CHINA HERITAGE QUARTERLY China Heritage Project, The Australian National University ISSN 1833-8461
No. 13, March 2008


'China' on Display | China Heritage Quarterly

'China' on Display

Conference Report—Past and Present Practices of Selecting, Exhibiting and Viewing Chinese Visual and Material Culture, Leiden, The Netherlands, 6-8 December 2007, by Francesca Dal Lago

An international symposium dedicated to exhibition practices considered as a case study for intercultural exchange took place in Leiden, the Netherlands, in early December 2007. Organized by Dr. Francesca Dal Lago, a post-doctoral researcher at the Center for African, Asian and Amerindian Studies, Leiden University, and partially sponsored by the Hulsewé-Wazniewski Foundation, the symposium brought together scholars, artists and practitioners involved in studying, producing and displaying objects created in (or associated with the idea of) 'China' under the basic assumption that exhibitions of 'Chinese' things, both inside and outside China, have played a fundamental role in shaping ideas and approaches to this culture throughout history.[Fig.1]

[Fig.1] A poster of the symposium.

The symposium was organized both thematically and chronologically in three days: day one focused on early practices of display dating to the nineteenth century and before; a part of day two was dedicated to the emerging phenomenon of art exhibitions during the Republican era; and the remaining time addressed the phenomenon of contemporary practices.

The event begun with a keynote address delivered by Stan Abe (Duke University) and ended with remarks provided by John Clark (University of Sidney).[Fig.2] Abe delivered a visually mesmerizing presentation titled Figuring China: Sculpture, Authenticity, and the Native focusing on the historical role held by sculpture in visualizing (and conceptualizing) ideas of 'China' within the West. The paper of independent scholar John Finlay, Displaying Art at the Qing Court: The Qianlong Emperor on Display, offered a term of comparison with autochthonous antecedents pre-dating the introduction of the Western-derived exhibition format and the opening of public museums during the early twentieth century. Ting Chang's (Carnegie Mellon University, Pittsburgh) Fantasies, Images and Objects: Two Nineteenth-Century European Displays of 'China' discussed nineteenth century forms of display of Chinese artifacts as illustrated by the collection of Chinese porcelain of French writer Edmond de Goncourt and the public performances organized in London by Albert Smith in which theatrical reconstructions of 'China' where provided to paying visitors and then replicated with the help of stereoscopes. Oliver Moore (Leiden University) discussed the medium of photography as a form of visualization for the display of art in Art Staged for the Camera in Qing and Republican China.

Fig.2 Stan Abe's presentation.

While in Chinese aesthetic terms the genres of painting and calligraphy were considered at the highest level of the artistic canon, they were not at the centre of Western interest and collecting practices during early interaction between China and Europe. The European passion for ceramic, porcelain and decorative objects during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries reflected instead a baroque taste for the decorative arts prevalent in Europe at the time. An insightful perspective on porcelain and its consumption was provided by anthropologist Maris Gillette (Haverford College) whose paper China on display and china not on display: the politics of copying in Jingdezhen discussed china from the contemporary standpoint of its makers, focusing on the famous area of porcelain production in Jingdezhen. Against the aseptic and timeless forms of public display of what is considered as one of the symbolic productions of Chinese sophistication, Gillette discussed the practical and technical problems emerging from the process of creating contemporary replicas of famous traditional pieces like those displayed in Western museums. What emerged was a striking methodological difference in the cultural analysis of the production and display among collectors, curators, scholars and the makers of porcelain, who are responsible for the circulation and presentation of these objects. The difference in disciplinary approach in this specific case highlighted one of the thesis of the symposium on the constructed character of Chinese cultural identity as created in time through the displaying of cultural artifacts. Menno Fitski (Department of Fine and Decorative Arts, Rijksmuseum) concluded this section introducing the new wing under construction in the ongoing renovation of the Rijksmuseum in Amsterdam and mentioned the challenges presented by the task of displaying 'oriental' art in a museum whose main mission is the display of masterpieces of Dutch and European painting.[Fig.3]

Fig.3 Participants visiting the mid-seventeenth century library Thysiana at Leiden University: from the left: (top row) Davide Quadrio, John Clark, Sasha Su-Ling Welland, Oliver Moore; (bottom) Ting Chang, Zhang Peili, Guo Hui.

The practice of display in the Republican period was discussed by three papers that analysed specific case studies of exhibitions organized both in China and Europe during the 1930s. All exhibitions were organized by, or in collaboration with, Chinese curators or conservators. Nonetheless, as demonstrated by Guo Hui's (Leiden University) paper New Objects, New History: The Preliminary Exhibition of Chinese Art (Shanghai, 1935) on an show held in Shanghai in preparation of the 1936 exhibition of Chinese art at Burlington House, London, strategies would dramatically vary according to different locales, audiences and organizing institutions. Anik Fournier 's (Amsterdam School of Cultural Analysis / Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art) Representing Self and Nation Through the Other: the 1933 Exposition de la Peinture Chinoise at the Jeu de Paume Paris focused on a modern painting exhibition organized in Paris by artist Xu Beihong while Felicity Lufkin's (Harvard University) Bringing Folk in: The Folk Picture Exhibition, Hangzhou, 1937 introduced the emerging genre of folk art through an exhibition organized in Hangzhou. These papers, discussing events taking place within a period of four years, provided a multilayered perspective of the different agendas which exhibitions of Chinese art could serve during the interwar period.

From the afternoon of the second day presentations shifted to contemporary practices. Ren Hai (University of Arizona) in Memories of the Future: Politics of Disappearance and Historical Representations in Hong Kong's 'Return' to China discussed the construction of Hong Kong's cultural and historical identity in an exhibition installed at the Hong Kong Museum of History after Honk Kong's return to suzerainty under the People's Republic of China in 1997. Wang Nanming's (Sichuan Art Academy, Chongqing) Art and Local Politics: Practices of Display and Criticism introduced socially engaged forms of artistic production in contemporary Chinese art highlighting the necessity of social contextualization, and warning against the dangers of essentialism. Morgan Perkins (State University of New York, Potsdam) in What They Do Doesn't Interest Me.' Perceptions, Tastes and Social Practices of Displaying Contemporary Chinese Art elaborated from an anthropological perspective on the way in which different art circles discuss and present their own art in China. Davide Quadrio, director of Biz-art, Shanghai, in No Cleaning and No Money Required: The Contradictions of Showing Undecoded Art in Shanghai in the 1990s talked about his personal experience as the founder of one of the first independent art spaces in Shanghai, and the challenge posed by the novelty of such format, unknown in China during the early 1990s when Biz-Art was founded. Sasha Su-Ling Welland's (University of Washington) Showcase Beijing: Art, Real Estate, and Urban Planning in the Capital highlighted the troubling relationship existing today in Beijing between real estate firms and exhibition spaces for contemporary art and the way in which art and culture are often appropriated by the marketing strategies of the new real estate tycoons.

Franziska Koch (Staatliche Akademie der Bildenden Künste, Stuttgard) and Francesca Dal Lago (Leiden University) focused on major international exhibitions of contemporary art taking place outside China during the early 1990s. In Chinese Pictures on Display for Western Audiences: Three Early Group Shows of Chinese Contemporary Art in Berlin, Hong Kong and Venice, 1993 Koch analyzed the first three major exhibitions organized in 1993 in Hong Kong, Berlin and Venice. Dal Lago's Papercuts, Colorful Pictures and Mountains of Shit: 'China' at the Venice Biennale, 1980-2007 focused on the participation of Chinese artists to the foremost Biennale and the shifting role occupied by this production as a consequence of the socio-economic transformations experienced by the People's Republic of China during the last thirty years.

One of the patterns emerged from the symposium was a certain disquieting continuity that would appear to exist in the presentation of artifacts associated with the idea of 'China' from the early cases to the present. In this respect, the paper of contemporary video artist and art educator Zhang Peili, Chinese Artists in a Chinese Spectacle, on the active involvement of contemporary artists in the creations of an artistic 'Chinese look', reminded the audience of the same orientalist premises that had been discussed during day one in reference to early form of collection and display.

A volume of essays generated by the conference is under preparation in collaboration with a major Dutch academic publisher.