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Apr. 6, 2011

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As calls grow in the West for the release of Chinese dissident artist Ai Weiwei, who was detained by police on Sunday, Apr. 4, 2011, Chinese authorities have begun to push back. An editorial in China’s Global Times referred to the artist as a "maverick" and an "activist," and accused Western governments of "reckless collision against China’s basic political framework," attacking China "with fierce comments before finding out the truth." Ai Weiwei, the editorial warned ominously, would "pay a price for his special choice."

The artist's detention -- he has been held incommunicado -- is being interpreted as part of China's "big chill" clamp-down on intellectuals, artists and dissidents in the context of the country's relatively quiet Jasmine Revolution. For Ai personally, the situation could be grave; his supporters fear that he may be tortured or deprived of the medicine he needs.  

Typically, Chinese dissidents who are imprisoned face charges of "inciting subversion of state power," which is a crime under the Chinese criminal code. In 2009, the writer and human rights activist Liu Xiaobo was tried on such charges and sentenced to 11 years imprisonment. One source close to the artist speculated that he could be charged within 48 hours.

French artist Dominique Gonzalez-Foerster, who in 2008 filled Tate's Turbine Hall with bunk beds to suggest a "shelter environment," is about to turn the Guggenheim Museum into a model of the Titanic -- during its sinking, no less. Scheduled to take place on Apr. 14, 2011, the 99th anniversary of the disaster, the installation Titanic, T.1912 features a performance of Gavin Bryar's 45-minute-long The Sinking of the Titanic (1969) by the Wordless Music Orchestra.

During the performance, the audience moves on the ramps and in the rotunda as if on the sinking ocean liner.

The two performances take place at 8:40 pm and 10:40 pm on Apr. 14, 2011. Tickets are $30 ($10 students). Also offered is a "first-class" package that includes dinner at the museum's café, the Wright ($350), or a cocktail-and-dessert reception ($200). Call 212 360 4241 for more information. 

Lebanon has withdrawn from the 2011 Venice Biennale, a move that has been attributed to "Mideast turmoil" as well as to "internal disagreements" within the country. Now, however, another factor has arisen as decisive: the soaring cost of space in Venice during biennale summers. Apparently, when the Lebanese delegation hesitated in the face of per-square-meter pricing inside the Arsenale, the section reserved for the Lebanese pavilion was given to another exhibitor.

For reasons that are unclear, the Berlin-based Danish art collaborative Wooloo had been invited to exhibit in the now-absent pavilion -- and the group is taking this new development in stride. Wooloo has a penchant for work that "weds art to activist gestures" and has created a project called New Life Venice, in which it coordinates local home-stays, gratis, for artists in need. So far, according to Wooloo, artists exhibiting in the national pavilions of Albania, Costa Rica, Lithuania, Haiti and Romania have accepted the group’s offer, and are to stay with Venetian families during their visit.

Originally designed to save the Lebanese delegation money "while creating a meeting point between local residents and the biennale's influx of international producers," New Life Venice has renewed power as a commentary on the relationship between rich and poor on a global level, even in an elite art context.

For visitors to Venice this summer, Lebanon is out, but the famous art dealer Ileana Sonnabend (1914-2007) is in. The Peggy Guggenheim Collection presents "Ileana Sonnabend: An Italian Portrait," May 29-Oct. 2, 2011, with more than 60 works from the Sonnabend Collection, showcasing Italian art as well as works by a handful of U.S. artists (Robert Rauschenberg, Robert Morris, Jeff Koons) and a number of international photographers (Hiroshi Sugimoto, Elger Esser). The show is organized by Sonnabend director Antonio Homem (who was one of the dealer's heirs) and Guggenheim Collection director Philip Rylands.

Old Masters look to Older Masters: so goes the story at Amsterdam’s Rijksmuseum this July, when the influence of Rembrandt van Rijn(b. 1606) upon the young French impressionist Edgar Degas (b. 1834) is explored pictorially for the first time. "Rembrandt and Degas: Two Young Artists," July 1-Oct. 23, 2011, brings together 20 self-portraits from the holdings of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, the National Gallery of Art, the Getty Museum, the Alte Pinakothek and a private collection. The show looks at early work by both men,  Degas while he was studying in Rome and became inspired by Rembrandt’s etchings. After the Rijksmuseum, the exhibition travels to the Clark Art Institute in Williamstown, Mass., in November 2011 and to the Metropolitan in February 2012. 

The whole world knows that smile -- and yet no one has proven whose smile it is.

The Guardian reports that Italian researchers plan to determine once and for all whether Lisa Gherardini, the wife of an Italian silk merchant who is believed to have been the model for Leonardo da Vinci’s masterpiece, has the bone structure needed to satisfy experts -- by digging up the graves behind a convent in Florence.

Stories have long linked the painting, known as La Joconde in France and La Gioconda in Italy, with Gherardini, whose husband was named Francesco del Giocondo -- and 16th-century biographer Giorgio Vasari’s writings corroborate the belief. Recently, an amateur Italian biographer claimed to have found the woman’s death certificate, which reveals the site of her burial, and the investigation is to begin later this month at the Convent of St. Ursula in central Florence, according to Rome’s Associated Press.

Using a range of CSI-style techniques like ground-penetration radar and carbon dating, the researchers hope to find skull fragments that are compatible in DNA and age, and are sufficiently well-preserved to facilitate a total facial reconstruction -- and then to compare. Science at the service of beauty, only five centuries too late.

When art’s most enduring mystery is solved, what will we ask next?

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