Friday, 26 July 2013

Chinese Art at and near the Venice Biennale I

China and Chinese artists seemed everywhere in Venice, and we did not see anywhere near all the Chinese exhibitions, most particularly the huge installation titled Voice of the Unseen: Chinese Independent Art 1979/Today, which apparently included 200 artists in a section of the Arsenale that was oddly inaccessible the day we were there. Here's an interesting link to the New Republic 'take' on it and the preponderance of Chinese art in Venice. Interestingly, I don't find many images at all from this supposedly important exhibition on the web. I'm wondering why the sign did not intrigue me more.

I had read that Ai Wei Wei had an installation work that was in a hard-to-find place near Piazza San Marco. On our first evening in Venice, we went out for a walk, looking for a restaurant, and walked right into the church with Ai's project, the six large metal boxes with dioramas of his time in prison that you could peek at through small openings on their top and/or side. We saw him sitting handcuffed to a chair, eating, walking, sleeping, showering, and on the toilet, all with two uniformed guards standing close by. I was glad to have this as the first Chinese display on our Venice trip. The Chinese seem to have imprisoned Ai in a slightly less draconian process than the Russians use for their wealthy opposition members.

Subsequently we were interested to see Ai's installation of three-legged stools that filled the main hall of the German Pavilion (the erstwhile French Pavilion) in the Giardini. The information that the stools had been essential elements of every Chinese home until they were replaced by plastic and the homes were replaced by towering apartment buildings imbued the dramatic huge construction with the sense of the loss of history in the midst of enormous economic development and modernization that Ai's work often raises.

We missed the Ai installation at the Zitelle on the Giudecca, but did see one of his works also in the Cini Foundation's exhibition of contemporary artists who incorporate glass in their work. His glass jar containing the powdered remains of a crushed Han vessel also referred to aspects of Chinese economic development and forced modernization.

At the official Chinese Pavilion in the Arsenale, protest was not evident. Tom loved that the introductory label touted computer-generated art as the art of the future and he really enjoyed the computer enhanced videos. I was significantly less entranced, thinking both of the hacking made possible by sophisticated computer knowledge and the rather bland content of the sometimes visually lively videos. The first video was a dystopian visual narrative of the destruction, rebuilding, and re-destruction of a city or a civilization, full of skeletons and insects doing the destruction, its architecture more suggestive of the western world than the eastern. The nearby label is what actually set me off against most of the digital work in the pavilion, even though some of it was engaging. Certainly focusing on a contemporary medium can seem forward-looking, but it also turns away from any significant content or even form to celebrate the technology:

I was very taken by a group of large-scale photographs by Wang Qingsong, which are much better photographed and described on Design Boom, a great source for Biennale images and information.
I particularly loved that photograph of the artist almost hidden in a huge study, Follow Him, 2010, surrounded by all kinds of books, reproduced in sharp detail, suggesting the impossibility of knowing and the absurdity of trying to know.  You need to click on the nest picture to see the whole thing:

Another photograph shows what looks like an enormous classroom, and Wang is the only person awake in it, aided by an intravenous fluids stand.

Finally, there's a video , also by Wang, of large groups of nude or nearly nude (they wear boots or socks) Chinese participants, posing as classical paintings in what appears to be a pretty cold studio, since as soon as the photograph is taken, they rush off the set in very businesslike style.

More videos and images drew my attention because the artist, Miao Xiaochen, made a copy of Michelangelo's Last Judgement with all 400 figures depicted himself, an interesting feat that pretty much robs the original of any meaning and doesn't give the new version much interest except in the making of it. There's also a huge wall projection of various images (I caught the Pieta image), paintings of digital constructs, and a cube onto which images are projected so you appear to see them from all sides. The label suggests that the cube has something to do with cubism, but that's a quite different from Picasso and anything he attempted.

The problem with video is that you can't capture the evolution of the images without copying them in video. These were engagingly diverse although they did not have any particular emotional impact on me.

Outdoors were some more interesting installations, at least for me. Shu Yong had taken Chinese words and phrases, Google translated them into English, put them on 1500 transparent bricks the size of the bricks of the Great Wall, and made a wall in the Garden. The phrases were as strange as one might imagine and the wall quite lovely it its way.

Next to it I rather liked the pavilion apparently reconstructing a building that was part of the refuse created by Chinese modernization, recalling the construction Ai Wei Wei made of old doors at the 2007 Documenta and the construction of stools in the German pavilion here. But the label defines this as something else. Hu Yaolin seems to be the artist, but is not mentioned further (and didn't turn up in a Google search) by the curator, who describes this as a structure of Hui-style architecture, an important and revered Chinese style that in modernization "is disappearing and has become more scarce and precious." He continues, "We have taken the saved structure of a residence to the Venice Biennale in order to demonstrate to the world that during the dynamic developing process, we are endeavouring to protect our cultural heritage." I found this disingenuous and can't believe the curator actually believes that by placing an example of the architecture in the form of an open pavilion in the humid, hot garden in Venice, it is being preserved. There is no indication of what will become of the structure after the Biennale ends, or, actually, what Hu Yaolin had to do with it, whoever that is. It's called Thing-In-Itself, an installation, 2013.

By the time I saw He Yungchang's Biennale project his 2013 glass bottles had been replaced by mostly plastic ones, all filled presumably, with sea water, as he instructed. All kinds of issues regarding Venice's relationship to the sea, water purification, water issues in general, were raised in my mind, but also the pile of bottles glistened wiith light and the color of the bluish bottles and colored bottle caps.

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