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Architecture And Contemporary art
What is the relationship between architecture and contemporary art? Is it possible that buildings are not only places where people live, but also something they can enjoy?

How can architecture mirror the fast changing cultural patterns and lifestyles of a society witnessing accelerated urbanization?

Artists and architects from China and abroad are presenting their views on topics like these at the on-going 2002 Shanghai Biennale, the fourth ever.

Regarded as the first major exhibition in China to integrate architecture and contemporary art, the biennale is being held at the Shanghai Art Museum until January 26.

New concept

"The interactive relations between contemporary art and contemporary architecture bring about a brand-new concept of art," said Fan Di'an, the chief curator of this year's biennale, who is also vice-president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing.

"In the meantime, the definition and function of the architecture are changing constantly with the development of contemporary art."

According to Fan, urban life and culture in the background of globalization is a main issue facing China and the rest of the world.

"Viewing China through the process of urbanization provides a complex understanding of the great changes that have occurred in Chinese society over the past two decades," Fan said.

As a result, the current biennale has chosen "urban creation" as its theme.

"The speed of urbanization in China is extremely fast and highly noteworthy. It is only natural that the biennale should pay attention to the topic which is both a reality and a topic for discussion," Fan said.

The biennale consists of three parts. The first is an exhibition of more than 300 works by about 80 internationally renowned artists and architects. The second includes art and architectural designs by more than 100 art students from all over the world and the third is a retrospective exhibition of photographs of classical architecture in Shanghai over the past century.

From the very beginning, the Shanghai Biennale has defined itself as a meeting point of "international" and "contemporary."

In this year's event, the artists come from 20 countries, including China, Germany, the United States, Japan, Mexico, the Netherlands, Thailand and Argentina.

Besides Fan, the international committee for the biennale includes Alanna Heiss, a chief curator from New York, Wu Jiang, a professor of architecture from Tongji University in Shanghai, Li Xu, a curator from the Shanghai Art Museum, Klaus Biesenbach, a curator from Germany and Yuko Hasegawa, a curator from Japan.

Global concern

Fan said when inviting his colleagues from abroad to assist with the show, he paid particular attention to their reactions.

"They barely questioned how the 'urban creation' theme was generated, as if the exhibition was supposed to follow this way naturally and as if they were psychologically prepared for such a topic. I suppose that such a topic has been a common concern for artists throughout the world."

According Wu, it is important to associate architecture with art. In the past, Chinese architects were more often called engineers as opposed to artists.

"Even today, this is still an embarrassing situation facing most Chinese architects," Wu pointed out.

Wu said China is regarded as the largest construction site in the world, but the country is lacking in first-class architectural masterpieces.

Often architects are just creators of architectural works in theory and have no right to decide how the buildings will eventually be completed, he noted.

Wu cited as an example the work by Chinese architect Dong Yugan in the exhibition .

Dong not only shows the photo of a private house just finished in Xuanhua in Hebei Province in North China, but provides viewers with many pictures and models of the home, raising the conflict between his concept and the owner's idea.

Apart from revealing the existing problems and prompting the viewers to consider the possible solutions, the biennale's organizers also want viewers to experience the novel relation between individuals and space.

Man and space

Heiss from the United States said: "With the complex interactions between man and the environment around him comes a new outlook on architecture and its aesthetics."

"We try to explore the fascinating and distinctly contemporary interaction between architecture and art in a metropolitan environment. Some works exhibited here reveal a new architectural aesthetic, a widened definition of architecture and a blurry line between the arts."

There are many works showing a perfect combination of visual, audio and multimedia effects.

Fang Zengxian, director of the Shanghai Art Museum, said: "The biennale integrates visual art and architecture works via paintings, models, photos, texts, sketches, video and interactive media.''

"We try to let the audience recognize the various forms and cultural values of contemporary art through the comprehensive sensory experience of watching, listening, touching and thinking."

"All Stars," a work by US artist Jude Tallichet, combines miniatures of world renowned buildings made from Plexiglas. Each miniature has a sound system inside playing the music of a percussion instrument. For instance, the Bank of China in Hong Kong is playing the snare drum.

The artist said she believes the sound is the soul of the work, reflecting the varied methods of communication in a complex urban environment.

As for Leandro Erlich, an Argentine artist and son of an architect, he makes full use of mirrors and eye illusion to create a new psychological and physical space experience with the aid of two Chinese shadow boxing performers.

Another impressive work is an installation by Xu Bing, a Chinese artist based in New York.

The artist made a lot of sculptures in the form of the ancient Chinese character for "bird" and hung them in the exhibition hall.

Viewers will naturally feel the "birds" are flying away from the urban space being threatened by a deteriorating environment and a loss of traditional culture.

Xu Jiang, director of the academic committee of the biennale and president of the Hangzhou-based China Academy of Fine Arts, said Shanghai is a metropolis of China and the world and the architectural works in the city are the epitome of urbanization taking place in this country.

He said along the Huangpu River in the city, one side presents the skyline of the colonized city of the 1920s and the 1930s, while the other proudly displays the skyscrapers of the new century. Therefore, there is nothing more convincing than the skylines of both banks to arouse the mental association between urbanization and architecture.

Although this year's biennale is no doubt already a success, limited funding and other factors mean it has far less influence than two years ago.

The 2000 biennale was hailed as a major art exhibition that opened the doors to modern art following the Chinese Modern Art Exhibition at the China National Art Museum in Beijing in 1989.

In spite of its relatively less avant-garde stance this year, the event has set an example for contemporary art exhibitions in China and has been recognized as a symbol of the nation's increasing cultural openness in an age of globalization.

(China Daily November 29, 2002)

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