Signposting China’s soft power Silk Road, Yinchuan launches a biennale
The improbable Yinchuan Biennale opened earlier this month in the Autonomous Hui Province of Ningxia, near the border with Inner Mongolia. A city of under 2 million people, Yinchuan is only China’s 200th biggest by population. GDP per capita is just $5,000 US, and the industry it’s known best for is goji berries. Yet global stars Ai Weiwei, Yoko Ono and Anish Kapoor were among over 70 artists invited to exhibit works at the city’s Museum of Contemporary Art. The sleek building, resembling twisted tissue paper and designed by Britain’s we architecture anonymous, opened just last year.
Set on wetlands well outside the city centre, participating British artist Abigail Reynolds describes the museum as “like a spaceship”. In the winter, when the snows are heavy, artistic director Hsieh Suchen says as few as four people a day visit the museum.
While China has a reputation for grand, contemporary architectural projects, the willingness to put on a major international biennale so far from China’s major art hubs is noteworthy. (Only one artist from Ningxia — Mao Tongqiang — is taking part in the biennale, and almost all the media that covered the event were flown in for the occasion, us included.)
The Yinsheng Biennale reflects an underlying urgency to develop the country’s economic relationships with surrounding developing nations. It’s part of a soft power push in support of a grand economic plan, the One Belt, One Road initiative, which aims to strengthen connections along the ancient Silk Road, from China through Central Asia to the Middle East, with major infrastructure investment that serves as both economic stimulus and a use for surplus resources. A new ‘maritime road’ also aims to better connect South and Southeast Asia.
The curator selected for this year’s inaugural Yinchuan Biennale is Bose Krishnamachari, the co-founder of India’s Kochi-Muziris Biennale (KMB). He describes his vision for the fair in a simple colour palette, alluding to communism and Islam, as “Red, a state of dominance, and Green, a state of acceptance.”
“Yinchuan stands at the cusp of the fault line of these two colours. It is only natural that the Yellow River runs through it,” he says.
Yinchuan is the site of an important intersection between China’s Han majority and the Hui minority, who, along with the Uyghurs in Xinjiang province, amount to the vast majority of China’s 23 million muslims. Fittingly, the artists selected for the Yinchuan Biennale include many from the Middle East and parts of South and Southeast Asia with significant muslim populations.
Embracing artists from Lebanon, Iran, Saudi Arabia, the United Arab Emirates, India, Bangladesh, Malaysia and Indonesia in place of artists from Western Europe, East Asia and the Americas gives the Yinchuan event an identity that distinguishes it from, for instance, the Shanghai Biennale. It provides a platform for art influenced by Islam, such as the geometric patterns by Saudi artist Dana Awartani and the ’24 Salah Movements’ by Ammar Al Attar, from the United Arab Emirates.
The inaugural Yinchuan Biennale will surely start important new cultural conversations between China and its neighbours, but not everyone has been allowed or encouraged to take part. Ai Weiwei had his invitation to participate rescinded on August 21 due to his “political status”, just weeks before the biennale opened on September 9. Anish Kapoor considered dropping out in support, but his huge self-creating wax bell, “Untitled” was already on its way to the museum.
There are no muslim Chinese artists in the show and no artists from Xinjiang. Uyghur people, who have often been involved in struggles for greater independence, are a less model minority than the Hui.
While the current focus is on embracing muslims — and muslim markets — abroad, perhaps there is room for the museum and its new biennale to accommodate these groups in the future.
According to Hsieh, “Yinchuan MoCA is a fledgling institution, a ‘sapling’ for contemporary art in the Northwest of China. I would like to see this sapling being nurtured well and growing into an ageless tree.”
- Article by Sam Gaskin