A Chinese Biennale

Ai Weiwei, S.A.C.R.E.D., 2011-2013, diorama in fiberglass and iron. Courtesy Zuecca Project Space.


 Based solely on numbers, this year’s Venice Biennale could be regarded—with only slight exaggeration—as a giant survey of contemporary Chinese art with some Western work mixed in for balance.

In addition to its three official pavilions (China, Taiwan, Hong Kong), the world’s most populous nation has at least 10 separate exhibitions on view, along with works included here and there in international shows and even the pavilions of several other countries. Nearly 350 Chinese artists are represented, compared to the 150 artists from 38 countries in Massimiliano Gioni’s keynote show “The Encyclopedic Palace” in the Central Pavilion and the Arsenale.

So much for figures. The actual impact of the Chinese efforts is trickier to assess, since the shows—some sanctioned “collateral” events, others independent operations—vary widely in quality and type.

Group Shows

Biggest of the big surveys is “Voice of the Unseen” at the Arsenale Nord, featuring 188 artists regarded by curator Wang Lin, a professor at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, as largely overlooked by the Western art world. With a few notable exceptions—Zhang Dali, Zhang Jian-Jun, Feng Zhengjie, Yang Yong, Huang Yan, Xu Zhen—he’s right. But, meandering through the densely hung 50,000-square-foot space, one soon comes to understand why half the participants (as press materials note) have never before shown outside their home country. Some of the work is scarcely more than kitsch, and much of the rest is too preoccupied with its own “Chineseness” (statues of Confucius, photographs of rural villages, ink paintings of goldfish) to connect with globally oriented viewers.

As in the People’s Republic itself these days, one hunts long and hard in this gigantic exhibition to find the good stuff-which is sometimes very good indeed. Painter Xu Weixin’s large gray-scale portraits, for example, pay a brave, overdue homage to men and women destroyed by the Cultural Revolution. Cheng Xiaodan evokes a profound angst with a long swath of silicone “skin” pierced by countless safety pins, while her husband Yang Jianping shows a pinkish form, hung from the ceiling, featuring several human figures half-morphed into bulbous Alien-worthy creatures.

There is a touchingly moral element to “Voice of the Unseen,” especially in documentary photographs and works like Mao Ding’s installations that visually “speak” of the plight of China’s migrant workers. But the show is also tinged with some of the cultural complaint that pervades “Confronting Anitya” at the Palazzo Michiel. According to its curatorial statement, this 32-artist survey “hopes to present the international art world with recent works of serious Chinese contemporary artists who are steeped in Eastern traditional culture and refuse to follow the fads of the times or simply copy the West.” This emphasis on cultural constancy seems a bit odd, given that “anitya” refers to the Buddhist principle of universal impermanence. The work itself—largely in wood, ink on paper, ceramic, oil on canvas and other standard materials—evidences more (overly) tasteful design than polemical passion. Typical are Xiao Yu’s abstract twisted bamboo sculpture and Shao Fan’s “exploded” Ming Dynasty-style chair.

The legacy of mutual misunderstanding is also evident in “Passage to History” at the Arsenale Nord. Intended to commemorate 20 years of Chinese participation in the Venice Biennale, the exhibition—organized by Chinese art historian Lü Peng and Italian curator Achille Bonito Oliva—declines to fully represent the fascinating tale that Bonito Oliva himself launched by bringing 14 Chinese avant-garde artists to Venice at a time when they were just beginning to reemerge following the 1989 Tiananmen Square crackdown. Instead the show offers a grab bag of works, nearly all of them paintings, by 20 well-known names (Zeng Fanzhi, Zhou Chunya) along with disparate archival materials, some of it reproduced for take-away.

“Cultureã?»Mindã?»Becoming,” team curated at the Palazzo Mora under the auspices of the nonprofit Global Art Center Foundation (headquartered in Leiden, Netherlands) and the commercial Asia Art Center (Taipei, Beijing, Singapore), brings together 38 Chinese artists who have reportedly “returned to the womb of their cultural heritage,” following two decades of assimilating Western themes and techniques. Some of the participants are billboard names (Zhang Huan, Xu Bing, Cai Guo-Qiang), and some are new talents: Han Tao (b. 1979), who shows a horizontally suspended 23-foot wooden pagoda model that might serve as a spiritual rocket; Yang Fan (b. 1981), whose 2011 painting Waterfall captures a young woman washing jet-black hair longer than the length of her body. Such works, according to the curators, represent a departure from China’s previous group— and movement—oriented practice and a post-2000 embrace of “personal experience and sensation.”

Surprisingly, the most coherent and intriguing survey is the little-heralded “Grand Canal,” which presents 11 solo artists and one eight-member collective (Irrelevant Committee) at the Museo Diocesano. Assembled by artist and curator Xiao Ge, the show is predicated on an intangible link between Venice, with its famed Grand Canal, and Yangzhou, a city of 4.5 million located on the Grand Canal of China, which runs 1,100 miles between Beijing and Hangzhou. Begun in the fifth century B.C., China’s canal is the oldest and longest artificial waterway in the world. Yangzhou is slated to become a World Heritage Site in 201—a status long held by Venice, the city from which Marco Polo departed and to which he returned after his 24-year sojourn in Asia.

On view in “Grand Canal” are pieces of striking formal range. Xiao Lu has stained papers with toxic fluids extracted from her body via Daoist tuina massage, juxtaposing them with containers of sludge from China’s Grand Canal. Photographs record refuse pulled from the water or found along the banks by Irrelevant Committee members, who have woven choice bits into a long, wall-mounted garbage “canal.” Shi Qing reports in photos and texts on his encounters as he drove along the entire Beijing-Hangzhou route, stopping to eat, shop, barter and converse every time he used up $16 worth of gas.

Writing in the show’s catalogue, assistant curator Archibald McKenzie argues that these practices reflect not just a growing concern with social and environmental issues but a recent “paradigm shift away from Western values towards a fresh use of Chinese materials, media and styles.”

(Semi-)Monographic Exhibitions

A wide variety of issues are addressed in one— and two—person Chinese shows scattered throughout the city. Presented by Shanghai MOCA, “Inkã?»Brushã?»Heart,” at the opera-set-like Conservatorio di Musica Benedetto Marcello in the Palazzo Pisani, showcases stylishly abstract paintings and sculptures resembling jewelry by Simon Ma, a Hong Kong-born, London-educated designer now based in Shanghai. Accompanying his works inspired by a rainforest visit are land- and cityscape photographs by Julian Lennon, of the musical family. Achille Bonito Oliva shares the curating credit with Paolo De Grandis, president of Arte Communications, which facilitates myriad cultural activities in Venice.

Zhong Biao—a midcareer painter known for portraying people (many of them fashionably attractive young women) “flying” dreamlike through China’s new cities or casually beholding cosmic disturbances—has engineered one of his signature immersive installations at the Chiesa Santa Maria della Visitazione. Some 60 canvases slant up the walls and dangle at various heights from the ceiling, while the dome is illuminated by a time-lapse video of the Tibetan sky.

Famed early 1990s Cynical Realist painter Fang Lijun, shown separately as the 39th artist in “Cultureã?»Mindã?»Becoming,” is given star treatment with a solo exhibition titled “A Cautionary Vision,” which features large-scale recent paintings (rats and bats meet butterflies and angels) at the Palazzo Marcello.

Painter Tong Hongsheng and photographer Wang Qingsong, both participants in the official Chinese pavilion at the Arsenale, display more works on separate floors of the Palazzo Bollani, where Tong’s looming, richly hued canvases reverently depicting religious figures (most of them Buddhist) are counterpointed by Wang’s staged social-commentary images, including one showing the mooning backsides of scores of nude mud-covered acolytes kneeling head-downward before an immense golden Laughing Buddha.

At the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, multiple threat Qiu Zhijie-leading artist, chief curator of the 2012 Shanghai Biennale, art academy professor, critical theorist and editorial director of the art magazine Next Wave-presents a one-person exhibition conceptually linking the Baroque— and Rococo—oriented Italian foundation with Shanghai’s Aurora Museum, specializing in Chinese antiquities. “The Unicorn and the Dragon” includes prints, rubbings, wall drawings and sculptures loaded with historical images arranged into wry taxonomies and maps illustrating the persistence of myths and the imaginative confusions that can result when one culture seeks to interpret another. (The title derives in part from Marco Polo’s alleged misidentification of an Asian rhinoceros as a Western-style unicorn.)

Probably no other Chinese show in Venice draws more viewers than the solo installations of Ai Weiwei, curated by Italian critic Maurizio Bortolotti under the sponsorship of Venice’s nonprofit Zuecca Projects and Lisson Gallery, London. Straight (2012), shown with an accompanying process video at Zuecca Project Space, consists of 150 tons of re-straightened rebar from schoolhouses that collapsed (allegedly due to cut-rate construction practices) during the 2008 Sichuan earthquake that killed 5,000 children along with tens of thousands of adults.

SACRED, looking at first like a minimalist installation of six large iron boxes in the 4th-century Chiesa de Sant’Antonin, in fact provides viewing slots that enable visitors to peer into aerial-view dioramas representing Ai’s 81-day detention in 2011. In two small bleak rooms scrupulously detailed from memory, doll figures of the artist and two ever-present guards-all a bit silly-looking, if the vignettes were not so serious—recall Ai’s endless hours of walking, eating, being questioned, defecating, showering, sleeping (under an never-extinguished light bulb) with no knowledge of his location or ultimate fate.

International Shows

Ai Weiwei’s work—this time a cavernous, twisting latticework installation formed from three-legged stools once ubiquitous in Chinese households—also turns up as his contribution to the German pavilion in the Giardini. The organizers’ choice to include the relentlessly provocative dissident is clearly a political taunt, not unlike the offer of a professorship in Berlin at the time of Ai’s release from detention. (To emphasize his current travel restrictions, the artist sent his mother to the Biennale.)

Likewise, the fact that eight out of the 12 artists in the Kenya pavilion at the Sede Caserma Cornoldi are Chinese (Li Wei, Chen Wenling et al.) reflects China’s growing presence in cash-poor, resource-rich regions of Africa.

Cultural inclusiveness seems to be one (politically correct) motive at work in “Personal Structures” at the Palazzo Bempo, where abstract painter Zhang Yu and four Chinese compatriots join nearly 80 other global participants, both established and emerging, in an exhibition centering on “time, space and existence,” sponsored by the Dutch nonprofit Global Art Affairs Foundation.

At the Venice pavilion in the Giardini, Yiqing Yin is one of seven international artists chosen to represent—sometimes quite indirectly—the art of weaving and the cultural links established through centuries of textile trade between East and West.

Three Chinese artists appear in Gioni’s “The Encyclopedic Palace,” with its stress on the influence of outsider art: obsessive ink draftsman Lin Xue; the self-taught Guo Fengyi (1942-2010), who drew countless large-scale fantasy figures in urgently swirling lines, and Kan Xuan, whose multichannel video installation Millet Mounds (2013) offers sequences shot in front of 207 imperial tombs.

Among the 66 artists in “Glasstress” at the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti are Zhan Wang, known for his scholar’s rock forms in manmade materials, and Cai Guo-Qiang, who offers glass “suicide bomber vests,” fabricated in Murano, which mimic the X-ray effect of full body scans at airports.

Guerrilla Performances

No Venice Biennale is complete without artists who literally make a spectacle of themselves, asserting their artistic presence—invited or otherwise—by emphasizing their physical presence.

Zhang Jianhua, who has a figurative sculpture installation in “Voice of the Unseen,” spent his time during the late May preview days silently crashing various events in the guise of a coalminer with filthy clothes and blackened face, often lying prostrate and unresponsive for long periods of time as a reminder of the exhausting, dangerous labor that fuels China’s rising economy—and all cultural endeavors.

Pure disruptive intervention was undertaken by Cai Yuan and Jian Jun Xi, in their preview-week project Scream, inspired both by Edvard Munch’s iconic existential painting of that title and by more socially engaged works such as Chinese writer Lu Xun’s poignant short-story collection Call to Arms (1922). The artist pair would walk into various national pavilions and other public spaces, stand stock still and begin to scream in a long, drawn-out fashion-always to the surprise and sometimes with the support of spectators who would add their own voices to the howl.

Great Expectations

Some of the principals behind this cultural onslaught—one panelist at the day-long “Voice of the Unseen” symposium called it a “tornado” of Chinese art sweeping through the Venice Biennale—clearly feel that it is time for the rest of the world to come to its aesthetic senses. This awakening would, in their view, entail fully embracing a distinctly Chinese contemporary art and the millennia-long heritage by which it is shaped.

A number of resentments, old and new, lie behind this dream: China’s “century of humiliations” (1842-1949) at the hands of Western powers, a sense of exclusion from full membership in today’s art-world power club and, complicating the matter, internal conflicts within China’s own art system (traditionalists vs. avant-gardists; official vs. independent art; the Beijing crew vs. those of Sichuan, Shanghai and Hangzhou). To all this can now be added a growing perception of exploitation by Western “facilitators” in Venice, who provide space and services to cash-flush Chinese sponsors at premium prices. (Artists and their backers—often collectors or art fund managers—are accustomed to renting museum space in the PRC, where they frequently stage exhibitions meant to juice the market for selected names.) “Voice of the Unseen” alone is reported to have cost roughly $3.25 million, counting space rental, shipping, insurance, curatorial fees, installation and related expenses.

Is the Biennale-conquest strategy succeeding? While the kitsch factor may be higher than normal in many of these Chinese shows in Venice, the level of intellectual pretentiousness is mercifully lower than the current Western norm. Some viewers may even find the work’s straightforward humanitarianism to be rather heartening. The real problem lies in the Chinese organizers’ apparent belief that they can prevail on the global art scene by massive numbers and sheer insistence.

This seems unlikely. Western critical biases are too deeply entrenched to be overcome by a frontal assault from China’s native-school advocates. And besides, as legendary bluesman B.B. King has remarked, making genuine music—and thus winning a wide, enthusiastic audience—is not about playing a lot of notes, it’s about playing the right notes at the right time.