5–9 June 2007: Venice
Though I arrived in Venice after midnight on 5 June 2007, I stayed up some time, as my mind was pleasantly in a whirl and I was feeling excited about travelling and seeing art at the centres of the art universe. I was in Europe for the once-in-a-ten-year coincidence that sees the three major exhibitions of contemporary visual arts — the 'Venice Biennale', 'documenta' and 'Sculpture Projects Muenster' (taking place every two, five and ten years, respectively) — opening one after another during the month of June.
With 112 years of history, and in its 52nd edition, the 'Venice Biennale' is still growing. On top of the international art exhibition, a record number of 77 pavilions and 34 collateral events are organised. For an exhibition of such a scale, it is an opportunity for me to see art from Asia in the context of world art.
Entitled ‘Think with the Senses — Feel with the Mind. Art in the Present’, this year’s international show is curated by Robert Storr, the first director from the United States in the Biennale’s history. Located in the spaces of the Arsenale and the Giardini, it features about a hundred artists. Except for the selection of works that are politically engaged, I did not notice any vigorous curatorial linkages in the exhibits.
The presence of Asian art at this edition of the 'Venice Biennale' comprises 17 national pavilions and half a dozen additional events. Although it was said a Mongolian Pavilion would have its debut, it has not been realised. And there is no India pavilion (the last edition of the biennale saw India participate). Although Robert Storr visited India, he returned home almost empty-handed, with only two Indian artists participating in this show.
Of the five artists featured at the Taiwan pavilion, film director Tsai Ming-liang has drawn most attention. Tsai, one of the jury members for the Taiwan Prize in 2005 reappeared in Venice this year as a participating artist. Tsai’s films are characterised by stills and long shots that are described as ‘sculptures in time’ by curator Lin Hong-john. His 20-minute film at the 'Venice Biennale', set in a cinema in Malaysia, unfolds the golden era of movies of the 1970s, and is interwoven with Tsai’s recollection of his own family.
The Singapore Pavilion takes a different venue from its last appearance at Venice. With the lofty space of the Palazzo Cavalli Franchetti, the display of large-scale installation works becomes possible. Ceramicist Jason Lim’s installation/performance — a 12-foot chandelier composed of porcelain lotus flowers, which was dropped and smashed at the launch of the pavilion — set an eerie tone for the exhibition.
San Francisco-based curator Hou Hanru has brought together four women artists of different generations, namely Shen Yuan (Paris based), Yin Xiuzhen (Beijing based), Kan Xuan (Amsterdam based), Cao Fei (who recently moved to Beijing), under the umbrella of ‘Everyday Miracles’ for the China Pavilion: a straightforward yet neat curatorial strategy. Instead of an empty space, the Cisteme Building (housing part of the China Pavilion) is full of oil tanks. Hou let Yin’s and Kan’s works talk with the space.
The convenient locations of the Hong Kong and Macau pavilions (also collateral events) — the former repossesses the venue that is right opposite to the entrance of the Arsenale; while the latter takes up a tiny shop-front on the main road of Castello — help to boost their visibility. Macau’s debut in Venice brought the works of Russia-born artist Konstantin Bessmertny and local architect brothers Lui Chak-keong and Lui Chak-hong to the Venice audience. For Hong Kong, it is a not-so-usual team this year. Featuring American writer/artist/curator and Hong Kong resident Norman Jackson Ford, together with Hiram To, Amy Cheung and French architect–artist duo GUTIERREZ + PORTEFAIX, the team itself reflects the cosmopolitan dimension of the city and its art.
The Korean Pavilion and Japanese Pavilion echoed coincidentally. Contrary to 2005 when 15 artists packed into the Korean Pavilion, only one artist was presented this year. Seoul-based, US-educated Hyunkoo Lee has turned the pavilion into a museum of archaeology by showcasing works that reference to his experience of the ‘undersized Asian male complex’. With a display of 1400 pieces of frottage from the port of Ujina, Hiroshima City, veteran artist Masao Okabe’s Is There a Future for Our Past?: The Dark Face of the Light converts the Japanese Pavilion into an archival setup showcasing his ‘rubbing of history’.
This year, the Central Asia Pavilion puts forward the concept of Muzykstan, a virtual nation ‘invented’ to include countries that share the same music roots and culture. Differing from the last Biennale offering, where established artists were placed in the spotlight to make an immediate impact, for this participation a number of young media artists are presenting their latest video and music productions.
As the Thai Pavilion is located at the far end of the city, I could not but otherwise make it the last pavilion to visit before leaving Venice. The Thai Pavilion featured artists Amrit Chusuwan and Nipan Oranniwesna under the theme ‘Globalization ... Please Slow Down’. The Thai Pavilion had a strong presence, though the two works were visually minimal. In my opinion, the works are not just good in their own right but also complement the exhibition’s theme. I was told that the curatorial team had worked hard to get it there. They could only secure the venue as late as last November. On the way home I heard that this exhibition could be the last one that the Thai Government will support. I hope this is merely a rumour.
After four full days in Venice I was exhausted — body and mind — and glad that my travel partner and I would take a break in Berlin when many people were heading off to Basel.
14–16 June 2007: Kassel
documenta 12 embarks by declining a curatorial intent but centres around three leitmotifs: Is modernity our antiquity? What is bare life? What is to be done? Curators Roger-Martin Buergel and Ruth Noack state that ‘the big exhibition has no form’, and it ‘seeks to expose historical lines of development in art as well as unexpected contemporaneities’.
With this formlessness in mind, the audience can perhaps appreciate with ease the huge exhibition — featuring over 200 works from 113 artists — that spreads across venues such as Museum Fridericianum, Aue-Pavillon, documenta-halle, Neue Galerie, Schloss Wihelmshohe, and other outdoor spaces. One can simply appreciate an individual work, or comprehend the little dialogues generated by works that are juxtaposed next to one another, with no worries about deciphering a ‘bigger’ picture painted by the curators.
I have learnt recently from our Researcher for Japan Mayumi Hirano that there was a revival of interest in the development of post-war avant-garde art in Japan and I was introduced to works by Tanaka Atsuko. As a member of the Gutai group (Gutai means concrete, and the group was active from 1954 to 1972), Tanaka Atsuko is believed to ‘have prefigured the Western post-war avant-garde movements by their radical conceptual approach. [Gutai group] expanded radically the notion of painting and sculpture into space and performative actions, a development that artists in Europe and the US discovered much later in the late fifties and early sixties.’ In this light, it is especially interesting to come across 10 of Tanaka’s early works (between 1954 and 1956) in the exhibition.
Mainland Chinese artist Ai Weiwei’s Fairytale is a conversation piece. It comprises 1001 Chinese visitors and 1001 traditional Chinese-style chairs. The title of the work makes reference to the Brothers Grimm’s fairytale collection (Brothers Grimm spent the major part of their lives in Kassel).
A privately sponsored project of 30 million (RMB), Ai’s Fairytale plans to bring 1000 Chinese people to Kassel to view 'documenta 12' — 200 per week over five weeks . This project questions who has the privilege to travel and see art [I encountered puzzling and curious gazes in Kassel, asking: is she one of the 1001 Chinese brought over for this project?]. During the preview period, these special guests were not so discernible among the regular art crowd, yet the Chinese-style chairs are omnipresent as Ai punctuates various exhibition venues with the 1001 chairs.
17–18 June 2007: Muenster
Compared to the 'Venice Biennale' and 'documenta', the 'Sculpture Projects Muenster' takes on a modest appearance. This is the fourth edition featuring 33 projects by 35 artists. Alongside 37 works from the past three exhibitions that found a permanent home in Muenster, there are 70 site-specific or situation-specific works scattered around the city.
Muenster is a city of bicycles — with a population of 280,000 inhabitants, there are more or less 500,000 bicycles! Riding a bike and touring around to see art made a Sunday no ordinary Sunday. No wonder the last show attracted 500,000 visitors and the city’s tourism board is anticipating a similar figure this year.
The comparison of the Muenster projects and the 'Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial' of Japan naturally arose in conversations at dinner gatherings. The 'Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial' was initiated as an endeavour to revitalize the southern Niigata prefecture; a region that was no longer an affluent rice-producing area and was losing its youth to the major cities. To achieve this, organisers have aimed for artists to collaborate with the people in each town and to create works that draw on the towns’ histories and encourage interaction and participation.
From his experience, Lukas Tam, a participating artist at the 'Echigo-Tsumari Art Triennial 2006', finds the Triennial very much community oriented, whereas projects in Muenster put emphasis on the works. In 'Sculpture Projects Muenster' the relationship between contemporary art and urban environment is called into question. Sculptures may possibly take various forms — sculptural objects, films, sound art, process-oriented programs concerning city memories/histories, spatial explorations, public space and the publics.
To me, Michael Asher’s project perhaps best embodies the explorative disposition of the 'Sculpture Projects Muenster'. Asher’s project is to bring a caravan to 15 locales in the city — one location a week throughout the exhibition period. This is the only project that has appeared in all four editions. Asher sees the act of placing of a travel trailer at a site as an intervention into the space; at the same time, through repetitions of the project — each edition revisiting the same locales — he presents an on-going investigation of the changes of the city over the decades.
‘77/87/97/07 archive’ is an archival component of this year’s exhibition that preludes a permanent Sculpture Projects Archive. Documentation of the projects, including artists’ proposals, drawings, models, and the like are presented. In this exhibition, I saw documentation of a handful of Asian artists who participated in the exhibition in 1997. They included Huang Yongping, Nam June Paik, Yutaka Sone, Rirkrit Tiravanija and Tadashi Kawamata, whereas this year Asian participation came to nought. Among these works, just Huang’s 100 Arms of Guan-yin still stands at Marienplatz traffic island to the south of St Ludgeri church.
19 June 2007: Karlsruhe
My last stop of this two-week tour is Karlsruhe, which is known for the ZKM (Center for Art and Media).
‘Thermocline of Art: New Asian Waves’, curated by Seoul-based Wonil Rhee, is being staged at the Museum of Contemporary Art, as part of a program celebrating the tenth anniversary of the ZKM. Featuring 117 artists, of whom three quarters are from Korea, Japan, China and India, it claims to be the first exhibition of this scale in Europe offering an up-to-date survey of Asian art by an Asian curator.
The ZKM is closed on Mondays and Tuesdays, however thanks to Gregor Jansen, Head of the Museum of Contemporary Art, whom I met in Hong Kong during the Cultural Ecologies symposium last November, I was able to see the exhibits under escort. The experience of seeing an exhibition while the museum is closed — in this case, without proper lighting and the video works not in action — was like meeting an actress back stage: she is often half-costumed and in partial make-up.
So, my trip came to an end on this incomplete note.
- Sun, 1 Jul 2007