The writing of a new world history today calls for new perspectives and frameworks. In the context of globalization, it is critical that we look beyond the notion of nation state and conventional local and regional histories to present a multi-layered and multi-dimensional picture of the world. This new world history emphasizes the interaction and the interconnectedness amongst regions and civilizations.
Suzhou, an important Chinese city, has some 2,500 years’of history. Today it is both a repository of Chinese traditional culture and an embodiment of the nation’s modernity. Rejecting a linear narrative, the inaugural Suzhou Documenta with the theme “The Multiplicity of Time” re-examines 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?
In 1937 the exhibition titled Cultural Objects from Wuzhong was launched in Keyuan Garden in Suzhou to showcase artworks collected or created by the city’s luminaries. As a pioneering exhibition, it demonstrated the importance given to art and culture in Suzhou. The first Suzhou Documenta is organized 79 years after this exhibition. We hope that the new art and research we are presenting at the Documenta will bring the present and the past of the city into a lively dialogue.
With the key concepts of multiplicity and interaction, the Suzhou Documenta organizes the works in variety of forms under four sub-themes: “The Time of the Sea and the Empire”; “Modernity and Time in the Ming and the Qing Dynasties”;“Time and Traditions”; and “Time and the Mind: The Garden and The Imperial Court”. Suzhou is presented here through the lens of cutting-edge contemporary art. Yet we hope it is tangible and deeply rooted in its local context.
The Documenta with the theme of “The Multiplicity of Time” is more than a presentation of our impression of Suzhou. To rediscover the city in a new light, we look inward at the specific contexts of the city’s history and reality, and look outward at its global connections. Using Suzhou as a starting point, we can perhaps create new ways of connecting the history of a city with the history of Asia, and the world history at large. Through juxtapositions and connections, we are seeking to construct a new narrative for a world history that crosses the boundaries between the past and the present, the continent and the sea. Suzhou embodies a special modernity that distinguishes itself from European models. By bringing together a wide range of new perspectives in history and art, the Suzhou Documenta marks the birth of the new discipline - Suzhou Studies.
I. Suzhou Documents grew out of an exchange between colleagues who, over
the years, became friends. Zhang Qing and I were both keenly aware of the limits
imposed on conventional exhibition-making, whether within the confines of a
museum or as a biennale lookalike. These limits are as manifold as they are
banal, but it all boils down to the widespread inability to look at art
properly, where “properly” means “taking time” or, rather, “taking your own
time.” Contrary to the ways in which art is touted nowadays, as an appendage of
the fashion and entertainment industries or as a therapy for alienated
communities, the experience of art is neither spectacular nor glitzy. Nor is it
Looking at art “properly” calls for a mode of perception that is almost incompatible with the strictures of modern life. Making time our own and experiencing our unique sense of identity is a major luxury in a culture based on permanent distraction (hey, take a look at the text message that just came in!). But of course, contemporary artists have developed ways of addressing this sorry state of affairs. They have invented forms of presentation that no longer confront the viewer head-on with a single piece that would require his or her undivided attention. Today the viewer is invited to enter an artificial environment – a constellation of varied and often heterogeneous artistic elements. Such environments are known as “installations” and have become the standard form of contemporary art. But unlike painting, sculpture or video, installation is not an artistic medium proper. It is an exhibition in its own right: an assemblage of artistic and non-artistic media (everyday objects, historical artefacts, photographs, text, paintings, drawings, and so on) that are distributed across time and space. For us, experiencing contemporary art means becoming part of an installation and experiencing our unique sense of identity by making the connections the installation requires.
II. Suzhou Documents began to take shape in the course of many long conversations that commenced in winter (no snow scenes!) at the Canglang Pavilion, the oldest of the classical gardens of Suzhou. With Cao Jun and Zhang Qing, I followed the meandering pathways up and down the slopes, passing through courts, artificial caves and corridors while taking in the “borrowed views” provided by the window grilles. Adjacent to the Canglang Pavilion lies the school (now the Memorial Hall) set up by Yan Wenliang, the pioneer of Western painting, in the 1920s. Before long I realized that I hadn’t been brought to Canglang Pavilion solely for the purpose of sightseeing, but for inspiration. Would the cultural form of the Suzhou garden help us to design an exhibition of contemporary art? An exhibition with an unmistakably local flair but a virtually infinite reach? An exhibition that would do justice to Suzhou’s glorious past while appealing to an international audience of art lovers who have grown understandably weary of biennales and art fairs with all the meretricious charm of a supermarket? A way of being in the here and now that would leave space for reflection?
III. Suzhou Documents has its conceptual roots in an exhibition that took place in Suzhou in 1937. We shall leave it to Zhang Qing to tell us about this particular exhibition – the Suzhou Exhibition of Documents – which is also a cornerstone of the Suzhou Documents. But there is another cornerstone, one I bring with me from Germany: an art exhibition known as documenta and founded in the city of Kassel in 1955. The two exhibitions are closely linked, not only through their names but also because they demonstrate that the future inevitably issues from the past. Originally, Kassel’s documenta was merely a sideshow at a large state-organized garden exhibition. This German garden, however, was the polar opposite of the delightfully informal Chinese garden. Its greenery concealed the rubble of a city that was 80% destroyed in the Second World War. The Kassel documenta thus had a pedagogical aspect: by showing international art, the exhibition sought to reconnect a largely traumatized German audience with the wider world. And, for whatever reason, the idea worked well. The documenta was such a success that the city decided to repeat the event. It now takes place every five years and has become one of the most prestigious art events on the planet.
When I was the Artistic Director of Kassel documenta in 2007, I would never have imagined that one day an opportunity would arise to forge an aesthetic link between the Chinese garden and the German garden, between the Suzhou Exhibition of Documents and Kassel’s documenta. But history could have taught me that. As we know, history is not a linear process. It is determined as much by good planning as by luck and chance and therefore tends to defeat the laws of simple chronology. In short, history resembles the multiple pathways of the Suzhou garden, at least up to the point where the logic behind the design starts to resemble the calligraphy of a drunk.
I am more than grateful for the privilege of being invited by Cao Jun and Zhang Qing to give shape to Suzhou Documents and the histories of a global hub as revealed (and obscured) by artists. It goes without saying that I brought many of the artists who grew dear to me during the Kassel documenta to Suzhou, a delightful city – with the best noodle soup on the planet – that has become my spiritual second home.