Beijing artist, academic, curator and critic Qiu Zhijie is one of the busiest engines in the Chinese art machine. That makes him a fitting choice as chief curator of the Shanghai Biennale, which this year moves from the Shanghai Art Museum into an 18,000sqm former power station.
When the Shanghai Biennale committee asked him if he would provide a proposal, Qiu replied, ‘Okay, let me just ask my wife.’
‘To be a curator for a project like this means I have to stop my personal business, cancel most of my exhibitions and I won’t make that much money,’ he says. ‘My wife wasn’t really supportive.’
Nevertheless, Qiu took the gig and under his indefatigable direction the ninth Shanghai Biennale will be the biggest so far. The power station – which supplied energy to the Jiangnan Shipyard, the largest arms factory in Asia at the end of the 19th century – is three times larger than the Shanghai Art Museum. Moreover, this year’s event includes the participation of city pavilions, 30 in all, strewn across the city. ‘Altogether, the biennale will be eight times bigger than before,’ Qiu hazards.
Among the many, many works being shown are a large sculpture by Adrián Villar Rojas (Argentina), a terracotta warriors-inspired installation by Simon Fujiwara (UK/Germany), a neon sculpture by the Claire Fontaine art collective (France) and something ineffable, as usual, by Tino Sehgal (UK/Germany). Special projects include ‘Shanghai Arc’, a historical record of Jewish immigrants in Shanghai, and an examination of China’s dozens of Zhongshan Parks named in honour of Sun Zhongshan, also know as Sun Yat-sen. An art academy is also being established as part of the biennale for young artists, curators and critics to develop their skills.
Such an expansive program presents huge challenges, but also opportunities. One of Qiu’s co-curators, German aesthetic theorist Boris Groys, says for them ‘the challenge and opportunity coincide in this case: to imagine a topology of contemporary art and manifest it in the form of an exhibition in a new space and in a specific – and fast changing – cultural context.’
‘It’s a big challenge, and a big chance to create something,’ Qiu agrees. ‘The Shanghai Biennale is the most important biennale in China and one of the most important biennales in Asia, and even the world.’
That might be overstating the biennale’s current status, but it’s a good reflection of Qiu’s ambition. Of several city-sized celebrations of fine art in the region this autumn – including the Gwangju Biennale and the Guangzhou Triennial – the Shanghai Biennale is going biggest. With the inclusion of city pavilions, it’s also most shamelessly emulating the ür-biennale, Venice, and its country pavilions, in the attempt to build its international relevance.
Yet co-curator Chang Tsong-zung says, ‘City pavilions are radically different from national pavilions; cities cut across the demography of nations, and establish another mapping closer to the way the globalised world operates.’
‘I think that each biennale has to have its own identity,’ says Jens Hoffman, another of Qiu’s co-curators. ‘What I hope the Shanghai Biennale will become is the prime biennale in the region that focuses on art from East and Southeast Asia, and connects that with some international voices.’
Qiu’s emphasis is perhaps less on the regional focus than the international connections. The 2010 Shanghai Biennale had 50 participating artists, half Chinese and half international. This year the number of artists has risen to 90, with all of the increase coming on the international side. Of the 30 city pavilions, 29 are from abroad.
Qiu’s three co-curators – Boris Groys, Jens Hoffman and Johnson Chang – were carefully selected to cover the more global scope. ‘Boris Groys is very familiar with art from Eastern Europe; Jens Hoffmann is more familiar with Latin American artists; and Johnson Chang from Hong Kong has done a lot for communication between India and China, and also in Central and Western Asia. For the Chinese art circle, people are more interested in Europe and the States, but I think it’s important to pay attention to these areas,’ he says.
The fair’s theme this year, inspired by the new venue, is ‘reactivation’. Qiu says the theme ‘aims to consider industry, history and identity, but also this idea of the individual as a generator. Sometimes artists not only make beautiful art work but they can also be one of the most active agents of transformation in their society. I’m really interested in this type of artist, who can also be a teacher and a curator. It seems like I’m talking about myself... But that’s what I’m really interested in – the possibility of rebuilding that vocation.’