November, 2021

marija glavaš

This text is the second in a series of close studies examining the cultural exchanges between China and the Balkan region under the BRI, taking art [events and exchanges] as its main focal point. In the first text, I focused on the ambitions and challenges of artistic exchanges in general, using contemporary Slovenia as an example of bad praxis. In this text, I will focus on Chinese art and provide a textual analysis of some artifacts and archives from the events and exhibitions previously mapped in my first contribution. 

As an anthropology student, I however lack the proper knowledge and tools to read these images adequately. Thus, I held an open-ended interview with colleagues Xu Tiantian and Ke Qiwen from Rockbund Art Museum and Nikita Yingqian Cai from Times Museum. Both of these museums are committed to presenting and researching contemporary art and they are partners of the As you go… inquiry. They have deep insight into the contemporary art context of China that I am learning about. Together we have read some of the images and they kindly shared their personal thoughts on these projects with me. I must note that these museums did not participate in any such projects under the BRI – most of the analyzed exchanges were happening through public Chinese institutions.

As stated in the introductory text my main question was whether these exchanges live up to their potential of shifting away from classical national narratives and providing a common ground for different cultural identities.

Before we dwell on the individual artifacts, events, and exchanges it is important to understand the context in which they are taking place. The BRI is mostly known for Chinese infrastructure investments in Asia, Africa, and (Central and Eastern) Europe. It is an initiative that is striving for both economic growth and economic connectivity amongst participating countries. These activities are usually in the spotlight raising both praise and condemnation. However, these investments are not the only activities under the BRI. Another important aspect of it are the artistic and cultural exchanges which are rarely discussed, praised or criticized. This may appear trivial at first as most people simply consider art as a form of entertainment and not much more beyond that. Art, however, when shared internationally, plays an important role in our perceptions of one another – it has the power to bring us closer together, realize our common points, and appreciate our differences. Considering the ever-rising xenophobia this is not negligible. On the example of China specifically, we are currently witnessing a concerning growth of hate towards the country and its people because of the Covid-19 pandemic. The novel coronavirus outbreak that could’ve happened anywhere played perfectly not just into many stereotypical narratives about the Chinese people, but also into political conspiracy theories brought up by cold war propaganda. These feelings of hate are not coincidental – they are the product of intentional alienation, lack of cultural worldliness, and apathy towards who we consider an Other. 

In this context, intercultural artistic exchanges can help bridge the divide and this is what the artistic exchanges under the BRI are ought to do. Namely, the aim of these exchanges is to form deeper bonds amongst participating countries and their citizens. As noted in my first contribution where I mapped cross-institutional artistic exchanges between China and Balkan countries, it is overtly stated in most exhibitions that their goal is to bring their cultures closer together through knowledge and understanding. However, they [artistic exchanges] often appear as a mere political masquerade with no real content to them, as the images presented don’t really represent contemporary Chinese identities. This opens up very important questions – do they live up to their supposed potential? Are they adding to positive societal change? Is there space for improvement? Below are my thoughts after conducting a workshop with a few colleagues from the Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai and Times Museum in Guangzhou who shared their impressions with me. Due to limited visual material not all exhibitions could be used. 

The first thing one notices when looking at these exhibitions is that they are heavily centered around tradition. For instance, let us look at the Chinese Festival of Lights held in Belgrade in 2020.

“Chinese Festival of Lights”, picture by Đorđe Tomić, 2020

These lantern festivals appear to be some of the most popular Chinese exhibitions all around the world. The lanterns are placed as theme parks and as such attract audiences that wouldn’t necessarily enter museums and galleries, giving them much more reach than your usual exhibition. The concept of lantern festivals reaches back to ancient China, and while the lanterns exhibited in Belgrade don’t resemble traditional Chinese lanterns, they portray very characteristic Chinese symbols. We see dragons, bamboo, hand fans, pandas etc. These festivals aren’t necessarily bad for one’s first encounter with Chinese art, especially since they are very inviting for broader audiences, but they don’t provide much more substance than what the average person would already think about when thinking about China.

“Exhibiton of Contemporary Chinese Painting”, picture by Tanjung/Tanja Valić, 2019

Even when we look at the exhibitions of contemporary artists, such as the Ink Imagery exhibition held in Kuća Legata (Belgrade) in 2019, we see a lot of traditional influences. While some techniques, shapes, and perspectives presented in this exhibition aren’t traditional, the symbolism is. In the picture above we see a waterfall, the red sun, and a pine tree. In the picture below we can see cherry blossoms and other floral symbols.  All of these symbols are very common in traditional Chinese ink painting. For foreigners whose eyes aren’t trained in Chinese art these could easily be understood as classical Chinese paintings and not paintings created by contemporary artists.

“Exhibition of Contemporary Chinese Painting”, picture by Tanjung/Tanja Valić, 2019

Such images are usually exhibited in state-owned institutions following narrow and strict narratives. From religious motives to mythological creatures – these paintings present an image of China that is very one-sided and static. We see a lot of bird-and-flower paintings and mountain-and-water paintings. Ever repeating compositions. We don’t get to see any diversity, just strictly canonical images, which have, through repetition, lost all of its meanings.  Foreigners who are only subjected to this type of art very easily fall into the trap of thinking that this is all there is to China. And this is common to most of the Chinese art in these exhibitions held in the Balkan region. 

It is important to note that in the Balkan region, knowledge of Chinese art is very limited. We don’t see much of it exhibited in our museums and galleries, we don’t watch Chinese movies on television, we don’t hear Chinese music on the radio and we don’t learn about it extensively in schools. These limits make it hard to look at the art we do encounter critically. We don’t question the images that we see, the stories they are telling, and the gaps present in them.

“Enthusiasm for Ink Wash Painting”, picture by T. Saletović, 2019

“Enthusiasm for Ink Wash Painting”, picture by T. Saletović, 2019

Some of the exhibitions were also historical in nature, showcasing historical art and important artifacts. Such exhibitions naturally bring tradition and historic culture closer to their audiences and for building intercultural understanding and empathy this is just as important as getting to know the contemporary identities, ideas, and characteristics. Yet, it seems that these historical images remain the only accessible knowledge of China and the Chinese people. 

Lord Baopu explains how to stay away from heat, 1644-1911, ink on silk

It appears that what is provided in these artistic exchanges is just one fixed image of China. An image that hasn’t changed in ages, that’s full of gaps and that’s suppressing diversity. As such it cannot adequately represent Chinese identities, especially to foreigners who often lack the knowledge to separate reality from a constructed image.

As mentioned above, in the Balkan region most people are very distanced from Chinese culture.They only discuss China in the context of politics which only distorts their views more. Exhibiting these ancient, historical, mythological and religious symbols furthers this mystification instead of providing knowledge and consequently enabling understanding. As Xu Tiantian, Ke Qiwen, and Nikita Yingqian Cai noted there is a big disconnect in these exhibitions from what China really is. There is not just one China and one Chinese identity. Based on carefully selected and distinctly narrated historical images, this forced oneness perfectly resembles classical nationalistic narratives, just served on a nicely decorated plate. This disconnect between representation and reality makes it hard for these exchanges to bridge the divide between the Balkan and Chinese people since knowledge always stays limited and carefully directed. To truly grasp the essence of a different culture the free transmission of knowledge is of utmost importance. And not just knowledge on history – also knowledge on the day-to-day lives of the Chinese people. 

In conclusion – these exhibitions, although presented as bridges between nations, only further promote nationalistic narratives. These may not enter the realms of radical nationalism, however, they also don’t surpass national conservatism. While the exhibitions held under the BRI provide audiences with entertaining and educational art, they don’t appear to fulfill their purpose of bridging the divide they acknowledge.

Marija Glavaš, student of Culturology at the Faculty of Social Sciences in Ljubljana

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