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2013.11.22 Fri, by Translated by: Daniel Szehin Ho
The “Contemporary” of an Ancient Capital: Report from OCAT Xi’an

“Between Character and Calligraphy”: Qiu Zhenzhong, Wang Dongling, and Xu Bing

OCAT Xi’an(OCAT, Xi’an, China)Nov 4, 2013–Feb 28, 2014

The opening exhibition of the OCAT Xi’an displays none of the experimentation found in the shows at its Shenzhen equivalent, nor any traces of the rash and rushed attempts to “manifest regional culture” evident in the city’s numerous “modern-traditional” architectural hybrids. Instead, it revives the exhibition “Between Character and Calligraphy,” shown last year at the Shenzhen headquarters —“Between Character and Calligraphy 2” (even the same installation team was assembled and brought over from Shenzhen)[ed: the “2” is elided in the English title]. Yet this is not merely a “safe strategy” on the part of the curators, but rather an attempt at easing the museum into its new home. Though the contemporary art scene is still rather negligible in the ancient, former capital of Xi’an, some exhibitions certainly do take place. Indeed, one half of the works at the Xi’an Art Museum concern contemporary art. However, OCAT, located in the Qujiang New Zone, is the first institution to focus solely on the contemporary.

The significance of the decision to open this museum goes without saying, and questions regarding how region-specific and well received it will be must be set aside for now (see our interview with Karen Smith, the museum’s executive director for more). The inaugural exhibition in Xi’an does, however, pose the question of how calligraphy relates to contemporary art — or rather how it becomes a part of it.

Of the three participating artists, Xu Bing undoubtedly has the closest connections with contemporary art, while Qiu Zhenzhong, with official duties with the China Calligraphers’ Association and professor at the Central Academy of Fine Art, and Wang Dongling, professor at the China Academy of Art, seem to belong more to the field of “calligraphy.” As well as his signature piece “New English Calligraphy,” Xu Bing’s first animated work is also present here. “The Character of Characters” (2012; first exhibited in San Francisco’s Asian Art Museum), features a dramatic and surrealist plot unfolding on a landscape painting reminiscent of Zhao Mengfu’s “Level Distance”; through imaginative transformations, the work outlines conceptually the historical development of Chinese characters. Though Qiu Zhenzhong’s “Characters To Be Deciphered” (1988) and “The Beast in the Jungle” (2012) both play with basic legibility, like Wang Donglin’s “Lanting Preface” [i.e. “Preface to the Orchid Pavilion”], ultimately these works belong more at the “calligraphic” end of the spectrum (and are actually rather different from the latter’s current works at the Ink Studio, of Caochangdi, Beijing, in which the artist incorporated techniques involving silver salt).

“Between Character and Calligraphy”, exhibition view

Wang Dongling, “Lanting Preface”, calligraphy on rice paper, 35.74 x 4.75m, 2013
王冬龄,《兰亭序》,宣纸书法,35.74 x 4.75m,2013

Regarding the relationship between calligraphy and contemporary art, both the theme of the exhibition and the choice of artists are circumspect. Since calligraphy is perhaps the artistic form with the strongest roots in local culture, it can serve as a “conduit” of sorts for the contemporary art scene’s attempt at expansion in Xi’an. Xu Bing on the one hand, and Qiu and Wang on the other just happen to embody the two major ways in which calligraphy — or, even more broadly, “tradition”— is engaged within contemporary art. For Xu Bing, the quality of the calligraphy is not the point; instead, his experimentation has always revolved around writing, and the culture it represents. This forms a perfect contrast to Qiu Zhenzhong and Wang Dongling, whose works’ point of departure lie within calligraphy itself. Conceptual elements, such as an on-site performance, give the artists some room to distance themselves from an overly rigid and traditional definition of “calligraphy”.

The exhibition’s curator has stated that: “Within the framework of contemporary art in China, calligraphy has always been situated on the margins. This is in stark contrast to its erstwhile mainstream position within traditional culture.” This suggests that calligraphy has already been assimilated into contemporary art, though one could argue that this is a consequence of “contemporary art” constantly expanding and blurring its borders, rather than of calligraphy itself becoming capacious and all-embracing. As contemporary art extends beyond its designated zones (e.g. Beijing’s 798 space), and the number of figures of influence — spectators of art, exhibitions, and collections — grow, public and private art museums will encounter an unfamiliar public in their march into first and second-tier cities. Not only are artistic forms familiar to the public vital in order to “lead them by the hand,” as it were, but relevant activities like lectures, dialogues, public education, and so forth will also be necessary, as to promote and further the understanding of contemporary art.

The “Xi’an Dialogues” series embodies this idea perfectly. For the first round, Karen Smith invited Voon Pow Bartlett, the project manager of Tate Research Centre: Asia-Pacific, Yiling Mao, a director at a renowned auction house, Bai Xi, the associate director of Xi’an Art Museum, and Mia Yu, art historian to discuss the rather blunt question, “What is the Use of Contemporary Art?” Bartlett asserted that contemporary art ought not be about single, unified opinions but rather need different views — a multiplicity and a porosity. She referred to Guy Debord’s theory of the “society of the spectacle” as well as Rancière’s critiques of Debord’s ideas about the spectator, arguing that the audience of contemporary art must be made up of active and thinking participants.

The First “OCAT Xi’an Dialogue”, from left: Yiling Mao, Von Pow Bartlett, Mia Yu, Bai Xi, Karen Smith, Nov. 14th, 2013

Xu Bing, “The Character of Characters”, animation, 16’44’’, 2013
徐冰,《汉字的性格》,动画,16’44’’, 2013

Bai Xi discussed, from the perspective of a museum professional, the experiences and difficulties of promoting contemporary art within the art ecology of Xi’an. She argued that Xi’an still did not have a good environment for contemporary art, having being heavily influenced by traditional art. On the other hand, the growth and development of contemporary art in Xi’an will also depend on the kinds of people promoting it. She cited Peng De’s assertion Xi’an will need five different forces — contemporary artists, curators, collectors, media, and art managers — and nine platforms — contemporary art museums, art media, galleries, among others — to promote contemporary art. In terms of the specific regional character, and considering how Xi’an is a tourist hotspot, Bai Xi also alluded to the idea of the “museum as a public square” that reaches out to the public, arguing that the museum should operate as a public platform. Mia Yu, meanwhile, related her personal experiences while studying abroad in Canada and discussed how the general public’s attitudes towards contemporary art have changed along with the diverse operational modes of the museum. Finally, as an art-market consultant with a background in art history, Yiling Mao argued that the “contemporary” is in fact situated within a sense of “confusion”. Mao reexamined early promotions of contemporary Chinese art in the US and its initial reception by the American public, arguing that the “contemporary” should exhibit a certain rebelliousness, a questioning of and self-conscious resistance to the mainstream.

Yet the question of what “contemporary” ought to be is an ongoing one. What is clear though is that contemporary art in Xi’an still has a long way to go before it will be fully embraced by the public. The audience who came to see the discussion — mostly students, it seemed — looked rather puzzled and continued to use traditional aesthetic standards to judge the calligraphic works. After the dialogue, one local in the audience pulled this writer aside, pointing to Wang Dongling’s works on the wall, and remarked, “In truth, this level of quality can only be called average.”

The next day, randian interviewed the executive director Karen Smith about various issues relating to exhibition planning and operations at the OCAT Xi’an branch.