Chinese arts and culture
Culture Club
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Envoy the show: Chinese artworks on exhibit in Germany take on a greater diplomatic purpose

Vivienne Chow, currently in Berlin taking part in the IJP Fellowship, reflects on the role of art when framed from an outsider's perspective

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 2:43pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 24 June, 2015, 3:41pm

Centuries on since French philosopher Victor Cousin coined the iconic phrase l’art pour l’art (art for art’s sake) in the early 19th century, some still hold on to the belief that art serves no other purpose than art. But as time goes on, and art has become more widely spread and discussed among those outside of the so-called elite circle, “art for art’s sake” has become nothing more than wishful thinking.

While art exhibitions and events are held virtually every single day in every city, art has also expanded into a way of bonding among local communities. On an international level, art no doubt plays a role in diplomacy and international relations.

Besides the Venice Biennale, the world’s most important international exhibition which has attracted more Asian countries and cities to use it as a platform to showcase their newfound soft power to a global audience, a major exhibition is also held in Germany that serves a bigger purpose than just art.

Currently on show is CHINA8. Featuring 120 contemporary Chinese artists – including artists from Hong Kong – and more than 500 of their works, the exhibition held in eight cities and nine museums along the Rhine and Ruhr region is the largest-ever showcase of Chinese contemporary art in the world.

Walter Smerling, spokesman for the curatorial committee and director of the MKM Museum Küppersmühle; Ferdinand Ullrich (Kunsthalle Recklinghausen); and Tobia Bezzola (Director of the Folkwang Museum) share the main responsibility for the artistic direction of the show.

Fan Di’an, president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, is a consultant to the curatorial committee.

I didn’t get around to travelling to all eight cities to catch all the exhibitions, but I made it to one of the locations, Musuem Folkwang, last week in Essen.

On show is “Works In Progress – Photography in China this year”, which features 24 artists, including three from Hong Kong, focusing on pieces in the form of photography and digital media.

As someone coming from Hong Kong, it is inevitable to put a stronger focus on what Hong Kong artists have to offer to an international, mostly German, audience. Prior to entering the exhibition, I wondered what stories Hong Kong artists wanted to tell the world with their works, particularly photography, a direct medium that can make an immediate impact on the audience.

To my surprise, the story that captured the lenses of the Hong Kong artists was last year’s Occupy Central protests, the 79-day protests commandeering the busiest districts of Hong Kong. Protesters demanded universal suffrage – electing the city’s leader in a process free from Beijing’s interference.

South Ho showed three black-and-white wide shots capturing the scenes in Admiralty from three different angles. One was taken from the bridge of the government headquarters in Tamar. Another one portrayed protesters’ occupation of Harcourt Road. The last one was a shot of the seemingly peaceful Tamar Park just outside the government headquarters, which were pitched with protesters’ tents.

Alfred Ko, on the other hand, offered scenes of Mong Kok. Contrary to Ho’s images, which I had seen before when they were shown at Blindspot Gallery in Wong Chuk Hang, Ko’s images were colourful close-ups of protesters.

The choice of works also reflected the stark contrast between protests in Admiralty and Mong Kok. Admiralty was where the core of the power was and the centre of the attention, while Mong Kok simply led a different life that spiced up the protests.

In Ko’s images, protesters – wearing Guy Fawkes masks or simply surgical masks and goggles, and surrounded by colourful umbrellas which were a symbol of defiance by shielding protesters from police pepper spray – took to the stage and became the star of the unprecedented political movement.

Eason Tsang Ka-wai, on the other hand, did not participate in the political discourse but offered his perspective on the urban landscape of Hong Kong. His works depicted images of the city’s famous skyscrapers, taken from a low angle – exactly how they look if you are walking on the street and look up towards the sky.

In Tsang’s images, these skyscrapers appear to be reaching the sky – unattainable for most of us. The images seem to carry a hint of tranquillity, but feelings of insecurity and unsettlement are strong, particularly to those who have experienced Hong Kong.

The works by these three artists only account for a tiny percentage of the entire exhibition, which features mainly works by mainland Chinese artists, who strive to show an urban and contemporary image of China rather than dabbling in the political. That is, except for Chen Shaoxiong, represented by Pekin Fine Arts.

Chen’s eye-catching ink art animation depicting various scenarios of political movement and protests around the world, backed by an interesting musical soundtrack for protests, strike a similar chord as the works of Ho and Ko.

Judging from this exhibition, what kind of China is the show trying to present? Can observers even tell the difference between the works by Hong Kong and mainland Chinese artists?

And more importantly, does the general audience care about art for art’s sake? Or are they interested in the big economic opportunities in China, taking a token interest in the country’s arts and culture merely to liven up their dinner conversation with Chinese businessmen?

And if art for art’s sake were true, why should we define art by the artists’ nationalities?

Walking out of the exhibition, I couldn’t help but feel that hosting such a massive exhibition on Chinese contemporary art has more of a diplomatic purpose than an artistic one. It is great that Hong Kong artists are included, but the intention behind this large-scale art extravaganza has raised more questions than answers.

CHINA8 runs until September 13 this year. Website: china8.de/en/