Wenny Teo: Kaleidoscopic exhibition presents many facets of Chinese art

"Voice of the Unseen" is a sprawling survey of Chinese independent art from 1979 to the present, presented in the Tese delle Nappe, Arsenale Nord. It is an unapologetically spectacular and, indeed, encyclopaedic exhibition curated by the admirable Wang Lin. Its scale is overwhelming but the sheer diversity of works selected makes for fascinating viewing. Divided into thematic sections ("Poverty" being the most interesting of these), it mainly features an impressive line up of less known artists, most of whom have not been exhibited overseas before. While none of the individual works has the same conceptual rigour of a Huang Yongping or the formal impact of an Ai Weiwei, the exhibition as a whole hits us with the full spectrum of stylistic experimentation that has come to characterise Chinese art in a period of radical social, economic and political transformation.

The missing piece in Tian Shixin's The King series, 2009. A victim of government censorship?

Kaleidoscopic political pop, cynical realism, contemporary ink paintings, documentary photography, ruin imagery, and even a number of politically subversive pieces are equally represented. Rumour has it that some good old fashioned censorship by the Chinese commissioners of certain provocative works took place before and during the opening as well. One installation consists of cartoonish, large scale puppets of Chinese emperors from the imperial era seated atop chintzy, plush thrones. The largest seat is empty because the puppet that once occupied it—China's most famous and recent totalitarian ruler—was mysteriously "damaged" shortly before the opening.

Apparently, a daring performance conceptualised by Sun Ping and executed by Ro San (involving Ro practicing calligraphy with a brush extending from her nether regions) spontaneously and briefly took place during the opening ceremony, provoking the ire of the organisers, who were seen exchanging heated words with the curator.

It is not all about shock and spectacle, however. Wang Lin has installed an incredible and extensive archive of Chinese art catalogues, publications and magazines on site, most of which are very hard to find overseas. This extremely valuable resource allows for a deeper and more nuanced understanding of Chinese artistic development over the last 30 odd years—that is if anyone still has the energy to spend a significant amount of time in this fascinating exhibition, which lies at the far, far end of the Arsenale, just across the water from the official Chinese pavilion. The last boat shuttle leaves around five. Don't miss it.

Wenny Teo is the Iwan and Manuela Wirth lecturer of modern and contemporary Asian Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art

Published Tue, 04 Jun 2013 16:07:00 GMT

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