SONIA MEHRA CHAWLA, Residue, 2016, Installation with serigraphic, UV printing and drawing on wood, layered Plexiglas, acrylic sheets, 365.76 × 1,524 cm. All images courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Yinchuan.
SONIA MEHRA CHAWLA, Residue, 2016, Installation with serigraphic, UV printing and drawing on wood, layered Plexiglas, acrylic sheets, 365.76 × 1,524 cm. All images courtesy Museum of Contemporary Art Yinchuan.

Yinchuan Biennale

Museum of Contemporary Art Yinchuan

The inaugural edition of the Yinchuan Biennale in China, which opened in September, takes on heavy subject matter. Titled “For an Image, Faster than Light,” the curator Bose Krishnamachari—who is also the founder of the Kochi-Muziris Biennale in India—drew his premise from the Indian poet Rabindranath Tagore’s writing. Tagore’s deeply philosophical thought on the cyclical nature of birth and death appears in the Yinchuan Biennale’s press release: “The origin is the end, and the end is the origin. It is a circle. The distinction between the subtle and gross is in your own ignorance.” It forms the framework for an array of works by 74 artists from 33 countries, which address issues of origin, devastation, and death. Like artwork from this year’s Venice Biennale, the dwindling conditions of the world brought on by ecological, materialistic and political destruction take center stage. But implicit in the curator’s focus on the recurring pattern of life is the hope for new beginnings. For Krishnamachari, the significance of art and the image as an object of truth and perspective, especially in China’s fraught censorial environment, are meant to open new avenues for interpretation.

Situated in a relatively undeveloped part of northwest China, the ultra-modern looking Museum of Contemporary Art Yinchuan (MOCA Yinchuan) beckons like a spaceship exploding with knowledge. Juxtaposed against this white behemoth, in a strategic corner of the vast scenic grounds surrounding the museum, the Indian artist Valsan Korma Kolleri’s organic site-specific sculptures, collectively titled Earth Whispers (2016), recall the beginning of civilization. Large, brown pod-like structures, conical tepees made from bamboo frames, and cotton burlap smeared with clay and wood shavings remind us of the rudimentary need for shelter. This sentiment is echoed by He Xiangyu’s installation of handmade chairs, made from rough, found wood, clustered outside the museum. Ancestral figures from rural India, and the simplicity of our origins, loom before us in Benita Perciyal’s male and female sculptures contrived from herbal and fragrant natural powders.

HICHAM BERRADALes Fleurs, 2016, video, 3 min 42 sec.

The Biennale also sets forth to correct past wrongs as it reinforces the acknowledging of our ancestral roots. The dawn of human existence, and native inhabitants of specific regions, are given their rightful place. Danie Mellor’s subversion of 18th-century colonial representations of native Australian inhabitants on blue-and-white china can be seen in his massive, similarly-colored crayon pastel drawing, Deep forest (2015), which depicts the Queensland rainforest that was originally populated by Australian Aboriginals. In a related fashion, Singaporean artist Donna Ong’s two-channel video The Forest Speaks Back (2014–15) repositions colonial representations of tropical forests. Even Lisa Reihana’s dark, haunting images in her two-channel video Tai Whetuki (2015), portraying the traditions of the Maori tribe in her native New Zealand, reclaim the history of the marginalized Pacific islanders. 

DANIE MELLOR, Deep (forest), 2015, mixed media on paper, 27 panels, 120 × 100 cm each.

VALSAN KOORMA KOLLERI, Earth Whispers, 2016, sculptural installation, bamboo, jute, pulp, clay, dimensions variable.

At a forum during the opening of the Biennale, philosopher Santiago Zabala set the stage by discussing Martin Heidegger’s proclamation that the “only emergency is the absence of emergency,” and his own belief that only art can save us from the lack of sustained worldwide government effort to fix global problems. While this proposition might seem somewhat idealistic, Zabala’s talk mobilized the audience to recognize several works that highlight the urgency for change. The unattended devastation of vast mangrove forests featured in Sonia Mehra Chawla’s immersive installation of serigraphs, UV prints and drawings on wood is compelling. Even if Spanish artist Santiago Sierra’s Destroyed Word (2012/2016)—a ten-channel video projection showing the destruction of the word “kapitalism”—is clichéd, its symbolic demolition of a marauding ideology hits home. A more urgent effect of capitalism can be seen in Cao Fei’s dystopian video Rumba II: Nomad (2015), which looks at the broken down system of low-cost housing in China, through images of unattended children, debris, and the titular vacuuming discs that seem to suck up dust and culture at the same time.

The sheer absence of emergency is revealed in the plight of the Palestinians, as explored in Basel Abbas and Ruanne Abou-Rahme’s video Only the Beloved Keep Our Secrets (2016), which show how Israeli power and paranoia prevent Palestinians from having basic rights. Words like “quiet,” and “testify” appear over collaged images of young men being arrested for crossing a fence, while frames of traditional dancing women in the video signify the land’s cultural heritage and history. The Palestinians’ restricted life also reminds viewers about China’s ongoing battle regarding freedom of expression—in particular with Ai Weiwei, the country’s most outspoken artist who was prevented from exhibiting in the Biennale for his political activism.

It must be noted that the notion of hope embedded in the cyclical pattern of destruction and birth is shrouded in bleakness within the exhibition. If Anish Kapoor’s iconic Untitled (bell) (2010), represents the symbolic toll at the beginning and end of each life cycle, only a few works on view aspire toward new beginnings. For instance, French-Moroccan artist Hicham Barrada’s magical video Les Fleurs (2016), about the biological phenomenon of inflorescence, or the distribution of pollen from flowers, is deeply uplifting. Cast in blue light, beautiful explosions of pollen from sun flower heads appear like droplets of water in slow motion, with all the promise of new life. An ongoing series of digital prints by Malaysian artist Yee I-Lann, where each showcases the arms of people embracing, which are portrayed in an orange hue against a bright blue background, provides some glimmer of well being in a destructive world.

VALSAN KOORMA KOLLERIEarth Whispers, 2016, sculptural installation, bamboo, jute, pulp, clay, dimensions variable.

But despite the Biennale’s somewhat imbalanced presentation that highlights the calamitous conditions of the world, Krishnamachari has succeeded in engaging the community around Yinchuan. His two-fold endeavor to bring art and activate the public has already initiated a new kind of emergency that will result in fresh interpretations, beginnings, and an eventual reawakening regarding the societal issues at hand.

The Yinchuan Biennale is on view at the Museum of Contemporary Art Yinchuan until December 18, 2016.