Officializing the Unofficial:
Presenting New Chinese Art to the World

By Meiqin Wang

Modern Chinese Literature and Culture, vol. 21, no. 1 (Spring 2009), pp. 102-140

This essay examines the artistic, historical and political significance of the first Chinese Pavilion established by the Chinese government for the renowned international art exhibition, the Venice Biennale, in 2003. It analyzes the process behind and the content of this Pavilion, the complexity and meanings of showing only contemporary media–installation and video art–in this national project, and the political and cultural motivations behind the government’s interest to play an active role in the international art world.

The essay traces the history of Chinese participation in the Venice Biennale and positions the establishment of the Chinese Pavilion as a significant turning point regarding the new development of Chinese official art. First, the cultural authorities adopted the standard curatorial practice for recent international exhibitions by empowering a few art experts as curators to take full charge of this important national project. Second, the Pavilion exclusively displayed art works made of contemporary media, which were banned from public exhibition spaces in the 1990s, and by doing so it granted a legitimate status to contemporary art in China. Finally, all art works exhibited in the Chinese Pavilion were conceptually charged experimental works focusing on themes such as uncertainty, alienation, and fragmentation, feelings inflicted by China’s rapid social transformation. All these indicate a significant change in terms of the official attitude and perception about contemporary art, a change that can be understood as the officialization of contemporary art. The author discusses the meaning and nature of this change in light of new cultural strategies invented by the Chinese authorities to accommodate the changing political, economic, and international conditions.