Europalia: Belgium Focuses on China
by Michèle Vicat
Celebrating its 40th anniversary, Europalia has embarked on a
gargantuan task: welcoming giant China to Lilliputian Belgium.
Beijing covers a geographic space that is roughly half the
size of Belgium, and its city limits encompass about 14 million
people. The entire population of Belgium is only 10 million.
The official line from Belgium at the opening ceremony on October
8, 2009, emphasized Europalia's benefit for Belgium's economy,interests,
and future. In contrast, Chinese vice-president, Xi Jinping,
focused on the cultural platform that Europalia is giving China
in Europe. 450 events, 50 exhibitions and 1,000 artists are
focusing on four themes: Perennial China, Contemporary China,
Colorful China, and China and the World. Visual arts, music,
theater, cinema, dance and literature will blanket all Belgium
until Chinese New Year's next February 14.
Huang Yan, "Enchanting Paradise," a sculpture in "Chinese
Gardens for Living"
vast cultural extravaganza is not happening without criticism.
At the press conference for the opening of "The
State of Things," an exhibition on contemporary art
from both China and Belgium which is one of Europalia's first
Belgium journalists questioned the inflated prices for contemporary
Chinese art, perceived Chinese imperialism, Tibet and human
rights. Interestingly enough, nobody mentioned the Uighurs.
A blog on
the website of the newspaper Le Soir displayed a succession
of comments ranging from the inflammatory to the nuanced.
expressed shock at inviting China because of its history
of human rights violations. There is a tendency by the broad
the West to focus on classical China while failing to appreciate
what is happening in contemporary China. One of Le Soir's
bloggers asked why photos were included showing Mongols,
the blogger obviously
was not aware that Inner Mongolia is part of China.
The State of Things: Brussels/Beijing" brings together
50 living artists from Belgium and China. This show's originality
lies in its structure: two internationally renowned artists
the selection, working independently from each other. This
is the first time a selection of Chinese art was done by a
artist actually living in China for a major international
exhibition on contemporary art. Ai Weiwei is one of China's
living artists. He helped conceptualize Beijing's Olympic
Stadium, known as the Bird Nest. He is an outspoken artist,
who was briefly
arrested two months ago by the Chinese police for searching
for the names of children who disappeared in the 2008 Sichuan
Luc Tuymans did the selection for Belgium. Luc Tuymans is
considered as one of Belgium's leading contemporary artists,
and his work
has been shown internationally in the San Francisco Museum
of Modern Art and The Tate Modern in London.
Ai Weiwei and Luc Thuymans
Both Ai Weiwei
and Luc Tuymans insist that the exhibition is a "momentum" that does not necessarily include the "stars" of
the art world. The curators do not provide any guidelines. "We
want the public to make the judgment," says Ai Weiwei. And
Luc Tuymans adds: " It is a show about art and artists in
order to bring us further away." Once the selection
was made on each side, both curators tried to juxtapose
The Palais des Beaux-Arts may not have been the right place.
An old structure, it is composed of a series of small rooms
with limited space to stand back and absorb the juxtaposition.
themselves asking whether there was a juxtaposition. It is possible
that the confrontation was exclusive and not inclusive as Luc
Tuymans saw it.
Conferences and lectures were also planned on the status and
impact of the contemporary art market. In the last few years
contemporary Chinese art has benefited from an enormous input
of energy, mainly generated by the West. Most of the Belgian
artists selected have not had that advantage. If on the Chinese
side, it is difficult for the general public to decipher works
without an explanation, on the Belgium side, the paintings are
often so heavy that they are likely to lead to perplexity when
they arrive in Beijing next summer.
The two approaches are subjective. The catalogue describes
the separate approaches as "mental navigations of two artists,
curators for the occasion." Ai Weiwei is primarily interested
in an opportunity to create an event that will take on its own
life. Luc Tuymans wants to establish a momentum through which
the event will build a dialogue afterwards. As he says somewhat
cryptically, "The show is not in China now, but the
show is already there."
Chi Peng, "Sprinting Forward-2"
of artwork is one of the objectives of this exhibition, Chi
Peng's work stands by itself in
a room. For me,
it is the most powerful and meaningful work in this exhibition. "Sprinting
Forward-2" is reproduced everywhere as the flagship
of the exhibition. For this artist, who is only 28 years
forward is the epitome of young Chinese urbanites looking
for independence, freedom, and a sense of themselves,
from the one-child policy much as people once sought
the American Dream. The perfect, youthful body of this
man, the artist
himself, is a symbol of the freshness of a society trying
to rebuild its principles. In this image as in much of
elements of technology are in motion that is in parallel
to the contemporary world of knowledge, hopes and frustrations
continue to suffocate our destiny. But as a young artist,
Chi Peng offers us his determination to escape into the
using his naked body without any restraint. Some critics
explain that the planes represent a sort of surveillance
above a vulnerable
Chi Peng, "Consubstantiality-1"
photo entitled "Consubstantiality1," suggests
a connection between the artist and homosexuality.
The artist inhabits the tension of the photographic space by
a sexless figure. As Feng Boyi, a curator and commentator
of Chi Peng, explains, "He (Chi Peng) begins his
works with ego-cognition, from egovirtualization to
Jan Fabre, "J'irai cracher sur vos tombes"
of Boris Vian's book, "J'irai cracher sur vos
tombes," is the inspiration for the Belgian artist Jan Fabre's
work, "I spit on my own Tomb," an installation done
in 2007. It gruesomely welcomes the visitor with a life-size
representation of a man standing in the middle of an accumulation
of 250 gravestones. The man elegantly
wears a white costume,
and from time to time actually spits on the pile of dark granite
stones. The inscriptions on the stones list names of living and
extinct insects with dates of birth or birth and death of artists,
philosophers, scientists...whose names are not inscribed on the
stones. The references are given on a list that the visitor can
consult. The search for the relationship between dates and names
is irrelevant, even absurd, because it is the perpetual process
of creative thinking that has to nourish us. Spitting on life
and on death is a provocative act per se, but saliva is a body
fluid like blood, sweat, sperm, and tears. A new life may emerge
as the link between mind and body. Jan Fabre, who was born in
Antwerp in 1958, is a multidisciplinary artist. His installation "From
Feet to Brain" was exhibited at the 2009 Biennale
Among Belgian artists: Fancis Alÿs (animation
drawing), Dirk Braeckman (photographs), Robert Devriendt
Patrick Everaert (photographs), Geert Goiris (photographs)
Among Chinese artists: He Yunchang (video and photographs), Kan
Xuan (video), Li Dafang (painting), Li Shanyang (sculptural installations),
Lin Tianmiao (sculpture), Lin Yilin (video), Shi Guorui (photographs),
Wang Xingwei (painting), Xia Xiaowan (glass panels)
Several interesting exhibitions and events are taking
place at BOZAR, also known as Le Palais des Beaux-Arts
www.europalia.eu). "Son of Heaven," illustrates 5000
years of Chinese history with 250 masterpieces from various museums
in the world. "Architecture as Resistance -Wang Shu/Amateur
Architecture Studio" explores the new relationship between
traditional architecture and new ways of life in China. "Still
Life: Photographie Contemporaine Chinoise" leads us through
the work of 13 young photographers. I would also recommend the
screening of "My Village 2006," a film
project undertaken by the filmmaker Wu Wenguang in
who made their own films. This event will take place
on November 15.
To have the list of all events for Europalia/China, visit www.europalia.be
walk from BOZAR, at the former Palais des Congrès,
in a new space called "Square," an exhibit, "Chinese
Gardens for Living," brings us into the metaphorical world
of contemplation by exploring the traditional components and
philosophy behind the Chinese garden. The architectural display
of the exhibition is composed of successive rows of semi-translucent
curtains that form walls, which we have to pass through one after
the other. The general ambience here is not the green of a garden,
but off-white, subdued in a semi-obscurity, to facilitate our
travel through our own subconscious. The exhibition includes
photographs, sculptures, paintings and architectural projects.
The curator, Tang Keyang, surprises the visitor. Instead of real
grass, flowers, rocks, water, bricks, we have paper, canvas,
iron, clay, plaster, silicone... Tang Keyang invites us to envision
a garden as "a system which is still under development." Extracting
the concept of the Chinese Garden, contemporary
artists play with materials that do not belong
to the physical
Traditionally, the components enter into a mutual
dialogue based on the principle
of Yin and Yang, complementary forces generated
by the cosmic Dao. Four themes or dialogues are
by the curator:
Illusions, Adored Objects, Drama, and Reality.
Photographs and paintings belong to the world of
transferred to paper or canvas. Adored Objects
reflects on tangible objects that can be transmuted
a universal garden.
Drama gives an opportunity for the artist to communicate
with the world through the concept of garden and
Reality focuses on
Zhang Jian-Jun, "Tai-He Garden"
Moving through the rows of translucent fabrics and semi-obscurity
dedramatize the garden as a unique force. We are encouraged to
reevaluate the energetic forces of the different elements of
the garden and to reverse the process: going from detachment
towards a density that we have to re-invent. It is thus a process
from simplicity towards the global to which the artists invite
us and leave us the choice of discovery or reinvention.
"Chinese Gardens for Living" (until November 8, 2009).
article was first published in the internet magazine The
Essential Edge. Michèle
Vicat is one of the arts editors for The Essential Edge.