IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Asian Art




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Asian Artists at the 2001 Venice

When going to the Venice Biennale for the first time this year, I was expecting to see some kind of acceptance of the huge range of modernist art now produced and exhibited in many Asian countries. Instead, I found myself in a peculiar set of time warps, some constructed by, for example, the peculiar historical architecture of Venice and the history of its Biennale, others by the vagaries of the European art curatorial practice which, in part, had chosen the works.
•IIASN26-P45-02 Suzann Victor (Republic of Singapore), "Dusted by Ruch Manouvre", 2001, installation.


In fact, to the visitor there is not one Biennale, but four. In the first one ­ the Giardini ­ the 'national' pavilions are situated in, by turns, an Edwardian and early modern architectural never-never land There, Britain faces a fascist German neo-classical pile, with spaces for Japan (Fujimoto Yukio, Hatakeyama Naoya, and Nakamura Masato), Korea (Suh Doo-ho and Michael Joo), Australia (Lyndal Jones), and other late-comers to creep in, and with older cousins, such as Russia (Sergei Shutov, Olga Chernysheva, and Leonid Sokov) reclaiming their former sites. It is thus a cross between a nineteenth-century world exposition and modern trade fair.
The second Biennale bears token adjustments to other expressions in the thematic 'Plateau of Humanity', curated by Harold Szeeman in the Italian pavilion (also in the Giardini). It includes the video work of Xu Zhen, another piece by the late Chen Zhen in memoriam, and an installation by the Korean Suh Do-ho. The third Biennale is a very long corridor of fairground booths on each side of the late Renaissance factory called the Arsenale, which is some distance away from the Giardini in the old naval factory complex. Right at the beginning of the Arsenale is a booth for the work of Xiao Yu, and towards the end, on the back of the panels for someone else's installation, the photographs of Hai Bo.
The fourth Biennale is spread out all over the city in buildings temporarily loaned for the purpose: gothic palaces (Portugal: João Penalva), a nineteenth-century learned society with rooms used by Garibaldi (Belgium), old warehouses (Sweden), and a twelfth-century nunnery turned into an ecclesiastical museum (New Zealand: Peter Robinson and Jacqueline Fraser). A prisn with inscriptions that indicate that the room had earlier been used by the council to judge secret denunciations and that a patriot that had been tortured there by Mussolini's Fascists also featured in the exhibition (Taiwan: Lin Shumin, Liu Shenfen, Lin Minghong, Zhang Jianzhi (Chang Chien-chi) and Wang Wenzhi). Singapore (Chen Kezhan, Salleh Jaspar, Matthew Ngui, and Suzann Victor) and Hong Kong (Ellen Pau, Ho Siu-kee, and Leung Chi-wo) were found in adjacent palazzi. Singapore arguably had the best-produced and most sensible little national catalogue and take-away linen book bag. As usual, there was no pavilion or direct representation from India (Anish Kapoor had previously exhibited in the British pavilion) or from the People's Republic of China. This time, Szeeman included the artists mentioned and also used a large Swiss collection at the Biennale in 1999 to make, one supposes, a curatorial intervention in European cultural perceptions of China.1 With the exception of Egypt, the Arab and Islamic world was largely absent.
The above indicates one may spend as much time in the Biennale wondering why the works are in a particular space and how well or how indifferently they relate to it, rather than thinking about the works themselves, about the underlying curatorial concept and its validity. Clearly these spaces give rise to two strategies by national curators, one is to turn a whole building over to one artist who makes a work, which can become site specific and plays off its site. The most satisfying variants of this approach were the three video installations and exhibited objects by Penalva in the Portuguese pavilion, and old Vendramin Palace. The other approach is to produce large icon-like objects which dominate an environment or which completely fill up a room.
Both these strategies were used to great effect by Suh Do-ho, in first, a commemorative plinth borne by multitudes of small figures and, then, in two works: Some/One, in the Korean pavilion, where what might be a royal robe of golden chain mail covered a room, but was made from single coin-like metal pieces; and, in the Italian pavilion, was a translucent glass floor held up by myriads of plastic figures with an all-over 'pin-head' wall paper. On very close inspection, these became single digitized images of human heads. The effective domination of space by minutely articulated and replicated figures or images with the overall mass they supported was quite astonishing, and he would have been awarded my Grand Prize.

The spaces available to the overall curator also allow such domination by specific artists; however, their layout as an exhibition, especially in the Arsenale complex, incline towards mere iteration than curatorial strategy. This impression was particularly strong where many of the works were video •IIASN26-P45-01 pieces projected on the wall of a box. They did not make for an interesting gallery-viewing experience, and it did not help that many were pieces I had seen elsewhere as a casual visitor (Bill Viola in London and Fiona Fan at the Stedelijk Museum in Amsterdam).

Do-Ho Suh, (Republic of Korea),
'Public Figures', 1998.


How much more so would this be the case for someone in the Euro-American art exhibition cultures where such works are exhibited all the time? Indeed, it seems to be the custom at Biennales; one had a distinct feeling of having seen many of the artists and works before. Is this tendency due to curatorial fear of flying with the phantom of the new or simply due to museum fatigue? Perhaps both, but definitely disproportionate space and attention has been given to several artists: Serra, Twombly, the Kabakovs. I suppose selection for art exhibitions cannot escape from the tyranny of canon, however implicitly this may be posed, and all works may have to be judged by their propensity to be absorbed into a canon given by the exhibition site, in this case, a Euro-American one.

This 'pre-selection' is quite important for those not pre-selected, since many do not fall into the cultural or stylistic nexuses defined by hitherto and present curatorial practice. Some way out of this was seen in the small 'African' exhibition, but even so, much of the work there had already received the consecration of earlier Euro-American exhibitions. The avoidance of 'pre-selection' would seem to be a good reason for Singapore, Hong Kong, and Taiwan not to seek to obtain pavilions in the Giardini, for in their private palazzi they can control their own selection, at least, and, in this regard, claim their own canon. Nonetheless, should the People's Republic of China have chosen to exhibit, it is very unlikely we would have seen the Xiao Yu or Xu Zhen works to have been selected. Whereas Chinese contemporary art in 1999 may be said to have played a mildly de-canonizing role for the European works, exhibited at Venice, one may also conceive that Xu Zhen's fictitious creatures ­ a kind of three-dimensional, plastic and gothic phatasmagoria, Jurassic Park creatures without digitization ­ could, by their very exhibition, escape the constraints of official culture at home in China.

The major issue at stake is that, in works of the 'cadaver group', which has used deceased human body parts in installations and performed acts of cannibalism,2 we are dealing with work which, in the guise of inner-cultural critique or aesthetic radicalism, attacks many humanist ideals mediated by the notion of a sacrosanct body ­ ideas that may now be approaching cultural universality. To exhibit minor versions of this oeuvre, such as the works of Hirst in Britain (whom some cadaver artists claim as an influence and with whom they are often compared), is, in my view, privileging complicity with the very social horrors or baleful aesthetic tendencies their exhibition is supposed to criticize or, at least, relativize.
Singapore and Hong Kong also demonstrated interesting curatorial and artistic strategies, which allowed for some significant interaction with the site of Venice. In the Singapore palazzo was an adaptation of a piece already shown at home into a site-specific work, where four arms of a candelabra were mechanically swung towards a glass pendant piece in the middle. They were always in danger of colliding and smashing the ensemble to the floor. Another element at the rear of this installation had an unclear purpose, yet, suspended at the top of the stairs in a restored but very old space, one could not but feel the sense of cultural elision and near-destructive collision between two unspoken entities. Indeed, the work spoke on many levels, articulated because of this very adjustment to the space.
Another interesting strategy in use, is to insist on the otherness of origin by anthropologizing its presence in the here and now. Leung Chi-wo elegantly and eloquently achieved this by the exhibition of a cookie-vending machine. By wrapping any item in one's possession in a plastic bag and affixing it to the gallery wall, cakes could be obtained from it; this cake vender was also at other specified sites throughout the city. The cakes were in the positive shape of the sky as viewed enclosed by high-rise buildings. Sitting at a table covered with images of Hong Kong skyscrapers, one felt that, curiously enough, a view of the world was being harmonized by its transposition to Venice. One felt as if one was sharing in a memory, a memory made actual by one's distant participation in it. *
Matthew Ngui (Republic of Singapore), 'The chair', 1999, installation




1. See the essay by Francesca dal Largo on the 1999 Biennale in: Clark, John (ed.), Chinese Art at the Turn of the Millenium, Hong Kong: New Art Media (2000).
2. See: Dawei, Fei, 'Transgresser le principe céleste: Dialogue avec le group cadavre' (Zhu Yu, Sun Yuan, Peng Yu), 'Représenter l'Horreur', Hors Serie Artpress, (May 2001).


Professor John Clark is Associate Professor at the University of Sydney where he is chair of the Department of Art History & Theory and acting director of the Power Institute, Foundation for Art & Visual Culture. His current research investigates new definitions of modernity in art through a comparison of Chinese and Thai art of the 1980s and 1990s.

   IIAS | IIAS Newsletter Online | No. 26 | Asian Arts