Not since Mark Twain's A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur's Court has a book's title been so accurately descriptive of its contents as Barbara Pollack's The Wild, Wild East: An American Art Critic's Adventures in China.
However, an even more accurate title would have been that of an old Streisand album, My Name is Barbara, for both the best thing and the worst thing about Pollack's book is that it is all about her. Not quite the goldfish out of water she pretends to be (not knowing Mandarin, for example), Pollack shares much with her Chinese interlocutors. She smokes like a chimney and brags about it. She adores her family: husband Joel, who picks the hot chilis off his Beijing fish, due to his sensitive digestion, and the 19-year-old son Max, whom she gleefully pushes into drinking games with Chinese artists.
Like the Chinese scene in general, especially the so-called "Cynical Realist" Painters, Pollack is cynical about everything around her (except when Christie's Amy Cappellazzo asks her opinion about something or Vanity Fair sends her on assignment, in which case she fawns like the rest of us), arguing with Ai Weiwei about whether he or Barbara stripped nude for the other at Art Basel Miami, describing collector Yang Bin "as a roly-poly golf fanatic," describing ubercollector David Tang as "charming in his pajamas" -- but is it all true?
Just as Pollack can't quite decide how old zillionaire arts patron Pearl Lam is, whether or not she is just a kitsch maven, or to feel guilty or not about accepting Lam's hospitality, including overnight stays (but not "guanghxi," aka "cash", which Pollack is offered more frequently than a Hong Kong streetwalker), so Barbara can't quite make up her mind whether or not she likes Chinese contemporary art. Her big crush (other than Mr. Ai, who probably saw her nude) is on the derivative monstrosty Zhang Huan, basically because he has a deal with Pace Gallery.
As you can probably surmise, this is not a comprehensive book -- such major figures as Larry Warsh, the late Jonathan Napack, Sam Keller and Jack Tilton are not even mentioned (except in the credits). It is, however, a pretty good primer on various Chinese scenesters, insofar as they interact with Pollack, although, as in much of her original reporting on the scene for ARTnews, Barbara soft-pedals the role of the elephant in the room, the Communist Chinese Party and its PolyCorp art subsidiary. She comes just to the edge of admitting that the Chinese contemporary scene is just a huge P.R. campaign for Greater China, and then pulls back.
The book is a snappy read, because another critic, Andrea Scott, edited it (as Pollack generously admits in the epilogue) and, if you like Barbara Pollack, as I do, and find her endlessly fascinating, as she does, then I recommend that you take her to the beach with you, either in person or in book form.
CHARLIE FINCH is co-author of Most Art Sucks: Five Years of Coagula (Smart Art Press).