One of several water towns in eastern China to be dubbed the “Venice of the East,” Wuzhen lacks its European namesake’s international standing when it comes contemporary art—and that of its nearby Shanghai, too. However, the Wuzhen International Contemporary Art Exhibition, featuring a who’s who of artists, curators, and advisers, is set to put the picturesque town firmly on the map. Titled “Utopias/Heterotopias,” the debut edition of the multi-site exhibition is the latest in a string of initiatives expanding Wuzhen’s reputation from a locale for selfie-stick-wielding throngs to soak up its undeniable charm to a place primed for a very different sort of cultural tourism. Located some 130 kilometers southwest of Shanghai—a distance quickly covered by high-speed train—the town could become a new arts hub for China.
Wuzhen’s transformation is the brainchild of one Chen Xianghong. The president of private entity Wuzhen Tourism Co., Ltd., and chairman of Culture Wuzhen Co., Ltd., Chen has been steadily revamping and repositioning his 1,300-year-old home town since taking up a post as director of the city’s tourism development committee in 1999. Cultural preservation has been at the forefront of Chen’s activities. This being China, “preservation” means that many of the apparently ramshackle wooden and stone structures that lend the place its appeal are reconstructions, crafted from reclaimed historical materials. Other changes have been more practical in orientation, such as the quaint open-sided buses, which shuttle tourists around a ring road to their respective hotels. Until recently, those busloads of visitors were likely to take a boat through the winding network of waterways, admire arched stone bridges, stock up on locally-woven silk, and perhaps sample a bowl or two of steaming yang rou mian (lamb noodles).