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Art mirrors life

Updated: 2013-06-21 11:40
By Mariella Radaelli ( China Daily)

Art mirrors life

Artists reflect changes in Chinese society, says scholar

"Transfiguration is the essence of contemporary Chinese art," says Dr Wang Chunchen, curator of the Chinese Pavilion at this year's Venice Biennale. "For art, transfiguration (bianwei is the Chinese term) means innovation, pioneering and creativity, which in itself is in the midst of development and change," says Wang, an authority on contemporary Chinese art.

Wang chose "transfiguration" for the curatorial theme of the Chinese pavilion, where seven influential Chinese artists' work is featured, commissioned by China Arts & Entertainment Group, CAEG.

The artists in the exhibit, which runs until November 24, are all established creators from the dynamic Beijing art scene: He Yunchang, Hu Yaolin, Miao Xiaochun, Shu Yong, Tong Hongsheng, Wang Qingsong and Zhang Xiaotao.

"Transfiguration emphasizes things that are changing; it is the portrayal of China's social development during the last 30 years of reforms and opening up," says Wang, 48.

He is the head of the Department of Curatorial Research of CAFA Art Museum at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, and also an adjunct curator of the Broad Art Museum of Michigan State University, the first and only US museum curator based on the Chinese mainland.

I met this passionate scholar and art historian at the Arsenale, a vast 16th-century shipbuilding factory turned into an exhibition space every two years on the occasion of the Venice Biennale, the longest running festival of modern art, which began in 1896.

"Chinese artists have changed because China has changed, he says: "they are becoming more active and are taking the initiative. In this sense, transfiguration becomes a concept and, what's more, an action."

In this context, the term transfiguration is directed to the changes in contemporary art, while in the history of Western art, is usually associated with the depiction of Christ's visage during a pivotal moment of his life. When Jesus is "transfigured", metamorphosed upon a mountain, his face becomes radiant, and his identity as the Son of God is revealed. However, at a certain point the term became a general reference to change and transformation, Wang says.

"In the last half of the 20th century, American philosopher and art theorist Arthur Danto used this term in his work on the philosophy of art The Transfiguration of the Commonplace, and consequently the term became associated with contemporary art.

"Transfiguration is a process that directs us to the future; it is a pattern that directs us to multiple possibilities. Due to transfiguration, art gained in richness with its multiple layers of significance."

China itself is a country in transfiguration, says Wang.

"Chinese artists come from many different perspectives. To make things even more complicated, artistic languages are different, their mediums of expression are different and the ideas and concepts they present are different as well."

"The multifaceted quality of Chinese art imagery renders it a multidimensional phenomenon. More media means more choices, and if we have more choices it leads us to having more attitudes. Only the differences make an equal society," he says, speaking in terms of "the democracy of art".

What is the essence of Chinese identity? "The question of identity is complex, but we need to grasp our full and complete Chinese culture in order to preserve and not to destroy."

"We are blessed with a huge culture. Besides Confucianism, Taoism and Buddhism, we have many other essential, fundamental things. We need to slow down, to protect the environment. Perhaps I am an idealist like some of the artists."

In the Pavilion, Hu Yaolin presents Thing-in-itself, which symbolically and formally evokes the dome of the Pantheon in Rome. The message is clear, the curator says: "Hu Yaolin's art aims to preserve, restore and rebuild many old Chinese-style houses which are disappearing."

Hu belongs to the group of artists that Wang calls "the preservers".

Chinese artists want to be special, Wang says. "They express their own uniqueness."

Some do this by exploring the creative possibilities that new communication technologies offer.

This is the case with Miao Xiaochun, a leading figure in today's digital art scene. His five digital works on display in Venice are inspired by the Italian masters, including Michelangelo, Titian and Caravaggio. He remains faithful to the original compositions but not the content, his complex works rendered through the use of vector lines and computer algorithms, expressing ecological concerns for what we eat and for the robotization of the human race.

If Zhang Xiaotao, a trans-media artist, presents his virtual animations as an allegory of social vicissitudes and the future as new potential, He Yunchang's work The Water of Venice stresses communication as a continuum of his social performance.

I find intriguing Shu Yong's site-specific work Guge Bricks, which is collections of phrases and words mechanically translated, displaying the multiple readings and connotations of the translations as a phenomena of globalization.

Wang says that current Chinese artistic themes travel in many directions: "They criss-cross and interlink and carry this generation of Chinese peoples' understanding of the world."

Contemporary Chinese art eludes definition due to its vast diversity, Wang says. Even traditional art forms can take on new contemporary meaning.

"Let's take the case of ink painting," he says. "Today you can renew the medium, artistically, psychologically and even politically."

In fact, German publisher Springer is launching a series of books on contemporary Chinese ink art, and Wang has been invited to be the curator. "The first book will be out in English this year: it is dedicated to an artist who is renewing ink painting in style and ideas. He is really special," he says.

Has contemporary Chinese art gained an established image in both Europe and the US? "From the point of the exhibition exchange, I believe so. Yet I have the impression that people know our country in a superficial way.

"People sometimes give careful consideration to renowned names only. I don't like this shallow attitude. Fame does not always guarantee quality."

Could Chinese artists possibly be undervalued in the Western world? "Yes, it happens sometimes. Some artists are not fully understood in China as well," he says, adding that sometimes scholars are "too slow" to detect quality. "That is why the advice I like to give to my fellow scholars is not to wait ages to recognize originality."

In October, Wang will curate Re-China, his first exhibition at the Broad Art Museum of Michigan State University, where he will organize a five-year plan for Chinese art.

He has also been appointed deputy editor principal of The Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art, a scholarly forum for the presentation of research and critical debate on the subject of contemporary Chinese art. Published by Nottingham University, it is supervised by Professor Paul Gladston, the editor in chief.

( China Daily Africa Weekly 06/21/2013 page25)

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