Why are Serbia, Mongolia and Vietnam all included in a new exhibition at Shanghai's China Art Museum? The answer is the One Belt One Road (OBOR) initiative: the Chinese economic and cultural project launched in 2013, which has gained visibility with a new shift in Chinese cultural diplomacy starting last year. Through the ‘Belt and Road’ initiative China is trying to expand its economic output and counter the lack of demand within the global economy by expanding its relations with more than 60 countries in Asia, Europe and Africa. Accompanying China’s ambitious infrastructure project is a strategy of soft power which is encouraging not only museums to work around the theme, but also universities and the entertainment industry – the China Art Museum's ‘Belt and Road’ international art exhibition (which runs from 1 December 2017 to 31 March 2018) is just a small part of a far larger whole. According to an estimate from the Chinese brokerage firm Minsheng Securities, China directly invested around US$5 billion in overseas entertainment industries, specifically targeting OBOR countries, in 2016 alone.
Until this project was revealed, many could argue that China’s global influence was predominantly limited to economic realms – very different from the colonial approaches of the West – and that China was only interested in economic aspects of exchange. The ‘Belt and Road’ seminar held at the China Art Museum the day before the exhibition opened attempted to mark a new cultural chapter, framing its goal as creating new global viewpoints based on mutual respect.
The countries included in the exhibition can be understood as strategically important points within the New Silk Road initiative: Mongolia as the starting point of the Silk Road (with its Russian connection); Vietnam as an important point in Southeast Asia and a key element for maritime links (see for instance the building of Northern Vietnam’s Haiphong port, to be finished by the end of 2017); and Serbia as a window towards Western Europe, standing at the crossroads of Eurasia and where Chinese investment in building infrastructure is already visible.
While the focus has been on building these countries’ infrastructure (communications, energy, transportation) and opening new markets for Chinese companies, art and culture have also been deployed in a strategy of improving China’s image on the international stage.
The China Art Museum’s ‘Belt and Road’ project is presented in the form of independent exhibitions: ‘Voyage – A Journey through Contemporary Serbian Art’ curated by Marijana Kolaric, ‘Beyond Heaven and Earth – Mongolian Art in This Day and Age’ curated by Gu Zhenqing, and ‘Rekindling Lacquer: Vietnamese Modern Painting in Shanghai Collections’ curated by Kian Chow Kwok.
What happens when the Other meets the Other Other? An opportunity for a rare encounter but one that seems to have failed to produce enough change from within. The exhibition for which I had the highest expectations, ‘Rekindling Lacquer: Vietnamese Modern painting in Shanghai Collections’ brings to attention not only some of the masters of lacquer painting such as Nguyen Gia Tri (1908–93), pioneers of experimental group the Gang of Five that emerged in the late 1980s as part of the ‘Doi Moi’ (reform) era, but also crucial members of Vietnam’s contemporary art scene during the 1990s, and emerging artists such as Phi Phi Oanh who recently presented a beautiful project at the National Art Gallery in Singapore. The range of artists included within the show, from modernist masters to contemporary artists, makes this exhibition a rare insight into the Vietnamese artistic scene.
But a lack of contextualization, the mixture of works from different periods next to each other, and having the exhibition split into two separate galleries separated by a different show altogether left the presentation flat. The curator did not try to confront the two separate spaces as a challenge, whereby they could mirror each other, for example. Furthermore working only with pieces from Shanghai-based collectors leaves the presentation isolated from the actual, current Vietnamese context and re-emphasizes Chinese cultural capital.
‘Beyond Heaven and Earth – Mongolian Art in This Day and Age’, was co-organized by the Union of Mongolian artists and curator Gu Zhenqing and was the largest presentation amongst all the countries. Gu’s claim is that the union operates on a democratic level whereby artists themselves choose their representatives (while in China such unions are directly operated by the state). The exhibition featured mostly painting works by Mongolian artists, but it was refreshing to see the Blue Sun art collective and their activities in nature including performances, collaborative art production, gatherings and land art projects, included in the show.
The Serbian exhibition presented nine artists focusing on in-depth presentations of individual artists’ practices. From the perspective of sharing common cultural heritage and traditions in relation to China, Serbia, whose culture is embedded in European cultural heritage (despite its historic ties with the Non-Aligned Movement), wasn’t mentioned at all during the pre-exhibition seminar. And the exhibition itself missed out on engaging with Serbia’s fragile position, caught as it is in the gap between East and West.
The ambitions of Chinese soft power alongside a lack of research and contextualization raise a series of serious questions around the project at the China Art Museum: What do these exhibitions really mean to show? Is there any difference in the display of contemporary art of Mongolia in China today from, say, the hundreds of exhibitions of Chinese contemporary art that have circulated through Europe starting from the 1990s? Does China need its other to reflect its power on? Can we propose other ways of working together?
The audience of the China Art Museum is comprised mostly of organized group visitors from inner China on tourist trips to Shanghai, and this exhibition is primarily in the service of domestic political and cultural state propaganda. It makes me wonder how these exhibitions will be read by visitors who probably visit museums infrequently and who are therefore not as versed in reading between the lines.
How will they see the ‘brand new era’ that we are entering into (according to Xi Jinping at the 19th party congress) when walking out of the vast corridors of the China Art Museum? What will they think when reading the news that Hong Kong tycoon Hui Wing-Mau has bought the Ming dynasty ‘Landscape Map of the Silk Road’ painting and has donated it to the Palace Museum in Beijing?
Main image: 'Beyond Heaven and Earth – Mongolian Art in This Day and Age’, installation view, 2017, China Art Museum, Shanghai. Courtesy: China Art Museum; photograph: Hu Yun
Biljana Ciric is an independent curator. Her recent exhibitions include ‘When the Other Meets the Other Other’ at the Cultural Center of Belgrade (2017), ‘Proposals to Surrender’ at McaM in Shanghai (2016/2017), and ‘Everything You Need To Know About The FY Foundation: An Exhibition’ at FY Art Foundation space in Shenzhen (2017).