“Transfiguration” is the title of this year’s Chinese Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale. Commissioned by the China Arts and Entertainment Group (CAEG) and curated by Beijing-based Wang Chunchen, Head of Curatorial Research at the Central Academy of Fine Arts’s CAFA Art Museum in Beijing and Adjunct Curator at the Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum Michigan State University (Broad MSU), the exhibition presents the work of seven Chinese artists, whose artworks include new media, installation, video, sculpture, painting and photography.
The exhibition marks China’s fifth national pavilion presentation at the Venice Biennale, since its first at the 51st edition in 2005. It also overlaps with Wang Chunchen’s first curatorial effort at the Broad MSU titled “Re-China: As a Cultural Concept”, which is opening this October and is the beginning of the museum’s five-year exhibition series on China, “The History of Mind in Contemporary Chinese Art.”
The theme of “Transfiguration”, in Chinese 变位 bianwei, points to the transformation in contemporary art and its conceptualisation, especially directed at the crossover between life and art, the shift from life to art, object to artwork, non-art to art. As the curator states, “Transformation is one of the essential substances of contemporary art.”
In his curatorial text in the exhibition catalogue, Wang Chunchen traces the history of the word “transfiguration.”
First translated into English from the Bible, describing the transformation of Jesus on a mountain, it eventually took on the meaning of change, referencing more generally transformation, metamorphosis, and so on. In the 1980s, the American philosopher and art theorist Arthur Danto used this word in the title of his art theory book, The Transfiguration of the Commonplace (1984). Thereafter, this word from classical art history turned into a contemporary concept, a term that embodies different connotations of the traditional and contemporary. Its root includes “form” and “image”, perfectly fitted to the title of this biennale, “Il Palazzo Enciclopedico / The Encyclopedic Palace,” promoting the spirit of “the dream of the universal, all-embracing image of the human being”.
Besides coinciding with the spirit of “the confluence of the dreams and images of humans”, advocated by the Biennale’s theme “The Encyclopedic Palace”, “transfiguration” also contains geographic, spatial and graphic concepts, such as position, location and diagram position, carrying and symbolising the characteristics of time in its connotation, reflecting the features of the contemporary international community: not only in China, but also in the world’s changes through globalisation. At the same time, “Transfiguration” is intended to offer innovation, initiative and creativity, placing it within the changes due to development, showcasing the cultural and ideological diversities of the contemporary world at an exhibition with other countries across the world. It aims at showing the diversity as well as the divergence and convergence of differing cultures, artistic practices and imagery in times of globalisation and internationalisation of the art world.
In an interview with Beijing Today, the curator says that transfiguration is an element in traditional oriental thought: the Chinese translation bianwei includes the first character 变 which means change, and the second 位 which represents the 64 hexagrams of the I Ching. He goes on to say that “In the realm of art, change cannot occur free of social influence. Since the Biennale emphasises imagery, we have to be aware of what inspires its change.”
Wang strives to render the changes taking place throughout the history of Chinese art. The 64 hexagrams are an artistic analogue to how images can stem from the same origin but result in different outcomes. Moreover, the root of “transfiguration” comes from the word “figure,” which also refers to images, while the prefix “trans-” means to cross or to pass through. “Consequently, I think transfiguration is the most proper theme for the Chinese Pavilion,” Wang says. Transfiguration might be then understood under the light of “crossover” imagery, convergence of different points of view, of diverse origins coming together into one whole.
The pavilion’s focus this year seems to be greatly placed on new media art. In an interview with BLOUIN ArtInfo, the curator clarifies this aspect thus:
Chinese contemporary art needs to continue developing, and the arts scene is still in a growing stage. Development thus far has not been comprehensive, and there are not yet that many new media artists in China. In continuing to pursue the development of new media arts, the diversity of contemporary Chinese arts will be greatly enriched.
He goes on to say that the large number of collateral events and exhibitions on China around Venice this year will contribute greatly to shining a brighter light on Chinese contemporary art and raising the interest, already high, in the country’s art production and development. Having so many other exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art around the city, the pavilion’s focus on new media art doesn’t take away anything from the public in terms of enjoying the diversity of Chinese artistic production.
Asked about the understanding the West has for Chinese art, the curator says:
The function of art, actually, is not to look for these answers, but rather is the process of asking questions and finding meaning within our feelings and intuition. This is the true function of art. With that said, people will not be able to fully understand the art of a country through just one exhibition, or a number of exhibitions. Understanding only comes through time and continued international exchanges.
The seven artists on show include five established ones, He Yunchang, Miao Xiaochun, Shu Yong, Wang Qingsong and Zhang Xiaotao, and two more obscure low-profile characters, Tong Hongsheng, an ascetic Buddhist monk who sees paintings as a pathway to Enlightenment, and Hu Yaolin, a conservator and restorer of historical and ancient buildings. “The selection of artists,” says the curator, “also falls within the theme of transfiguration, as artist identities are shifting.”
Let’s have a look then at what the Chinese pavilion’s artists have brought to Venice this year.
Shu Yong (舒勇), famous for his “bubble” paintings and sculptures, has created an installation in the Virgin Gardens opposite the entrance to the pavilion, comprising 1500 resin bricks arranged to form a wall-like structure, crumbling towards the end. Some bricks are also placed right outside the entrance door. Each transparent brick, cast to match in size and proportions those of the Great Wall of China, contains a Chinese phrase with its corresponding English translation written on xuan paper and embedded into the brick.
Titled Guge Bricks (古歌砖), 古歌 guge meaning “ancient song” and sounding like 谷歌 guge as in the Chinese transliteration of Google, the work references the loss of language and communication through translation, in an era where it’s possible to find – google – everything online: the translations of the phrases have been in fact done through Google Translate, which is infamous for its very inaccurate translations, especially between European or Latin based languages and other languages. Made for literal translation, it doesn’t lend itself to translating shades and layers or nuances in meaning, creating thus funny, ridiculous and sometimes perhaps even offensive translations.
The artist, furthermore, has translated the phrases by translating each individual character or combination of characters (which form a word in Chinese) in a literal way, thus enhancing their literal translation. The 1500 different phrases are idioms, maxims, quotations, mottos, and other popular phrases that the artist collected from fellow Chinese citizens, and are expressions of China’s culture, history, tradition and social change.
The work comes out as a sculptural reflection on the divide between eastern and western values and the “googlisation” of culture in contemporary society. As designboom notes, “they are a testament to a particular moment in time and culture, where newly popular circulated words join traditional quotations before all are subjected to machine translation that jumbles and displaces their significance.”
For the artist, these bricks become a metaphor for the eastern and western culture divide, even in the age of globalisation and real time communication. There is an ever present transparent wall that reminds us that we have to confront the hidden “walls” between different countries, nations, and individuals. At the same time, to the bilingual reader, it will also be a reminder of the cross-cultural influences and the appropriation of terms or figures of speech from one culture to another.
The curator further states that the phrases on Shu Yong’s bricks written in both Chinese and English show living concepts, popular culture and social changes in today’s society, and that the artist’s concern lies with social and cultural ecology: to give more cultural sense to the texts, he has to write them out in hand drafted calligraphy.
“When seeing a culture’s traditions and heritage embodied in objects, the cultural phenomenon becomes a visual presentation; the tile symbolises a basic unit, the social construction. By putting them together, the ideas of cultural China and the cultural world are materialised. The meaning and symbol of this work is simple and clear, it means the barrier between life and art is broken. This is exactly what ‘transfiguration’ means.” (Wang Chunchen)
Hu Yaolin (胡曜麟) has the primary occupation of restoring and rebuilding traditional Chinese houses and buildings. In the process, he also studies those pending demolition. His artistic practice is an extension of his primary occupation and during his work trips and projects, he collects various items and architectural components, at times including entire structures, which later become the material and conceptual basis for his installation work.
The artist reassembles the structures using anachronistic supports and details, as more often that not a lot of the original components have been lost, plundered or broken. In creating his pieces, he might insert glass doors and windows or modern steel into ancient wooden architecture. There is a sense of memory and nostalgia and of the consummation of the past, which is being eaten away by the new and the modern. The works explore themes regarding the transformation of contemporary China, its rapid development and urbanisation.
The installation titled Thing-in-itself (物自体) is composed of the essential architectural structure of a Hui-style pavilion. The Hui architectural style is characteristic of Chinese traditional architecture and includes all of its basic elements, which are scientifically calculated and artistically created. However, this traditional architecture is rapidly disappearing, becoming very scarce and precious. The artist has decided to present the salvaged structure at the biennale in order to show that, despite the rapid development and modernisation across China, its people endeavour to protect their cultural heritage. The installation presents some new structural elements, which are necessary for the structure to be able to stand complete without the danger of collapsing. These new insertions signify the intervention of modernisation, as well as the necessary coexistence of traditional and modern society in the name of cultural preservation.
The curator says about the work:
“We use the elements of Hui-style architecture to establish a new public space. The caisson of Hui-style architecture is very distinctive for it strong visual sense and symbolic meaning. It is similar to the frame of a culture, it will not fall down even after a thousand years. The overall space is analogous to the Pantheon in the history of Italian civilisation in terms of the form. When the viewpoints collect at the ceiling, it is as if we were wishfully looking back through history and the development of human imagination. The structure is like an installation space located in the ancient city of Venice, enlightening people to think profoundly towards contemporary society.”
He Yunchang (何云昌), sometimes known by the familiar name A Chang, is best known for his performance art, but also produces variations on his themes across multiple media. They are what he calls “different parts of one single entity, different forms of documentation and interpretation of the same act.” His past projects have included jewelry making, photography, painting, video and sculpture. Most of his performances have in common daunting, exhausting or futile premises, such as having one of his ribs surgically removed, attempting to cut a river into halves with a knife, wrestling 100 people in a row or walking the perimeter of England with a a rock only to return it to its original place.
Seawater of Venice (威尼斯的海水) is an interactive installation displayed at the Virgin Gardens. The artist has filled 2013 bottles with seawater, numbered and signed them, and then placed them on nine Chinese-style tables. The public will be able to fill their own bottles with seawater provided in a container with the installation and exchange them with one from the installation, after having put a dated tag with their own name on it. During the whole duration of the exhibition, the public will go through this process of “exchange”, which will never stop until the end of the event. It will become a public participation in a continuous exchange, of taking and leaving behind. The water carries the meaning of “public”, of shareable resource. The installation becomes a six-month long public participative performance, during which everyone can share the seawater of Venice. The work stands as a representation of society’s public aspect and of globalisation, aiming to bring a sense of sharing and communication in a global society. It stresses the communication between people in the continuum of social behaviours. The work also embodies what, for the artist, should be the equal and harmonious coexistence in contemporary society.
The work is an extension of He Yunchang’s artistic practice, which leads to a transformation from an individual action into a public social involvement, from a strong individual presence to a public communal expression. For the artist, “art” is a mutual exchange and its essence lies in life’s meaning and implications. This is the hidden moral in the artist’s work.
Wang Qingsong (王庆松) creates elaborate staged photographs overflowing with people and objects in incisive detail. Born at the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, the artist has watched China’s transformation from a traditional society to one struggling with rapid urbanisation and westernisation, and his work is highly critical of consumerism and the influence that capitalism has had not only on economy but culture and society as well.
The artist’s photographs are technically detailed, despite portraying a significant depth, every detail seems to be in perfect focus throughout the image. Displayed in large format, each mounted along the outer wall of a central cubic form, the three photographs on show become a kind of triptych investigating the sites and values of education and culture in contemporary society.
The 2010 work Follow him 跟他学 (130 x 300 cm) in particular serves on its own as a theoretical “encyclopedic palace”, where a lone scholar is undertaking the futile and desperate task of absorbing all of the knowledge that mankind has accumulated throughout history. The set for the image is a sprawling academic’s library full of books of every kind, covering fields of all sorts, from geology, to art history, passing through software engineering and a myriad of other subjects, all surrounded by traditional objects, knick-knacks, Coca-Cola bottles and a mountain of scrap paper all over the floor. The work reflects on the breadth of human consciousness. Even if the solitary academic in the picture were to succeed in reading each of the thousands of books that surround him, he would be privy to only a tiny sliver of the whole of human knowledge, an endeavour which would turn out to be quite unlikely even in a lifetime closed up in a room.
The newest of the works Follow me 跟我学 , is a statement on the contemporary Chinese education system and expresses a visually condensed representation of contemporary society’s education. A large classroom is filled with exhausted students, mountains of books stacked on their desks alongside large bottles of Coca-Cola.
The walls are covered in posters written in both Chinese and English, along with some questions written in large characters – “why are babies born?” or “why do we yawn?” – while others are pivotal statements of contemporary education, to which a question mark is added at the end, questioning its credibility, its truth and the necessity of it: “study well?”, “education is crucial?”, “progress everyday?”.
As in many of his works, the artist himself makes an appearance, here as the only alert student in the room and a very aged, silver haired and fully bearded bespectacled one, fuelled by intravenous liquids to resist the exhaustion.
The 2008 work Temporary ward 临时病房 (130 x 320 cm) was filmed in an experimental theatre in Newcastle, UK, connecting the idea of wellness to society’s cultural and intellectual needs. In the theatre, the artist reflects, visitors find temporary relief for their minds, an idea he represents visually with a ward overcrowded with accident victims and sick patients.
Wang Qingsong’s photographs become a dialogue with society and the public, a view of China’s deeper structural, social and cultural aspects beyond its frame. The artist’s point of view strives to be that of people at the bottom or lower strata of society, of the common people and the majority of the population, and makes an effort to uncover and emphasise the reality of contemporary society with a hyper realistic, humorous approach.
“Take a look at urban people’s life. We dine at McDonald’s, KFC, and Pizza Hut. We drink Cola, Starbucks’s Coffee and Lipton Tea. We live in roman fantasy, Lincoln Park, Vancouver Forest and East Provence. We drive Benz, BMW and Lamborghini. All these western consumer products ‘modernise’ this originally agricultural country. However such life in high fashion is so ridiculous, contradictory and crazy. The Chinese traditions and elite culture fail to have energy and vigour, deserving to be trashed. This is the contemporary China in its massive scale.” (Wang Qingsong’s artist statement)
Tong Hongsheng 童红生 is known for his contemporary religious paintings, stemming from classical Western traditions of religious art and portraiture. His oil paintings typically feature Buddhist monks of all ages dressed in traditional garb, depicted under dramatic lighting against plain dark backgrounds. These paintings are, collectively, a portrait of Buddhism in contemporary China, as well as an expression of Tong’s personal approach to spirituality. His work present carefully staged visual aesthetics, luscious oil paints with rich gold and yellow colours, dramatic lighting and hyper realist portraiture.
Tong Hongsheng likes to express inner feelings and beliefs by painting daily objects and his Still Life 器物系列 series depicts commonly known objects from Buddhist belief, which carry a deep traditional symbolism for Chinese people. There is a feeling of sacredness and timeless presence, of lingering of tradition in contemporary society and the inevitable influence of history and its meanings on modern culture. It is a presence that cannot be erased, that should be cherished, remembered and protected.
Miao Xiaochun 缪晓春 works with digital media and is committed to recreating our collective visual knowledge, overlapping depictions of familiar sacred images from western art history, such as Noah’s Ark, the Last Judgement, the Pieta, and so on. The artist skillfully uses intercultural elements and references to develop his transfigured art world, dealing with our conception of religious works in the context of contemporary existence.
The most monumental and intriguing work on show is Disillusion 灰飞烟灭, a video projected on the wall of the pavilion in super large format, which in transparency blends with the bricks of the architectural structure, almost becoming a presence ingrained in it. The projection reproduces sacred imagery as reinterpreted by the artist, from Noah’s ark to the Pieta.
The Last Judgement in Cyberspace 虚拟最后的审判 is the artist’s interpretation of Italian Renaissance artist Michelangelo’s famous fresco The Last Judgement (1536-1541), painted on the ceiling of the Sistine Chapel in Rome. The artist reproduced in detail the expressive imagery of the original sacred work, but in simple grayscale digital format and devoid of any expressive personality. The figures stand out as monotone puppets, rubber men in a monochrome landscape. It is a commentary on how things are portrayed in mainstream media, which has caused us to become desensitised to our surroundings.
The artist’s works enter into a dialogue of dichotomies between East and West, contemporary and ancient, tradition and modernity. It comments and questions how contemporary society and culture look at the past and its legacy, history and tradition and at how, conditioned by modernisation and globalisation, it reinterprets it, re-adapts it and represents it. His complex works, rendered through the use of vector lines and computer algorithms, express ecological concerns for what we eat and for the robotisation of the human race.
The Sakya project is a “virtual art project” that went through several key stages:
“1, in 2007 I went to Tibet for a month to investigate the Sakya Monastery, and I shot a large amount of footage; 2, in 2008 I started developing the concept for Sakya, collecting materials, writing the script and systematically reading up on Tibetology, Archaeology and Buddhism; 3, in 2010 I brought a team to Tibet to film the Sakya documentary and brought a team together to begin production of the Sakya animated film. I completed the Sakya documentary and animated film between 2010 and August 2011.” (interview)
In any of his art projects, whether they are concerned with recovering the past or with the recording of specific events, there is a strong connection between his spiritual devotion and his artistic vision. He looks for understanding of the phenomena that concern life, believing that the reconstruction of morals and faith-based values is an important remedy for society and its malaise. From this point of view, his works are not just a mere interpretation of religious and social issues, but also a visual reflection of perplexities that we face in this era and directly concern the artist’s role. As he says,
“Art created under the power of great belief and spirit is timeless. Artists should have a place in their hearts for religion. Art is the artist’s personal religion, and the job of the artist is to follow the path of transcendence.”
Religious Buddhist symbols and imagery appear in the video, as a sign of the artist’s constant spiritual search and nostalgia for traditional values. He says that using religion doesn’t mean that he is suggesting it will save or free mankind from suffering. It is a means through which he wants to express his feelings of powerlessness and pain at the sight of loss of traditional civilisation and culture in contemporary society, and even more in the face of disdain for what is old in favour of what is new and modern.
“When it comes to the fracture and destruction of traditional cultural roots, the traditional civilisations we see now are in their final throes… Materialism has virtually destroyed the values of traditional civilisation!”
The Adventures of Liang Liang 量量历险记 (2013) is a 2D animation, about a young boy fleeing from his cartoonishly scary school teacher and running around through a fantastical, dreamy world full of childhood imagery, legendary and cartoon characters, video games and historical scenes.
The video animation was created according to Liang Liang’s description of the children’s world. Liang Liang, the artist’s son, is eight years old and loves drawing. Drawing allows him to record his daily life, his dreams, his nightmares and his imagination. As an artist himself, Zhang Xiaotao is very surprised by his son’s creativity and he says that “Every child is a master”.
The video contains imagery from a child’s perspective of the world and the stories, cartoons, legends and memories that form in a child’s mind. At the same time, the artist adds his own childhood memories of what he learned, saw and lived when he was younger. Mixed with China’s history and events, the video turns out to be a journey through the past, present and future, at times a wonderful dream, at others a horrifying nightmare.
From everyday city life, carousels from amusement parks, children’s play in the streets to city traffic, a variety of scenes populate the screen and give the backdrop in which the character Liang Liang, in the form of a Snoopy-like dog, lives. The scenes change from populated streets, empty roads to a traditioal shanshui landscape where the character meets with the mythical figures in the story Journey to the West. The journey goes on, changing more scenes, populated by more monsters and strange creatures, some beating each other or eating one another, dressed in futuristic garb or typical western sports attire.
Finally, pages start turning, as if the whole video was a book of stories, until shadows of hands flip the pages faster and faster. The last scenes see the presence of a big ghostly and funny looking white creature eating and munching on everything he can find, perhaps a child’s biggest nightmare, the monster under the bed or in the closet that will swallow up all that exists in the world. The video is a very enjoyable humorous mixture of children’s stories and imagery. At a deeper level, the artist is also commenting on contemporary society, the loss of traditional culture, the rapid changes that modernisation and globalisation bring about and the mindless action taken by today’s generations lacking the wiser thinking provided by historical knowledge and cultural understanding.
All Photographs: “Transfigurations”, People’s Republic of China Pavilion, 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Location: Virgin Gardens and Armories at Arsenale. Photos: C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia.