The Grand Canal, also known as the Beijing-Hangzhou Grand Canal (in Chinese 大运河), is the longest canal or artificial river in the world. At a length of 1776 km, it starts at Beijing, passing through Tianjin and the provinces of Hebei, Shandong, Jiangsu and Zhejiang to finally reach the city of Hangzhou, linking the Yellow River and Yangtze River.
The oldest parts of the canal date back to the 5th century, but it was with the Sui Dynasty (581–618 AD) that the various sections were finally combined. The canal’s size and grandeur were praised by different historical sources throughout the world. As a transportation artery and communication bridge in ancient China, the Grand Canal has significantly contributed to the economic construction, social development and cultural prosperity along its banks.
Organised by Xiao Feng and Song Ren‘s Art Museum and curated by Xiao Ge, with the assistance of Archibald Mckenzie, the exhibition “The Grand Canal” presents eleven renowned Chinese artists and one artist collective. The exhibition at the 55th Venice Biennale takes its theme from the Grand Canal, giving life to a fusion of contemporary art, history, tradition and the material world. In exploring the Grand Canal’s cultural and practical significance, the participating artists deal with complimentary dichotomies such as man-made/natural, traditional/contemporary, male/female, and material/spiritual.
Below are some views of the exhibition and artworks on display, with some information about the artists and their work.
Peng Xiaojia, Shanshui Landscape, 2012,wood, resin and gilding installation.
Peng Xiaojia’s work places the Grand Canal’s sources of running water somewhere between the human excavation of the Canal and the natural environment and transforms into a monumental, three-dimensional installation that is a traditional but minimalistic shan shui (mountain and water) landscape. His work points back to the tradition of literati painting with its associated world of transcendent values, but, as Mckenzie states, the theme is treated in a bold and monumental style that owes more to Western Modernism. The individual is placed here in a central position, close and intimate with the sculptural installation, pointing at an exploration of individual existence that integrates emotional response, tangible presence and abstract artistic expression.
Zhang Yanzi, The Flow of Energy, ink and wash silk scroll, 50 x 6000 cm, and Gao Jie, Be Out of Control, 2013, mixed media installation.
Gao Jie’s Out of Control grows out of ancient and new stories of men, ghosts and spirits along both banks of the Grand Canal, highlighting the confrontation between inner existence and external culture.
Zhang Yanzi’s long scroll depicts the banks of the Grand Canal and of the earth and conveys their perennial energy. It references literati painting and questions the dimensions where man and nature collide and coexist, sharing their spiritual energy.
Qiu Zhijie, Canal Transportation, 2013, installation.
This piece of work is from Qiu Zhijie‘s installation series “Qiu’s Note on the Colorful Lanterns Festival – The Jinling Theatre”.
The grooves were detached from stools collected from ordinary families along the canal. The artist planted seeds in the grooves full of soil, and grass grew and eventually withered during the exhibition. The shape of the installation is meant to mimic the Grand Canal’s course. It’s a subtle, yet poignant commentary on the issue of water control in China. Historically, China has always had to struggle with the delicate balance between avoiding floods and droughts. The artist references socio-political, historical and economic issues that centre around water and the relationship between human beings, water and the control exerted by one on the other and vice versa.
Shi Qing, 1794 km Resources: Geography of Jinghang Grand Canal, 2008, photo and video installation.
Shi Qing’s installation presents his journey driving from the beginning of the Grand Canal in Beijing to Hangzhou in 2008, in the formats of performance, video and photography that explore itinerant practices surrounding the Grand Canal and the trade in resources along the Canal. The work is a representative example of Shi Qing’s body of work in that it explores issues of daily life, development, energy, trade and production through performance and photography.
Wang Du, L’amour Aux Temps De Choléra, 2008, bathtub, propeller.
Wang Du’s Love in the Time of Cholera (L’Amour aux temps du choléra) refers directly to the novel of the same name by Gabriel García Márquez. As the curator puts it : “A canal that flows with the history and destiny of the nation is the ebb and flow of the changing times and the humanist spirit. Like the experiences of the hero and heroine of the novel, it points out that the only survival instinct of mankind is fearless romanticism and idealism.”
Wang Du’s interests have centred around futuristic manipulation of the human body, manipulation of consciousness through mass media and three-dimensional deconstruction of everyday images. He takes a more poetic and introverted approach in this work, bringing forth ideas of love, romance and resilience and has an objet trouvé quality using the bathtub and outboard motor.
He Haoyuan, In The Beginning, No1.Six Words of Truth, No2. Mantara for Comfort the Soul, 2013, installation.
He Haoyuan’s In the Beginning series of installations uses the sound of prayer, transforming the resonance of its soundwaves into religious images, in an exploration of the effects produced by the dissemination via the Grand Canal of Buddhism and Daoism on Chinese culture.
He Haoyuan (b. 1964) has selected two sound-wave installations out of a series of five that integrate religious symbols and sound particles by a unique artistic use of sound vibration technology. Professing not to be religious, He Haoyuan nevertheless works with the universal implications of traditional religious symbols and their symmetry, geometrical patterns and forms. As Mckenzie says, “The sound-generated religious symbols also throw our attention back onto their visual and logical structure, and onto the question of how our universal human taste for order and symmetry corresponds to fundamental physical principles and a feeling of heaven-sanctioned ‘rightness’.”
Huang Rui, Women, 2006-2012, steel installation, and Xiao Lu, Toxins, 2013, Chinese medicinal essential eils, toxins, rice paper, chemical analysis of toxins, 82 x 82 cm.
Xiao Lu (b. 1962), whose 1989 installation and performance with gunshots remains iconic within Chinese contemporary art, addresses the correspondences between art, life and environment in Toxins. The context of this work is traditional Daoist tuina massage, which clears the passageways of energy by expelling the toxins accumulated in the human body. The juxtaposition of the toxins expelled from Xiao Lu’s own body with the accumulated silt of the Grand Canal can be seen as a reference to the malfunctioning of the natural and manmade environment of China, but this symbolic image works the other way too: the emphasis remains personal, and Xiao Lu, whose work has been categorised as radically feminist, here seeks a clearing of the circulation of energy in her personal microcosmos, and a restoration of the natural working of individual life.
Huang Rui’s Women is directly derived from the form of the relevant Chinese characters – 女 人. He likens the Grand Canal to a woman, gentle inside but hard also, full of spirit and irreducibly themselves: “women are women”. Huang Rui’s engagement with language in many formats is always subtle, visually attractive and critically subversive.
The two characters are on separate pedestals, and they are not only three-dimensional, but each is “written” twice at intersecting right angles and can thus be read from all directions. Both are richly charged words at all levels of Chinese discourse, and while the work playfully makes the most of that formal symmetry, “it more disturbingly stimulates reflection on the multiple relationships between the semantic connotations of ‘female’ and ‘human’ as used in Chinese society, in the Chinese art world and in the Chinese language,” as Mckenzie points out.
The Irrelevant Commission, Living Together, 2013, video installation.
The Irrelevant Commission (also known as the Irrelevant Group), established in 2011, is a collective of young male artists: Chen Zhiyuan, Gao Fei, Guo Lijun, Jia Hongyu, Li Liangyong, Niu Ke, Wang Guilin, Ye Nan. The name of the group is an ironic reference to the irrelevance of much contemporary art and heir work therefore tends towards intense social engagement. The exhibited work is an embodiment of the Grand Canal, made up of specific materials collected in the cities along both banks of the Grand Canal and woven into a long “canal”. It makes for a sociological and anthropological study and research centred around the canal resource, and functions as a social mapping of the location.
Xu Bing, The Grand Canal, 2013, water, rice paper, video.
Xu Bing uses water from the Jinghang Canal to write ” Grand Canal” on xuan paper in his own iconic “English-Chinese” characters. When the water dries, the traces of the characters gradually fade, leaving behind a wrinkled texture. There is a reference to Chan (Zen) Buddhism’s respect for nature, the silent empty space left for meditation and imagination, and the return to the original source. At the same time, the re-elaboration of the Chinese script into a written language invented by the artist, unintelligible at first, opens up a distance between the individual and the codes of the establishments, critiquing the collective systems of authority.
All Photographs: “The Grand Canal”, collateral event of the 55th International Art Exhibition, La BIennale di Venezia. Location: Museo Diocesano, Castello. Photos: Prof Danilo Ardia.