“Mind Beating“ 心跳 (xin tiao) is yet another collateral event of this year’s 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia, which exhibits Chinese contemporary art. Indeed, as Art in America pointed out long ago, it seems as this year’s event has been a “Chinese biennale.” Organised by the Nanjing Sanchuan Modern Art Museum, the exhibition is curated by Zhang Wei 张玮 and Yu Gao 喻高, who are both artists and independent curators. On show are works by fourteen Chinese contemporary artists, who use technology, illusion and divination to create works spanning from video, installation, performance, site specific works, photography, live happenings, live painting and sculpture, to strange supernatural predictions.
The title derives from the Chinese ancient concept that the heart 心 (xin) resides in the mind. 心 in fact is used to refer to both heart and mind, making them one and the same entity, and embodying both the biological functions of the heart and the psychological workings of the mind. As the curators put it, in a biological sense, the heart as an organ is crucial for sustaining human life, as it makes the circulation of blood possible. “Its rhythms are the key marker for the life of an organism.”
They go on to say that the openness to the external environment is a fundamental trait of living organisms and the heart makes it possible to draw outside materials and energy into the body, thus keeping it in a healthy and stable state. On the other hand, the mind, also 心, in a psychological sense amounts to thoughts and awareness, and is one and the same with the brain. “It is a massive driver of information, reception and classification.” Most religions, for which faith and belief are the cornerstone of every worldview, believe that the mind is the centre of all things, say the curators.
In the curatorial statement, the aim of the exhibition is thus explained:
“The aim of Mind Beating is to treat the mind as the vessel, to explore this organ of information reception, and to expand its rhythms and motions into a system of thought and an exploration of the relationships between visual creations and the multi-dimensional real world.”
The artists invited to participate in the exhibition can be divided into two groups: ten artists explore China’s social reality, dissecting and analysing the various issues and contradictions that have emerged out of China’s rapid social transformation, using unique language to explore the “unique landscapes” of contemporary China; six artists create more site-specific work, drawing from the cultural context and environment of Venice, as well as their individual experiences, resulting in works that connect with the environment that surrounds them. The curators make a point to emphasise that the terms “globalisation” and “cross-cultural” are overused, but until other substitutes can be found, these are the perspectives used to analyse and approach the works on show.
The curators are in fact full time artists turned curators for this event. The artists on show all reveal another side of their practice that veers away from their primary medium (or even occupation). This, say the curators, is a necessary transformation and fusion in their practices that responds to the changing times of contemporary culture. Here below are some highlights of the exhibition.
Li Tianbing 李天兵 has created a site-specific installation titled Clothes Line, with about 300 pieces of random clothing in variable sizes. The artist comments on the state of China’s contemporary society and the transformations that it has undergone with its rapid modernisation. In China, he says, hanging clothes out to dray has become a marker of the impoverished classes, the lower strata of society, as the washer and dryer have largely spread. Likewise, as if mirroring western society, in big western cities such as Paris, the same is happening and perhaps only the immigrants are still hanging their clothes outside.
The clothes in the installation were collected from migrant workers all over urban China, immigrants households in the Parisian suburbs and even in some households in Venice (although I might have to add that in Italy it is a very common practice of all strata of society to hang clothes out to dry, the dryer is not a very popular household appliance). According to the artist, these are the victims of industrialisation, globalisation and finance. As he puts it, “they are slaves in disguise.” The artist stresses the fact that these people cannot see contemporary art, and seem to live in a completely different world. For him, the exhibition space is perfect for hanging clothes with its large space and natural lighting, and putting the clothes line up above in the exhibition space, just close to the ceiling, is like saying “The workers are above all.”
Zhao Shuhong 赵淑红 has presented the installation 520KM/H, a reproduction of he fastest bullet train in China. The artist comments on the rapid transformation and accelerated growth that China has undergone in the past decade and its social implications. The latest achievement after only a decade of effort, is the world’s largest high speed rail network, with the fastest average operating speed. 520KM/H references a general universal mindset in Chinese contemporary society, that promotes competitiveness at its highest level to surpass others and oneself.
There is also the metaphor that mirrors the history of China’s Ministry of Railways, often called “the country within a country” and “boss rail”, with the history of China’s political and economic development over the past half century. It ends up being the carrier of the memories and histories of so many Chinese people, says the artist. The Ministry was disbanded this year and it came as a shock nationwide.
For the artist, there is no stopping the high speed race towards the future:
“questions of speed, safety, GDP, government accountability, technology export or the world economy cannot stop our high speed pursuit of ‘the Chinese dream’.”
Zhu Xiaodi 朱小地‘s site-specific installation in the courtyard titled Block Writing is presented as heap of Chinese characters fashioned out of polyethylene foam materials. His work references the fusion of different regional cultures, as an inevitable trend brought on by this phase of rapid globalisation and digitisation. For him, the influence of stronger cultures on weaker cultures, and even their absorption of he latter, is readily apparent: “This is the result of modern development and a tragedy of human civilisation.” In an age where computers and the internet have become ubiquitous, the classical method of handwriting is gradually diminishing to the point of imminent disappearance.
The artist attaches great meaning to writing, as a carrier of rich cultural meaning and individual sentiments, a marker of one’s long term cultural training seeped in tradition and history. Under these circumstances, the memories that can still be retained in our minds are “fragments of a dismembered culture”, unclear, imprecise and illegible. The installation portrays just that: the characters jumbled in a heap and fused together, standing as an expression of chaos and disorder.
“Memories seem to stroll around unrecognisable and unimportant ruins. In this artwork, I strive for an instantaneous representation of the cultural environment of contemporary China through the reconstituted forms of Chinese characters.”
Shiau Jon-Jen 萧长正‘s sculptural and video installation Capturing the Wind is a work about memory and nostalgia, in an age of rapid development and socio-cultural transformation. The artist starts from the memory of Shanghai in the 1930s, when it was hailed as “The Paris of the East.” Years of interaction between East and West there resulted in a variety of beautiful architecture, in wide ranging architectural styles, but most important was the influence that these cultural exchanges had on the everyday life of the local Shanghainese populace. Home furnishings and appliances from that era are the most immediate, personal testament and a direct embodiment of those times.
The inspiration for the work comes from the Huasheng brand of western-style electric fans popular at the time in Shanghai. The artist explains the work, with nostalgia:
“The old fan blades turn, like pages of the history books, slowly turn, and it seems like time begins to flow backwards, taking people back to the glimmering nights of old Shanghai.”
Wang Guofeng 王国锋 created the installation Voices from North Korea, an agglomerate of suitcases of various sizes and colours, placed just opposite the entrance to the high speed train, as if waiting on the platform to be loaded and depart. In his artist’s statement, he defines his work thus:
“The control exerted on the human spirit by politics and power can lead people to lose their conscious awareness, leading them to grow accustomed to living with illusions.”
The luggage seems to be waiting for the departure to a better future, probably filled with the best clothes, ideas, hopes and sentiments, sitting there abandoned, destined to never really go anywhere, just filled with dreams and illusions.
Liu Xiaodong 刘小东’s film Blinking was created from ten video segments from a documentary about his painting excursions over recent years. The artist is famous for meticulously documenting his creative working process: sketchbooks, journals and video footage of his travels, location scouting and interviews compile a large archive of material that records and simultaneously inspires each making of a work.
The snapshots that compose the film – the “blinks” – are like clues, in which the connoisseur of that artist’s work would be able to recognise scenery or even exact scenes that became background or subjects of some of his paintings. In some of the clips, the artist appears himself, like in the end, where he is sitting with an old man.
The video is a window onto the artist’s practice and his artistic life, as well as “a blink into the artist’s soul.” Liu Xiaodong expresses his concept about “blink” thus,
“In the blink of an eye, everything can change. Sometimes we blink to confront something anew, sometimes to avoid something, sometimes to implant it into our hearts. Blinking can also rearrange things in our field of vision, that that is merely a subjective fabrication.”
You can view Liu Xiaodong’s video on s[edition]
Click here to view the exhibition’s video on YouTube or view it here below.
All Photographs: “Mind Beating”, collateral event of the 55th International Art Exhibition, La Biennale di Venezia. Location: Spazio Thetis, Arsenale Novissimo. Photos: Prof Danilo Ardia.