A ‘Most Un-Chinese’ China Pavilion
China Pavilion, Venice Biennale
11.05.19 – 24.11.19
Translated by Duncan Hewitt
In the more than century-long history of the Venice Art Biennale, the participation of the China Pavilion in the world’s most important international art event only covers a period of less than twenty years. Throughout the past decade of the China Pavilion’s participation in the Venice Biennale, not only has traditional Chinese culture not become antithetical to contemporary art, it has actually become the inspiration, the meaning, the medium and the material of the artworks on display. China’s rich folk art and traditional culture have helped artists create works with distinctive cultural characteristics. However, the China Pavilion has, as a result, also found it hard to escape criticism that it has become ‘stereotypical’ and ‘standardised’. And so everyone has been extremely surprised at just how ‘different’ the China Pavilion at the 2019 Venice Biennale is. Indeed, as one member of the international media put it, it’s a ‘most un-Chinese’ China Pavilion.
May you live in China’s most interesting times
One doesn’t really know whether to laugh or cry at the fact that the title of this year’s Biennale, May You Live in Interesting Times, stems from a misreading of a traditional Chinese proverb. It may be understood as an example of sarcasm – a phrase that sounds like you are wishing someone well, when in fact you are cursing them and taunting them with the idea that they are trapped in an era of turbulence.
No one questioned this ‘Chinese proverb’ nor researched its derivation – and the China Pavilion could only make the best of the situation. For Chinese people, explaining this ‘proverb’ that had been misinterpreted by foreigners became a not insignificant challenge. In response to the Biennale’s title, the curator Wu Hongliang chose Re-Rui as the title of this year’s China Pavilion. He explained that Re is a prefix that appears frequently in words in many Western languages, with the sense of ‘back’ or ‘to go back’ – implying an impetus to return to the roots of the word or suffix that follows. In Chinese there is a character with a similar sound: Rui, meaning ‘wisdom’. Thus Re-Rui suggests the idea of being wise, because Re ( returning ) is also a strand of thought in contemporary art.
The works in this year’s Biennale display the artists’ exploration of the concept of Re in three different dimensions: a shared understanding of culture; the everyday; and self-perception. At first glance this seems similar in form to China Pavilions of previous years, apparently seeking inspiration in traditional Chinese art and culture. Yet this time, curator Wu Hongliang has freed himself from the restrictions of traditional thinking, to bring us a groundbreaking China Pavilion exhibition.
A China Pavilion that goes beyond the limits
The Venice Biennale may well turn each national pavilion into a venue for promoting national spirit, yet at the same time it also provides a perfect opportunity to help foreign art lovers learn about Chinese art. Chinese art tends to consist of works created by Chinese artists under the influence of China’s cultural and social background. But the complex rhetoric, veiled meanings and multiple allusions so common in Chinese culture mean that, in a foreign context, it inevitably loses some of its resonance. What’s more, once the texts explaining the works are processed for a second time, by being translated into English, they become like a gourmet meal reheated in the microwave, unable to retain the full flavour of the original.
This cultural gap has become an obstacle to Western understanding of Chinese art. How, in a Western context, to help foreigners interpret artworks steeped in a Chinese cultural background has become a major problem that artists must overcome. Against this backdrop, the curator has cleverly elected to make use of ‘emotional common ground’, and on this basis has managed to eliminate the sense of separation that this cultural gap commonly causes in art exhibitions.
The Name of Gold is a multi-screen video and installation work by the artist Geng Xue. When you walk into the centre of the China Pavilion, Geng Xue’s world is on display for all to see on a giant screen. This is a world of images in black and white, where everything, from people to scenery, has been sculpted in clay by the artist – just as young children all over the world create their own kingdoms out of mud. In front of the video wall lie a number of gold installation pieces in the shape of umbilical cords. Underneath these ‘cords’, the artist has installed various video works: on the screen, the little clay figures roll over and over; to the viewers standing around the umbilical cords watching the videos, it’s as though they are observing a life being born through the cords. In cultures around the world, sayings comparing soil and living things are ubiquitous. Soil is often linked with the beginning of life, and the end of life too: The Name of Gold borrows this idea, to reveal the cycle of life to which we are destined.
The shared experience that the artist He Xiangyu brings visitors is more intuitive. After passing through an archway, you find yourself in a completely pink space created by him. The design of this space is unique – even the feeling you get underfoot has been altered, in an attempt to draw spectators into his singular artistic vision. The artist has taken tactile perceptions of the human body as his inspiration for Everything We Create is Not Ourselves. He depicts the inside of the human mouth as this large pink space, and invites the audience to walk into it and experience ‘the inside of the human body’ from a different perspective. Here, the inside of the mouth is not just visualised: visitors can also gain a more profound sense of the human body as their hands and feet come into contact with the artwork.
The spirit of Asian art in the Western context
In an exhibition such as the Venice Biennale, where contemporary Western art is the mainstream, if we want to help the audience to come to an understanding of Chinese art, we can’t gamble on deserting China’s inherent artistic spirit, nor put our hopes on mainstream Western values: this would amount to abandoning the nature of contemporary Chinese art, and would struggle to embody the true unique characteristics of Asian art.
The work in this year’s China Pavilion that was most popular among Western art lovers, Chen Qi’s The Born and Expansion of 2012, is in fact the work with the closest ties to Chinese culture. It’s a huge printmaking piece: Chen Qi has used the traditional Chinese technique of watermark woodcut printing to present visitors with an enlarged black and white image of the surface of water, with surging, gleaming waves. The work, which is 4 metres high and more than 20 metres long, zigzags through the space like a classical Chinese folding screen, creating an enhanced sense of visual perspective.
The curator has intentionally cut off the work with a wall – so visitors can either observe The Born and Expansion of 2012 through a ‘window’ in the wall, or walk through the archway into the space that houses the work. The relatively small space given to the piece makes it easier for the viewer to become immersed in the seascape of black and white waves, producing a visual experience separated from reality. This sombre, large-scale, tranquil depiction of waves profoundly conveys the boundless, turbulent energy of water; and, via the aesthetics and techniques of Chinese culture, it puts China’s world view – which since ancient times has been steady and humble, yet also lofty and magnificent – on display to the world.
In contrast to previous China Pavilions, where the exhibition space was arranged in an open fashion, many of this year’s works are separated by walls, and the entire space resembles a maze. Wu Hongliang has consciously introduced the imagery of traditional Chinese gardens, guiding visitors to experience the entire pavilion as though ‘strolling in a garden’. In Western concepts of architecture and design, functionality often takes precedence over ‘practicality’, but in Asian concepts of construction, the primary consideration is the relationship between humans and space, and the coexistence of landscape and objects, rather than how landscape and objects can be used by humans.
Wu has opened a round hole in the wall dividing the exhibition space, and so we have a window; he used the narrow, corridor-like work Elsewhere by Chen Qi to connect two exhibition spaces, and so we have a ‘colonnade’; under the staircase he designed an arch-shaped opening, and thus we are drawn into the imagery of the space underneath a bridge. All the spaces are both divided up and interlinked by the garden design concept ‘I am in you, and you are in me.’ This is both a space steeped in the philosophical significance of traditional Chinese gardens and a space for playing – visitors can experience the whole pavilion in different ways, while the pavilion itself implicitly demonstrates the thinking inherent in contemporary Chinese art.
To describe the China Pavilion as ‘most un-Chinese’ by no means implies that it has renounced those aspects of traditional culture that may puzzle the West. But this is the first time that the works in the China Pavilion do not highlight the divergence of Chinese art from the context of the contemporary Western art world. Western art is clearly influencing the attitudes of a new generation of young Chinese people towards their domestic art. Every year we hear plenty of criticism of the China Pavilion for being complacent and conservative. This year’s Venice Biennale, however, has given everyone a fresh perspective on the China Pavilion – and this may be a good start.