China’s New Normal in Venice

Still from Yu-Hsien, Group Java


For Venice Biennale visitors, 2011 may mark the first time that Chinese artists are presented as something other than Far Eastern tokens. Not only are an exceptionally large number of participants from the People’s Republic on hand, but many are seamlessly integrated into international group exhibitions. No longer are Chinese works set apart like mysterious cultural artifacts.

Most strikingly, this year’s sampling from the au courant François Pinault collection at the Palazzo Grassi includes ash paintings by Zhang Huan, a cavernous installation by Huang Yong Ping, and squiggly oil-on-canvas landscapes by Zeng Fanzhi. In a clever artistic ruse, or perhaps a bit of curatorial prudery, the wall label for Yang Jiechang’s seven-panel Stranger Than Paradise (2020–11) describes the lush nature scene as an idyll of peaceful coexistence among all earthly species. True enough, if your idea of paradise encompasses a wealth of sex between humans and animals.

At the entrance to the Arsenale, the first work is Song Dong’s Para-Pavilion (2011), a meandering, semi-labyrinth of mirrored walls from a 100-year-old house. Farther on, one finds huge grids of photographs by the Shanghai duo Birdhead (Song Tao and Ji Weiyu), who specialize in funky, technically casual shots that eschew both exoticism and politics. Instead, their coy images-urban rubble; young people smoking, drinking and horsing around; a tattooed man’s back; stuffed animals seeming to copulate-evoke the anomie induced by China’s headlong modernization.

In “Glasstress 2011,” at its Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti venue (one of three), Zhang Huan presents Ten Thousand Year Old Turtle (2011), a roughly 5-foot-tall paned glass dome filled with ashes, its form in keeping with Zhang’s current proclivity for Buddhist and folkloric references. (The turtle is a traditional emblem of longevity.) Liu Jianhua offers a shelf of small, wavy glass skyscrapers that portray China’s new cityscapes as both jewel-like and illusory.

Chosen for a global survey on artistic censorship at the Danish pavilion in the Giardini, Zhang Dali contributes selections from his “Second History” project featuring 20th-century Chinese propaganda images juxtaposed with their un-doctored photographic originals. (Individuals who have fallen out of political favor, for example, simply disappear from group shots.) Yi Zhou, in an official collateral solo in the Arsenale vicinity, shows videos tracing the maturation of a fantasy-prone young woman, as her visions evolve from natural disasters to cities filled with surrealistic sculptures to pure abstractions awash in light.

Such nonchalant curatorial inclusiveness implies a kind of full diplomatic recognition of China in the realm of art, and stands in stark contrast to the curiosity factor infusing several earlier appearances of avant-garde Chinese work at the Venice Biennale.  In 1993, artistic director Achille Bonito Oliva surprised many Western visitors with a selection of 10 Chinese artists (among them Wang Guangyi, Zhang Peili, Fang Lijun, Li Shan and Xu Bing) who were just going public again after the 1989 Tiananmen crackdown. In 1999, Harald Szeemann corralled a score of widely diverse Chinese artists (Wang Du, Zhou Tiehai, Yang Shaobin, Yue Minjun, Zhao Bandi, Ma Liuming, Chen Zhen, et al.), treating their work—whose only common factor was its national origin—like the spoils of a daring critical expedition. The same year, the naturalized Huang Yong Ping represented France at its national pavilion, and Cai Guo-Qiang was accused of plagiarism back in China for remaking the 1966 Socialist Realist sculpture group Rent Collection Courtyard. In 2007, curator Hou Hanrou defied expectations both in the PRC and abroad by choosing four women artists (Cao Fei, Kan Xuan, Shen Yuan and Yin Xiuzhen) to represent China.

Like most nations, China also has a more expressly nationalist presence at the current Biennale. “Cracked Culture? / The Quest for Identity in Contemporary Chinese Art,” mounted in two locations in the Dosoduro area, comes across as a rather self-defeating attempt to capitalize on now-outdated Western notions of contemporary Chinese art. Works by the nearly 20 lesser-known artists tend toward the bright and garish, suggesting an escalating bid for attention in China’s crowded and volatile art scene.

That desperate strategy is also evident in the Hong Kong pavilion just outside the Arsenale exit. Here Kwok Mang-ho (a.k.a. Frog King) sometimes prowls his slapdash multimedia installation in wildly patterned costumes and concentric-circle eyeglasses. Our minds, presumably, are to be blown.

Taiwan—part of China or not, depending on your politics—this year devotes its pavilion near San Marco square to “The Heard and the Unheard.” Featuring videos and sound-works by Hong-Kai Wang and Yu-Hsien Su, the show focuses on the aural environment of poor immigrants, factory workers and others who normally lack a strong social voice.

The Biennale first granted China pavilion status in 2005, though the temporary quarters provided consist of a ghastly section at the rear of the Arsenale. Narrow, dark, filled with rusting storage tanks still redolent of oil, the space differs in every imaginable way from the airy ramble of the adjacent Italian pavilion.

For this year’s exhibition, Beijing University aesthetics professor Peng Feng has brought together installations by five artists (Cai Zhisong, Liang Yuanwei, Pan Gongkai, Yang Maoyuan and Yuan Gong). Each work is purportedly accompanied by a fragrance (tea, baijiu, lotus, herbal medicine or incense) representative of Chinese tradition.

Unfortunately, the scents are usually too faint to detect, and the show’s hint of resurgent nationalism may discomfort some viewers—especially those who showed up at the inauguration ceremony carrying “Free Ai Weiwei” shoulder bags. But for visitors willing to enter imaginatively into another cultural sensibility, the Chinese pavilion offers a mental respite from the visual overload of the Biennale as a whole and the frenetic stridency (way too many bad works, way too spectacularly displayed) of its Italian neighbor in particular.

Perhaps the most memorable work in this year’s Chinese pavilion was the least material. Yuan Gong’s dry-ice fog, periodically arising on the lawn and simultaneously filling the interior, recalls the misty space of traditional shan shui (mountain water) painting. But it also evokes the subtlety, pliability and, finally, enveloping pervasiveness with which Chinese culture has for millennia absorbed its would-be conquerors.