The Venice Biennale, a biyearly Italian art festival currently underway, is one of the most prestigious international art events, but few know of the role it has played in the development of China’s contemporary art scene. After decades of isolation, China began to open up politically in the 1980’s. It was not until the early 1990’s, when Chinese artists first began extensively to participate in Western exhibitions, including the Venice Biennale, that Chinese contemporary art began to gain global recognition. Two decades later, the Venice Biennale’s sacred status in China’s contemporary scene may finally be starting to change.
The first few encounters
During the 1993 Venice Biennale, curator Achille Bonito Oliva (consulting with Francesca dal Lago) included fourteen Chinese artists in an exhibit entitled Passaggio a Oriente, or Passage to the Orient. This was one of first times in the early 1990’s that Chinese artists were included in an international art fair. Before, Chinese art, thought to be exotic, was not well presented in the Western world. In the 1980’s, when invited to the Venice Biennale, the Chinese government had sent crafts like traditional paper-cuttings and tapestries to the major contemporary art exhibition.
In 1999, twenty Chinese artists exhibited their works at the 48th Venice Biennale, curated by Harald Szeemann. Their collective appearance shocked many. Cai Guoqiang won the Leone d’Oro award for best artist that year, becoming the first Chinese artist to receive the honor. Ai Weiwei, now one of the world’s most famous artists, was also among the twenty Chinese artists who exhibited their work at the 1999 Venice Biennale.
After these milestones, the Venice Biennale became a hot topic inside China. In addition to discussions of the twenty artists’ surprising success, many Chinese were fascinated by the idea of Venice as an exotic, romantic city floating on the water, as well as by the Biennale’s influential status in the art world. Participation at the exhibition quickly became a coveted symbol of international recognition among contemporary Chinese artists.
The many faces of Chinese art
National pavilions, where artists exhibit artwork from their countries, are a major part of the Venice Biennale. It was not until 2003 that China established its first national pavilion exhibition. In the ten years since, the Chinese pavilion has rarely received positive reviews. Chinese art critics are intentionally vague in their explanations of this lack of success, citing “a variety of reasons.” The unspoken “variety of reasons” are the recurring conflicts between the Chinese government’s demand to control this venue and China’s contemporary artists, who are arguably the hardest people to control in China.
One former curator of China’s pavilion spoke with the Chinese version of the New York Times under request of anonymity, saying that “The government hopes that Chinese artists’ work can be seen in Venice” in order to gain the country notoriety, but also “fears the protests that sometime appear outside China’s pavilion.” The curator noted that finding a curator of international acclaim who will also refuse to criticize the Chinese government was “basically impossible.”
China’s pavilion officially represents the nation, and therefore must be politically correct. This year’s curator, Wang Chunshan, transported a traditional wooden Hui-style architectural structure to the Virgin Garden outside China’s pavilion. Wang said, “I wanted to gather together different materials and different media. I wanted to express the ecology of Chinese art today, of Chinese reality today.” But in the eyes of many, Wang’s statement is belied by the fact that he must promote the ideas of the government department for which he works, the Ministry of Culture, whose mission includes promoting traditional Chinese culture.
Ai Weiwei singlehandedly represents another side of contemporary Chinese art at the Venice Bienniale. His work is on display at the German pavilion: entitled Bang, this piece is formed from hundreds tangled wooden stools he collected from Chinese families who had long since abandoned them.
Ai also has two other large pieces of work on display at his solo exhibition: Disposition. One is called Straight, for which Ai and his team recovered 150 tons of crushed rebar from schools flattened in the 2008 Sichuan earthquake. They bought the steel rods, straightened them, and made them into a sculpture. Another piece, SACRED, represents Ai’s 81 days of imprisonment in 2011, which consists of six iron boxes, each containing sculptures that display what the artist experienced. A review by the Guardian depicted the work vividly: “Here is a miniature Ai being interrogated; here a miniature Ai showers or sits on the lavatory while two uniformed guards stand over him. Other scenes show him sleeping and eating – always in the same tiny space, always under double guard.”
As an ultimately artist-activist, Ai Weiwei has never had his work included in China’s pavilion. But Ai has nonetheless had a strong showing at this year’s Venice Biennial. This may explain why, in mainland China, the art fair’s official website is blocked.
The Chinese are coming
Ai Weiwei was not the only “unofficial” face of Chinese art in Venice. An estimated 2,000 Chinese art workers flooded Venice this year. Fourteen exhibits across Venice – one of the exhibitions features works of some 150 Chinese artists — have drawn much criticism from inside China, in some cases for being boondoggles.
Hosting an exhibition in Venice during the Biennale is quite expensive. The Unseen Voice, one Chinese exhibition, had an estimated budget of 20 million RMB (about US$3.3 million); the budgets of other exhibitions ranged from a few million to over ten million RMB. Dai Zhuoqun, an art curator and critic, voiced his thoughts on the matter via Sina Weibo:
Italians are so smart, knowing that Chinese are rich, foolish, and easy to cheat…these exhibitions easily cost millions of RMB. It’s better to give this money to the artists themselves so that they can make a living. They’re crowded at such a big fair. It’s all meaningless – not worth it.
Some of the harshest criticisms, though, are directed towards the Chinese artists themselves. In the Yangcheng Evening News, Xu Zilin, an artist and critic, wrote:
Chinese blindly trust in the authoritativeness of international organizations, which results in artists scrambling to attend international exhibitions. On the other hand, there is not equal access to information. The international exhibition has very strict standards, and it’s hard to participate. That’s why some Chinese trying to make collateral events look as if they’re part of the Biennale itself…Very few artists make it big in the art market; artists who become big stars because of the Venice Biennale become role models for many other artists.
Beneath the criticism lies hope for a healthier and freer art sphere in China, which may be difficult to achieve due to a mixture of political controversy and self-doubt. Yet as engagement and participation in events like the Venice Biennale has grown, discussion and reflection has as well, laying the groundwork for development and change.