Venice of the East?

Chengdu hosts a biennale

Venice of the East?

Reviving socialist culture: an exhibit at the Chengdu Biennale

“Man shall not live by bread alone,” announces the Bible. What would such an idea have to do with China? A little more than before, it turns out. On Tuesday, the Central Committee of the Politburo, the “Party’s parliament”, called for “better and more spiritual food for the people,” in a statement following its latest plenary session.

The document, snappily titled “Decisions by the Central Committee of the Communist Party on Some Major Questions to do with Deepening Reform of the Cultural System and Promoting the Development and Flourishing of Socialist Culture,” insists on the central role of the Party in all things.

Nothing new there.

But it also makes explicit that the country’s leaders believe economic growth, or ‘bread’, is not enough if the country is to flourish in the future. People also need art, culture and the creative industries – or as the party likes to say, “spiritual civilisation”.

It’s something of a leap for a Party founded on narrower Marxist principles, and is linked to aspirations from the leadership that Chinese cultural influence spread further overseas.

But does it point to a new phase at home first?

Art curator Lü Peng, head of the Chengdu Biennale that opened on September 29 in the southwestern city (it closes on Sunday) believes there’s a long way to go before art and culture become more influential in China again. That would require the government to grant greater freedom to artists and arts professionals, he says. Yet the Central Committee’s meeting and its conclusions are nevertheless important.

“It’s a step forward, because it’s all about ideas and thinking,” he told WiC in an interview last week. “The first step was the economy,” referring to China’s programme of renewal, or gaige kaifang, begun around 1976. “The second step is thinking and culture. The third step will be the political system.”

Yet he also cautioned against excessive optimism. “The system hasn’t changed,” he said. He also raised an eyebrow at the latest Party diktat, predicting a flurry of activity.

“The new message will be, ‘hurry and do culture!’ That’ll be the slogan,” he said, mocking the anxiety of middle-level bureaucrats to be seen to respond to major policy statements from the top.

“How to do it all is still a big challenge. But still, there is space now.”

Lü’s own experience with the Chengdu Biennale shows where some of the problems will lie. Getting the show off the ground was a tremendous battle. This year, for the first time, organisers accepted funding from the city government in a public-private partnership that involved major Chinese companies – in all, Rmb30 million in funds.

It meant, in theory, more venues, more international artists and works, and even the inclusion of architecture and design components alongside the core art programme.

But it also meant Lü and his professional curatorial team had to accept five officials from the city’s Propaganda Department in the decision-making process.

Unsurprisingly, the official impulse to control was strong, said Lü.

“We fought. We argued. We banged the table and shouted,” he reports. “There really wasn’t enough time. And (taking) the money was a big problem because they wanted to say how things should be. I was unsatisfied with the result. Really unsatisfied.”

The show, Changing Vistas, Creative Duration has some fascinating works, such as the Bishan Commune project, which aims to promote renewal in architecturally-valuable areas (the model here is Beijing’s trendy, renewed 798 arts area, or Chengdu’s newly-elegant Kuanzhai Xiangzi restaurant district).

But there’s clearly room for improvement. For 2013, the next Chengdu Biennale, Lü plans to invite a team from the world’s true professionals, the Venice Biennale, to help organise the show.

If that’s not allowed, he says, he’s not taking part. But his hope is that the new directives from the top will help him to convince officials that they must listen more to the opinions of art professionals.

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