'Now is the Time' for an artistic pilgrimage
With a history of over 6,000 years in the northern suburb of Tongxiang, Zhejiang Province, Wuzhen has retained its original layout, appearance, and lifestyle as a water town.
The rivers are lined with well-preserved Ming Dynasty buildings and crisscrossed by stone bridges. Wuzhen also features a unique 1,800-meter waterside pavilion, for which the town has been named “the last preserve of Chinese river culture.”
However in recent years, the town has begun to shed its sleepy veneer and become one of the most appealing venues in China through the Wuzhen Drama Festival, opening of the Mu Xin Art Museum and the Wuzhen Contemporary Art Exhibition.
Last week, the second Wuzhen Contemporary Art Exhibition opened in the southern canal town.
The combination of contemporary art fused with an ancient water town conjures up a magical and surprising ambiance. The artworks are scattered around the North Silk Factory, Rice Barn and West Scenic District.
Visitors to Wuzhen find themselves bumping into art unexpectedly — in the theater, in the square and sometimes just under their feet. An art map ensures you will not miss a single piece, but takes away much of the element of surprise.
This year, the theme of the exhibition is “Now is the Time.”
By inviting 48 contemporary artists to the main exhibition and nominating 12 artists to the youth program, a lot of thought deals with the troubling state of globalization and rapid transformation of the world stage, according to Feng Boyi, curator of the exhibition.
A state of confusion
“We thought an old era had ended, but the new era does not seem to have yet begun. The future is fraught with uncertainty, alongside thorny questions related to borders, limits and disconnections. We have plunged down into the cracks in temporal order into a state of confusion, discontent, and anxiety. Exactly how far off is this future of ours?” said Feng.
There are not many big names at this year’s exhibition. Some might still recall the first exhibition in 2016, which was dominated by a group of heavyweight names such as Damien Hirst, Florentijn Hofman, Ann Hamilton and Olafur Eliasson.
Perhaps it is a good beginning in that the Wuzhen Contemporary Art Exhibition aims to go deeper into domestic art this year rather than borrow the fame of highly acclaimed overseas luminaries to attract the public.
The exhibition starts from “Palace Ruin,” a distinctive reconstruction of the former Paleis voor Volksvlijt, or Palace of Popular Diligence, in the Netherlands. The crystal palace went up in flames in 1929. An archive photo shows a wing of the remaining building amid a haze of smoke and debris the morning after. James Beckett recreates this moment in the form of a large sculpture, a smoldering wreck, part horror and part memorial.
Wuzhen is a town of waterways, and Japanese artist Kazuyo Sejima weaves the ambiance into her work. Her installation “Another Layer of Surface Water” introduces a pool of mirror-polished chairs. They float above the pavement and reflect the trees and the sky, transforming the outdoor space into a shimmering landscape of water. Visitors can also sit on these chairs and relax.
Compared with such eye-catching works, Chinese artist Wang Luyan’s “Open Confinement” could easily be overlooked.
The vast surface of Wuzhen’s outdoor square is entirely covered by grey bricks.
“I took a brick out from the surface of the outdoor square, and substituted it with my work, so that every square meter there is one or two bricks of my work. They are not easily spotted, lest people look down from directly above,” Wang explained.
Many of Wang’s “bricks” consist of indoor scenes. The figures inside are “people who have been condensed and constrained by film culture, entertainment, information and ideology,” according to the artist.
“The work itself is about releasing the confines with openness, but also about having openness redefine its own boundaries in the confines.”
Perhaps after hours of touring the West Scenic District, it is better to go into a theater to watch Yang Fudong’s 40-minute film “The Foolish Old Man Moving the Mountains.”
The film is a mythological fable from Book 5 of Liezi, a Chinese thinker from the Warring States Period (475-221 BC). When Yang read the story in his youth, he was deeply moved by the perseverance involved. At the same time, he also admired the painting “The Foolish Old Man Moving Mountains” created by Xu Beihong around 1940. This painting became part of the inspiration for his black-and-white film.
Based on the characters and scene in the painting, the artist has infused a contemporary humanistic ethos through multiple rounds of editing and recreation, reinterpreting a modern version of the tale. The work recounts the unremitting and indomitable zeitgeist of perseverance under the vicissitudes of massive transformation.
Apart from the art in the West Scenic District, more is to be found in the exhibition halls in the North Silk Factory and Rice Barn, some created by young artists.
Born after 1984
The youth program of the exhibition is restricted to Chinese artists born after 1984.
“These artists are turning 35 in 2019, and their experiences and artistic oeuvre can arguably serve as witness to the complex transformation of Chinese society in an era of transition, having lived as they did through the particular circumstances brought on by globalization and a digitized existence with the rise of the Internet.
“Here we focus on their experience of the era in which they live, as well as the conditions of creation of diverse media, in particular how the varying degrees of boundary breaking and experimentation in art have been induced by a general state of uncertainty in contemporary China and the world,” said Feng.
The highlight is Hu Weiyi’s video installation “Outside the Window.”
A screen displaying urban images is placed behind an old window. Viewers peek through the window as if they were looking at the city view outside the window. It is a strange city where all the windows are covered by the fa?ades of the buildings.
Each building resembles a gray tombstone, which seems impenetrable under the gloomy sky. On the contrary, the lightness of the translucent gauze curtains hanging from the window makes viewers forget about the lack of wind. Driven by a motor, the curtains can be moved in front of the window.
Another impressive work at the North Silk Factory is Shen Shaomin’s “Chinese Carp.”
The carp is regarded as the Chinese national fish. Chinese people endow the carp with rich cultural connotations that express beautiful wishes.
In 2018 “carp fever” swept China’s social media. “Forward the carp for good luck” was a message seen almost everywhere.
However, the real Chinese carp is a paradox. It eats microorganisms and phytoplankton, and has been introduced to many countries to purify the water.
Due to its strong adaptability and fertility, it has become an ecological menace. In this project, the artist combines electronics and silica gel to make 2,000 mechanical carps faintly breathing and struggling in a vast white-salt flat.
“Now Is the Time” provides many possibilities for art in new art venues, new relationships between art and space, and artistic content.
UK artist Julian Opie is participating in the exhibition.
Opie once said “It’s not necessary to make anything in order to see this kind of magic as it is all around us, but there is the exciting possibility of showing what you have seen to others and of making something new that defines and focuses the experience.”