Every two years, the art world gets a vivid reminder of China's complex sovereignty issues and ongoing identity concerns—in the form of three separate pavilions at the Venice Biennale.
At the rear of the Arsenale each time around, a dark, dank interior and a grassy lawn accommodate a handful of artists representing mainland China. Meanwhile, one artist from Hong Kong typically occupies the Special Administrative Region's three-room space across from the Arsenale's entrance/exit. Taiwan—a maverick province or an independent nation, depending on your politics—generally hosts a small number of participants in moody upstairs quarters in the Palazzo delle Prigioni near San Marco Square.
Added to these territorial divisions are conflicting strains of ethnic diversity (China is home to 55 recognized minorities) and the contrast between persistent traditionalism and warp-speed modernization.
This year, all these elements have coalesced into a tripartite quest for spiritual meaning, with each venue offering a different approach.
The official pavilion, now free of all but one of the rusty oil tanks that previously dominated the space, features works by seven artists. Tong Hongsheng presents old-master-style oil paintings that depict Buddhists monks and ritual objects. Hu Yaolin has erected the decoratively carved inner courtyard structure from an ancient Hui-style wooden house. Shu Yong offers a kind of Great Wall of misunderstanding, composed of translucent resin bricks inscribed with Chinese characters matched with mangled English corollaries from Google Translate: "trailer fraud," "the onion strikewave," "cock wire." Miao Xiaochun's nude, stylized figures, projected on a cube as well as on the surrounding walls, seem devoid of purpose, whether static or in continuous motion.
Curator Wang Chunchen, head of the curatorial research department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts Museum, Beijing, has optimistically titled the Chinese pavilion's ensemble "Transfiguration." But several large color photographs by Wang Qingsong perhaps better express the psychic condition of China's citizenry today. Among the staged scenes are a theater converted to a trauma ward for hordes of wounded (most of them Westerners) and a classroom in which Asian students have fallen into exhausted sleep at desks massively overloaded with books.
Taiwan has long considered internationalism its best defense against the giant PRC looming across the straits. Artistically, that strategy has been taken to an extreme by the European-educated curator Esther Lu, whose "This Is Not a Taiwan Pavilion" includes just one Taiwan-based practitioner (Chia-Wei Hsu) along with a German-Taiwanese artist raised in Malaysia and currently living in London (Bernd Behr), plus a 36-year-old individual (Katerina Seda) and a six-member team of high-school students (collectively called Batezo Mikilu, an amalgam of their nicknames) from the Czech Republic.
Despite a catalogue drenched in deadly curator-speak ("dis-identification," "unpack the production of reality"), the show has at least one wonderfully quirky element: Hsu's rambling installation with letters, photos, diagrams and videos evincing his pursuit of an ageless mythological figure called Marshal Tie Jia, whose life is entwined with many centuries of Chinese and Taiwanese history. The fact that it's hard to tell if Marshal Tie Jia is a "real" cultural legend or Hsu's own invention is very much to the point.
Hong Kong's 2013 representative, Lee Kit, has gone to a contrary extreme in an exhibition so restrained and denuded that visitors can be forgiven for thinking, at least initially, that there is nothing there—just a shirt on a hanger, a plastic glass on a shelf, a faint painting inadvertently left on a wall, a table, some flickering video monitors, someone vacuuming dust. Lee, who now divides his time between Hong Kong and Taiwan, speaks of his work as evoking memories, ephemeral feelings, identity questions and subtle domestic dramas. This interpretation is echoed in press materials by the pavilion's big-gun organizers from Hong Kong's forthcoming M+, Museum for Visual Culture: Lars Nittve, executive director, and Yung Ma, assistant curator.
However humble Lee's objects and materials, there is no denying the intellectual appeal of his esthetic. The 35-year-old artist won the Art Futures Award at the 2012 Hong Kong art fair, was selected the same year for the "CAFAM Future" survey at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and has exhibited internationally in such shows as "Print/Out" at the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
But Lee's inclusion in the misnamed "The Ungovernables" (2012) at New York's New Museum prompts some intriguing questions. What are the consequences of a passive attachment to the mundane in a city like Hong Kong, which is at once a consumerist cauldron and a city under threat of human rights curtailment now that it has been returned to mainland Chinese control? Is there a point at which artistic modesty, pushed too far, becomes its own contrary—a form of overly tasteful ostentation? No other artist in the Chinese pavilions has given viewers less to experience, or more to consider.