While I was drafting in my mind posts about historians who love to tell stories, and families who loved printing books, and poets who were actually earning money, all somewhere in the far past, the message from the organizers of the 9th International Fiber Art Biennale ‘From Lausanne To Beijing’ arrived. My submission has been honoured; four works belonging to the series ‘continents’ will be part of this fantastic exhibition. This is part of the announcement:
“221 excellent artworks (104 from China and 117 from overseas), which make approx 23% of the entire entry, are juried in for display at the upcoming Exhibition. (入选作品221件（中国104件，国外117件），总入选率约为23%)”
It is the third time that I participate with my textile works in this biennale. The first time, in 2012, I took the trip too, to Nantong, some hundred kilometers from Shanghai. It was a bliss to see the exhibition, but also to be treated with real honour and abundant hospitality. Of course meeting so many artists busy with textile was also a mind opener. This time the exhibition will take place in Shenzhen, a dreamtime modern city. It is close to Hong Kong; does this make the trip easier, I wonder. Anyhow, I am tempted to go, but then I need to find a sponsor very soon.
In the meantime, I will pack and send the works within the coming days. Updates will be coming here and on Atelier Kapnos fb page.
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:
Non Greeks will take a few minutes to read this long Greek word; they will use school earned skills and a considerable part of brain memory; success is not guaranteed. Imagine now to try to guess, because this is the case, the Chinese words-labels on food even at a snack bar where everything is at show. I can tell you with certainty that you will be lost and will eat whatever, unless you choose the straight forward broccoli and equally honest noodle with something greeny; bless them. Shanghai is an international city, has always been, as a port since the old times. At main hotels and international stores like Marks & Spencer you will manage with English, but that’s about it. To taxi drivers you have to show written in Chinese where you are going and must make sure you have your own address also on paper to make your way back.
paralipomena: people carry food and eat at all times of the day; you see bags with tappers going around, noodles, rice cakes and buns are eaten on the streets everywhere; at half-hidden corners of buildings you see men gathering and acting with tension: it is just gambling, that also happens all around; you don’t hear the motorbikes coming after you even on the pavement because they are all electrical, in the beginning I thought they had the engines turned off…; the green man of the stoplights is actually running and not casually walking; people work constantly, the sense of leisure does not seem to exist; people shout often when talking even in awkward places like the national Museum, it is totally acceptable; coffee is a problem; tea is also a problem if you are not accustomed to the larger area’s whereabouts; tea is usually prepared loose in the pot or the cup, so not in sachets or special instruments as we know; when you ask for water at the restaurant they bring you hot water; the windows of houses, talking about small houses, are blue or covered with blue curtains; wordpress.com does not work in China; the party is apparent in public spaces and of course on tv; employees are controlled on the spot for their work, at the airport immigration control we could push a button, while our passport and visa was checked, to evaluate the officer’s work: excellent, good, poor, bad; the famous “Bund” of Shanghai offers a river sidewalk worthy of every tourist guide’s mention.
One thing I put well on my mind: if I ever want to travel again to China I have to learn some Chinese. Sign language does not work since signs have different meaning.
I had decided to drop the idea of visiting the Shanghai Museum, as on the first day here I saw a long queue waiting and that is what the guide also mentions as normal. So this morning I took the subway to Xintiandi station, only two stops from my starting point. The task was to walk around the neighbourhood known as “French concession”, the most European part of Shanghai, the most chic, cool, etc. I wandered for a while, had two coffees, looked at the little cute shops and then felt bored and took the way back on foot. It was a bright sunny day so by reaching People’s square I had enough energy to give one more chance to the museum. That went well; there was no queue! I walked in passing through control like at the airport and then no other burden; admission is free. I don’t know why it looked smaller from the inside and the halls were not that big and full either. The ceramics are beautiful; in the hall there is also a short introduction about the process and real size models of the kilns used in different periods. I had a look at the painting hall, at the calligraphy hall and last at the ancient Chinese sculpture hall, from stone carving to pottery making. Last piece to see was a dog made of clay, real size I thought. That was a good end of my stay in China. Happy with it I went to a pure Chinese diner where they don’t speak a word of English and ordered the cheapest meal of my trip, 18 Yuan that means 2,50 Euro; it contained a soup and a bowl of noodles well stuck together for managing with the chop-sticks and something meaty which on the picture looked like soya. I must note that they do not understand the word soya and that the dish “foe-yung-hai” which is standard vegetarian Chinese dish is Holland here does not exist…I think I will survive; my bags are packed.
Today my duty was to visit M50, the famous gallery space settled in a complex of industrial buildings at Moganshan road in the north of the city. The sunshine helped to get me going and though not at best spirits I got a taxi that took me there. I paid double fare than the way back; go figure what is going on…I was there right after 10am, the supposed opening time, but of course many gallery runners and artists came later. Still there was enough open to start the walk. The buildings are occupied by a mixture of ateliers and show spaces sometimes not clearly defined. The main purpose of them all is to sell and my feeling was that it does not matter much what. Most of the works are commercial in a cheap sense, many are average art works not particularly skilled made and very few are really interesting. In fact the only gallery that I found serious is island6 . This is the base of the artists’ collective Liu Dao; the works are made just behind the show space. As they mention on their website:”Every “art forward” island6 exhibition is the product of multi-disciplined, collaborative in-house workshops”. The current show under title “The cat that eats Diodes” is a combination of paintings, video sculptures, drawings and led moving images. If you visit their website you will get a clearer idea.
A space also worth mentioning is the porcelain gallery called “Contemporary Jun & Ru Porcelain Museum” with colourful porcelain objects made with the technique known as yaobian. By this technique, colour appears naturally under precise control of the change of temperature of the kiln.
For the rest, my impression is that many artists copy works that make success in international exhibitions. They made me think of the endless discussions already started years ago in Greece about the young artists not looking for their own identity but imitating the international trends; well, there you go. It is not that one will make the most brilliant work, just that you must be a master to copy with success so it is better to look for your own thing. Other observation is that obviously many of the exhibiting artists found their way as professional artists through institutions as universities, colleges, etc. and gained titles that make them more or less get that respectable heavy look on their face. Big exhibitions in “serious” galleries are dedicated to them and people look at their work with a serious frown of intelligence. It must be me, but I thought that they sell seaweed for silk ribbons, as we say in Greece. You can find those types in every country; that is the most remarkable. How one becomes a professor and how this extends to sending him/herself and his/her students to international exhibitions is also a big theme which will come up at another article.
6 November; the central European airports are celebrating Christmas already. Amsterdam hits the top as always, with the Finnish one being more modest and aligned to its grey environment with only little blue lights on the Christmas trees; far at the back and over the white snowy field, the same trees in real are forming a dark horizontal line on the grey landscape.
The actual flying time is something that I try to forget; my discomfort on airplanes is known, I think. Luckily I found the perfect book to read on the airplane so my wasted time found some meaning: “China in Ten Words” by Yu Hua, a book with a straight forward voice on the bitter and on the sweet of China. Till they switched off the lights on the second flight I had devoured 120 pages of careful reading. I intend to finish it tonight.
My flight arrived exactly at the foreseen time. The Pudong airport is a brand new one, huge in size giving a feeling of being empty. All went fast with luggage and migration clearance; somewhere at the far I could see groups of uniformed people walking after someone with a flag; other uniformed people with obvious authority were doing their routine walk up and down, which I did not know where to place but it did give a weary feeling. In between total newness and communist symbols, I entered China. A most helpful young man was waiting for me, as promised, to take me to Nantong. We walked through the vast not busy corridors and came to the car which already had collected the first two passengers. Off to the other airport of Shangahi for the last passenger, I was introduced to the light and air of the big-cities China. The sunshine was dampened by a thick cloud of smog, dust and humidity. Rolling on the enumerable highway air bridges designing the landscape, I could grasp snap shots of normal street life behind this new design of prosperity. Lots of people, motorbikes, steaming pans, street merchandise, small tracks and all types of carriages, work, movement, business and at the back somewhere the port of Shanghai almost transparent. The first contact with Chinese billboards fell in the same area as the new Chinese painting that we see at big art events; it is as sticking the tongue out to aesthetics having at the same time something fresh and something totally conservative; the clog in the throat is almost inevitable despite the up-mood images; about the text I have no comments. From the first meters of the drive it was clear that the driving ethics are completely different to what we know in central Europe, stopping at the side of the highway, blowing the horn a lot, behaving more nervously than expected. In city streets the chaos is bigger, with motorbikes (lots of them) even driving against the official stream. There is a lot officiality here but the road is not part of it. This evening, to get with the assigned busses from the hotel to the river for a sight-seeing cruise, a police car was engaged to open the road for us.
Anyway, while waiting at the ‘ banana’ level of the airport for the last passenger of our car, I decided to close my eyes for a few minutes. From that point, tiredness took the upper hand and I spent basically half asleep the last bit of our trip from Shanghai to Nantong. Once at the hotel though I picked up my energy and walked to a building 50 meters further that seemed to attract thousands of people of obviously low income. Walking into the building, I realised that it was a kind of shopping mall for fabrics and garments, set up in a way unknown to our experience; practically hundreds of stores packed in this building seeming to do some kind of business to earn the day’s bread. Speaking of bread, I was hungry. The lousy food of the airplane had left me with a disturbed feeling; I found again some meters further away a noodle fast food and had something that helped me go back to the hotel and get some sleep. I woke up two hours later and stood up reluctantly; needed to get ready for the cruise on Haohe river. On little boats and with a young girl as our guide, we drifted on the water admiring somehow the effort that this city made to decorate with all kinds of colored lights (many of them moving) the buildings that stand out as architecture or as historical points. This I want to mention: it does impress me the sense of admiration that Chinese people seem to have. Our guide was explaining that for Nantong we are talking about one city, one man and one river. One city because Nantong though old as establishment, is the pioneer modern city of China, one man because all this modernity is owed to a man called Zhang Jian who believed that progress comes through industry and education and one river because all important buildings are around the river bank. I can do nothing else than nod, yes.
On the way back and in the bus, I noticed that actually there are also many statues that entail light moving parts. Without any comment; I do try to see their view. Tomorrow, the opening of the exhibition but also seeing other things, like maybe Shen-style embroidery (?); the new fibers that they produce here in the area would also give a shot of inspiration, but now back to the book, finishing the word “Revolution”.