It is tough to be a Chinese artist at the Venice Biennale when your most famous peer has been locked up without charge for months by your home country. Apparently unaware of the human rights abuses occurring in many other nations present here, journalists question whether you should have exhibited at all. Yet arguably only a blanket boycott, encompassing fairs and auctions, of China’s art scene – which is enormously profitable for both east and west – would have any effect on this regime’s determination to quash dissent.
“Until we have all the information, it is difficult to make a comment,” says pavilion curator Peng Feng when pressed for a response to the situation regarding the arrest of Ai Weiwei, the artist and activist who now looks set to be imprisoned for a long time. The Chinese government alleges tax evasion but his supporters say this is an excuse for taking one of the state’s most vocal critics out of circulation.
As to whether or not China considered pulling out: “It seems unfair on the artists who have worked so hard to get here,” Peng says.
Their effort is not in doubt. Faced with one of the most evocative yet also most challenging spaces in the Arsenale – a vast medieval warehouse lined with brutal-looking oil tanks – China’s quintet of artists has countered with an exhibition of ephemeral, multi-sensory poetry.
The centrepiece is Pan Gongkai’s “Snow Melting in Lotus” (2011). Displayed on the tanks that tunnel through the centre of the pavilion, it consists of two long paintings whose black-ink scribbles – said to represent a withered lotus – are assaulted by individual letters cascading from the theoretical text projected above.
This poised, clever disintegration of past and present artistic practices anchors more ethereal pieces such as Yang Maoyuan’s “All Things are Visible” (2011). A visual and olfactory pleasure, this installation fringes the brutal bulk of the oil containers with tiny clay pots that emit the aroma of herbal medicine. From Liang Yuanwei comes “I Plead: Rain” (2011), a makeshift distillery of thick black rubber tubes and a metal pan in which a strong-smelling spirit bubbles. Most pervasive are the coils of scented mist produced by the humidifiers – “Empty Incense” (2011) – installed on top of the oil tanks by Yuan Gong.
Yuan’s practice spills out into the garden, where his aromatic clouds rise from a square of white pebbles laid on the grass. His work’s moist physicality should soon be wittily contrasted by Cai Zhisong’s tea-scented, white helium balloons –“Cloud Tea” – which were earthbound at the time of writing.
With its quirky sculptures, heady aromas and vivacious birdsong, this surreal Arcadia seems an improbable setting for a serious political protest.
What stops artists from making more explicit work is an entirely justified fear of the regime. “I want to go back to China,” Yuan tells me when I try to elicit a comment about Ai Weiwei. An artist who has made work highlighting the plight of both Tibet and Chinese peasant farmers, Yuan tells me that his work speaks for him. Then he directs me to a catalogue text which explains that the fragrance emitted in his installation originates in Tibet. “How would the audience not sense the metaphor the artwork is alluding to?” asks the writer.
If western art buyers would like the message to the Chinese government to be clearer, they are going to have to express it themselves.