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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 Is So Far Away: Considerations
on the Theme of a Difficult Dialogue

Francesca Dal Lago
  Having spent most of my working life abroad, including several years in China, yet staying in close contact with Italy throughout, or at least the Veneto region, lately I have noticed a sea change in the attitude of the people of my native city towards what only yesterday they would have called my “exotic” interests. At the beginning of my career I was defined as a sinologist, an unfortunate umbrella term for an expert in all things Chinese, though mainly its philology, and – even worse – referring to historical periods that predated us by at least a thousand years. When therefore I returned to Vicenza and took a stroll across the square and ran into friends or acquaintances, their customary exclamation, delivered in dialect, in the expressive sing-song lilt of the Veneto that I will not even attempt to reproduce here, went more or less like this: “Well, at least your eyes haven’t gone all slanty from eating all that rice!” Nowadays their tune has changed: they’ll lower their voices and remark, “Have you heard? The Chinese have bought the bank and the restaurant over there as well!”

Now, apart from the smiles these Goldoniesque comments might bring to the faces of a public from other places, with a higher cultural level than that of my upbringing (like the Florentines, most definitely; it is no accident that this exhibition is being held in Tuscany, and not in Venice or even Lombardy), there is, in the final analysis, only one meaning to attribute to them. And that is this: China, which everyone is going on and on about without really saying anything at all, was and is a great unknown, if not to say an utter mystery, and for the most part people’s ignorance is virtually total: a universe, and we have only scratched the surface. While the Chinese were once regularly stereotyped as cyclists and rice eaters, now they are the planet’s nouveaux riches and represent a threat to our economy (especially our small-scale economies, like the Veneto). When I started studying the Chinese language and culture, China was a country that had just emerged from Maoism, with decades of devastating political upheaval behind it. All we know about China was that there had been a revolution that to us Europeans, perhaps because it happened so far away and was harder to understand, seemed better than the Russian one. Then we knew about all those bicycles, the Great Wall, the Forbidden City, the emperors of the distant past, and then Mao Zedong. We knew the people spoke a language that was just impossible and, lest we forget, ate all that rice. China was so far away that it was perfectly suited, when you were angry and all the avenues for dialogue were closed, to telling people where to go: “Just go to China!” meant: it’s like talking to a brick wall, there’s no point, end of story. So just go packing, will you, to the ends of the earth. And stay there.

I don’t know if this expression is still used today; I do know no one tries it one me any more, since I lived in China for over nine years. Nowadays, going to China is no curse but a dream shared by many, and for some an actual trip they are planning. If I may just indulge a bit longer in these breathtaking generalizations, that remote nation where, in Italian at least, you told people to go – on a one-way ticket – now seems to be very near indeed, and it would be interesting, in this regard, to draw up a list of events that have been organized in Italy in recent years, or articles that have been published, with exactly the same title as the original “La Cina è vicina” – China is near.

Now it’s all: China, Eldorado, “a country with enormous potential,” “a market made up of a billion people,” “over a hundred million millionaires,” where Ferraris sell like hotcakes and skyscrapers are erected overnight; China, “a massive challenge for our economy,” and on and on in this vein (mind you, there’s no democracy there).

And when I try to explain to my Chinese friends in China exactly how the perception of China has changed in Italy, or at least in Vicenza, they just shake their heads. On one hand, they are pleased, of course, to find themselves better off, economically and materially speaking: to have a decent apartment instead of the room without bath or cooking facilities which served as their home and their office as well – this being the rule up to ten years ago, or maybe less. They are happy to own cars and earn enough money to invite me out to the finest restaurants whenever I pass through; and the chance to travel abroad with little hassle. On the other hand, many of them – or at least the ones I know, who belong to that middle-aged generation whose adolescence fell during the Cultural Revolution – are highly skeptical about any real progress having been made in the West’s understanding of their country and their culture, despite how often anything Chinese comes up in conversation lately. Now that we are so close to each other, in theory, it’s as if we can see more clearly how far apart we still are.

It must be admitted that our culture (the European culture, in which I include North America as well, as far as “high culture” is concerned) has never considered “others” as real partners in dialogue on an equal footing (just take “the others among us” like the Jews, for example, and how they were treated). Our culture has only turned to others to obtain whatever it happened to deem interesting at a precise moment in history. Without straying into the realm of philosophy (which is not my field, of course, but could certainly broaden the terms of this debate), and remaining within the ambit of the arts, which is better suited to my remarks here, we might just consider the rage for chinoiserie in the eighteenth century. Presently I live in Holland and have visited the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam on many occasions; it has a lovely collection of Delft pottery. Now some of the plates and bowls on display look as if they are 100 % Chinese; some of them even bear made-up ideograms that may be unforgivable as calligraphy but are exquisite as a Western decoration. It is pleasant to imagine this lovely china gracing a pretty room in a Dutch house overlooking a canal, and bathed in Vermeer’s cold north light, back in a time when the East Indies Company virtually shuttled between Asia and Europe, brining home rich samplings of the most fascinating and exotic wares imaginable. The passion for these Chinese products – and porcelain in particular – was so overriding that the Dutch were driven to reproduce the blue and white aesthetic which, as we know, became one of the key motifs of the Dutch national identity.

Just outside Vicenza, the small and lovely city of my birth, on the hill behind Andrea Palladio’s Rotonda there is another noble residence, the Villa Valmarana ai Nani, which is famous for its frescoes by Giambattista and Giandomenico Tiepolo. In the guest quarters, painted by Giandomenico in 1757, there is a room called the Stanza delle Cineserie, where China is depicted in the most fantastical ways, which are essentially based on the visual material and the fancy goods available in that are: prints, most likely, as the pagodas and the monochrome landscapes that appear in the background would suggest; china statuettes, which served as models for the figures (the famous “mandarins”) that peopled the scenes (not all of them with ‘slanty’ eyes, however); silk fabrics and drapes (not very different, to be sure, from the ones worn by Venetian nobles in the 1700s and portrayed in the adjoining rooms). The bedroom is small, cozy, and utterly lovely. The view from its windows is of the Valley of Silence and the soft, rounded contours of the Venetian hills. Everything is aesthetically very refined but not overly lavish, as befits a country home.

Certainly, the Venetian nobility of the Republic of Venice in the period shortly before it came to its ignominious end may have well more stories to tell than the China ruled by Qianlong, an emperor who practically stands as an oriental version of Queen Victoria, in terms of the length of his reign, the breadth of his views, and the geographical extension of his realm (he ruled from 1735 to 1796 and abdicated out a sign of respect, as to not reign longer than his grandfather). Qianlong was the last great Chinese emperor, perhaps one of the most extravagant, in his intellectual ambitions: he had “cultural advisors” at his court, European Jesuits who tutored him in mathematics, geometry, and astronomy, and built him a miniature, baroque Versailles on the outskirts of Beijing (to each his Louis the Fourteenth, after all).

Indeed, the parallel careers of chinoiserie and rococo are no historical accident; at that precise moment in history, what interested us about China was just this “baroque” aesthetic produced by an imperial dynasty, the Qing, that was not even really Chinese but Manchurian – which, considering the Han Chinese’s very low threshold of tolerance for other ethnic groups, is like saying a group of nomadic barbarians sweeping down from the north (managing to rule for almost three centuries, however). The true Chinese aesthetic was that of the Ming, the last native dynasty, deposed by these very Manchurians in 1644; it was much simpler and more linear, almost minimalist, compared to the Qing. Nevertheless, when Europeans refer to Chinese porcelain in general, they think of the highly decorated kind first of all: the blue and white, as we have seen, or the various rose ‘families’ or green ‘families,’ which are purely in the Manchurian taste. They don’t think of celadon or the dehua porcelain also known as blanc de Chine, extremely refined and rigorously monochrome.

The fashion for chinoiserie has never died, undergoing a number of reincarnations that, for the most part, have always been well received by the public (and the market) in the West. From the japonisme dear to the impressionists’ hearts, to Zen’s influence on abstract expressionists, we have always been very good at taking what we needed without a thought for the rest, without looking at the larger picture. This doesn’t mean that no great art was to come out of this practice of ours, just that it was undeniably an art that – like its creators and its public – showed little concern for the problem of that “the others” were really like: the others who had invented the angular perspectives of Van Gogh, or the calligraphic sinuosity of certain works by Jackson Pollock. The indifference was mutual, and it certainly didn’t help that in more recent times China was as if hermetically sealed off from the Western world, for roughly thirty years. Its being a Communist country for half a century, throughout the Cold War, didn’t help either. And yet, as China has progressively opened to the world at large over the last thirty years, we certainly haven’t been doing our homework.

It often happens that when I’m in Beijing chatting with the taxi drivers while we’re stuck in traffic (which has become a nightmare), when I reluctantly confess to being Italian (as I dread to be drawn into extremely technical and for me impenetrable discussions of our entire soccer season, from the Premier League down), the drivers regularly point out to me that I do come from the birthplace of Leonardo, Michelangelo, and Titian. And now allow me to ask my dear readers (very few of whom, I fear, are taxi drivers), if they recognize these names: Ni Zan, Shi Tao, and Dong Qichang. I could be wrong, of course (and in my heart of hearts I hope I am), but I have the slight suspicious that not very many are aware that the above are some of the greatest painters in the Chinese tradition, absolutely comparable to our own great masters, many of whose works are on display very near here, at the Uffizi: comparable in terms of creative genius, technical skill, and intellectual depth. To tell the truth, from a Chinese point of view, in a sense our great Renaissance painters are little more than expert draftsmen, while theirs were also literati, intellectuals, theoreticians, and often politicians as well. “Renaissance men,” as it were.

Now although it may not be readily apparent, all of the above is strictly connected to the socio-artistic context underlying an exhibition like the one presented in the Strozzina spaces. The recent frenzied interest – economic, for the most part – that has been aroused by the explosion of the “China phenomenon,” has completely disoriented the West. What? A country that was nothing but bicycles and rice just a few years ago now has a GNP that is galloping past that of the United States (9.6 %, according to news.xinhuanet.com/English/2006-12/content_5495645.htm)! Our economic experts are quietly aghast at this phenomenon. Obviously, something must be done: exactly what, however, appears to be hard to decide or discern accurately, especially since the experts tend to think it shouldn’t take much; our theories and our terms of comparison will surely explain the whole story and convince the Chinese to buy everything from jewelry to smelting works. But the Chinese don’t like to waste money like the Americans, and their personal idea of luxury is almost never flaunted the way ours is. Oh, that’s right: they’re different, aren’t they?

As far as contemporary art is concerned, the situation is practically the same. Right now, the prices that a certain kind of production, mainly pictorial, can fetch (indeed, you could call it “export painting, “ the way they said “export china” in the 1700s to talk about the porcelain produced in China from designs and decorations provided by the West), and the “China phenomenon” in general, have drawn curators, collectors, and gallery owners to the Middle Kingdom from all over the world. Although I haven’t actually lived in China for years, what my artist friends in Beijing tell me when I go back is that many of them are practically living under siege, with the collectors, Chinese or not, dying to own the paintings, outside the door. I have heard about waiting lists (at least a year, I believe) to purchase works by certain artists (and I don’t mean those that command prices of over a million dollars); basically, the work is sold before it has even been made, and purchased sight unseen. On the name alone. And it goes without saying that you no longer see any works in the artists’ studios – not like when you used to drop in on an artist and chat for hours, drinking beer, smoking, eating sunflower seeds, and talking about this and that, and sometimes art, too. Now many works go straight from the artist’s studio to the collector’s warehouse, and that’s the last anyone sees them – at least, any of the public for whom those works ought to have been created.

If artworks do make it to the West, the majority of them have been produced with this particular market and public in mind (“export painting,” as we have seen above): which translates into allusions to dragons, bound feet, an S & M nude here and there; Mao, any way you like him, in all the colors of the rainbow and in every possible get-up; and lots of red, loads of stars; mediocre renderings of the Cultural Revolution’s iconography; and a lavish use of citation of famous paintings from East and West, “re-interpreted” in postmodern Chinese mode. Take the artist Yue Minjun, for example, who revisits Manet’s Execution of Maximilian, and when it gets around that there could be a hidden allusion to the Tian’anmen Massacre, the painting beats the record for the highest price ever fetched for a Chinese painting (up to now) by roughly six million dollars…

This is what you see and all you see on this side of China, and not only in Italy: never a solo exhibition (unless it happens to be a pet project of New York’s orientalist bourgeoisie, like Cai Guoqiang, to whom a show is dedicated at the New York Guggenheim this February); never a ‘theme’ exhibition, never a particular slant. No, inevitably it’s just “China!” with that exclamation point, often made even more topical by adverbs of time like “now,” or verbs like “go,” or rhyming couplets, at least in Italian (la Cina è vicina, China is near). In any event, associated at all times with slogans that grip the imagination. It’s as if another continent put on one exhibition after another, the only common thread at the curator’s disposal being geography: like “France Now!” or, a better analogy, “Europe Now!”

The most important thing that is lacking is the historical consciousness of how we ever got to that “Now!” When you stand before Botticelli’s Spring in admiration, you usually know that Giotto and the Sienese School came well before, Piero della Francesca just before, and then Titian and Caravaggio. The same holds for modern art: the Futurists, for example, who emerge after the Cubists, but at the same time as the Surrealists. That is to say, art is understood as the product of a historical and social context, but above all an aesthetic context that has favored that particular, exclusive form. Such an awareness also helps us to grasp the exceptional nature of the art – because we have terms of comparison. When it comes to contemporary Chinese art, however (you never hear about modern art; perhaps there isn’t any?), these basic prerequisites for a rigorous aesthetic and historical-artistic appraisal are nowhere to be seen. We suspend our judgment. After all, they’re Chinese.

An assortment of elements that seem Chinese will do just fine, at least in our limited conception of what China should seem to be (those “slanty eyes” I mentioned at the start). Then it’s on to waving them around with a lot of red and exclamation points ad infinitum; arranging exhibitions that are a cross between a cultural event and a trade fair, with a pinch of this and a dash of that – a Beijing artist here, a Cantonese over there. And everybody’s happy. Because when it “seems Chinese,” China wows everybody. More importantly, it’s still far away, in a dream dimension, amidst fantasies of empire; not dangerously near and so extreme anxiety-producing. This China is a mirror that reflects our fantasies, our expectations, and our fears. What the “Chinese” actually think, what these particular artists feel and experience from day to day, and what they really have to say about themselves, generally does not concern us since “we know it already.” As Zhang Peili, one of the most famous and committed video artists on the contemporary scene, recently put it during a conference held in Holland, in the Westerners’ minds Chinese artists are never individuals, at least as far as the curators are concerned. They are always considered collectively and collectively only, as an ethnic group with its geographical base in the People’s Republic of China (even if artists living in Europe and America are thrown in, as well, as if it were the same thing).

I have not had the opportunity to examine the content of the exhibition I am writing about here. All I have been provided is the names of a number of artists, but not the specific content of the works that will be displayed, nor have I been told whether or not there are specific strategies that will dictate the arrangement of the spaces and the works inside the spaces, beyond the organization of the show around three distinct curators. I cannot, therefore, comment on the formal or aesthetic aspects of the event. I may, however, venture the opinion that the idea of involving curators who actually work in China strikes me as a great leap forward, indeed, compared to the one-week tours that Western art professionals seem to think are enough to experience and “master” the situation in contemporary Chinese art today, taking their cues, perhaps, from a list of names thoughtfully provided by others, or picking out artists when leafing through the pages of Flash Art, Artforum, or even Art News.

The one project I know the most about, “40 + 4,” uses a series of interviews to document the art scene in a specific place (not “China!”, but one city, Shanghai), and at a precise moment in history (now), by putting an identical series of questions to artists of varying ages, styles, and schools; selected – Davide Quadrio declares – arbitrarily. (And, in fact, there are only two women). This strikes me as a simple idea, an absolutely necessary one, in truth; I’d go so far as to say that it’s an obvious idea as well, and yet no one has ever thought of it before, not even in other geographical contexts. How obvious: to seriously, patiently, and above all humbly document the state of art in China today, by starting with the grass roots, so to speak: with what the actual protagonists think, how they live, and what they have to say. As Lothar Spree explains in his introduction to the project, regarding the filming technique, the scenes were shot deliberately leaving out any hint of the exotic or the underground, without any decorative embellishment, and always in intimate, quiet places, to focus the public’s attention on the words that are spoke instead of distracting them with all those trappings that usually make it impossible for Westerners to see China for what it is, and not for what it should be.

The general design of this exhibition is quite stimulating, and as far as I can tell, absolutely new in Italy. Let us hope it will leave its mark. But it would also be intriguing to solicit the public’s comments to see how willing it is to accept a China that doesn’t “seem” like China. And in so doing, finally learn whether or not that China can really interest us and fascinate us, even when it is ‘near’ instead of ‘far away.’