Peng Feng, recently appointed curator of the Chinese pavilion at the upcoming Venice Biennale [June 4–Nov. 27], has come up with a highly unusual curatorial proposition, calculated to introduce international visitors to the elusive notion of “Chineseness.” His “Pervasion of Chinese Flavors” exhibition will present five single-artist installations, each redolent of a scent associated with the country’s cultural tradition. (“Flavor” and “fragrance” are designated by the same Chinese character.)
“I am not a curator,” Peng was quick to tell me when we met in New York recently. “I am a theorist who has thought up some shows.” While serving as vice dean of the department of esthetics and educational research at Peking University, the professor last year oversaw five exhibitions in Beijing, including an invitational for Chinese women artists at White Box gallery in the 798 arts district. In 2009, he co-organized the China Contemporary Art Forum in Beijing with James Elkins from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago.
In one sense, his Venice scheme offers a strong cultural resonance, calling to mind the Five Elements (fire, earth, metal, water and wood) so often invoked in ancient Chinese philosophy. In another sense, the strategy addresses a very practical problem. The Chinese “pavilion,” a dark industrial space behind the Arsenale, is lined with rusted vats once used for storing oil. Sometimes referred to as the Tank Farm, it retains the faint but insidious odor of petroleum, sometimes commingled with rancid emissions from Venice’s summertime canals.
Peng’s plan offers visual and olfactory ripostes to these galling conditions. On the lawn, artist Cai Zhisong will install cotton-covered helium-balloon “clouds” emitting the sound of wind chimes and the fragrance of tea. Inside, Liang Yuanwei, the only female participant, will hang multiple tubes dripping baijiu (a clear grain liquor with a long history of celebratory use in China) into a recycling container. Pan Gongkai, president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and chairman of the China Artists’ Association, will line a corridor with enormous ink paintings of withered lotus plants. The English text of his essay “On the Border of Western Modern Art,” which deals with the introduction of Western culture into China, will be projected on these walls in a manner reminiscent of snowflakes falling, accumulating briefly and melting. The corridor will be kept at a cool temperature and pervaded by the scent of lotus blossoms. Yang Maoyuan will create pots that bear traditional designs and medical prescriptions—all imbued with the scent of medicinal herbs and some available free to visitors. Yuan Gong will use a large humidifier, set on a two-hour cycle, to generate a recurrent incense fog.
Peng was one of 11 individuals invited to submit a proposal to the ministry of culture’s national selection committee (composed of senior curators and art critics). Two were tapped to give presentations. Peng’s concept, with its distinct nationalistic “flavor,” carried the day, despite the fact that he had to solicit suggestions for artists who might fit the theme. Of those chosen, four are graduates and/or faculty members of the Central Academy of Fine Arts and one, Yuan Gong, is a Ph.D. candidate at the Chinese National Academy of Arts in Shanghai.