China and rest of Asia make strong showing at Venice Biennale
China's pavilion is probably its strongest and slickest since it officially joined the Biennale in 2005
It could have been an edition with all the headlines. Ahead of this year's 56th Venice Biennale came reports that Islamic State would set up a floating pavilion in the City of Bridges, and that there would be a storm of on-and-offline protests over Kenya's decision to send five artists and an art collective from China to represent the country.
But as the world's largest and oldest contemporary art showcase got under way last weekend, these potential controversies had all but vanished under the sunny blue Venetian sky. There was no Islamic State pavilion anchored off the lagoon and, on April 23, Kenya officially withdrew its participation in face of mounting criticism from its art community at home.
Now that the dust has settled - and the focus is back on the art - it was hard not to notice the prevalence of mainland artists at this Biennale, titled "All the World's Futures".
Showing at the main Arsenale venue are Cao Fei, Qiu Zhijie and Xu Bing; and over at the China Pavilion are Liu Jiakun, Lu Yang, Tan Dun, Wen Hui and Wu Wenguang. The Guangdong Museum of Art and Shanghai Himalayas Museum are participating in the collateral events, while works by Liu Ruowang, Li Lei, Xu Deqi, Zhang Hongmei and Ma Yuan are featured in a multi-site group exhibition titled "Friendship Project China".
Showing outside of the Biennale are Sun Liangang and Liu Xiaodong.
Quantity aside, this year's China Pavilion, presented by the Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation, is probably the country's strongest - and slickest - presentation yet since officially joining the Biennale in 2005. The space housing "Other Future" is designed by Rem Koolhaas and Arata Isozaki.
The artist selection is eclectic: from contemporary composer Tan Dun's music/video installation inspired by nu shu, the symbolic script written exclusively by and for women in Jiangyong, Hunan province; to new media artist Lu Yang's poppy video that explores, among other subjects, science and religion. Wen Hui's dance videos and Wu Wenguang's documentary are also clear indications that "Chinese art" has moved beyond the traditional mediums and the realm of politics while remaining relevant. "Other Future" is a good snapshot of Chinese contemporary art today.
Elsewhere, the standards of other Asian participants are uneven - just as in previous editions.
Taiwan presents artist Wu Tien-chang, whose video installations explore "the atmosphere and particular sentiments of Westernisation in post-war Taiwan". Featuring light boxes as well as popular old tunes on the island in the 1950s, "Never Say Goodbye" - presented by the Taipei Fine Arts Museum of Taiwan - is both visually compelling and haunting, especially since the show is staged at Palazzo delle Prigioni, a former prison.
It's all hi-tech at the Korean Pavilion, which showcases a multi-channel film installation by artist duo Moon Kyung-won and Jeon Joon-ho titled The Ways of Folding Space & Flying (2015). The work is an "archaeological quest into human civilisation that interweaves history with visions of the future as told through a future-retrospective narrative". But overall the piece is cold, emotionless and impersonal - which is probably the artists' view of the world's future.
Next door, also in Giardini, is the Japan Pavilion and by sharp contrast the installation The Key in the Hand by Chiharu Shiota is deeply personal. The ceiling of the venue is covered with an elaborate three-dimensional web of interwoven red threads decorated with old keys, hovering over two large boats.
Influenced by the experience of losing friends and family members - and the devastating earthquake and tsunami in 2011 - the piece is about memories, death and uncertainty. The keys, connected by all the threads, have a symbolic meaning: "By coming into contact with people's warmth on a daily basis, the keys accumulate … memories that dwell within us," says curator Hitoshi Nakano.
From Southeast Asia are Singapore, Indonesia, Thailand and the Philippines, the latter returning to the Venice Biennale after half a century.
Curated by Okwui Enwezor, the Venice Biennale runs until November 22.