yu Jianping as director of the technology group and Lu Jiankang, production director. Anyone who watched the performance could not but be impressed by the sophistication, elegance, and state of the art technology used to produce the show. The lighting, music and human performances were meticulously coordinated; at times it was easy to forget that one was witnessing a spectacle extravaganza that was being delivered from a third world nation.

Early in the evening, I called a dear friend to remind her that the ceremony was about to begin. To my amazement, she announced that her husband was going to be watching “Hellboy” on their television instead. The Olympics from Beijing versus a movie? I couldn’t believe the choice he was making. However, I wonder in retrospect if he made the wiser decision based upon history.

The Games of the XI Olympiad were held in 1936 in Berlin, Germany. The German government saw the Olympic Games as an opportunity to promote their ideology, particularly its promotion of the superiority of the "Aryan Race"; Adolf Hitler used the Olympics as a tool for propaganda.

While reflecting upon the exquisite pageantry of the Olympic Opening Ceremony at Bird’s Nest Stadium in Beijing, I recalled that Dr. Jeffrey Seagrave , Professor of Exercise Science, Dance, and Athletics, at Skidmore College. wrote a fascinating essay on 1936 Berlin Olympics that includes a brief examination of how even the architecture played into the propaganda machine. Check it out at:

When we consider how Hitler used the Olympics to imaginatively sway public opinion and promote his political agenda, is this any different than the Chinese using the opening of the 29th Olympic Games for similar ambitious purposes?

Let’s look at the basics of the four-hour show. It consisted of two parts: the first half, entitled "Brilliant Civilization," highlighted the past 5,000 years of Chinese civilization, and the second half, "Glorious Era," focused on the great achievements and portrayed the Chinese as a nation seeking to building harmonious relationship with the people of the world.

Of course, it was flawlessly executed with great artistic beauty within a framework of a Chinese scroll, on which performers demonstrated the development of Chinese culture through time.

On this high-tech stage, "moveable type printing," "Confucius' 3,000 disciples," "The Analects of Confucius," "Zheng He's ocean voyages" and "Chinese ritual music" were artfully synchronized and showcased. I particularly appreciated how the opening was orchestrated with the use of Fou drums and thousands of drummers, designed to impress, as well as to initiate a form of biofeedback perhaps of which only musicians, magicians or advertising agents would be acutely aware. Truly the entire performance from start to end was a stunning display of pyrotechnics and pageantry.

It is unfortunate yet interesting that 5,000 years of Chinese history all under the direction of Zhang Yimou, whose early films often ran afoul of government censors for their blunt portrayals of China's human rights problems, blatantly skipped modern historical events such as Chairman Mao’s ascent, the horrors of Tian'anmen Square massacre, and the more recent conflicts and controversies of note.

Too often, society has forgotten the power of art and its ability to move and inspire. Yet, it is far to easy to be distracted by beauty when we are immersed in an environment that begs us to examine the realities of injustice and suffering. Richard Mandell addressed the Berlin Olympic ceremonial as "an obscuring layer of shimmering froth on a noxious wave of destiny."

Perhaps those of us who watch and or report on the 2008 Summer Olympic games should heed the words of George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”


The BoBo said...

Hi Sharon,

Thanks for commenting over at my blog. I really like your descriptive take on the opening ceremonies. However, I agree with your friend's husband - anything was better to watch than the olympics in China. My family and I watched other channels and other family oriented shows.

I think you've balanced this out very well - I've heard other saying the same thing in that the Olympic opening ceremonies were very excellent. However, recalling the Berlin Olympics - don't let it fool you in to a false sense of security. China is still an enemy of human rights and is still very much a communist country.

I for one will not be following them this year.

S. A. Hart said...

The 2008 Olympiad opening ceremony was truly a prime example of what academics call "Soft power"-- the flexing of muscle via cultural means.

In the opening ceremony at Beijing China clearly sent a symbolic and unnerving message to those who have eyes to see and ears to hear that the Chinese Dragon no longer intends to sleep but resume its ancient role of geo-political dominance.

However, when considering their excellent use of art as propaganda, it's important to recognize that while Human Rights abuses persist in China, that single country doesn't have a monopoly on state oppression.

Many of the other 204 countries competing in this year's summer Olympics are also mercilessly guilty of grave injustice to our fellow creatures, including ecological abuses, state oppression and international coercion.

I personally believe it's wiser to be aware of what's happening in the world rather than to avoid knowledge of sensitive issues such as the reality of what is happening at the Olympics.

Pixelperson said...

I read with interest your blog relating to the Olympics events in Beijing. I couldn’t help but smile when I read how you and Hope discussed my preference for a science fiction movie over that of the Communist Chinese government’s effort to show the world what a wonderful workers paradise that they have created.

I know that I am probably in the extreme minority regarding my feelings surrounding the events that have transpired – both recently and in the past few years – within the Chinese Communist mainland.

You might note that – so far – I have used the word “Communist” twice in this message. I can’t help but feel that this will be the only forum (electronic media, print publications, etc.) that the word “Communist” will be used in conjunction with the events in Beijing.

I am not a huge fan of Wikipedia – but the following link contains one reason, not the only one mind you, that I am not thrilled with the hypocrisy that a huge percentage of the world seems to be guilty of.

Let say that I have great respect for the people of mainland China. It is with their government (and also my own, by the way) that I have an argument with.

Mainland China is ruled by a Communist regime. Period. Some sources indicate that more than 65% of the vast industrial manufacturing complex – the same complex that feeds the retail industry of the West – is owned/controlled by that same government. Much of the material goods that we see in Walmart, Target, J.C. Penny’s, Sears, was manufactured in factories where the workers labor without proper safety equipment, electrical lighting, or other environmental safeguards. Until recently, child labor was used rampantly within these factories. The goods shipped to the West are not limited to clothing, small electronics, or toys that our children play with. Do you drive a Ford, GM, Toyota, Chrysler, or Honda automobile? Chances are that many of the components’ were manufactured by a Chinese worker who is probably paid about $3.00 - $10.00 a day for their labor.

Let me also add that the United States has much work to do to address the use of illegal immigrants within the United States. I sincerely hope that people of good will in this country and Mexico can find political and social answers to the very real tragedy of immigration and in other countries. The difference between a solution that we in the U.S. might find, and a solution to a political issue in China, is that I seriously doubt that Tanks and automatic weapons would be used to solve it.

In my own little way, when I prepare to purchase a product, I try to do my best to discover where the item was manufactured. It the tag says “China.” I give it a pass and look for something different.

Kim said...

I thoroughly enjoyed the opening ceremony ....
stunning !!!
your review is excellent Sharon!!
on a personal note - I was terribly disappointed with the design of the Australian uniforms...
that is a minor concern when we look at the developments between Russia and Georgia...
so tragic!!!

KidRated said...

Hi Sharon, a stunning blog, well rounded and thought out.  As democracy in this country hit the skids, playing the devil's advocate means talking about trade-offs, or more bluntly, progress at what cost?  Our history (USA) is full of sordid details, we've had our sweatshops and exploitations, and in this day and age, we longer have the upper hand —  China is a dominant player. Refer to Thomas L. Friedman's Imbalances of Power.

Now, how to argue another premise: art (or sport) as the highest aesthetic?? It appears politics and money calls the shots, whatever remains is left for the rest of us.

Matthew S. Urdan said...

Hey Sharon,

Thanks for commenting over on my blog. I appreciate the kind words. I really enjoyed this post and your insight. The Guernica and artistic angle was fascinating. I can understand why China chose not to go that route, but one thing I could not escape in watching the opening ceremonies was the might that the drummers represented....2008 drummers, not to mention the many thousands that was all rather intimidating from the sense that China could pull off such a huge and forceful production. It clearly sends the message: "If we can meet this challenge, we can meet any other and that we are NOT to be trifled with."

I think President Bush's remarks last night on Bob Costas were telling. Even though the US has differences with China, we must continue to engage them.

Keep your friends close and your enemies closer.... I'm hopeful that China really believes their theme of "One world, one dream", but I think all of us have different dreams of what we want manifested in the world. That's inspiring and terrifying all at the same time.


S. A. Hart said...

Matthew, I also watched the Bush/Costas interview with profound interest. Bush's view of the Chinese reminded me of the late Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain's comments regarding his first impression of Hitler, "In spite of the hardness and ruthlessness I thought I saw in his face, I got the impression that here was a man who could be relied upon when he had given his word."
Hitler's comments were more telling regarding his impression of the Western Allies: "Our enemies are little worms. I saw them at Munich."

Like you, I hope that peace and harmony are the true agenda, but as a student of history, I'm left with a more pragmatic understanding of political machinations and goals.

The other irony in Bush's interview was his hypocritical statement that he allegedly issued to Putin,"I said this violence is unacceptable"

There is a transcript of the interview at

Again, I hold to the words of George Santayana, “Those who do not learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”

Zee Harrison said...

Thank you so much for commenting on my blog. My responses to the comments I received must have crossed whilst you were leaving yours!
Although I didn't watch the opening ceremony and have no intention of watching any of it, you gave a very descriptive review of it. Beautifully done!

My take on it on my blog wasn't from a political angle but I am loathe to throw stones at the Chinese government whilst so many peoples of the world live under similar or worse regimes/systems.
The states that are being created in, for example, the US and the UK are creeping steadily towards something that we cannot be proud of. As my friend Ralph Dumain rightly said on this very subject on my blog: 'the bars of our cage are thinner and stronger'.
Thank you,

Anonymous said...

This is the first year in my life that I have not been interested in the Olympics. I listened to them on the radio, saw them in the movie news, and later on the television.

My observation: each country (including our own) has a hidden political agenda that is historically sanitized to show it to the world. Is it dishonest? Yes!.

If I remember rightly, the Olympic Games (old and new) were an attempt to bring about peace, that is a truce was declared among the nations and city-states not to engage in warfare or skirmishes.

Would that be true of the twentieth century CE and now the twenty-first century CE.

I personally have decided not to participate in a worldwide lie. I am sure no one noticed but I feel better by knowing that I did what I did to be authentic as a human. Who cares? I do. I do beleive perhaps rather naively that there is such a thing as morals and ethics, and dozens of games have not reflected that. In fact I do think that the Olympic Games should be closed, permanently. At present I am in the minority. But perhaps someday.....

I do not fault people for watching, nor participating in the games, but for the sake of monetary contracts, propaganda, and
As a society, including a worldwide society we have let ourselves be duped.

C K said...

I have always thought that sports and politics (or nationalistic agenda for that matter) should never mix.

Regardless of how much effort China is putting in to show the world that she is not so unlike them, the differences in culture (as displayed) cannot be more stark.

Having said that, the Londoners are feeling a little heat right now after watching the Opening Ceremony of Beijing 2008... :)

S. A. Hart said...

There's a great article entitled "Olympic Balladeer's Voice Was Dubbed" on the New York Times:

The article addresses how the Chinese dubbed the voice of one young girl and the young girl who everyone thought was singing early in the show was actually lip syncing as the Chinese wanted to project a specific image. The writer goes onto say, "But to achieve the spectacular, Mr. Zhang faked not only the song; organizers also have admitted that one early sequence of the stunning fireworks shown to television viewers was actually created using digitally enhanced computer graphics for “theatrical effect.”

Ah, the beauty of illusion and the illusion of beauty! My apologies to the poet Keats.

PurrPrints said...

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PurrPrints said...

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thanks for getting in touch!