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October 19, 2019

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Biennale to paint Anren on China’s art map

When mentioning Anren Town most people think of the “Rent Collection Courtyard” masterpiece — 114 realistic clay figures in the courtyard of the former home of rural landlord Liu Wencai (1887-1949) in Dayi County, Sichuan Province, created by Ye Yushan and a team of sculptors from the Sichuan Academy of Fine Arts in 1965.

The theme of these sculptures is about “Oppression and Revolt” on how landlord Liu, residing in his manor in Anren, mercilessly exploited the bottom level of the society.

Anren was an ancient town built in AD 620, nearly 90 minutes’ drive from Chengdu in Sichuan Province.

In the past few decades, it has remained silent and undisturbed by the outside world. It is probably unknown to most tourists, yet it has 27 heritage houses that were built in the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties.

Today, Anren is trying to break onto the Chinese art map through its biennale and wants to create another version of Wuzhen in the ancient small town.

Wuzhen, an ancient water town in Zhejiang Province, is widely known as a tourist destination for contemporary art and Chinese drama through its drama festival and contemporary exhibition.

“A Confrontation of Ideals,” the 2nd Anren Biennale, is underway and runs till February 12, 2020.

Curated by Lu Peng, He Guiyan and Siebe Tettero, the biennale features artworks, varying from paintings, photo, installation, video to film, sculpture, architecture and documentation. These works are created by 60 artists, from Europe, the Middle East and Central Asia, who are concerned with subjects such as climate change, marine pollution and sexual discrimination.

“Anren Town used to be a place that mixed East and West styles early in the Republic of China (1912-1949). One may still find the Western influence in the old architectures here,” said He Guiyan, “Actually Anren played a role of ‘small Shanghai’ in the southwest of China during that period.”

Liu’s manor and the masterpiece of the “Rent Collection Courtyard” are a household name to the older generation. The 70,000-square-meter courtyard today attracts visitors from all over the country. The Ford motorcar and the Western styled living room reveals a modern life style at that time.

In 2016, the OCT Group announced plans to invest 10 billion yuan (US$1.4 billion) in turning Anren into a renowned historical town with art galleries, crafts boutiques, theaters and museums. Today, there are about 43 museums in Anren.

“What is the function of a biennale? What can the biennale bring to the residents here? These are the questions the curating team needs to consider,” said Lu Peng. “We hope more visitors would come to Anren.

“But the attraction of this town could not merely depend on a single biennale. Considering its history, its historical architecture and its museums, Anren Biennale must be born from its heritage and surroundings.”

The original plan of the curating team hope one third of the works can be created to cater for the background and venue of Anren. But due to the limited budget, there are seven commissioned artworks under the theme of Anren.

Artist He Gong’s installation titled “Dream History — Misreading and Sculpting” is one of the examples.

The main body of the work comes from a traditional large bed with complicated carving pattern from Anren.

The bed is then transformed into a small stage on which some small wood-carved statues under Catholic theme are placed. These statues were bought by the artist at a local antique shop.

On closer inspection, viewers see that the Catholic figures are sinicized and “Anrenized,” because the Virgin Mary was carved into a female peasant and the Jesus into a redneck countryman.

“This is the ‘invasion’ of an outside civilization to Anren, and also how Anren interpreted and accepted such civilization,” said the artist.

Another highlight of the exhibition is the installation titled “Multibasket — No one wins” created by Jasmina Llobet and Luis Fernandez Pons.

The permanent installation is a whimsical backboard concept by the two artists, where local Anren residents can shoot more than just a couple of hoops.

Hosting five nets, all positioned at various heights, players must use their own imagination to make up new rules for the classic court sport. It has been conceived as a site-specific reaction to the context that defines this city.

“Anren has an important traditional character, and at the same time it is a city open to the future,” the artists said. “So it would like to pay respect to its people with this project, proposing a place to gather and play.

“This work aims to give a new perspective to a traditional team sport by breaking its unusual rules and by opening it up to new possibilities and the creativity of the players. The duality of two competing teams is broken. No one wins.”

In the past several years, there has been a trend that China’s contemporary art has moved its center from the metropolis to the countryside and fields.

“The biennale only takes place in China for about 20 years. It is now strongly linked with its venues. There are more than a thousand ancient towns in the country, but with only two biennales. In my eyes, this is far from enough,” He Guiyan said.

Feng Boyi, the curator of 2019 Wuzhen Contemporary Art Exhibition who participated 2nd Anren Biennale, said, “A move for contemporary art from the city to the countryside is quite meaningful, yet at the same time, it also encounters many problems and needs a re-thinking.

“I believe that contemporary art should have something beyond experience or something evokes more pondering.”


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