Venice (Il Palazzo Enciclopedico*)

Venice is beautiful.  This is the first time I ever traveled to this city.  Before I arrived, I read in the guide book that it could be a difficult place to navigate with a map since the streets are never quite straightforward and one is likely to lose her way.  For me, it is perfect because I never learned how to use a map properly as to help me identify streets or directions.  With the most precise directions and preparations, I would still manage to walk the opposite way from where I needed to arrive.  When people point to west I would walk east (not with intention or by rebellion but more because my sense of direction is so off), but gradually I do turn around back to the right way.  By intuition is the best way to find my destination.  Subtle differences or little signs such as a building with chipped bricks or a charming fixture anywhere is good enough for me to remember where to turn and go ahead.  For all my time here in Venice so far, without having a map I have found my ways to places.  Frankly, no one can get lost in Venice.  It is true, this city feels a little bit like a maze with some little streets that lead to no where, and so many turns and alleyways to choose.  Nonetheless, if you are able to find the canal then you cannot be lost.  I just came back from a little walk around my hotel in Salute since smoking is not allowed inside my room.  When I was just out there walking, it reminded me of childhood times when I used to wonder around without any clear idea of where to but only to look for secret alley ways or a hidden places for fun.  I never cared where I was going but always do end up just where I should be (almost always...).  When all said and done, it is perfectly okay to not have a destination as a child however it is for a particular reason that I am here in Venice.

Photo taken near where I am in Salute

55. Esposizione Internazionale d'Arte, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico is what brought me here.  The idea of an Encyclopedic Palace comes from the dream and idea of a self-taught Italian-American artist Marino Auriti whom in 1955 wanted to build an imaginary museum that could house all the knowledge and bring together all great human discoveries.  Massimiliano Gioni, Director of 55th International Art Exhibition used this idea to create an art biennial that would seem like a cabinet of curiosities and collections of discoveries.  Although the initial reading of the title might seem as if creating a list of who's who or an all encompassing discourse of what is going on in contemporary art world-wide.  On the contrary, Massimiliano Gioni's idea feels a little romantic, in the ways that he has chosen works that gravitated and captured him. He organized them as if mazes of knowledge or pathways to learning and self-discovery.  For parts of the biennial (since I have only spent yesterday and parts of today of the press preview visiting, thus many more I have not seen yet), it did feel like walking through secret pathways and exploring inside hidden mazes for the discovery of something new, of learning something about myself and grasping a little bit better about the world that surrounds me.

Photo taken in Arsenale

During the press conference, a Chinese journalist asked a question as to how Massimiliano Gioni chose the artists and works from China (PRC).  He admitted to having no certain sets of criteria rather something intuitive or something that seemed relevant to the human conditions or emotions of the present, past and future.  On the choice of building the Pavilion of China, Gioni referred back to Italy's long fascination and curiosity of the orient and China.  Dating back to the 1200s when Marco Polo an Italian merchant from Venice first traveled to China and in this reference to the past Gioni continues to explore Asian and China but through the lenses and visions of contemporary artists.    

The Pavilion of China is curated by Wang Chunchen and its name and central theme evolves on the idea of Transfiguration.  This "transfiguration" points to the transformation and conceptualization in Chinese contemporary art, according to the press material describing its conception and process.  Also interesting to note, according to the curator that the word "transfiguration" was first translated into English from the Bible, describing the transforming of Jesus on a mountain.  Then the press information goes on to mention that the word later changed to signify more general transformation, metamorphosis and etc..**  When I first read this, it struck me as being a hint of tyrannical, that the contemporary Chinese should claim its presence as if God or Jesus-like upon initially touch-down.  The paragraph does go on and mentions an American philosopher and art theorist Arthur Danto who used this same word for a title of his book- The Transfiguration of the Commonplace in 1984.**  While I certainly appreciate the additionally provided semiotic historical context, however by starting off with the transformation of Jesus nevertheless does make the contemporary Chinese seem a little like its dictating predecessors.  Whatever happened to the virtues of our tradition and that one must be humble, no matter knowingly we are more powerful than our counterparts, yet we let them show off and be made a fool of instead.  This kind of thinking perhaps makes me look old-fashioned or maybe more like out-of-fashion in the eyes of the contemporary Chinese.  All differences aside, I did see some impressive works there.  With that kind of a title and an explanation, one would never expect the Chinese to have put up such a big ad with nothing to sell in the store. 

Photo taken in the Virgin Garden of the Pavilion of China

Photo Taken in the Virgin Garden of the Pavilion of China

Guge Bricks is an installation by artist Shu Young.  There are 1,500 cast resin squares each measures 37 x 15 x 9 centimeters, the exact dimensions of the stone bricks used to build the Great Wall of China.  The Chinese words represented here are written in traditional calligraphy style.  A style that has been appreciated for its form and visual aesthetics as well as the meanings of the words. It has been a cultural tradition and considered as a valuable heritage and pride to the Chinese.  When I was little, I had a calligraphy tutor who was very strict and that the first few lessons were spent on just learning how to hold the "ink / hair pen" (毛笔)*** upright in the proper way.  Then I would learn by copying more standard styles before proceeding to learn to add more gestures to certain strokes and lines of a word.  A master could invent his own style of writing and be known for it, I never quite got to that point since I was an active child who never liked to sit still very much.  Nowadays with the invention of computers and keypads, people hardly hand write anything with a regular pen, not to mention a traditional "hair / ink pen (毛笔)***."  Speaking of the invention of computers, the English text printed below are translations that the artist found via Google.  As Google becomes a popular search tool world-wide and the Chinese are eager to learn English as to broaden worldly versatility.  However, something is amiss.  If one is able to read both the Chinese and the English words on the bricks, one would realize that the meanings do not exactly match.  In fact, some of the meanings are quite far off.  Thanks to Google, everything has been translated word for word without its underlying meanings and without its original metaphors and similes.  Furthermore, the piece presents a cultural rift and misunderstanding that further highlights the differences between Eastern and Western languages and cultures.  And here this cultural rift is represented as these standing building-bricks, a brick wall of visual transparency yet its meaning and true intention remains opaque. 

Taken in the Virgin Garden of the Pavilion of China

Taken in the Virgin Garden of the Pavilion of China
Thing-in-itself is in the Virgin Garden and is an installation by Hu Yaolin.  The structure standing handsomely on the green lawn is constructed with main elements taken from the Hui-style architecture.  It is entirely made out of wood, yet the structure is incredibly durable and sturdy that could stand for thousands of years.  The main characteristics of Hui-style is in its intricate wood carving details.  Each panel and section near the top or the ceiling of the structure depicts an ancient tale and folk-lore. For I was told as a child an "ancient person" (古人)*** would take a stroll down the hall looking up around him and compose verses or contemplate philosophical theories inspired by the images surrounding him.  Unfortunately, as with the recent economic growth as well as social developments, lots of Hui-style structures have been destroyed to make room for new modern buildings.  As the demand for modernity increases, traditions have been sacrificed and done away.  In efforts to preserve and save tradition, Hu Yaolin has saved these elements from their complete demise and re-constructed it for the Pavilion of China.  According to the curator, this creation is analogous with Pantheon in the history of Italian civilization.  Meaning that as the view-points collect at the ceiling, it is as if we are wishfully looking back through history and the development of human imagination**. 

There are so many more works inside this pavilion and we have only just been hanging out in the Virgin Garden.  But for now, this is all I could manage to cram in for the moment.  I will follow up with more postings about other fantastic things I have seen or that I am going to see tomorrow and the day after.  In a few (more) words, I honestly think the Pavilion of China (PRC) is more than fantastic, though it does seem a bit to be suggesting the omni-presence, like 'God' (if you go inside and see the video projections that take up the entire wall from top to bottom of the pavilion walls, you will know or probably even agree with me), nonetheless it taught me something about my native country and her contemporary conditions and adjustments.  I was overcome with fits of nostalgia when seeing some of the work.  There is one animation that mixes digital effects with characters from traditional Chinese children stories, both heart-warming and visually striking.  So far so good, Il Palazzo Enciclopedico has been full of images and imaginations from both the point of views of the artists and the spectator. 

*Il Palazzo Enciclopedico is The Encyclopedic Palace the name of the 55th Venice art biennial 
**Curator's statement extracted from the press packet
***Here I am guilty of bad translation, like Google, I translated the words directly from Chinese and they might feel out of context in English.  With a little bit of imagination, I am sure you are able to decipher. 


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