Wang Chunchen

In an exclusive interview, CAFA ART INFO met curator and critic Wang Chunchen, recently nominated as Curator of the Chinese Pavilion at the 55th Venice Biennale opening June.

Themed “The Encyclopedic Palace”, the 55th Venice Biennale will be held from June 1st to November 24th 2013; China will participate in this international event of contemporary art in the form of a National Pavilion. Commissioned by China’s Ministry of Culture, “Transfiguration – the Chinese Pavilion of the 55th Venice Biennale” will be held by the China Arts and Entertainment Group in the Venice Virgin Garden and Armory from May 29 through to November 24. Wang’s proposal themed “transfiguration” is selected following an assessment by the experts.

Wang Chunchen is the Head of the Department of Curatorial Research of CAFA Art Museum at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts Beijing, as well as an Adjunct Curator of The Eli and Edythe Broad Art Museum of Michigan State University, and is known for his contributions to the arts via his own body of works, publications and curatorial experiences. His critical essays are collected in The Democracy of Art and The Political Images. In 2009 he was honored with the coveted Chinese Contemporary Art Award which is echo by the numerous awards he has received for his input in Art Criticism. The result of this award is the writing and publication of Art Intervenes in Society.

First of all, could you please introduce the selection process and overview of the curator and artists of the Chinese Pavilion in the 55th Venice Biennale, how did you choose “transfiguration” the theme of the Chinese Pavilion, and what is the relationship between the theme and “the Encyclopedic Palace” ?

The National Pavilion and thematic Exhibition are two parts of the Venice Biennale. China has participated in the Venice Biennale in the National Pavilion five times since joining it in 2003. When China’s Ministry of Culture initially collected programs from the public at the end of last year, I submitted a curatorial program, my thematic idea “transfiguration” won recognition from the jury, and I was notified that I was officially announced to be the curator of the Chinese Pavilion in the 55th Venice Biennale. On the one hand, the theme of the Chinese Pavilion would echo the Biennale, on the other hand, it is my thinking combined with the status of Chinese contemporary cultural development.

There is a variety of exhibition mechanisms in Europe including biennale, literature exhibitions, manifesto exhibitions, and etc. in its own cultural context. Massimiliano Gioni, an international curator, is the chief curator of the Venice Biennale. The concept of “the Encyclopedic Palace” was diverted from the supposition of 1955, put forward by Marino Auriti, a self-taught Italian-American artist. He wanted to build a space to display all human wisdom. This idea seems to be still the same meaning – concerned with the human mental states of diversity.

“Transfiguration” originated from the English language, and its roots contain the meaning of “figure” or “image”, which coincide with the spirit of “the confluence of the dreams and images of humans”, advocated by the 55th Venice Biennale, themed “The Encyclopedic Palace”; at the same time, “transfiguration” is intended to offer innovation, initiative, and creativity, placing themselves along with the changes due to development, showcasing the cultural and ideological diversities of the contemporary world at an exhibition, together with other countries across the world.

7 artists including He Yunchang, Hu Yaolin, Miao Xiaochun, Shu Yong, Tong Hongsheng, Wang Qingsong, and Zhang Xiaotao were officially announced as being invited to feature their works. Could you briefly describe their creations, as well as the reasons as to why you choose them.

Biennale is not only a concept of time, but also a cultural concept, thus you have to consider what art should include, what is the difference from the previous exhibitions. Solicitation of the Chinese Pavilion of the 55th Venice Biennale is clearly required by the list of participating artists.

I have known about the seven artists that I proposed, who all have their own language of art, demonstrating their visual imagination and wisdom through a variety of art forms. Some of them are well-known to the public, while others are relatively unknown. In addition, the selection is also associated with exhibition space of the Chinese Pavilion, for example, how to deal with a big tank in the middle of the venue? This requires of a huge visual image in the curator’s mind, and he needs to seek the echoes of the relations between dynamic and static states, as well as performance methods and feelings, among a variety of artworks. I hope it brings everyone into a way of thinking about the state of our own cultural spirit. I believe that the collection of the seven artists will give you an impressive appearance.

The space supplied by the committee suits new media visual arts, in this field, I am more familiar with Miao Xiaochun and Zhang Xiaotao’s works. The research of Visual images is beyond the traditional way, and reflects Chinese artists and even the development of art in China. Hu Yaolin has completed a lot of fieldwork on private houses that are scattered and about to be demolished. He had collected a lot of items from complete houses to wooden components years ago. He brought everything back to Beijing, he recovered the residential form. For the badly damaged houses, he just added some modern steel structures such as bracing, as well as some glass doors and windows, adding a modern style to the ancient houses. Some are inherently impacted, without any change. In recent years, the whole society has been concerned with the protection of cultural heritage. The governments of many provinces have ordered that ancient buildings cannot be carried out of the provinces. Currently, a lot of people are engaged in this work. The theme of Venice Biennale is “the Encyclopedic Palace”, and I believe that our houses can also be treated as a form of “palaces”. From the perspective of symbol, there is an echo between Chinese residential and the Pantheon in Rome. This kind of work is denied as an art form by some people, however, on the other side, to recover and protect residential heritage is a positive action in itself, it is a form of art itself. The details of the works present have not been determined yet, a press conference will be held in mid-March, to announce the progress to the media.

The curator and artists, participating in the Chinese Pavilion of the 54th Venice Biennale caused a very heated discussion within art circles and aroused a lot of debate, there was severe criticism and even verbal abuse, and ridicule to the system and results of the selection of curators and artists with the final effect of the show possibly suffering. How do you view contemporary Chinese art and artists, who are “representatives of the nation”, standing at the most advanced stage in international art? As we know, one who serves as the curator of the Chinese Pavilion has an honorable, difficult and even embarrassing role, and all the previous curators have said, “he who serves as the curator will be scolded”. Now you are standing on the cusp, how do you handle and deal with criticism?

Through the selection by experts and the program of public solicitation, I believe that the selection mechanism of curator is constantly maturing. In recent years, the importance of the cultural platform is increasingly recognized. It is normal that various views are put forwards, and I also have my own views on the Venice Biennale. It shows that people are concerned with this issue, and a positive attitude is a good starting point. As a curator, it is necessary to possess an established and developed education and an acceptance of different cultural perspectives and cultural attitudes, as well as a tolerant attitude. Our exhibition is inevitably inadequate, since participating in the Venice Biennale has not been over a long time. With more and more exhibitions, we shall be more familiar with the exhibition mode, absorption of previous experiences and the views from the community, I believe that the Chinese Pavilion will continually improve.

We cannot expect a perfect exhibition, but the exhibition theme should echo or be close to the chief theme. The differences of this exhibition, in fact, originate from the different themes. Different expressive content and application of artists rely on different themes. In an exhibition, as an organic form, each work is capable of expressing the thoughts of the curator: based on existing aspects, how to make them echo with each other in the same exhibition space? How to embody the grasp of the chief theme, to build the relationship of the dynamic and static, and intertwine with the interactive and ornamental, between the different works, in a systematic way? Certainly I hope that my starting point takes into consideration the concerns of the public, but could not expect everyone to do this. Too many artists in China, but too small an exhibition space it is, it is only a drop in the ocean to symbolize the performance of art of the changes of China. When selecting artists, the artists involved in the various aspects and multi fields as far as possible were selected, to the largest extent to express the diversification in China, and the personalities of artists. In the artistic issue, it is not necessary that one plus one is two, so it is normal that there are some different opinions and perspectives on the exhibition at the Chinese Pavilion.

What about your view of the Venice Biennale, and why Chinese people have complex international prizes such as Nobel, Oscar, and the Venice Biennale?

In the 1980s, the Nobel prize was far away from us, a lot of people had discussed whether Lu Xun or Beidao should win the Nobel? People were considering the relationships between China and the world, from the starting point. Now, Mo Yan wins the Nobel Prize for Literature, which is actually very close to us, overcoming that mysterious feeling. Working at the CAFA Art Museum, I come into contact with a lot of international artists and directors of art museums. We have a very peaceful attitude to the exchanges, and want to know how others participate in the arts, including the arts from Southeast Asia and India. Though we desire attention does not mean that we are not confident; if no one is concerned with us does not mean that our art is nonsense. It is certain that, as a person living in the community, an artist hopes his/ her works become known, and wishes to share and communicate with others through the works. Our international relations are not only the relations with the west, but with the whole world. Today, globalization is no longer just a slogan, and we have frequent communication throughout the world.

More and more Chinese artists step onto the international stage, exchanging with the world through art, their “Chinese arts” have become a part of the art world. In exchange, the differences continue to appear. On the other hand, in a certain sense, art does not need to be recognized. For example, when Pollock started action painting, no one agreed with him, and it was his perseverance that made him gradually widely accepted. Audiences under different cultural backgrounds, have different evaluation of the art form that they never seen before. Our cultural attitudes are more and more peaceful; if our art is not understood, doesn’t mean people disagree with it. With the premise that we pay attention to ourselves, it will develop so we gradually agree when displaying ourselves through exhibitions, expression and exchange. Understanding and comparison of the world offers benefits to locate a special position for Chinese art, to determine their own value, and to find a new way for Chinese contemporary art.

What do you focus on with your curatorial work, and could you tell us the characteristics of your curatorial ideas different from the previous exhibitions? What do you highlight in Chinese contemporary art, and could you foresee the response and cognitive appreciation of Western audiences to this exhibition?

The Venice Biennale is a platform to show what I am concerned with and my thoughts over many years. The world is changing, China is changing, and we are changing. The exhibition themed “transfiguration”, pays more attention to the contemporary, and the perspectives of artists in observing contemporary art, “Transfiguration” is a glossary of the history of Western art, often translated as Christ’s appearance, which is the theme of many paintings in Western art history, it is a word with a double meaning, including the field of belief and visual aspect. It is also a vocabulary of the books of Danto’s art philosophy, and I have always admired the word, which is used to describe a state of contemporary art. In the Sino-Western art worlds, the discussion about what is art has never stopped, which is not only the discussion of pure theory, but also the issue that is often encountered during the art practice. When a work is not counted as an artwork in the traditional sense is presented on a platform mechanism like the biennale, it touches audiences and is thought provoking, it is related to art. It plays a role in promoting the way people think about the a problem.

In additional to this, what other issues concern you, do you have other projects?

All artists of our generation are thinking about things. We have no conclusive answer on the characteristics of the times, but each artist’s works reflects some of the characteristics of contemporary art. Recently, I was hired by the Broad Art Museum initiating an art museum to invite curators across the world to participate in the planning and exhibition of the museum. They want to know how Chinese curators look at issues. Generally, a project takes some years in planning for an art museum. The museum invites me to curate a series of exhibitions, and to put forward a holistic concept. After thinking and communicating, finally a five-year series of exhibitions was decided upon, entitled “History of the Mind in Contemporary Chinese Art”, including Re-China, Young Mind, Young Art, Spiritual like Mountains, Burning Sun: Chinese New Generation of Female Art, and Art as Art of Art. Starting from this year, an exhibition of three months duration is held each year, then tours to other museums in the United States. For example, Spiritual as Mountains is concerned with the changes of the attitude to nature of the Chinese people over the years. There are a lot of landscape poetry and painting in the history of China, which are not only methods of expression, but also promotion for us to explore the spiritual and cultural core. Why do Chinese people have such a strong complex relationship with nature? In the discourse of contemporary art, the natural landscape mood is not considered as a topic. However, I hope that through the exhibition we could discuss how contemporary artists deal with the issue of “nature”. The change of sexuality is also included in the changes of the world, and female art is a crucial dimension in contemporary arts, and representative of a spiritual pursuit. The themes of four exhibitions focus on the status and specific exhibitions, and when the last one was proposed, the colleagues of the museum gave an enthusiastic response. The first word of art is not representative of art, the second one represents a method, and the third one represents the destination, although they do not respectively mean art, they are related to art when they are set together.

There are final awards for the National Pavilion in the Venice Biennale, and the Chinese Pavilion has never won it, do you know the reason?

Chinese artists are not been participating in the biennale for very long and we have our perspectives on the observation of art, which is different from the international perspective. To some degree, the awards of the National Pavilion are referred to as political and international tendencies. Our destination is to show the world the diversity and the development course of contemporary Chinese art. Chinese artists have won the awards themselves in the biennales, such as Cai Guoqiang’s “Courtyard of Collection Rent”, except for the form of the National Pavilion. China may gain more rewards in the future, but we will not force ourselves to be the winner when serving as curator of the exhibition.

It is reported that Ai Weiwei is represented in the German Pavilion of the year, in participating in the biennale. What do you think of this phenomenon?

It may be a new method for the German Pavilion to change the ways of its exhibition. More and more national pavilions begin to invite foreign artists to participate in their exhibitions. Because the national pavilion is just a form of exhibition, the content could be very international. Chinese Taiwan also invited several foreign artists, also causing a great controversy in local art circles. As for the future of the Chinese Pavilion, if it becomes necessary, we may also invite foreign artists. Because Ai Weiwei is a well-known subject, the case that he represents in the German Pavilion will surely causes fierce repercussions.Standing in different positions, people have different views and attitudes. In my view, first of all he is an artist from China, and a member of the group of Chinese artists. It can be said that Ai Weiwei’s works is representative of an attitude in Germany, rather than German art.

The Venice Biennale has a history of hundreds of years, as the originator of the exhibition mechanism of the biennale. The biennale of CAFA Art Museum is upcoming and starting in September, at the same time, there are a lot of different domestic biennales emerging, what do you think of the mechanism of biennale, what is your idea about how to continue with Chinese biennales?

Biennial model was recently developed in China and we are constantly altering it. From my experience, I believe that a biennale structure of integrity must be distinct, and of a clear theme; the relationships between individual artist and works are organic. The supports of the community and cultural policy play an important role in a successful biennale. For example, CAFAM Biennale is strongly supported by many public-spirited individuals.

As you said, in recent years, a variety of biennales were held in China, which shows that in the domestic scene, more and more people are aware of the importance of the biennale as a cultural structure. Although the majority are criticized, the critics and the public are increasingly accepting of them from the diachronic perspective. In the exhibition, pure realism painting has given up its domination, relatively unfamiliar abstract installations and new media occupy more spaces. It shows that we have a more open cultural attitude, and should continue to strengthen the cultural openness. Chinese curators should pay more attention to the state of the development of contemporary art, displaying the art and art-related phenomenon, and the multi-dimensional expression of the artistic diversity. Biennales held in different places, should be based on local characteristics, organizing the biennales in a variety of styles.

It is reported that there are three parallel exhibitions planned by Wang Lin, Lv Peng, and Xiao Ge, composed of the Chinese part in the Venice Biennale, what is the relationship between them and the Chinese Pavilion?

The parallel exhibition is also a part of the Venice Biennale, but it is not directly associated with the Chinese Pavilion: we have different organizers and operational processes. With the unified application to the local government, and approved by the organizing committee, parallel exhibitions independently find their locations. The Venice government treats Biennale as an activity combining tourism and exhibition, and certainly hopes that more exhibitions become possible, to attract more attention from across the world. It is certain that parallel exhibitions are also important in complementing the outlook of Chinese contemporary art. For example, Wang Lin’s “Chinese Independent Art Exhibition: Never Presented Voice”, which is called large scale oversea group exhibition of the greatest number of artists ever in the history of China. Lv Peng hopes to strengthen the international weight of Chinese artists once again through the exhibition. In addition, it is said that there are a total of eight exhibitions, related to Chinese art. Thus, the collective debut of Chinese contemporary artists is of benefit to the world to understand the diversity of contemporary art in China, to help the world understand contemporary Chinese art and culture.

Journalist: Zhu Li/Transcripts: Sheng Yang

Translation: Chen Peihua/Edited by Sue Wang/CAFA ART INFO

Courtesy Wang Chunchen and CAFA ART INFO, Image Courtesy the 55th Venice Biennale, for further information please visit

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