A biennale with Suzhou characteristics

Oct 17, 2016

SUZHOU conjures up images of classic gardens and silk but much less with contemporary art. So when “Suzhou Documents” was announced in August, many related it to a historical art exhibition, rather than the city’s first biennale.

Zhang Qing, director of the Shanghai Biennale from 2000-07, and Roger M. Buergel, curator of the 2007 “Kassel Documenta,” teamed up to curate “Suzhou Documents” and decided on the theme “Histories of a Global Hub.”

The exhibition is being held at the Suzhou Art Museum and four other venues — Puyuan Garden, Yan Wenliang Memorial Hall, Suzhou Silk Museum and Wu Zuoren Art Museum.

“We wanted an exhibition that would do justice to Suzhou’s glorious past while appealing to international art lovers who have grown weary of biennales and art fairs with all the meretricious charm of a supermarket,” says Buergel.

The main venue at Suzhou Art Museum displays contemporary artworks from China, Europe, the United States, South Korea and Chile, varying from installation, video, photo to canvas.

Compared with other biennales, the size of “Suzhou Documents” is small yet more exquisite, and gives viewers a feeling of profundity.

“But that’s not all about ‘Suzhou Documents’,” says Zhang. “If visitors haven’t checked our other satellite venues, then this art journey is not complete, and doesn’t go deeper.”

Suzhou has a history dating back 2,500 years, and for Zhang, this exhibition is an echo of another exhibition titled “Cultural Object form Wuzhong” in Keyuan Garden that showcased artworks collected or created by the city’s luminaries early in 1937.

“We want to re-examine the city’s rich cultural tradition by focusing on its encounters and interactions with the world. What are Suzhou’s contributions to the world and vice versa? What has contributed to its singularity and richness?” Zhang asks.

The exhibition at Wu Zuoren Art Museum introduces us to “1937: Suzhou Exhibition of Documents.”

“It would be impossible to recreate the original exhibition, especially followed by the impact of war, social change and the passage of time,” Zhang says.

“We consulted many museums, libraries and other institutions in an attempt to collect the remaining catalogue, books, paintings, calligraphy, newspapers and magazines. After some research, we tried to reconstruct the exhibition.”

Zhang says he favored “Suzhou Studies” for its contemporary, global and local appeal.

Yan Wenliang Memorial Hall is the venue for “Suzhou Historical Images and Documents Exhibition.”

Yan Wenliang (1893-1988) was a famous painter and art educator who established the Suzhou Private Art Academy in 1922. It is China’s earliest art academy. The Yan Wenliang Memorial Hall building has an old Western-style decor.

Yan’s Suzhou Art Museum, established in 1927 within the art academy, is the predecessor of the current one and the oldest art museum in China.

“Isn’t it amazing that this youngest international art exhibition is held at the oldest Chinese art museum?” wonders Cao Jun, director of the Suzhou Art Museum.

The exhibition at the Yan Wenliang Memorial Hall displays a series of works, varying from nostalgic photos about the city, illustrations of printmaking from Western newspapers to old maps.

The “treasure-house” of images involves various aspects of Suzhou: its classical gardens, city views and records of daily life. Drypoint, created in 1843 by Thomas Allom, a British print maker, shows Suzhou women raising silkworm and at silk-dyeing workshops.

“What distinguishes ‘Suzhou Documents’ from other biennales is that visitors not only discover contemporary works, but also get to see the visual images from the past,” Zhang says. “When we try to look forward, it doesn’t mean we are not looking back. In my eyes, that’s the true meaning of ‘Suzhou Documents’.”

A Suzhou native, curator Zhang has an emotional link with the city, but for Buergel, the charm of the ancient city began in the classic gardens of Suzhou.

“When I was first invited for the exhibition, I visited Canglang Pavilion, the oldest classic garden of Suzhou,” Buergel says. “I discussed with Zhang Qing and Cao Jun through many long conversations, and the exhibition began to take shape.

“When I followed their meandering pathways up and down the slopes, passing through courts, artificial caves and corridors, I realized that I hadn’t been brought here solely for the purpose of sightseeing, but for inspiration.”

According to Buergel, “Suzhou Documents” has its conceptual roots in an exhibition that was held in the city in 1937, which is similar to the “Kassel Documenta” of 1955.

“Originally ‘Kassel Documenta’ was merely a side show of a large state-organized garden exhibition. This German garden, however, was the polar opposite of the delightfully informal Chinese garden. The two exhibitions were closely linked because they demonstrated that the future inevitably comes from the past,” Buergel explains.

Shuttling between the modern venue and the classic gardens, between the contemporary artworks and historical visual images, between the present and the past, visitors are charmed by the city itself.

The “Suzhou Documents” ends on October 20, but Zhang and his team have already started preparation for the next round of “Suzhou Documents.”

“This is definitely a unique exhibition in the country. It goes deeper into contemporary art, the city and its past. There are many topics to be discussed, and I can’t wait to start the second round,” he says. “‘Suzhou Studies’ will be an eternal theme for us to dig out the beauty and profundity in art.”

“Suzhou Documents”
Date: Through October 20 (closed on Monday), 9am-5pm (no admission after 4pm)
Venue: Suzhou Art Museum, 2075 Renmin Rd, Suzhou, Jiangsu Province


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