Observing China through a western lens

Business & art 于2019年2月6日发布于

On July 16, 2018, the president of La Biennale di Venezia, Paolo Baratta and the curator of the 58th international Art Exhibition, Ralph Rugoff, met the press at Ca’Giustinian to launch the Biennale Arte 2019, which will take place from May 11th to November 24th 2019 at the Giardini and the Arsenale, as well as around other venues in Venice. The 58th International Art Exhibition is titled May You Live in Interesting Times

When La Biennale di Venezia first announced this title on July 16, 2018, it became a controversial topic right away. In the official La Biennale di Venezia press description, they wrote: “The 58th International Art Exhibition is titled May You Live in Interesting Times, after an ancient Chinese curse referring to periods of uncertainty, crisis and turmoil; interesting time, as exactly the ones we live in today”. Those sentences sound beautiful and elegant. Unfortunately, there is no such Chinese curse. To be more precise, May You Live in Interesting Times is not a Chinese saying or Chinese slang. Actually, it has nothing to do with China. 

Right after the La Biennale di Venezia announced its title, the Hong Kong press South China Morning Post quickly published an article against La Biennale di Venezia. The article is named La Biennale di Venezia deliberately used a fake Chinese curse, and this behavior set off the Art director of Hong Kong Art Center

The vice curator of Chinese art of the Robert H. N. Ho Family Foundation at New Guggenheim Museum Wen Xiaoyu summarized this kind of title as a “curatorial fortune cookie”. A fortune cookie is a small dessert offered in Chinese restaurants around North America and Europe. If you break the cookie, it contains short sentences of (supposedly) wisdom. Ironically, the fortune cookie was entirely created in the West. You can’t find fortune cookies in local restaurants in China. Even in the supermarket, you can’t find any kind of cookie with a small paper inside of it.

Fortune cookies are a perfect metaphor for the following situation. Some western art curators want to show that they’re erudite or want to add a bit of mystery into their exhibition. To do that, they will use some words or stories which seem to be originated from the east. However, they do not even check their validity. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres Untitled (Fortune Cookie Corner) 1990

On July 18th, 2018, La Biennale di Venezia’s official site changed its theme description. They wrote: ”The 58th International Art Exhibition will be titled May You Live in Interesting Times, after an alleged ancient Chinese curse, a false belief that British MP Sir Austen Chamberlain had learned of from a British diplomat, and which refers to periods of uncertainty, crisis and turmoil; interesting time, is exactly the ones we live today.” 

Then, on July 20th, 2018, La Biennale di Venezia’s official site changed the description again. They wrote: “The 58th International Art Exhibition, titled May You Live in Interesting Times, will take place from 11 May to 24 November 2019 (Pre-opening on 8, 9, 10 May). The title is a phrase of English invention that has long been mistakenly cited as an ancient Chinese curse that invokes periods of uncertainty, crisis and turmoil; interesting times, exactly as the ones we live in today.”

Yet, the above example is not the only case that shows misunderstanding and stereotypes which western people hold towards China. Similar circumstances not only happen in the art world, but also in the fashion world. 

The Chinese Spring Festival, which is often held in February, is the most important festival for China, just like Christmas in Europe. Well-known luxury brands always aim at promoting themselves during this important period. They will shoot special posters and introduce a limited version of clothing and bags. But the outcome is not always satisfactory. 

Luxury brand Burberry published its new year advertisement at the beginning of this year. In the poster, Burberry aimed at presenting a sense of family. Yet, because the facial expression in this ad is cool and poker face, the Chinese audience could not understand the initial purpose of this advertisement. On social media, people are still teasing this ad as a screenshot of a horror movie. 

Burberry

Of course, it is never easy to understand a foreign culture, particularly between West and East, since these two culture systems are not similar at all, from their philosophy to social norms. Even the understanding within Asian countries is hard to achieve. Take Japan for example. In Japanese animation and TV drama, if there is a Chinese woman character, she must wear a red cheongsam and a two-bun hairstyle. In today’s China, no one dresses like this.


WORDS BY LOU YILUN

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