Toward the end of the opening party for the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Biennale, a Chinese man, dressed in full miner gear, appeared in the garden where the reception was being held and proceeded to lie down on the ground. Most of the attendees—guests included Paolo Barrata, president of the Biennale, as well as the Chinese ambassador to Italy—ignored the demonstration, but a few stopped to take photos.
The man’s name, it was later revealed, was Zhang Jianhua, and his performance was part of a show provocatively titled “Voice of the Unseen: Chinese Independent Art 1979/Today.” “Voice” is a “collateral event,” one of the many exhibitions in Venice not directly affiliated with any national government, and Jianhua’s lying-down act gave every indication of being a classic piece of protest art.
In fact, “Voice of the Unseen” is only marginally more independent than the Chinese Pavilion itself: It was co-sponsored by the Guangdong Art Museum, a state-sanctioned institution. Despite the irreverence of his gesture (which he repeated, to general titters, in the middle of the “Voice” panel discussion), Zhang Jianhua appeared to have received at least the nominal benison of the powers that be. Just as China has learned how to accommodate and even harness the power of the free market, the People’s Republic of China (PRC) has found a way to make room for artistic expressions that seem, at first, to indict the status quo. On closer inspection, however, the political agency of most Chinese artists has been all but neutralized, more or less with their own consent. The offerings in Venice this year bore this out. And, even if you don't buy into the Biennale's hype, that's a shame.
The Biennale is almost unquestionably the world’s most important non-commercial art event, and the Chinese presence this year is bigger than ever before. An estimated 200 Chinese artists are showing in the city, and the official pavilion, according to the Biennale president, is the largest of any nation. On the Grand Canal, a Belgian foundation that promotes Chinese art in the West anchored an enormous yacht for hosting high-profile meetings and lunches.
The political agency of most Chinese artists has been all but neutralized.
Yet for all that, there’s no knowing for sure whether what the world sees at the Biennale is a legitimate reflection of Chinese art today, or simply the version approved for public consumption by the Ministry of Culture. The People’s Republic, after all, is still a country governed by a repressive bureaucratic autocracy, where censorship is a way of life. As the Biennale preview was getting into full swing, on the anniversary of the 1989 Tiananmen Square demonstrations, the government banned the word “today” as an Internet search term.
Chinese art in Venice wasn’t always stuck in this double bind. In 1993, when the first Chinese artists were included in the Biennale’s multi-country International Exhibition, Venice was the best place to see what was really bubbling beneath the surface in the PRC. (Two decades later, bizarrely, that ’93 exhibition is being celebrated in another collateral show of Chinese art, “Passage to History.”) But with the debut of the first official Chinese pavilion in 2003, the PRC government began a process of co-opting, if not quite silencing, political art at the festival.
“It was important, but it’s not anymore,” notes Hong Kong-based curator Pi Li of the Biennale. (Pi Li also worked for years on the mainland.) As he describes it, Chinese officialdom has managed to blunt the political content of the art at the festival without resorting to direct censorship: It has simply left the Chinese presence in Venice largely in the hands of major Chinese art-market players, ensuring that even politically minded artists are thoroughly established, respectable, and anodyne. “Most people think the art represents the official taste,” he said. “It doesn’t. It represents the commercial taste.” It’s a conundrum that’s hardly unfamiliar to Western art-watchers.
Of course, it’s tough to illustrate a chilling effect. When it’s effective, it should be hardly perceivable. But look at what separates Hong Kong artists from their contemporaries on the mainland. It is fairly simple, says Pi Li: “You have free expression here.”
Alexandra Munroe is Senior Curator of Asian Art at New York’s Guggenheim Museum, identifies a special genus of Chinese artist: “The accepted rebels,” as she calls them, are artists who manage to make political statements while remaining in good odor with the regime. The artist Zhang Xiaotao, for example, can mount an animated video in the current pavilion, a dark allegory that seems to criticize the dehumanizing effects of industrialization and global capitalism; but it’s a critique that’s received the imprimatur of the very Chinese authorities responsible for the country’s industrial “transfiguration.”
Precisely how such artists strike this balance is an enduring mystery—perhaps even to them—because in China the rules are constantly in flux. “Right now, with the new government, we might be seeing a period of more tolerance,” notes Munroe. “That could change at any minute. It’s completely unpredictable.”
That rules exist, however, is beyond dispute. Conspicuously absent from both the Chinese pavilion and any of the Chinese-themed collateral exhibitions is China’s most famous and most politically daring (if ambiguously regarded by art critics) artist: Ai Weiwei. Ai has been forbidden to travel abroad since his 2011 arrest for tax evasion and other alleged “economic crimes”; but while he is not present in the flesh during the Biennale opening, the artist is nonetheless everywhere in Venice this year, with three separate displays of his work. One of them, a piece called Bang—a cascading assemblage of wooden stools—is actually featured in the German Pavilion.1 Ai Weiwei’s two other installations appear in independent exhibitions outside the main body of the Biennale, one, titled Disposition, on the southern island of Giudecca and the other, S.A.C.R.E.D, in the Chiesa San’Antonin east of the Piazza San Marco. The latter comprises six large steel containers with small windows cut into them, revealing a series of miniature vignettes that capture in stunning detail various scenes from the artist’s two-month imprisonment. Ai Weiwei’s mother, who attended the opening of the exhibition, wept when she saw the harsh treatment her son had endured during his captivity, and the piece—especially seen against the decorative baroque interior of the church—is one of the best things to come out of this year’s festival.
Yet as powerful as Ai’s work is, the fact that a single artist has managed to dominate the public discourse on Chinese art is unfortunate, since there’s plainly a lot more to the art scene in China. On the last day of the preview, just outside the Pavilion Gardens, a young woman wearing a mock PRC military tunic above a pair of red panties kneeled for twenty minutes at a time on a ridged board of hard plastic. When she stood up, as she did at intervals in a slow, ritual motion, lookers-on could see the deep impressions the ridges left in the flesh of her knees. It was a tremendously effective piece—a willed enactment, strangely eroticized, of military discipline. Who was she, and what precisely was she trying to say? She declined to answer any questions. Hers was a true voice of the unseen, and it was silent.
The German curator, Susan Gaensheimer, claims that both the location and the inclusion of a non-German artist is part of a broader indictment of the idea of nationhood, and she denies that Ai Weiwei’s presence constitutes a broadside aimed specifically at China. “It’s not my role to act at a political level,” said Gaensheimer. The criticism, nevertheless, seems fairly implicit.
Ian Volner has written articles on architecture, art and urbanism for Harper’s, WSJ, and Interior Design, and is a contributing editor at Surface Magazine. He lives in Manhattan.