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updated 6:22 AM UTC, Jul 24, 2017
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Viva Chinese Arte Viva!

“Artists die generation by generation, but art is immortal,” said Qiu Zhijie to Cafa Art in April. Curator of the China pavilion at this year’s Venice Biennale, Qiu will explore the immortality of Chinese art through an interaction of traditional and contemporary artists at the landmark biennial which runs from 13th May until 26th November.

The China pavilion is a response to this year’s theme “Viva Arte Viva” and while it is not obligatory for curators and artists to follow the central theme, it is customary that they do so.

Qiu has chosen the title “Continuum – Generation by Generation” to reflect how Chinese art passes from one generation to another, with a focus less on individual artists, but rather their culmination and collaboration.

That could be at one point in time, for example, at a literati gathering where poets, calligraphers and artists traditionally worked together spontaneously, discussing and making art in tandem. Or it could span several decades, such as the ever-changing appearance of a painting or scroll which has, over time, become scattered with inscriptions and seals of other artists, critics and collectors.

This year’s China pavilion according to Qiu Zhijie is like a 21st century literati gathering. The curator, once a participating artist at the Venice Biennale himself, has brought together four artists to work collaboratively in different combinations, as well as all together. Of the four artists there are two “contemporary artists” Tang Nannan and Wu Jian’an, and two “folk artists” Wang Tianwen and Yao Huifen.

Each artist works from a different area of China and each with their own unique creative practices. Xi’an based, state-level Arts and Crafts Master Wang Tianwen brings his shadow puppet expertise to the table, while Yao Huifen is a professional embroiderer from Jiangsu and descendant of the “Needle God” Shou Shen.

By contrast, Tang Nannan works in ink, video, installation and photography covering everything from abstract to figurative, while Wu Jian’an explores Chinese folk art within a contemporary context from his native home, Beijing.

The diversity of their skills and perspectives presents both opportunities and challenges. Although chosen specifically as “contemporary” or “folk” artists, Qiu does not like to categorise them as such. Rather he sees them as undergoing a transformation, amalgamating to produce art that he hopes reflects the vitality of Chinese art as a whole.

He intends to take the traditional crafts of centuries past and nurture them with contemporary sensibilities. But how will he avoid Wang and Yao’s artistry simply becoming a tool for the other two participants?

“Some craft artists are excellent,” Qiu Zhijie told Artron, “but they refuse to work outside of their comfort zone”. If they follow the Western notion of “artist as individual”, he argues, they risk becoming narcissistic and less willing to collaborate, so it is essential to find people who are keen to expand their horizons.

As part of the project Wang and Yao each collaborated separately with both contemporary artists, at times struggling to adjust to and keep up with the pace of their counterparts. It is unfortunate however, and perhaps rather telling, that the only collaboration that did not take place was between the two folk artists.

Since its first appearance at the Venice Biennale in 2005, the China pavilion has received criticism for playing the traditional card time and again, at a global exhibition which aims to showcase contemporary art. It waits to be seen whether audiences will understand and chime with Qiu Zhijie’s project and appreciate his understanding of immortality in Chinese art.

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