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by Xinming Xia

The Yinchuan Biennale: The Belt and Road Initiative and the Artistic Practices Linking East and West

The Chinese city of Yinchuan, capital of the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region in Northwest China, is becoming a popular name in the contemporary art world because of its close association with the ancient Silk Road and “New Silk Road.” The history of the Silk Road can be traced back to the Western Han Dynasty (206 BC – 220 AD) when Zhang Qian was dispatched by the emperor to the Western regions for military purposes. The explorer brought China into contact with the Central Asian states and the old Roman Empire, opening up the ancient Silk Road. The path enabled China to communicate and trade with the other Asian and European countries and set its role as the indispensable leader of the development of the Silk Road. Now, China is going to revive the glories of the old Silk Road and position itself as the center of the world through the Belt and Road Initiative. Situated along the path, Yinchuan will play a more crucial role in promoting cultural communication with Asian and European countries.

The Belt and Road Initiative (BRI), initially announced in 2013, intends to strengthen China’s connectivity throughout Euroasia and the world.[1] Also known as “One Belt, One Road,” the project consists of two parts: the "belt," recreating a new Silk Road land route, and the "road," which is not a road, but a route across various oceans.[2] At the opening ceremony of the Belt and Road Forum for International Cooperation in 2017, President Xi Jinping declared that, “In pursuing the Belt and Road Initiative, we should focus on the fundamental issue of development, release the growth potential of various countries and achieve economic integration and interconnected development and deliver benefits to all.”[3]  So far, 138 other countries have become part of the project, including New Zealand, Russia, Italy, and Syria.

The BRI acts as an umbrella initiative covering a wide range of projects that promote the flow of goods, investment, and people. Among them, there are cultural projects that aim to develop China’s cultural soft power and improve cultural influences. The Ministry of Culture and Tourism of the PRC published the “Belt and Road Initiative Culture Development Plan” (2016-2020) in 2016, claiming to support the development of the Xinjiang International Folk Dance Festival, the Maritime Silk Road International Arts Festival, the China-Eurasia Expo, etc.[4]  The emergence of the Museum of Contemporary Art Yinchuan (MOCA Yinchuan) and Yinchuan Biennale also serve the purpose of providing a new cultural platform for the BRI.

Surrounded by the Gobi Desert, the Yellow River, and the Helan Mountains, Yinchuan, which means “Silver River,” is known for its unique natural landscape and geographical location. It is the host city of the China – Arab States Expo, a comprehensive international expo that is attended by businessmen and government representatives from more than 80 countries. The city is also home to more than 580,000 Hui minorities, cultivating rich Islamic cultural traditions. There is, however, no apparent foundation for contemporary art to grow. [5] Established in 2015, MOCA Yinchuan is the only contemporary art museum in the Ningxia Hui Autonomous Region. It is dedicated to stimulating the cultural communications between China and Islamic countries.  Located at the border between lush wetlands and arid desert divided by the Yellow River, MOCA Yinchuan has turned its attention to embracing the complexity of the site and highlighting the local ecological conditions and history. It is the central part of the development plan of River Origins, an emerging art town that also includes an international artists residency program, a wetland park, an ecology park, and an international school. Its multiple focuses on Chinese contemporary art, Islamic contemporary art, and ecology art can be seen through its architecture, exhibitions, collections, and education activities.

MOCA Yinchuan © Photo: Courtesy of MOCA Yinchuan

Designed by the Chinese firm We Architect Anonymous, the 15,000-square-meter complex of the museum is inspired by the rocky-folds texture of the Yellow River’s rich geological changes.[6] Regarding the museum exhibitions, the Made in China series of exhibitions from 2016 to 2018 invited contemporary Chinese artists to employ various local materials and create large-scale installations, inspiring critical thought on the popular label “Made in China.” Proposed by the Embassy of China in Moscow, Watch: The Joint Exhibition of Valentin Mikhailovich Sidorov & Zhou Yixin in 2019 exhibited Russian landscape paintings and contemporary Chinese ink paintings, stimulating cultural communication with Russia, which also participated in BRI. The 2016 Yinchuan Biennale, For an Image, Faster Than Light, and the 2018 Yinchuan Biennale, Starting from the Desert: Ecologies on the Edge, explored topics related to environmental issues. Among the 31 current and past exhibitions, many of them have exhibited Chinese contemporary art and Islamic contemporary art with a special focus on ecological issues. The collection of the museum can be divided into three main categories. It has around 200 pieces of Chinese oil paintings from the late Qing Dynasty, a series of contemporary Chinese artworks, and antique regional and world maps recording early Sino-Western communication.[7]The collection has provided a solid foundation for the museum staff to conduct research on the history of cultural communication between East and West and the recent development of contemporary Chinese art and Islamic art. Independent curator Lü Peng noted that: “The museum collection has filled the gap in the history of modern and contemporary Chinese art. MOCA Yinchuan has taken the responsibility to preserve our culture. ”[8] Moreover, the museum has provided bilingual guided tours and workshops, such as the “Keep the Memory of the Family” sculpture workshop, “Ingenious Craftsman” weaving art workshop, and “Charm of Ink” ink flow art workshop, fulfilling its educational role. MOCA Yinchuan has taken the responsibility to spread contemporary art locally, and the Yinchuan Biennale further stimulates the cultural exchange between China and other BRI countries.

Biennials in China are usually held as large celebration ceremonies that present and summarize the recent achievements in contemporary Chinese art. It can serve multiple purposes: enhancing the reputation of the host city and boosting local tourism as well. Unlike Shanghai or Beijing, which possess a multitude of galleries, art museums, and fairs that can attract local and global art lovers, Yinchuan has had to work from the very beginning to become the focus in the contemporary art world. Within this context, the First Yinchuan Biennale planned to start from the top. Suchen Hsieh, Artistic Director of MOCA Yinchuan, invited prominent Indian artist and curator Bose Krishnamachari to curate the exhibition. Krishnamachari adopted the theme For an Image, Faster than Light to discuss the series of conflicts that we are all facing today based on three main indices: nature, religion, and politics.[9] Seventy-three international artists participated in the exhibition. Featuring in the museum main hall was Song Dong’s Through the Wall (2016). The artist employed picture frames with mirrors as walls and floor to install a funhouse with densely arranged lamps hanging from the ceiling. Referencing different walls that we have to face in our daily lives, Song Dong challenged the notion of a boundary as impenetrable. The lighting inside the funhouse indicated our longing for a bright future. Yinchuan artist Mao Tongqiang recreated a KTV room, which Mao described as a complicated public space because it accommodated politicians, merchants, intellectuals, prostitutes, and whoremasters. Everyone came to this space for a different purpose, and Mao wanted to discuss how the joy of individuals formed into a collective bender in the space. Although there were only eleven Chinese artists participating in the exhibition, they were established figures in the field and brought representative artworks, spreading the general idea of what Chinese contemporary art is. The international vision of the exhibition can be seen through the large number of international artists. Many of them were from countries that are less famous in the international art world. Ammar Al Attar from Ajman, the United Arab Empires brought a series of investigative self-portraits centered around acting prayers in Islam that demystify the religious rituals.[10] Nigerian photographer George Osodi presented portraits of monarchs, showing the ethnic and cultural diversity of Nigeria under the influence of colonialism. Both these artists’ works have focused on race, ethnicity, and religious problems. Such issues may sound unfamiliar to local visitors, but with the promotion of the BRI, these may become common issues that we will face together.

Song Dong, Through the Wall, 2016 © Photo: Courtesy of MOCA Yinchuan

Mao Tongqiang, 15 Decibel, 2016 © Photo: Courtesy of MOCA Yinchuan

On the opening weekend of the main exhibition, there was a symposium, “The Gates of the Sun—Between the Mountains and Waters,” organized by writer Manoj Nair. Twenty-five artists, curators, and scholars gathered together and discussed the theme of the exhibition with a focus on the dynamic nature of contemporary art and society. The Biennale also included a series of public forums, a music festival, and a workshop targeting children. MOCA Yinchuan also built twenty-four art residencies, and six participating artists would move in and create portraits for the art event. The unprecedented cultural event seemed to be a decent beginning of bringing contemporary art to the desert city while making a big splash in the art world. Krishnamachari noted, “Yinchuan has incredible potential for growing as a cultural and artistic location.”[11]  To develop as another contemporary art center alongside Beijing and Shanghai, Yinchuan needed to continue the promising work of the First Yinchuan Biennale and establish it as a long-term cultural tradition. In recent years, the biennial boom has been taking place in China while some of the biennials ceased after one or several editions, such as Suzhou Documents in Suzhou and the Xinjiang Biennale of Contemporary Art in Ürümqi. No official reasons have been provided for the closure, while financial burdens have become a major problem for many Chinese biennials. According to Hsieh, the expense of holding an exhibition at Yinchuan is thirty to fifty percent higher than other first-tier cities.[12] It means that to continually have more editions of Yinchuan Biennale is an immense challenge that the museum needs to face.

The Second Yinchuan Biennale came as expected in 2018. Because of MOCA Yinchuan’s focus on ecology and cultural communication between the East and the West, it hired Marco Scotini, Artistic Director of the FM Center for Contemporary Art in Milan, as the chief curator because of his extensive research experience in the related fields. Titled Starting from the Desert: Ecologies on the Edge, the exhibition responded to the imperative global issues by employing archaeological approaches. It also reviewed the abundant layers of multiculturality and biodiversity produced and left here by the ancient Silk Road and better prepared Yinchuan to develop as the starting point of BRI.[13] The Biennale’s framework was articulated in four independent thematic areas. Entitled Nomadic Space and Rural Space, the first section explored how forms of life contributed to the creation of different physical environments. Human activities may have participated in forming the desert of sand, and rural areas have also been created partly because of natural constraints and opportunities. The second section, Labor-in-Nature and Nature-in-Labor, focused on how commodification, appropriation, exploitation, and accumulation link to the modern ideas of nature. The following section, The Voice and The Book, engaged with the questions of the production and reproduction of knowledge. The last section, Minorities and Multiplicity, discussed the relationship between minorities and the majority and the idea of multiplicity. Together, eighty groups of artists from over thirty regions showed paintings, sculptures, film, installation, and performance to discuss and redefine the concept of ecology. Among them, thirty-eight artists brought newly commissioned works.

In the center of the first exhibition room was Song Dong’s The Center of the World (2018). The commissioned work was a pyramid-like wooden structure allowing people to climb up to the top and discover samples of different types of desert sand from 24 time zones. It also provided a lookout point for visitors to survey the whole exhibition. The installation was based on the Altar of Land in Zhongshan Park, Beijing. In the past, our ancestors believed that China was the center of the world, so the third Ming Dynasty emperor, Yongle, built the altar in 1421.[14] Now, we are living in a more socially diverse society, and the artist was proposing the question anew: where is the center of the world? Another newly commissioned artwork was The Orchid Room (2018) in the second section of the exhibition. Artist and curator Liu Ding grouped various species of orchids along with his collection of late Qing calligraphy, paintings, and epigraphy. Oil paintings from the museum collection were also displayed in the same room. Similar to Song Dong, the artist drew inspiration from the Orchid Room in Zhongshan Park, which represents the elite Chinese literati tradition, because in modern China, orchids symbolize scholarly pursuit and are often associated with honorable people. Liu Ding’s installation considered the nuanced relationship between the orchids and their wider context: What is the specific political motive behind cultural objects? The Biennale inspired people to rethink relevant questions related to ecology and minorities, for instance, how to utilize Yinchuan’s special geological and cultural position to develop Northwest China and how to acquire the power of limited ecologies.[15]  There were also a series of rich public education events, including two university lectures led by the chief curators, three lectures led by participating artists Li Juchuan, Duan Zhengqu, and Xu Tan, and a public workshop.

Liu Ding, The Orchid Room, 2018 © Photo: Courtesy of MOCA Yinchuan

The past two editions of Yinchuan Biennale have received a great deal of attention from the art world because they highlighted an international spirit like other prevailing biennials and faced enormous internal and external challenges as well, such as the withdrawal of Chinese artist Ai Weiwei. The exhibition focus on countries along the Silk Road showed the ambition of the museum to decentralize the Western canon. Claimed by Hsieh, MOCA Yinchuan has received significant support from the local government especially after the announcement of the BRI.[16] The Biennale, based on the museum platform, will play a more important role in the implementation of BRI. Yinchuan is set to become a “World Muslim City” with new hotels, mosques, and other cultural attractions for Muslim tourists by 2020. The Yinchuan Biennale and MOCA Yinchuan will also contribute to approaching the goal and strengthening connections with other BRI countries.

Xinming Xia is a museum studies graduate student at New York University. Her research interests include contemporary Chinese art and art exhibition history. She will pursue a Ph.D. in Creative Media at City University of Hong Kong in the fall.

[1] “How will the Belt and Road Initiative advance China’s interests?” China Power, accessed February 11, 2020, https://chinapower.csis.org/china-belt-and-road-initiative/.

[2] Alexandra Ma, “The US is scrambling to invest more in Asia to counter China's 'Belt and Road' mega-project. Here's what China's plan to connect the world through infrastructure is like,” Business Insider, November 11, 2019, https://www.businessinsider.com/what-is-belt-and-road-china-infrastructure-project-2018-1.

[3] Xi Jinping, “Work Together to Build the Silk Road Economic Belt and The 21st Century Maritime Silk Road,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs of the People’s Republic of China, May 15, 2017, https://www.fmprc.gov.cn/mfa_eng/zxxx_662805/t1465819.shtml.

[4] “Belt and Road Initiative Culture Development Plan” (2016-2020),” The State Council Information Office, PRC, December 28, 2016, http://www.scio.gov.cn/xwfbh/xwbfbh/wqfbh/35861/36653/xgzc36659/Document/1551344/1551344.htm.

[5] “Yinchuan Museum of Contemporary Art (MOCA) / waa (we architech anonymous),” Arch Daily, accessed February 11, 2020, https://www.archdaily.com/771375/moca-yinchuan-waa.

[6] “About,” MOCA Yinchuan, accessed February 10, 2020, http://moca-yinchuan.com/jieshaoE.asp?id=174&aid=174.

[7] “Collection,” MOCA Yinchuan, accessed February 12, 2020, http://moca-yinchuan.com/dzF.asp?id=200&aid=80.

[8] Xiao Shui, “The Grand Opening of MOCA Yinchuan: Here comes the Islamic Art!” 99YS, August 8, 2015, http://news.99ys.com/news/2015/0808/9_195549_1.shtml.

[9] Xavier Liang, “Shou Jie Yin Chuan Shuang Nian Zhan: Da Di Shang De Li Xiang Shi Jian,” (The First Yinchuan Biennale: The Artistic Ideal Practices in this Land), artnet, September 9, 2016, https://www.artnetnews.cn/art-world/shoujieyinchuanshuangnianzhandadishangdeyishulixiangshijian-43163.

[10] Anna Seaman, “My UAE: Ammar Al Attar on documenting life in the UAE,” The National, November 3, 2016, https://www.thenational.ae/arts-culture/my-uae-ammar-al-attar-on-documenting-life-in-the-uae-1.205409.

[11] Huzan Tata, “Bose Krishnamachari on the First Edition of Yinchuan Biennale,” Verve, October 26, 2016, http://www.vervemagazine.in/arts-and-culture/bose-krishnamachari-heads-yinchuan-biennales-inaugural-edition.

[12] Lü Xiaochen, “Hsieh Suzhen: The Only Reason Why MOCA Yinchuan is Running,” hiart.cn, November 21, 2016, http://www.hiart.cn/feature/detail/e7bhqwp.html.

[13] Christian Kobald, “THE 2ND YINCHUAN BIENNALE, An interview with curator Marco Scotini,” Spike Art Magazine, September 10, 2018, http://www.spikeartmagazine.com/articles/2nd-yinchuan-biennale.

[14] “4 highlights from the 2nd Yinchuan Biennale,” Art Radar, September 9, 2018, https://artradarjournal.com/2018/09/09/4-highlights-from-the-2nd-yinchuan-biennale/.

[15] Tom Mouna, “Highlights from the Second Yinchuan Biennale,” ArtAsiaPacific, June 12, 2018, http://artasiapacific.com/Blog/HighlightsFromTheSecondYinchuanBiennale.

[16] “Yinchuan Biennale: A small Chinese city makes big splash in the art world,” Hong Kong Free Press, October 10, 2016, https://www.hongkongfp.com/2016/10/10/yinchuan-biennale-a-small-chinese-city-makes-big-splash-in-the-art-world/.

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Issue 46 / June 2020

Contemporary Art Biennales – Our Hegemonic Machines in Times of Emergency

by Ronald Kolb, Shwetal A. Patel, Dorothee Richter

by Daniel Knorr

by Roma Jam Session art Kollektiv

by Delia Popa

by Diana Dulgheru

by Daniel Knorr

by Farid Rakun

by Raqs Media Collective

by Defne Ayas and Natasha Ginwala

by Ekaterina Degot

by Yung Ma

by Eva González-Sancho Bodero and Per Gunnar Eeg-Tverbakk

by Raluca Voinea

by Răzvan Ion

by Daniel Knorr

by Lara van Meeteren and Bart Wissink

by Raqs Media Collective

by Robert E. D’Souza

By Manifesta 12 Creative Mediators: Bregtje van der Haak, Andrés Jaque, Ippolito Pestellini Laparelli, Mirjam Varadinis

WHW in conversation with Omar Kholeif

by Henk Slager

by Vasyl Cherepanyn

by Ksenija Orelj

by Catherine David

by Okwui Enwezor

by Sabeth Buchmann and Ilse Lafer

by Julia Bethwaite and Anni Kangas

by Federica Martini

by Vittoria Martini