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July 1, 2016

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Small is the new vogue in art scene revival

CONTEMPORARY art biennales that have popped up in cities around the world are at risk of becoming cultural cliches. Now, smaller new venues are reaching out to grassroots communities.

The concept of the biennale in the art world dates back to Venice in 1895, but it’s only in more modern times that such exhibitions of contemporary art, held every two years, have exploded on the cultural scene. Today, about 200 biennales are staged in cities across the world, and China is no exception.

The first biennale in Venice was held to celebrate the wedding anniversary of an Italian king. Today’s versions may celebrate about anything — revival of city centers, prominent local artists or a city’s international image as an arts hub.

Shanghai, a major center of arts and culture, has hosted its own biennale since 1996. This year it will be held in November.

The problem for Shanghai organizers and some curators of similar events around the world is how to breathe new life into a stereotyped format. In Shanghai, fewer and fewer people are bothering to attend what they have come to regard as a humdrum event. The biennale has become a bit of a cliché.

So what’s new on the scene? Well, you can skip beyond big-name biennales in cities like New York, Florence, Havana, Jerusalem, Moscow, Melbourne and Sao Paulo, and look to smaller places that are staging art exhibitions tailored to the grassroots public.

Take, for example, the sleepy watertown of Wuzhen in Zhejiang Province, which recently ended its first biennale, entitled “Utopia/Heterotopia: Wuzhen International Contemporary Art Exhibition.”

This quiet canal town, relatively unscathed by the helter-skelter of Chinese economic development, included about 130 works in exhibition that opened in March. The event was held in the North Silk Factory, an abandoned industrial site transformed into an arts venue.

Curated by Feng Boyi, the event featured works from some of the world’s most celebrated artists, including Damien Hirst, Florentijn Hofman, Ann Hamilton and Olafur Eliasson. Luminaries from China’s own contemporary art scene were also represented there. According to the organizing committee, 104,327 people visited the exhibition, not to mention more than a million visitors who travelled to Wuzhen.

Lewis Biggs, the director of the Liverpool Biennial, said the Wuzhen exhibition “equals any high-quality show in the West.” The setting was engaging in itself — modern art set against an ancient backdrop of small village roads, buildings from the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties, lazy canals and ornate bridges. The present colliding with the past, the modern with the ancient, the East with the West — all in harmony.

The curator and his team were careful not to link the exhibition with the glitz of a tourist destination.

“We were not offering a so-called cultural trip,” Feng said. “We were mounting a serious academic art exhibition. Some people asked us, ‘Why Wuzhen?’ Were we trying to attract tourist crowds or tout the town’s young bourgeois?”

His answer was an emphatic no.

“I would say this exhibition was designed for the people here,” Feng said. “It was more than an exhibition. It was a platform to nurture the younger generation. Many primary and middle school students in Wuzhen visited the exhibition, and I hope a few of them will be the art masters in the future.”

The exhibition also included seminars on art, photography, film and history.

The event was such a success that planning is already starting on Wuzhen’s 2018 biennale, which aims to double the number of participating artists and add 8,000 square meters of space in a renovated warehouse.

The Wuzheng biennale is part of the new trend in the exhibition world. As the influence and status of the big-city biennales begin to wane, smaller cities are taking up the challenge of finding fresh ways to bring contemporary art to the masses. The new biennales shun festival atmospheres, tourist come-ons and glitzy celebrity promotion. They are taking art back to the grassroots.

Now it’s Suzhou’s turn. The Suzhou Art Museum recently announced the city’s first biennale, entitled “Suzhou Documents” which will run from August 14 to October 20.

Suzhou has a rich history dating back 2,500 years, but it has long been sidelined in the shadow of Shanghai. People tend to think of the “art scene” here as famous classical gardens. Suzhou Museum is the repository of the city’s cultural treasures, from ancient ink-wash paintings and calligraphy to its building itself, which was designed by the renowned Chinese-American architect I.M. Pei.

But this ancient city of silk is making room for international contemporary art. Roger M. Buergel, curator of the 2007 “Kassel Documenta,” and Zhang Qing, director of the Shanghai Biennale from 2000-07, have teamed up to curate “Suzhou Documents.” They chose as their theme the “Histories of a Global Hub.”

The exhibition will be staged in the Suzhou Art Museum and four other venues, including the Suzhou Silk Museum and Yan Wenliang Memorial Hall.

Cao Jun, director of the Suzhou Art Museum, said his facility is actually the oldest art museum in China, established in 1927 by the famous painter and art educator Yan Wenliang (1893-1988). 

“This is probably the youngest international art exhibition held by the oldest Chinese art museum,” he joked.

Zhang Qing, a Suzhou native, said that working on the exhibition was a great challenge. “It is an utterly different experience from doing a biennale in Shanghai, which is a big cosmopolitan city that easily accepts everything new and chic,” he said. “But Suzhou, only a bit over 100 kilometers away from Shanghai, is quite a reserved, traditional city. It’s time to awaken its cultural atmosphere.”

But something this new needs time and patience.

“It took a while for the public to accept the Shanghai Biennale,” Zhang said. “In the beginning, many locals complained that they didn’t understand such bizarre artworks, and the biennale was a mess. But one day, when I saw a few middle-aged housewives visiting the biennale, I knew that we had achieved success.”

Both Buergel and Zhang agreed that “Suzhou Documents” won’t be a repetition of the “festival-like” biennales around the world. They want the exhibition to be deeper.

“Suzhou Documents” has invited the participation of nearly 40 artists from both home and abroad, some of whom have created new works for the exhibition.

There will also be historical displays alongside the main exhibition. “We can’t always look forward, and sometimes we need to look back,” Zhang said.

When Buergel included some ancient paintings in his 2007 “Kassel Documenta,” it was an eye-opener for many, triggering interesting debates on art.

“In my eyes, the past is not dead,” Buergel said. “It still influences much of the way we think and live today. Some ancient works are actually very contemporary.”

The team has already found some interesting historical material about Suzhou from the foreign perspective.

“There is a painting created by a Westerner centuries ago, even though the painter himself never visited Suzhou,” Zhang said. “He imagined what the gardens in Suzhou looked like in his mind’s eye. We want ‘Suzhou Documents’ to be small and delicate, echoing the atmosphere of the city itself.

“A biennale is not merely a big party for artists and social types, but a place to inspire all visitors,” he concluded.


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