How to Curate a National Pavilion in a Globalized World
Artist Qiu Zhijie curated the Chinese Pavilion for the 57th Venice Biennale. Titled “Continuum – Generation by Generation,” the pavilion features the work of artists Wu Jian’an, Wang Tianwen, Tang Nannan, and Yao Huifen. In this op-ed, Qiu argues that nationalist readings of the pavilion misinterpreted its intent.
The Chinese Pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale has received heated comments from both professional and amateur viewers since its opening. Some commentaries, I believe, regard the works of art in the Chinese Pavilion with bias. Others completely fail to appreciate the art or to thoroughly understand it. Instead, they crudely describe the Chinese Pavilion exhibition as a manifestation of the will of top officials and the state, and furthermore relate the abundance of artistic energy in the pavilion to the increasingly active diplomatic reputation of China on the international stage.
In curating the Chinese pavilion my hope was that these works would viewed and discussed without misgivings about China’s enormous and growing economy and with minimal parochial nationalism and populism, facets of political and popular life which are currently on the rise in Europe and the U.S. Nonetheless, there has been an intentional or unintentional tendency for national pavilions at the Venice Biennale to be interpreted with a renewed Cold War mindset.
The Venice Biennale was initiated in 1895, around the same time as several other international cultural platforms. The the first Exposition Universelle de Paris had taken place in 1855, the World’s Columbian Exposition in 1893. And the first modern Olympic Games was held in 1896. During that time, the concept of a “nation state” was prevalent. With a number of European states including Germany and Italy having undergone political unification to varying degrees, it was suddenly reasonable for people to accept nations as participatory unit of exhibitions and sporting events.
These new forms of exhibition, particularly world expos and the Olympics, served in various ways to demonstrate the economic and political power of the nations that participated in them. The games are, to a certain extent, a substitute for war. World’s fairs, on the other hand, draw attention to a nation’s distinguishing characteristics: A nation powerful in terms of science and technology demonstrates its scientific and technological advancements, while a relatively weaker nation demonstrates how happily its people live even without advanced technology.
The purpose of an art biennale, in my view, is completely different from that of the Olympics or world expos, however. Exhibitions like the Venice Biennale offer nations, along with their intellectuals and artists, the chance to face and resolve their own difficulties and embarrassments, and the risks that stand before them. In doing so, the people of the participating nations can foster mutual understanding and inspiration. The Venice Biennale is a place where people don’t exclaim, “Oh, your country seems very interesting!” but respond with, “Wow, your method is effective and I’d like to implement it somehow.” The Venice Biennale is not the place to showcase how powerful or interesting a country is, but instead its capacity to be self-aware and to problem-solve.
In recent years, visitors to the Venice Biennale have come to realize that the exhibition’s framework based on nation states is problematic. With the advent of globalization, it has become common for a person with a Chinese passport to reside in New York for 30 years. It is difficult to put such a person’s works in either the Chinese or U.S. Pavilion. Therefore, each national pavilion at the Venice Biennale should not aim to display a complete and authoritative national image. Countries should be expounded from the angle of individuals, since there is no single official, classical, or formal explanation of a nation’s image. Pavilions in Venice should also not be pressured to present the country comprehensively, but instead to renew our understanding of the country, its culture, and its traditions through a more personal lens, that of an artist or curator situated at a given moment.
The long-held existence of a national image inevitably leads to stereotypes: the romanticism of the French, the precision of the Germans, and so on. However, these stereotypes also need to be overthrown. “Faust,” the exhibition by Anne Imhof at the German Pavilion this year, incorporates elements of German stereotypes, but was described to me as confrontational, dreamy, and experimental. I believe part of the reason it was so well received was because it overturned the stereotypical impassivity of Germany.
For China’s pavilion this year, we introduced the theme of “Continuum – Generation by Generation,” and emphasized the three concepts of “Succession of Teachings,” “Collaboration,” and “Folk.” Neither the artists nor I think that these are characteristics unique to the Chinese. We believe this kind of energy exists in art around the world but that people too immersed in the romantic myth of solitary, individual creation are blind to it.
The pavilion prioritizes succession and participation; none of the artists worked in solitude, and all of them had teachers. As long as they are creating, the spirit of their teachers continues to live on. The artists all collaborated with each other: Each of their works reflects the creativity of their collaborator. The annihilation of the myth of individual artistic creation is a genuine form of modesty—the artists are not described as an epoch-making and God-like figure, but a humble carrier of the energy of collaboration and succession.
Similarly, the art of a nation is also described as the response to the art of other nations, combining and absorbing various traditions and not emphasizing a kind of unique and complacent national tradition. When we observed farmer artisans from Western China and Chinese students that studied in Venice immerse in the sound and light of shadow play together in the pavilion with an international audience, each person present could feel the power of the shared experience.
Unfortunately, in a tourist-heavy city such as Venice, there are still many spectators from the art world with a tourist mentality, similar to actual tourists packed on Hertford Bridge taking selfies—they only take photos of themselves, no matter where they travel to. When they hold a conch shell to their ear, they think they can hear the sound of the ocean, but what they really hear is the sound of their own heartbeat.
China was never a country with a nationalist mentality; it has always been a collective body consisting of diverse elements. The Chinese characters for China, “Zhong Guo,” means “the Central Kingdom,” but it does not have the structure of Mount Sumeru, whose highest peak is in the middle. My friend, philosopher Zhao Tingyang, views China as a whirlpool, constantly absorbing its surrounding elements. In the course of Chinese history, China has always been a relentless and inclusive learner, and it’s exactly because of this that China has acquired her complexity.
It is difficult for people who regard the national pavilions at the Venice Biennale as too immersed in the idea of nationalism to understand that art is a kind of energy that should be shared by all people. It is time for us to forgo this kind of narrow-minded nationalist and statist mentality, to take off the tinted glasses and observe the vivid imagination contributed by artists from all over the world. The Venice Biennale should be a place for mutual learning, not a place for being on guard against one another.