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Gala Enables Public to Access Contemporary Art

Aficionados of fine arts have a feast for their eyes as the Second Beijing International Art Biennale kicked off yesterday.

"The biennale, the largest of its kind in China, is intended to draw both the attention of the art circles and of numerous other interested viewers," said Tao Qin, vice-secretary-general of the Chinese Artists' Association and the convener of the Beijing Biennale Organizing Committee.

Themed "Contemporary Art with Humanistic Concerns," the month long art gala, which mainly features paintings and sculptures, has set its eyes on issues concerning human social life and world peace, as this year marks the 60th anniversary of the victory of the anti-fascist war.

Apart from the themed exhibition, a string of special exhibitions and sequence exhibitions have also been arranged at the biennale, including "Prints of Impressionism," "Special Exhibition of Contemporary Art of Italy," "Selected Works of Huang Zhou and His Students," and "Art Exhibition of the XVI General Assembly of International Association of Art."

The grand art event is co-sponsored by the All-China Federation of Literary and Art Circles, the Beijing municipal government and the Chinese Artists' Association.

Conservative approach

Liu Dawei, executive chairman of the Chinese Artists' Association, a key organizer of the biennale, says: "We will exert more efforts to make contemporary art accessible to the general public, express pursuit for world peace and promote the development of humankind as well as the harmony between humans and nature."

However, the Beijing Biennale takes a different approach from that of many other contemporary biennales, exhibiting only paintings and sculptures that explore new possibilities in both subject matter, ideas, techniques and materials.

The Beijing Biennale deliberately shies away from installation, conceptual art and new media art, an approach questioned and labeled as a "conservative" one by its critics despite the first Beijing Biennale in 2003 attracting some 600 art works from 45 countries.

"Most international biennales favour new media, conceptual, video and performance arts, which seem to have become the mainstream of contemporary art. But simply because of this, many of them lack their own individual characteristics. Some critics say the biennales held in different continents look too similar, with the same artists displaying the same works," said Tao Qin.

"Meanwhile, the old art forms like painting and sculpture have been sidelined. This is not good for maintaining global cultural diversity, in my view," he explained.

Tao said the Beijing Biennale will stick to its curatorial principles and that the decision to give paintings and sculpture a high profile has proved popular with audiences and critics alike, leading to the increasing popularity of the event.

Exhibiting at this year's event are at least 400 artists from 65 countries and regions, with more than 1,200 pieces of their latest works, 730 of which are created by foreign artists.

During the biennale, a total of 11 artistic awards will be handed out to outstanding works of art on display at the exhibition.

Tao's ideas are echoed by a key member of the organizing committee, Wang Yong, a painter and a researcher with China Fine Arts Research Institute.

Wang maintains that painting and sculptures are making a comeback now.

"The theme of contemporary arts with humanistic concerns at this year's Beijing biennale, could also be interpreted as saying that contemporary arts should be understood and accepted by the general public. At many of today's biennales, including the prestigious Venice Biennale and Sao Paulo Biennale, there are many art forms and works incomprehensible to an average audience. We believe contemporary art should be accessible to everyone," Wang said.

Classic vs trendy

Some foreign artists who have personally attended the event agree.

"I am happy to be here for the second Beijing Biennale, which favors the exhibits of paintings and sculptures," prominent Italian sculptor Dionisio Cimarelli told China Daily.

The artist, who splits his time between Beijing, Shanghai and Ancona of Italy, is displaying two of his latest creations at the art gala.

"Sculpture, as a traditional, figurative art genre, is disappearing from many of today's biennales," he said.

"I do not think traditional art genres such as sculpture are out of date. They just need improving and enlarging to fit into the context of the 21st century."

"Classic art genres and processes are valuable to specific cultures and the world of art. The visual language that they use is read and known by many people. Styles and methods are then processed and integrated into new contexts. All artists are part of these traditional art processes and use them to inform their practice," New Zealand sculptor Roger Thompson told China Daily.

"No art form is outdated or weak for me. It may not provide the language to say what the artist intended to convey, so it forms part of a process of change and development. Skills tend to be assimilated, as the artist acquires them. The dilemma that the artist faces is that some skills take a lifetime to master," said the artist who has brought to Beijing viewers his sculpture-installation works entitled "Containers of Culture."

Speaking of other "trendy" art forms popular at other biennales, he said: "Video and performance art have their own criteria for performance. The aesthetics around them are specific to the media although some are shared across disciplines. The challenge of new forms of art is to develop a new semiotics, system of judgment, a language for the work."

He holds that "the role of contemporary art is to provide work by artists that explores and enriches, challenges, seeks new understandings of beauty and lifts the spirits of the people of our time and of future generations. It provides avenues for creative people to express and explore new meanings and new contexts in their time and in some cases rediscover elements of the past."

"A biennale should have an educational function to the general public. In this year's Beijing Biennale, viewers can savor both classic art and contemporary art, a rare chance to gain an insight into art history," said Tao.

To help the viewers better understand the artwork, some artists will be present to answer questions.

Brochures documenting information about the exhibits are handed out to visitors and special tickets are on sale to viewers wanting to visit all the exhibitions at the three major exhibition venues.

Carefully designed questionnaires are widely used to receive feedback from both artists and viewers from home and abroad to help improve the next Beijing Biennale, which will specially coincide with Beijing's 2008 Olympic Games, said Tao.

(China Daily September 21, 2005)

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