From Iceland — Gung Ho

Gung Ho

Published July 19, 2010

Hot-shot Chinese businessman, millionaire poet and patron-of-the-arts, Huang Nubo, recently decided to start a fund to promote the cultural relations between Iceland and China, inventively named “The China Iceland Cultural Fund.” Reminiscent of pure Icelandic small-town nepotism, one of the main catalysts for Huang Nubo’s interest in Icelandic culture was rooming with Hjörleifur Sveinbjörnsson, translator from Chinese (and husband of Ingibjörg Sólrún, retired goddess of Icelandic social-democrats), when they studied together at the University of Beijing in the seventies.
Besides being one of the richest businessmen in China (as if that was somehow insufficient), Huang Nubo is, according to the information website, a former Communist Party Propaganda department section chief as well as being a poet in his own right. Richer than most poets, he’s worth around 770 million dollars, says Forbes Magazine, making him the 114th richest guy in China—so, according to a 2010 CIA Factbook estimate, there should be around 1,338,612,854 people in China who are poorer than him. Give or take.
And Huang Nubo has guaranteed The China Iceland Cultural Fund one million dollars in the next ten years. Out of the goodness of his heart.
Now, Icelandic artists are no strangers to being bartered and bought by the infinitely rich. Until a few years ago, Landsbanki Íslands, or should I say the owners of that particular financial institution, played Medici-like patrons to artists—and used their image to promote their loans, overdrafts, savings and pension-plans in national ad-campaigns. Everybody (more or less) played along. Hell, I even published a poetry book, whose printing was mostly financed by Landsbanki Íslands. And I defended it vigorously. The printing was not the same as the publishing, I argued, and even though I got money from them that didn’t mean I was their whore (‘cause I’d never copulate with them bastards) and whatever, whatever, it feels like aeons ago and I was wrong.      
How do I feel about that now—post-meltdown? I feel ashamed. I feel I was opportunistic and naïve. I feel it gags me more than I expected, and in different ways. I don’t remember ever finding a reason to directly criticise Björgólfur Guðmundsson, the chair of Landsbanki Íslands and silver-haired chief of our modern Medici clan—at the time he was one of the most popular people in Iceland. A cute old man with class, a filthy-rich philanthropist who’d been victimized and put in white-collar jail and re-risen for a second helping. And I didn’t feel any reason to attack him personally—international capitalism, yes, but Björgólfur Guðmundsson, no. Maybe that was sensible—and maybe sensible is what it feels like to be somebody’s bitch. I’ll never know. I was robbed of that option when the banks collapsed.
But more than this, I feel that whatever I say today is tainted with a) the fact that I did partake in the financial adventure, however peripherally and b) I feel guilty about it and might therefore be willing to lash out at other participants who don’t seem the least bit guilty.
Perhaps I just don’t find it fair, that everyone else is so calm about it. I’m not asking for self-critique à la Mao Zedong, but a shrug of the shoulders—a collective “yes, shit happens and we’re sorry, we’ll try to be smarter and less egotistical” —that’d be nice. I don’t think the most important thing in dealing with the meltdown is that measly poets and artists engage in any kind of purgatory so that they can be re-allowed into the heaven of artistic bullshit—I don’t want to make the crisis about us. But it saddens me to see so many critical minds—superbly intelligent people—sitting around and behaving like politicians in denial: “Nothing happened, please, everybody just move along. There’s nothing to see here.” Yes. Politicians, bureaucrats, the media, businessmen—the list of culprits is long and poets are way-back. But let’s not do like everybody else and act as if we recognise the scene of the crime.
Maybe this is just one of my useless manias. But I’d still like—in all humbleness—to advise those invited to participate in the projects of the newly founded China Iceland Cultural Fund to be careful in what they lend their names or faces to, their reputations and their artistry. Because, in my experience, it does matter—even though artistic autonomy may be only a far-fetched ideal, it might still be something worth striving towards.
And in case you’ve forgotten, Chinese state capitalism/market communism isn’t anything worth cheering on. Stuff may be relative, but fuck me, it’s not this relative.

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