While the Venice Biennale is over 100 years old, participation in this global event is strictly a 21st-century development for many of the countries now here, including China and India. China only had its first official pavilion in 2003, and India last participated in 2011, after many years at the sideline. This year, however, both countries will be represented—the former with an official pavilion and the latter with a collateral exhibition well worth audience attention.
China’s pavilion, located at the very end of the Arsenale, is the best since its entry to Venice. This year, the pavilion was turned over to the Beijing Contemporary Art Foundation, the country’s only cultural NGO, with funding from the state-run China Arts and Entertainment Group, overseen by the Ministry of Cultural. As bureaucratic as this sounds, with full government support, the pavilion organizers were able to accomplish a lot, including soliciting the help of starchitects Rem Koolhaas and Arata Isozaki to design the difficult pavilion. The result was an excellent show of video art, plus the contribution of world-class composer Tan Dun, a welcome surprise after a number of years of quite mediocre results.
The history of Chinese artists at Venice is fascinating in that it exemplifies the ways that the biennale has struggled to come to terms with the global while remaining a steadfast European event. In 1993, China-based curator Francesca de Lago introduced Chinese artists to Venice with the collateral exhibition, Passage to the Orient.” Later, in 1999, Harald Szeeman under the tutelage of then-Swiss ambassador to China Uli Sigg, made the trek through studios in Beijing and other cities and brought over two dozen artists to the Arsenale, including Ai Weiwei and Zhang Xiaogang. In that year, Cai Guo-Qiang won the Gold Lion for his immense production, Rent Collector’s Courtyard, originally a classic work of Cultural Revolutionary propaganda. (The sculptors who created the original work, which can be seen to this day at the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts, sued Szeemann and Cai for copyright infringement, though the curator and artist ultimately succeeded in getting the suit dismissed.) This did not prevent Cai from returning as curator of the China Pavilion in 2005, with the highly noted exhibition “Virgin Garden.”>
Since then, China has struggled with what its identity should be at Venice. This year, titling its “Other Futures,” it offers a particularly culturally-bound response to Okwui Enwezor’s “All the World’s Futures.” It most firmly asserts its character with Wu Wenguang and his project, The Caochangdi Workstation, a documentary-making collective that trains local citizens to make works to bring about social and political reform. This inclusion in an official pavilion demonstrates how far the authorities have come, embracing rather than censoring such an art project.
At the other end of the spectrum, the pavilion also featured the young Shanghai video artist Lu Yang, the only female in the pavilion. Her 3-D animations feature references to Tibetan deities, updated to the 21st century, as in one in which a neuroscientist analyzes the chemical imbalances in the brain of a particularly angry deity. None of this should overshadow the true strength of her work, which synthesizes the intricacy of ancient mandalas with the zeitgeist of science fiction.
Far from the Arsenale, near the Rialto Bridge, India and Pakistan collaborate in the exhibition “My East Is Your West,” the brain child of the Gujral Foundation, a nonprofit founded in 2008 by Mohit and Feroze Gujral, son and daughter-in-law of renowned Indian Modernist artist Satish Gujral. Situated in the Palazzio Benzon, the exhibition was actually a pair of solo shows by two artists Shila Gupta from Mumbai and Rashid Rana from Lahore. When the Indian Ministry of Culture dropped the ball on raising funds to have a pavilion in the Arsenale as it had in 2011, Feroze Gujral stepped in to make this exhibition happen.
Rashid Rana demonstrated a mastery of technology with several installations involving a live feed between the palazzio and the streets of Lahore, a three-hour time difference but world’s apart. In one, a group of men sit in a room and speak with visitors to the exhibition, encouraging engagement from even the most reticent audience member. It is a refreshing take on the “global” at a biennale that prides itself on interconnection. But the star here is Shila Gupta, an extremely thoughtful installation artist, who makes full use of the architecture of the palazzo. A high point is a work involving 3394 meters (about 11,100 feet) of hand-woven cloth from Phulia, a town on the India-Bangladesh border. Piled high at one end of the room, the cloth then makes its way to a table where it is marked by squiggles and doodles in blue thread, as if the seamstress had recently departed for a coffee break.
The contrast between these two artists could be taken to provide an insight into the differences between India and Pakistan, but frankly, this would be an incorrect interpretation. Each artist is so idiosyncratic that they should not be mistaken for ambassadors of a country, or even its art scene. (A good thing to remember when visiting exhibitions art centers one is unfamiliar with.) Yet their unique styles and energy do demonstrate the potential of those new scenes springing up throughout the globe.