Wenny Teo: (Soft) Power Play at the Chinese pavilion

The theme of this year's Chinese pavilion is "Transfiguration”—an elegant English approximation of the Chinese term "bianwei" that literally means “a change of position”. There is no doubt an unfortunate irony in this, given that China's most powerful living artist and activist has not one but three exhibitions currently on display in Venice (none in the Chinese pavilion of course) but has not been allowed to leave the country since his arrest, in 2011, to oversee their installation. Ai Weiwei's conspicuous absence only serves to compound the sense that the Chinese state has not changed its position at all towards those critical of its politics, even as the Ministry of Culture is eager to show its “transfigured” attitude towards Chinese artists through its ostensible support of international events such as these. Although the Chinese  pavilion is still geographically positioned at the far end of the Arsenale, reluctant Biennale officials have finally been persuaded to remove the imposing phalanx of oil tanks that cluttered the main exhibition space in previous years.

Recently cleared away—the old oil tanks

The highly accomplished critic and curator Wang Chunchen has transformed the freed-up atrium into a series of techno-sublime viewing areas featuring immersive, 3D video installations, photographs and photo-realistic paintings.

Miao Xiaochun, Transfiguration, 3D installation

Outside, in the ever charming “Virgin Gardens”, lies a rather baffling participatory work by the veteran performance artist He Yunchang, a majestic architectural structure in the traditional Hui style by Hu Yaolin, and a translucent wall composed of bricks printed with Chinese and English words by Shu Yong. This last work is a topical encyclopaedia of 1,500 commonly used catch-phrases in China, which are then translated into English by Google, often with humorous results. While much is no doubt lost in translation, this playful lexicon of political slogans, slang words, and proverbs provides a fascinating insight into the cultural vernacular, as well as a cypher of the schizophrenic ideological constructs that underpin contemporary Chinese society.

Google translate bricks by Shu Yong

Wang’s eclectic choice of artists might appear incoherent at first, but a closer examination of the diverse range of work proves his longstanding critical interest in the ambivalent relationship between artistic action, social transformation and China's political machinations. Wang draws this out eloquently in the comprehensive and scholarly catalogue, which is a must read. The exhibition itself is certainly worth seeing, but one gets the sense that, despite Wang's best efforts and tremendous abilities as a curator, he has not quite been able to out-manoeuvre the soft powers-that-be this time.

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 11:27:00 GMT

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