Sometimes things are simpler than they show; in such well established events the declared bright ideas mostly come down to fulfil a recipe. The Venice Art Biennale, in all its variety also follows the recipe; even more, it is the recipe. For years it also kept the arty intellectual forefront too, always of course with a good dosage of commerce. Then China came in the game. And where in the beginning, in 1993, its artists were a curiosity, as the rare to find examples of what was currently produced in that vast country, now China takes its space almost proportionally. It is said clearly in one of the curators’ interviews in a video exposed in the show “Passage to History: 20 Years of La Biennale di Venezia and Chinese Contemporary Art”: when other countries have a population of 10 million to choose from, China has a choice amongst 1 billion; it is natural that we can send more high quality artists to Venice . . . But does it really work this way? Culture, art is not supposed to be competitive in this sense; it is not the Olympics in another field (though often named so). You do not even want it to work like in sports, to excel in a specific set-up; I thought the idea would be more to enrich the “tastes” by exposing your difference. But then where do the taste sensors recognize what is offered? Would a brief look at the recipe help? Let’s see: good skills and a theme (something catchy), minimalism or huge works, technology, a complicated text, something shocking. Chinese artists have all that, plus the sense of grandeur and plentifulness. Still, the endless rooms filled with their artworks in several exhibitions in Venice (not more a curiosity, but an abundance), did provoke a feeling of discontent.
I walked through most of those rooms and tried to isolate the element of disconnection (that brings the discontent). I walked keeping in surface the thought that Europe is extrovert in accomplishing its needs but introvert in terms of culture and identity; actually super protective as a whole (each of its little countries just the same, often resulting to extremes). In all the good works, some more some less, something was indeed missing; something that makes the recipe what it is (whatever that is). In the end I sensed an open hole of something removed and not replaced. To my understanding, the discontent is caused by the lack of what actually gives European culture its form: the sense of vanity and inborn pessimism. The Dutch philosopher Jos de Mul in his lecture “Athens, or the fate of Europe. Two faces of Greek tragedy”, presented at the 23rd World Congress of Philosophy (first week of August in Athens-Greece) (as read in the article “Tragisch besef in Athene” published in the magazine Filosofie by Maarten Meester), makes a similar thought about Europe, only he names it simply “tragedy”; in the sense of an unfortunate destiny where the individual is (co)responsible for his/her tragic path and also aware of this. He states “tragedy” as one of the fundamental elements of Europe’s identity.
Indeed in art at least, where this pain (followed by self-doubt, self-destruction, etc.) is missing, we Europeans in our turn miss to see the point. In this line of thinking, Chinese art remains a curiosity from the Orient with no direct influence to the recipe. I am not sure that Chinese artists have isolated their fundamental elements of identity in contemporary times; not yet at least. But let’s keep our sensors alert to recognise them when these will be presented at the Venice Biennale’s to come. Their production of art objects is anyway impressive and does reveal thoughts, which is always good.
P.S.1 I am talking specifically about Chinese art because of its extreme exposure at the 55th Venice Art Biennale. Art from Asia, though, is a more complicated story as it entails peoples and expressions as distant to each other as their geographical position.
P.S.2 European culture is mentioned in a wider sense, covering all places where people from Europe resided in the course of history, since its identity was kept even if only partially.
P.S.3 My excuses to the artists, but I cannot find their names related to their works; the artist/ title of the first image I had noted myself while walking through.
P.S.4 Other interesting articles about China’s presence in Venice this year: