SUNRISE OF THE ASIAN BIENNALES
It is more than natural to start any article on any international event in China with a quotation from Confucius: this piece on The First International Beijing Biennale is no exception. The famous Chinese philosopher and poet managed to formulate in his peculiarly Asian-Chinese paradoxical way the contradictory nature of some natural phenomena. He said: "Sometimes there are sprouts, but they do not blossom; sometimes they blossom, but bring no fruit". It hints at what fruit The First International Beijing Biennale might bring.
CHEN VENTSIN. Red Memory. 2003. Plastic
The First International Beijing Biennale opened on 19 September 2003 as another argument for the right to claim the Olympic games in 2008. The People's Republic of China - one of the world's four global powers - has really undisputable achievements in the spheres of social and cultural life.
And it was a gesture of a similarly bold character to launch such an international project to compete in the same field with such world-famous international cultural events as the Biennale di Venezia, FIAC, "Dokumenta", Chicago and Basel International Art Fairs. Will the International Beijing Biennale compete with them? It might, at least.
It was the first time that such a large-scale cultural initiative, to become in the future another forum of world contemporary art, was attempted on the Asian continent. It seems the decision to organize it was somewhat spontaneous, as the variety of the represented artists said nothing about the level of the visual and visualizing art represented.
In order to make this event really meaningful and representative some world-famous artists were invited to participate. Among them were France's Arman, America's Robert Rauschenberg, Spain's Antoni Tapies, Germany's Georg Bazelitz, and some other no less renowned artists selected by the Italian Vincenzo Sanfo. These names were to act as a kind of a magnet, attracting artists from 49 countries with more than 400 works of art: paintings, graphics, sculpture, and multimedia projects. Asia and Europe, Africa and Australia, North and South America participated.
The motto of the Beijing Biennale on the cover of its catalogue read: "Originality: Contemporary and Local", which according to the organizers corresponds to the Confucian interpretation of aesthetics - "at the same time absolutely beautiful and absolutely innocent". I have to confess, however, that I had no illusions or expectations of seeing anything absolutely beautiful and innocent.
The day of the official opening resembled the best traditions of Soviet times - high-flown speeches on a background of red placards, white collars, and dark buttoned suits. The ceremony took place on one of Beijing's central streets, Wangfujing or the Street of the Well, not far from Tiananmen Square.
The host country could not miss the opportunity to use this famous street as a podium to organize a sculpture show - an exhibition of contemporary Chinese artists. The five red-cloth covered busts were a real intrigue, which was revealed when the cloth was removed, and all those gathered gazed at five images in which one could hardly recognize the most recognized Olympic Games officials, two of them being Pierre Coubertin and Juan-Antonio Samaranch. It became more than obvious that the Chinese colleagues wanted to attract the attention of the Olympic Committee and make The First International Beijing Biennale an integral part of the cultural programme in the profound process of preparation for the Olympic Games of 2008.
The whole sculpture show on both sides of the Street of the Well recalled the official art of the Stalin-Gorbachev art. But when reminiscences of such a past evaporated one managed to see that alongside social-realistic and pop-art kitsch there were some really original, distinctive and surprising works - vivid evidence of the evolution of Chinese contemporary art during the previous ten to fifteen years. This was an encouraging fact in itself.
There were real discoveries. One of them, a multi-image composition of Chen Ventsin was significantly titled "Red Memory". The whole composition recalled the bathing boys of Kuzma Petrov-Vodkin, and at the same time the celluloid toys of the 1950s. This plastic composition was somehow connected with the silicone sculptures of Australia's Patricia Piccinini - one of the hits of the 50th Venice Biennale.
I would call it a kind of a symbiosis - a common enough phenomenon in contemporary art and culture; it might reveal certain tendencies of the crisis of traditional forms and means of visual arts, and at the same time mark those of a search for a visual meta-language adequate to today's notions of spiritual and aesthetic value.
To return to Chen Ventsin, I should stress his works' lack of any specific national character, replaced instead by some noticeable connection with scientific achievements, genetic engineering and advanced technology. It was my strongest first day impression of the Biennale.
The international part of the Beijing Biennale occupied the Fine Arts Museum in the monumental Chinese Millennium complex and opened on 20 September, again with official speeches. The participation of Communist Party officials, state leaders and representatives of official artistic and cultural institutions was meant to stress the significance accorded to the event by the government.
In all honesty, I was disappointed by the mixture of really first-class and almost amateur works of art. The question arose of what were the criteria for selection and who was responsible, one applicable not only to this artistic event.
Could such an event give an objective view or review of the contemporary situation in the world art movement? What fruits will the process of integration and globalization give to the various national artistic and cultural traditions? These questions are not meant for our Chinese colleagues - the First International Beijing Biennale was their first such experience, and they could not have taken into consideration all the ethical, economic, aesthetical and, last but not least, political matters pressuring contemporary world culture.
And there are no unequivocal answers to such questions. As for my personal impressions, some of the national sections were not convincing at all. Was it because the Organizing Committee accepted every artist, every country that wished to participate at the Beijing Biennale? I do not think so.
What is important is the level of competence and responsibility of the curators. There were some world-renowned artists who played the role of landmarks in the Biennale, namely Arman with his "Discus Thrower", Costas Varoos with his "The Horizon", Anthoni Tapies with his "Grey and Pink Background", Robert Rauschenberg with his "Page 12, Paragraph 7" and, of course, Tsi Bai Shi with his classical works representing Chinese classical art.
In my opinion the whole of the Biennale did not correlate to the level of "Classics of the Present", to say nothing of those of the Past. Even the works of the artists selected by Vincenzo Sanfo were made some ten to fifteen years ago and were not the highest achievements of the same Adolf Penk or Georg Baselitz, or of the Columbian artist Ana Maesedas Hoyos and the Italian Omer Galliani.
The same might be said about the participants from the ex-Soviet Union (Armenia, Latvia, Belarus) - and only the Lithuanian exhibition was a pleasant exception which proved the rule. Norway, although represented by the internationally recognized artist Grete Marstein, did not produce any positive effect: I believe that contemporary Scandinavian art could have been represented by other happier examples. Iceland, too, with Pietur Steffansson's popart eclectic work was a complete disappointment.
The Biennale works of Swedish artists were not marked by any particular originality, but were really highly professional, and the same might be said about the participating Danish artists, namely Erik Frandsen, Bjoern Noergard, Torben Heron and Lars Norgard.
The Australian part seemed impressive, but mainly from the point of view of its exterior decorative design. As for the German, Austrian and Italian sections, they were as dull as those of Hungary and Poland. One cannot find any reasonable explanation for such an uneven level of the whole art of the Biennale; even the leaders of contemporary Western art were poorly represented.
The three artists who represented Russia were Tair Salakhov, Vyacheslav Mikhailov and Yuri Kalyuta - again, such a choice seems to have no reason behind it at all.
However, the very modest - both from the point of view of the number of the participating artists, and the quantity of the works exhibited - Russian section did not fail to attract the attention of the public due to the highly professional emotional and philosophic message of Tair Salakhov's paintings.
Yuri Kalyuta exhibited three works, rather different in the manner of visual-plastic decision paintings, and together with those of Vyacheslav Mikhailov they might be perceived as typical representatives of the contemporary Petersburg school of art - at least there was nothing else with which they could be compared.
The same was characteristic of other national sections: too few works of art to reach any conclusion on the trends, movements, peculiarities and tendencies of the development of contemporary national/local art - even though quantity never automatically means quality, particularly in art. A real work of art is unique, and there is no place for summing up - one should not judge or be persuaded by the number of works.
Thus it was impossible to conceive what the situation in contemporary British art is from works by only two British "heirs" of the heritage of Joshua Reynolds and J.M.W. Turner - the sculptor Michael Lyons and the painter Yvonne Hindl, whose works, although attracting public attention, provided no sense of discovery.
Those viewers who were acquainted with the works of David Alfaro Siqueiros and Rufino Tamayo could see no vivid connection with the national Mexican roots in the painted iron constructions of Sebastian Enrique Carbajal or the surrealistic painting "The Angels of Conscience" by Rafael Cauduro.
No national Islamic identity marked the paintings of Tunisian artist Gjuder Triki, whose works echoed the exalted fantasies of the great Marc Chagall. The same referred to the Turkish artists Selim Birsel and Murat Sahinler, and to the Pakistani sculptor Amin Gulgee, though the latter did use some national motifs.
Very often a certain peripheral understanding of the innovatory limited the national in a scarce introduction of ethnographical elements. As always there were exceptions - the large lacquer panels by the two Vietnamese artists, "Remnants of Time" of Trinh Quoc Chien and "The Light of the Spirit" of Mai Dac Linh.
Nevertheless it would be wrong to state that there were no examples to prove the uniqueness of national and local cultures. There were two - both classical - one from Chinese art culture, Tsi Baishi, the other from Japanese, Tatsuo Takayama.
One could not fail to notice some geopolitical accent at the Beijing Biennale - there was a grand national exhibition of Chinese contemporary art (which is only understandable, reasonable and justified) as well as Korean modern work, supplemented by solo retrospectives of Tsi Baishi and Tatsuo Takayama.
In order to correct the vivid imbalance in favour of overwhelmingly Asian participants, it was decided to show as a part of the international exhibition a number of works of art from the French Autumn Salon, thus celebrating the centenary of the Parisian salons. It was really a valuable addition to the selection made by Vincenzo Sanfo, and it embraced Spanish, Italian, French, German, Polish, Greek, Argentine, Columbian and American artists.
Quite naturally a certain estrangement of Chinese art from the influence of Western culture was overcome.
It might seem that such an exhibition concept should correspond to its formulated aims, but practically speaking it did not manage to reach them. Many world-famous masters either ignored the Beijing Biennale perhaps due to some seemingly more important matters, or because of some snobbish ambitions and even prejudice; the choice of Vincenzo Sanfo as the international curator might also be disputable. Lastly, but with China not least, there might have been financial reasons.
The First Beijing Biennale - really a starting point for Asian Biennales and the first experience of that kind - came across the same problems as other longstanding international art forums like the Biennale di Venezia, FIAC, Dokumenta and others. The reality is that the majority of world- famous artists do not belong to any artistic unions, they deal with certain galleries and art-dealers, and given that they are recognized and successful do not need any promotion. Sometimes the situation is rather similar with younger artists who do not yet belong to any unions either, and although interested in promotion find themselves on one side of the major international events. Nevertheless this situation is rather comfortable for the whole army of conductors in the art-market. If I was disappointed with the international part of the Biennale, the Chinese part really encouraged me - contemporary Chinese art seems to be in a constant process of search for a new artistic language to correspond with the epoch of globalization, as well as trying to overcome the dictatorship of technocratic economic and political interests. The Chinese presented a wide range of art works - from traditional classical to social realism, and conceptual variants in the framework of known tendencies of Western post-modernism and the trans-avant-garde - a direct result of globalization.
Among the most brilliant examples were Zhang Lichen in his China ink and water-colour piece "The Charmed Lotus", depicting a poetic landscape skillfully using the transparency of the colours, texture of the paper and laconic artistic devices. I was impressed by the fine and delicate oil panels in Go Hua style made by Hu Yagiang (the series "The Garden of One Hundred Grass. 5 Autumn Songs"). Xu Lele followed and developed the rich traditions of Chinese genre painting. His water-colours are full of a kind irony, numerous historical details, and a tenderness in depicting subjects. These works attract the attention of the viewer with their really pure colour intonations, the musical rhythm of composition and creative attitude to national heritage.
GU WENMING. Heavenly Lake. 2002
Oil on canvas
Some prominent Chinese artists (Wang Hongian, Tao Shihu, Zhen Yi) demonstrated their achievements in the traditions of social realism. Five imposing portraits, united into one composition "Brothers and Sisters", painted by Zhang Chenchu vividly connected with American hyper-realism, though with no traces of any direct mechanical application of its algorithms. A water-colour "Memorial Years" by Liao Jianhua was in the same hyper-realistic style. Shen Ling's painting reminded the viewer that the traditions of fauvism and expressionism are still alive. The subject of Ling's canvas might have been painted under the influence of the cruel realism of Britain's Francis Bacon. However, the abstract paintings of Li Lei ("Birth") and Qi Haping ("Black Theme # 25") were far from original.
The most striking - for its social context and technically skillful implementation - was Lend Jun's painting which visualized an upside-down mattress frame with a dirty, ripped-out cloth, used syringes and other medical instruments. The frame is easily taken for prison bars, aggravating its gloomy atmosphere to an extreme. Full of real dramatic tension this painting is a warning against temptations and illusions, and appeals to reason, mind and sympathy simultaneously. The other work which attracted attention was - a very rare case in artistic practice - a collective creation made under the supervision and guidance of Guo Zhenyu. It presents a giant sculpture relief composition with a very significant name, "Chinese Roots". No less impressive were the sculptural portraiture of "The Spirit of the Great Wall" by Shi Cun, and a curious installation of Ren Guanghui entitled "The Time of Chinese Ink Watering". It is also worth mentioning a copper and steel object- bust "composed" by Wang Zhong and entitled "Relics of Contemporary Culture" with its peculiar mixture of Asian and European symbolism.
I should say that this combination, mixture and conjunction of the East and the West - with an equal mixture of achievements and fiascos - seemed to characterize the Chinese exhibition. Thus the kinetic mobile-like objects of Fu Zhongwang - though different in size and content - might be read as a paraphrase of the work "Cell" by the Finnish Artist Jaakko Nimela. An interesting composition of granite rings "New Ideas" by Li Ri Huang matched a wooden sculpture, "Structures", by the Lithuanian Vaciovas Krutinis. Some of the Chinese artists could not "escape" the influential impact of George Segal either.
Also distinctive were "The Oracle" by Canada's James Mac - an original sculpture made of cardboard, ropes, nails and some other hand-made materials; and the small pieces by the Iranian Fatemach Emdadian (a prize-winner at the Biennale).
There is more to be added to the review of the Chinese part: I should say that Chinese artists very often apply hyperbola as a form of self-expression, which is only natural for their Eastern philosophy. In the lines of an ancient Japanese poem, the minimal tells about the maximal: "The quiet light of the Moon,/A drop of rain on the motionless branch of the tree..." Every smallest detail is a source of inspiration, and that is one of the distinct peculiarities of the Culture of the East, one which I managed to see and appreciate in the works of the Chinese artists.
As the process of globalization is wiping out the national and the original it is very difficult to judge exactly what is what in the contemporary art movement. Jonathan Swift in a letter addressed to the French translator of "Gulliver's Travels" wrote that different peoples had different tastes which did not always coincide. But good taste - he went on - is good taste everywhere. Genius as he is, Swift managed to give a definite answer to the general question bothering all those professionally interested in the trends of development of contemporary art.
To conclude: once again with Arman and his brilliant example of good taste in art, his sculpture "Discus Thrower" which received the First Prize of the Biennale. Arman's avant-garde remake turned out to become an absolutely original perfect work of art, artistically managing to make really contemporary transformations in the ancient Greek classical sculpture of Myron.
The "Discus Thrower" of the virtuoso French master of the grotesque and paradox is and will remain a special symbol of the unseen spiral which determines the development of art, combining in itself artistic quality, perfect taste and stylistic decision.
The general conclusion on everything seen at the First Beijing Biennale is that, although purely technical devices and multimedia means of artistic self-expression are gaining more and more power, traditional methods of visual art are still strong and able to compete with innovation - not only in the present but also in the still obscure, virtual and cloned culture of the future.
Oil on canvas
Oil on canvas
Wirenetting, electric motor, halogen light.
Fiberglass, rope nails car lacquer
Cooper, waste wood (sculpture)
Stuffed hare, mirror, candle
Oil on canvas
Oil on canvas
Oil on canvas
Enamel on aluminum, photo
Oil on canvas
Oil on canvas
Fibre, branch, wood, plastic
Ink and wash, color on paper
Oil on canva
Water color on paper
Stainless steel, cooper, steel wire