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Artistic dialogue

2014-07-10 09:56 Global Times Web Editor: Li Yan
Chimera 5 - The Utopy of the Perpetual Increase by Alessandro Zannier Photo: Xu Ming/GT

Chimera 5 - The Utopy of the Perpetual Increase by Alessandro Zannier Photo: Xu Ming/GT

Biennale China-Italia creates bridge between two ancient civilizations

For most people, memories revolve around specific things like a person's face, a period of romance or a piece of music. But what do memories look like in the eyes of people who usually see life from a unique angle? Taking "memory" as its theme, the ongoing 2014 Biennale China-Italia in Beijing may help provide an answer.

Opened on June 28 and running until August 20, the biennale has gathered 120 artists from Italy and China in five separate exhibitions. Their works, either concrete or abstract, allow viewers a chance to see the many different ways memories can manifest, particularly from the point of view of artists from two different cultural backgrounds.

Memory in art

One of the five exhibitions, the 798 Art Factory's Memories Toward the Past interprets memories through paintings, installation artworks and sculptures by 18 contemporary artists, including Chinese artists Qiu Zhijie, Feng Zhengjie and Li Zhanyang, and Italian artists such as Maurizio Cattelan and Michelangelo Pistoletto.

A "damaged" painting of Qingming Festival by the Riverside, broken pieces of mirrors, fragmented construction materials - walking into the main hall of the exhibition, you may already start to see these items' connection to memory.

Take Zhu Xiaodi's Master Plan along the River during the Qingming Festival for instance. The six-meter long work combines Zhu's painted recreation of the famous painting Qingming Festival by the Riverside - which captures the landscape of the city of Kaifeng during the Northern Song Dynasty (960-1127) - with performance art by inviting several Chinese and foreign architects to draw architecture that they've previously designed over the buildings in the painting.

With the antique buildings that existed in the original work covered by new architecture, the work creates a completely redesigned urban space. Several critics have interpreted this "destructive" redesign of ancient architecture as a critique of rampant urbanization and a reminder that ancient structures in cities should be protected in order to preserve the memory of traditional culture.

Also related to history, Li Zhanyang's group of sculptures Rent Collection Yard, which depicts a landlord collecting rent, vividly captures the misery of farmers and the ruthlessness of landlords in a radical and ironic way.

However, this art work goes beyond a simple recollection of rent collection in ancient days. The use of many familiar faces in Chinese and Western contemporary art reminds viewers of the impact foreign colonialism had on Chinese art history and the borrowed nature of Chinese contemporary art.

Italian artist Pistoletto's Fracta is an installation work that focuses on a personal memory. An artist renowned for using mirrors and reflections in his work, Pistoletto has taken a small mirror, painted a thick border of red lipstick around the edges and then mounted said mirror on a wall. In the center of the mirror, the artist has written a long string of numbers, which inevitably capture the curiosity of viewers as they pass by. As people stand in front of the mirror and attempt to figure out the meaning of the numbers, viewers unwittingly become part of the artwork as their images are reflected back at them in the mirror.

Alessandro Zannier's Chimera 5 - The Utopy of the Perpetual Increase concerns itself with the fate of the whole human race by depicting a frowning angel with one white and one black wing. As a conceptual artist, Zannier intends to express the idea of a utopia that humans are always pursuing but never reach.

Conversing about art

Italian curator Sandro Orlandi has arranged the works by Chinese and Italian artists in the 798 Art Factory in such a way that they appear to have been thrown into a dialogue about contemporary art. In this manner, as visitors walk around appreciating these works, they can also compare and contrast how the society and culture an artist lives in affects the creative process.

Although realizing that generalizing comes with its own set of problems, some artists do see a tentative pattern between the artworks from the two cultures. "Comparatively speaking, Chinese artists focus more on collective memories while their Italian counterparts focus more on private memories. The former is broader while the latter gets more specific," poet and art critic Chen Jiaping told the Global Times.

Zhu's concern about ancient structures, Li's reflection on the history of contemporary art and Ma Han's circle made of discarded bricks from construction sites in Beijing all reflect the collective memories for a group of or all Chinese people.

Meanwhile, Italian artists seem to gravitate towards more private memories or feelings using specific items, such as Pistoletto's mirror and Beppe Bonetti's Variation on 7, an artwork consisting of countless symbols with seven lines.

"We can only guess what they mean to the artists. From the lipstick framing the mirror, I cannot help but wonder if the number is a phone number of a prostitute. As for Beppe Bonetti, seven must be a number that means much to him," said Mian Bu, the other head curator for the biennale besides Orlandi.

"It is an interesting dialogue between artists from two ancient civilizations. Apparently they are in different stages of art development," Mian Bu added.

"They are not on the same level, but it is difficult to say which is better. It is a dialogue through which they can compensate each other," she said.

Growing platform

According to Mian Bu, the Biennale China-Italia got its start three years ago when Orlandi shared with Mian Bu how impressed he was by the vitality of Chinese contemporary artists. Putting their heads together the two decided to organize a biennale that would bring contemporary art from the two countries together.

"There are Chinese artists that participate in the Venice Biennale, but since the Venice Biennale is West-orientated, Chinese artists are usually marginalized and don't get their due attention," Mian Bu explained.

The first biennale in China to focus on the art history of two countries, the event provides a platform for artists from China and Italy to show their talent. "If it weren't for these exhibitions, these works might still be sitting in a storehouse or the artists' studios."

For Mian Bu, the only negative so far has been the absence of top Chinese artists at the biennale.

"This is probably because the biennale is still new. However, I believe they will join us next year in Milan," she said referring to the part of the biennale that is scheduled to be held in Italy in 2015.

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