Between the lines
A thick, lingering fragrant mist, emitted intermittently from Yuan Gong's installation, The Scented Air, permeates an atmosphere already heavy with anticipation.
It's the official opening of the mainland exhibition at this year's Venice Biennale, in northern Italy, and the international art circle and media are gathering to hear what its curator, Peng Feng, and the five participating artists - Yuan, Pan Gongkai, Cai Zhisong, Liang Yuanwei and Yang Maoyuan - have to say about beauty, aesthetics and visibility. And, perhaps, the invisible.
Ai Weiwei, one of China's best-known artists and activists, and still interned following his arrest on April 3 for 'suspected economic crimes', is never far from the thoughts of the art world. Paolo Baratta, president of the biennale, said earlier: 'We are proud of having China with us. We are good friends with the Chinese, they always have great ideas.' He paused before continuing: 'I have written a letter to the ambassador of China in Italy saying how wonderful it would be if we could have happy news about Ai Weiwei.'
Kunsthaus Bregenz, an Austrian contemporary art museum, gave out 5,000 free tote bags with 'Free Ai Weiwei' printed on them during the biennale preview.
The subject of Ai's detention is clearly not to be broached in the Chinese Pavilion's unkempt garden, though. Xu Bing, a renowned contemporary artist and guest at the opening, implores: 'Please don't ask me the question because it's complicated.' Peng is equally reluctant: 'I don't know the reality of the case of Ai Weiwei ... most of the journalists [here] focus on it. I don't think it's fair to those artists who've spent almost a year creating this show for Venice so that you can enjoy the art.
'So art first, and then the politics.'
At the Venice Biennale, however, the two often go hand in hand. And this year, the world's oldest and biggest contemporary art jamboree appears to be more political than ever. A record 89 countries are taking part in the 54th Venice Biennale, including newcomers Andorra, Saudi Arabia, Bangladesh and Haiti, and many are tackling issues such as conflict, human rights, national identity and globalisation.
Participants from North and Southeast Asian countries are among the most controversial.
The ear-splitting sound of mirrors being smashed echoes around the Korean Pavilion, in the Giardini della Biennale, the park in which most national exhibitions are located. Created by Lee Yong-baek, Broken Mirror, a video work, plays on the viewer's perception of what is real and what is illusory. A more subtle form of violence is coded in Angel Soldier, a lyrical video performance featuring the limbs and weapons of soldiers moving slowly through and behind colourful floral camouflage. The two-part Pieta features Lee's contemporary take on Michelangelo's sculpture of Mary holding Jesus after the crucifixion and is a metaphor for the 'dark barbarism of civilisation'.
Titled 'The Love is Gone, But the Scar will Heal', Lee's solo show is a summary of his country's contemporary history, says curator Yun Chea-gab. Over the 20th century, he says, Korea endured Japanese colonisation (1910 to 1945), a civil war (1950 to 1953) that resulted in the separation of the North and South, the emergence of a dictatorship and the economic crisis of the 1990s.
'It was a painful century for Korean society. This show totally represents Korean history, politics and the pains, hence its title. But we also remain optimistic,' says Yun, adding that military conflict is not a specifically Korean problem. 'I think art can change human behaviour and, therefore, the world. This is our hope.'
Yun says Lee, a friend for 25 years, is a versatile artist well-versed in many mediums including photography, video, sculpture and installation.
'Angel Soldier, which combines movement with action, can only be expressed by video; neither sculpture nor painting could encapsulate that,' Yun says. 'That's why matching the medium with the theme is very important. If you had painted this work, it wouldn't have worked.'
Sound is the sole medium in 'The Heard and the Unheard - Soundscape Taiwan', a group show presented by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum. Curator Amy Cheng is quick to point out that sound is also the subject of the exhibition, which features artists Wang Hong-kai and Su Yu-hsien as well as architect Liu Kuo-chang and performing artists Wang Fu-jui, Lin Chi-wei and DJ @llen.
'We use sound as a conceptual means to explore the cultural and social context of Taiwan. The sound has metaphorical and multiple meanings as it refers to the narration of society, to the voices of the people in Taiwan, and that is how I define sound in this exhibition.'
The exhibition is divided into two parts: a 'sound library and bar', designed by Liu, and the screening of works by Wang and Su. The database of documentary materials and audiovisual archives includes more than 20 songs of social activism that emerged after the lifting of martial law in Taiwan, in 1987, when opposition political parties were first permitted. It charts the development of freedom of speech and expression on the island over the past quarter of a century.
'Before the lifting of martial law, all voices or songs were censored and controlled by the government. After 1987, everyone in Taiwan could express themselves. We try to outline this social change and how people used sound and sound movement to express themselves, trying to change the society with their own sound and voice,' says Cheng.
The works by Wang and Su serve as an extension of the archives, by looking at the politics of sound; now that the common man has been granted a voice, is he being heard? Su's Sounds of Nothing, a series of videos, highlights a group of Indonesian migrant workers, a homeless musician and the artist's neighbour, who works in the plastic-recycling business.
'These are ordinary people who are very close to us yet we don't usually see or hear them,' says Cheng, adding that the work encourages people to listen and pay more attention to those living around them.
Representing Japan this year is multimedia installation artist Tabaimo, whose latest work, teleco-soup, explores her country's 'Galapagos syndrome', a term coined to describe the island nation's isolation. One animation shows a city skyline being threatened by ominous-looking tidal waves. It's not a direct reference to the devastating tsunami that hit northeast Japan in March - the artist was already halfway through the production of the piece then - examining instead the relationship between the sea and the islanders.
'I've always used water as a motif as it has a special connection with the people of Japan,' explains the 36-year-old artist through an interpreter. 'Even though it can become a destructive force, as in the case of the recent tsunami, I don't hate the ocean, because Japan has a long tradition of respecting water and the sea.'
Tabaimo, whose drawings and animated works invoke the colours of Hokusai's woodblock prints, has turned the Yoshizaka Takamasa-designed pavilion into a metaphor for contemporary Japanese society by constructing a well at its centre. Visitors are invited to look into the bottom of the inverted cone and watch an animation of floating clouds, as if they were peering into the sky.
'According to Chinese philosopher Zhuangzi, a frog in a well cannot conceive of the ocean, so we pose the question: is the world of a frog living in a well really so small?' says curator Yuka Uematsu.
More questions are posed over at the Thai Pavilion, where painter Navin Rawanchaikul holds court with his colourful works. A Thai national of Indian descent whose wife is Japanese, the artist continues his search for a personal and national identity in Navinland, a fictitious place that possesses characteristics of various cultures and countries.
'My work questions what a nation means,' says Navin.
Curator Steven Pettifor says the show, Paradiso di Navin, fits in well with the overall theme of this year's biennale: 'ILLUMInations', a reference to the fact that art should be both unique and illuminating, by placing Navin's work within the context of what's been happening recently in Thailand, the Middle East and elsewhere, politically.
'And how people in these countries are now questioning their own forms of governance and expressing their dissatisfaction,' says Pettifor, a Briton who has lived in Thailand for 18 years. 'Can you ever have a Utopia? [Navin] looks to and mocks the idea at the same time; while other artists do aspire to the Utopian ideal, his approach is more tongue-in-cheek.'
Most of Navin's 'Thai-Indian style' paintings are packed with portraits and witty references but perhaps the best, and most moving, piece at his Venice show is a handwritten letter to his young daughter, Mari, that gives his art context.
In explaining the meaning of a pair of sculptures called Mission Navinland, featuring the artist and Mari 'on parade', he writes: 'With us imitating those parading soldiers, I'm not trying to raise my point about India and Pakistan, but I wanted to show that we are both confronting issues of our own identity; where we come from and where we belong. This may sound strange to you but I know you are facing a similar experience to when I was young, friends poking fun at your foreign-sounding surname. Mari, let me repeat what my mom taught when I asked why we are not considered Thai. She said, 'Just be yourself and proud of your roots.''
A far less weighty subject is explored in Singaporean filmmaker Ho Tzu Nyen's The Cloud of Unknowing, a film inspired by his interest in clouds. He says that what fascinates him most about clouds is that people often try to project shapes and silhouettes onto them.
'The person looking at the cloud can use his imagination to complete [the picture]. I like to make my films almost as though they were like clouds, so the audience or spectators can finish, complete and give sense and form to the work.'
The Cloud of Unknowing has no narrative but Ho has injected many cues - the sound of breathing and bizarre imagery and music - that lead the audience on a sensory journey. At the end of the screening, a cloud of mist is released from behind the screen, heightening the surrealism of the experience.
Ho says his piece also looks at the representation of cloud in the history of art and how it has been portrayed in paintings by various cultures. He did not set out to create a work that can also be read as a piece of social commentary.
'I am a creature of Singapore, the bodies that I used [in the short film], the physiognomies are Singaporean, so, inevitably, they express something of the milieu from which we come,' Ho says. 'The entire film is set in a very-low-income housing estate, so the space itself evokes and expresses something. This sense of decay is born of reality. I don't know if I consciously think about this but it has become part of how I depict things.'
The artist adds that he is interested in the contrasts between the earthly and heavenly in this work: 'Clouds are something weightless and intangible and then you have the most real social setting, which is the block of flats, and then you have the real bodies, which are heavy, giving the sense of earthliness and being grounded.'
Hong Kong's Kwok Mang-ho, better known as the Frog King, seeks to promote 'happiness, harmony and love' with his own quirky brand of art and ad hoc (and often rowdy) performances.
'There are wars and disasters in this world and as an artist I can do a little to bring some joy back into people's lives,' says Kwok,
Co-presented by the Hong Kong Arts Development Council and the Fringe Club, and jointly curated by Benny Chia Chun-heng, Kith Tsang Tak-ping and Wong Shun-kit, the extensive retrospective - including ink paintings, installation art, videos and hundreds of photos of his performance art - charts the development of Kwok, who is now recognised as China's first performance artist and an important and influential figure from the 1970s Hong Kong arts scene. With no overt political or social messages, the Frog King's art goes back to what some claim art should be: direct communication and interaction with its audience.
Next door to the Hong Kong space is the Macau exhibition, 'Mobility & Memory', which is a quiet affair that looks at the complex emotions experienced by 'Macao natives' at a time when their home is being rapidly transformed by economic progress.
'With a deep affection for their homeland, Macau people's nostalgia for the old days appears to be more pervasive and strong,' says Chan Hou-seng, director of the Macao Museum of Art and presenter of the show. 'From [the exhibition] we discover that, in general, artists are inclined to dig into 'nativism'. Their heartfelt sigh towards transformation brought by the new era can be felt, which reflects the Chinese people's traditional emotions towards their homeland.'
Chinese artists presenting work outside the auspices of national or pseudo-national pavilions include multimedia artist Zhou Yi, whose show, 'Days of Yi', is presented by the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai. Biennale director Bice Curiger asked prominent Beijing- based artist Song Dong to stage a standalone solo show at the Arsenale, another major exhibition venue, where photographs of the collective Birdhead are also part of the main 'ILLUMInations' exhibition.
Back at the Chinese Pavilion, where the official mainland contingent remains tight-lipped on politics, alert visitors spot a makeshift message, put together with cutout letters, inside Pan Gongkai's tunnel-like installation, Melt. It reads: 'Free Ai Weiwei'. More curious still, the message is left lying on the floor, almost intact, for several days after the opening.
Perhaps the mainland participants are trying to tell us something after all.
The 54th Venice Biennale will close on November 27. Tickets can be bought online at www.labiennale.org