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  > James Bradburne, The Centro di Contemporanea Strozzina
> Franziska Nori, China China China!!!

> Joe Martin Hill, Taking Stock
> Francesca Dal Lago, China Is So Far Away

> Wang Jianwei, Why Must We talk about“China”, now?

> Davide Quadrio, Once Again: China!

> Lothar Spree, 40+4 Art is not enough, not enough!

> Li Zhenhua, Multi-Archaelogy

> Zhang Wei, Throwing Dice

  China China China!!!
Franziska Nori
  Like an echo “China China China!!!” has been resonating for more than ten years throughout the international art world. That’s why we have chosen it as the title for the exhibition in the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina in Palazzo Strozzi, Florence (21 March – 4 May 2008).
The last decades have witnessed countless events and shows dedicated to the explosive entrance of Chinese art into the global art system. In the 1990s, these exhibitions highlighted works belonging to the so-called “Cynical Realism” and “Political Pop” movements, while since 2000 they have focused on a vast new production whose artistic language is increasingly differentiated. Over the past years, contemporary Chinese art has been subject to aggressive financial speculation on the international market. Targeted acquisitions by (mainly Western) institutions and private parties set off a spiral of rapidly increasing prices for works by Chinese artists who had been virtually unknown on the international scene only shortly before; within just a few years, this increase turned into a full-fledged boom in New York and London auctions. Meanwhile, many European galleries have opened branches in China in order to position themselves in what seemed a potential new market, given the country’s expanding wealth, as well as fertile ground for recruiting new talent to catapult into the international circuit. Some view the frenetic race for contemporary Chinese art as a bubble about to burst, claiming that international interest is already beginning to shift towards new regions. Now, although it is true that art is always a mirror of the society it emerges from and that our present day is unquestionably dominated by the economic principle and faith in the rightness of the free market, I still wonder if art can ever become a mere instrument for speculation and lose its function as a visionary act, so necessary for society, stimulating momentum, reflection and awareness.
Perhaps the “hype” factor currently associated with Chinese art, for no other reason than being Chinese, will soon fade, but nonetheless surely many artists producing valid, interesting works will survive this phase and find their natural place in the realm of art criticism and history, which, in the end, seems to be much more long-lasting than any mere logic of the market. The heterogeneity of the contemporary Chinese art can be interpreted as the expression of two distinct impulses: as a response to the outside world, and thus to the growing demand of international markets for art work coming from the so-called “emerging markets”, for now led by China and India, and secondly, as an investigation aimed within; that is, towards the cultural necessity of reflecting on their own identity. This investigation in fact can provide a critical new depth to understanding what it means to live today in a society like that of China, which finds itself in the midst of such immense, drastic changes.
For about the past twenty years, the Chinese People’s Republic has made its debut among the industrialized nations, positioning itself in a very short time second only to the United States in economic production and GDP. Thanks to the introduction of economic reforms implemented beginning in the late 1970s, China has gradually opened up to international capitalist trade based on private enterprise, abandoning the Communist-style centralized socioeconomic model. Since their introduction, these reforms have brought the Chinese population a new degree of well-being, putting an end to the dramatic conditions of poverty, especially in the rural areas. In effect, China discovered a way to make the present political system coexist with the need for international economic development, creating a mixed form that nonetheless involves direct State control of about one third of the economy, defined as “Chinese-style socialism”.
Traditionally, the two major production sectors in China were agriculture and industry, which employed and thus defined the existence of 70% of the population. In recent years, however, China has rapidly shifted the focus of its production towards greater industrialization so that the income of those working in industry-related sectors has grown much faster than that of those working in agriculture. This situation is at the heart of one of contemporary China’s most serious problems: the growing economic, social and cultural gap between the rural and urban areas.
It is not only the previously existing cities that are mushrooming uncontrollably; at the beginning of this century, the Chinese Minister of Public Affairs declared as a strategic objective the construction of 400 new cities within the year 2020, each designed for millions of inhabitants. This massive, rapid migration from the countryside into old and new urban centres creates gigantic social, infrastructural and urban planning problems, not to mention horrific ecological ones, which for the moment seem to have faded into the background, shadowed by the general positivist climate and the strong desire for progress and individual well-being.
All these changes are occurring in an extraordinarily brief time frame and in a country with many different ethnic, religious and cultural identities—a wide range of life experiences in completely distinct environmental contexts. Today’s China is shot through with countless discrepancies—the generational one, for example, which means that the old generations are often rooted in the world of tradition while the new ones, children of the reform era, experience progress as a “chance” to achieve individual well-being. It is a young generation, oriented towards international fashion and trends—as always happens everywhere—and which, in the search for its own identity, is seeking a response to the demands and possibilities of modern life, between personal ambition and social limitations, economic needs and constant innovation. Another glaring contrast is the discrepancy between the situations of the rural and urban populations. Millions of migrant workers leave the countryside and their families to work as low-cost labour in the many factories, producing the good that have conquered the international markets. Others work in the mega-cities in construction sites of the building boom yet still remain on the fringe of a rapidly rising and increasingly cosmopolitan society. This leads to the economic discrepancy between those with access to education and information who manage to find their role within the logic of global production, and those, on the other hand, who do not have such opportunities.
But it is not only China that is changing. This reawakening of the ancient Empire is sending shock waves around the world, and we have yet to fully grasp the ecological and geo-political dimensions of its consequences. China’s hunger for raw materials, the engine of its economic growth, has generated unexpected international coalitions and relations that are capable of changing the previous global balance of power quite quickly. One need merely observe the present economic policy, with Chinese oil companies present en masse in Sudan and economic agreements signed with Venezuela, Iran and Uzbekistan. In fact, China is evolving from a fundamentally rural society to an industrial one, as all the Western nations did in the past; the difference is that this transformation is not progressing gradually over a century or two as happened in Europe and the United States, but is happening in a mere few decades and with the help of all the most advanced technologies in communications, manufacture and scientific research. But what effect do all these new radical changes and opportunities have on the individual? How are men and women actually experiencing this multi-faceted, complicated reality? How can they redefine their own identity between tradition and modernity?
These are the questions that concerned us as we began developing the “China China China!!! Contemporary Chinese art beyond the global market” project. This will be the second exhibition to be held at the Centro di Cultura Contemporanea Strozzina in Palazzo Strozzi, the first and inaugural one having been “Emotional Systems” in November 2007.
Rather than calling on Western curators, individual collectors or galleries operating in China as is often done by other institutions setting up exhibitions on China, we chose to invite three representatives of the new generation of Chinese cultural operators, all of whom live and work in China, are not associated with government institutions and have worked independently for years—and at times paid the price in the form of censorship. The three very different candidates chosen—Li Zhenhua, Davide Quadrio and Zhang Wei— were each invited by the CCCS to visit Florence in order to become familiar with the Renaissance context of Palazzo Strozzi and the city in general. CCCS’s proposal was to give each of them the freedom to develop their own project to be presented in a given area of the CCCS space. Months of intense work went into the realization of the three projects, which constitute an expression and synthesis of the intercultural collaboration between CCCS and the three curators. Thus, the “China China China!!!” exhibition is divided into three distinct areas, each one expressing the personal vision of one curator, giving the audience of Palazzo Strozzi the chance to confront and explore three completely different approaches and viewpoints, which as a total experience nevertheless allow a critical reflection on the “China phenomenon”, on current cultural production and on the impact it has on the international art system. Thirty-one-year-old Li Zhenhua is from Beijing. A multimedia artist himself, for years he has also worked as a curator and producer of projects reflecting on contemporary culture. His research has focused on national and trans-national identity, land and borders, art and science. A basic theme in his curatorial work is the search for common cultural roots between different populations, both between China and its neighbours and, at the more macroscopic level, between East and West. The figure of Genghis Khan, founder of the Mongol Empire and conqueror of a vast territory during the twelfth century, is invoked as a symbol of the pioneering spirit and communication between civilizations. In Li Zhenhua’s project for CCCS in Florence, Genghis Khan is the underlying source of inspiration; the exploration of this figure, however, is not concerned so much with the historical past but serves exclusively as a way for the curator to analyze the roots of possible visions of the future of humanity. In his section, entitled “Multi-Archaeology”, the curator, along with his chosen artists—Ren Qinga, Wu Ershan, Shen Shaomin and Zhao Liang—offers site specific projects and video installations examining cultural identity, how individuals are moulded by the constant changes and by reciprocal cultural influences, and thus the relative value of concepts such as “nation” or “race”. I wish to thank the Tang Contemporary Art Center of Beijing, co-producers of the installations by Ren Qinga and Wu Ershan, created specially for the Florence exhibition.
The second curator invited by CCCS is Davide Quadrio, who is also in his thirties. Quadrio is Italian but has lived and worked for fifteen years in China and for ten in Shanghai where he founded BizArt, an independent production and exhibition space. Here he proposes an installation produced by CCCS and created specially for this exhibition. Entitled “40 + 4 Art is not enough, not enough!”, his project is a kind of anthropological mapping, almost an x-ray, of the complex reality of today’s artistic scene in Shanghai. Along with the documentary filmmaker Lothar Spree and the young film director Zhu Xiawen, Davide Quadrio interviewed forty of the city’s major artists, asking a series of pre-determined questions that had been grouped by theme on a sort of deck of cards. These thematic areas included the importance of the artist in Chinese society today, the artist’s relationship with the public, and the influence of the international art market on artistic production. Davide Quadrio’s work proposes a meta-reflection on the social relevance of contemporary art in an extremely complex society undergoing a process of profound transformation, as is the China of today.
Zhang Wei is the curator of an independent space for artistic production, “Vitamin Creative Space”, which also serves as an exhibition area, gallery and platform for cultural debate. Zhang Wei lives and works in Ghuangzhou, an industrial city with nine and a half million inhabitants living in its metropolitan area. “Throwing Dice”, the section of the CCCS exhibition curated by Zhang Wei, comprises a large number of works chosen by the curator, to which she has attributed a compelling subjective narrative element, thereby giving the audience of Palazzo Strozzi an opportunity to experience her distinct, personal sensibility. Zhang Wei is always looking for individual artistic visions that express a new subjective and individualistic feeling in response to a rapidly changing social and cultural world. She interprets each of the works on display as a microcosm in and of itself, a world apart expressing the artist’s inner life in the face of the increasingly difficult and complex world. Altogether, theses individual positions provide a glimpse of the artistic sensibility in China today.
The work of the CCCS team is centred on its role as a mediator between contemporary art work and the audience. In this particular project it has not been easy to find a way to “translate” the language of both artists and curators, as it is the offspring of a quite different tradition, iconography and social reality. For this reason, we decided to leave the task of contextualizing the works on display to our Chinese curator colleagues, accepting the difficulties in understanding that might stem from our diverse cultural attributions in the interest of greater authenticity for the voices present in the exhibition and of greater autonomy of the original project.
Like all of CCCS’s exhibitions and projects, “China China China!!!” will be accompanied by a parallel programme of weekly lectures and performances in the Strozzina. The lectures will feature Italian professors, academics and experts who will discuss a variety of subjects to help us, the European public, understand better and contextualize the Chinese art boom within the international art market.
I would like to thank Mario Cristiani of the Galleria Continua in San Gimignano for accepting to share his experience in the Beijing branch of his gallery and for making us consider the various faces of Chinese art collecting. I also thank Monica Demattè, art critic and expert in contemporary Chinese art, who will give us an overview of the art produced in China over the past twenty years. Annamaria Palermo, professor of modern and contemporary Chinese literature at the Istituto Universitario Orientale in Naples, will discuss the languages of the avantgarde in Chinese art, especially in literature, over the past thirty years. Also speaking will be Filippo Salviati, professor of Far Eastern art history in the Oriental Studies Department of the Università La Sapienza di Roma, who will offer his observations on the social, political and cultural context of China today. Giacomo Bazzani of “Renshi.org” and Vittoria Ciolini of “Dryphoto”, directors of these two associations working on mediation and cultural integration of the Chinese community in Prato (where the Chinese population strongly defines the life of the city), will offer a cross-section of issues involved in the cultural identities of first- and second-generation Chinese immigrants in Italy.
And finally, I thank the three curators of the exhibition, all the participating artists, the writers who contributed to the publication of this catalogue and the CCCS team for making this very complicated project possible.