As the People’s Republic of China enters the 51st Venice Biennale for the first time this year—staging an exhibition in the Arsenale complex and the Virgin Garden— Scotland makes its third independent appearance since the Scottish Sculpture Trust and the Demarco European Art Foundation presented site-specific installations by David Mach, Arthur Watson and Kate Whiteford in the Giardini in 1990. While widely promoted as causes for celebration by the world’s cult-rades, aesthetic consultants and kunst kommanders, it’s not entirely obvious why China and Scotland should want to take part in the Venice Biennale in an official capacity.
Should Scotland be willing to stand its ground alongside giants such as the USA and China? Is it acceptable for the state to unilaterally dictate an image of its culture to the world? Is the rapid development of new art centres and the growth of biennales good for everyone? Is the ultimate aim of all creative activity the building of a global economy? While these questions are answered affirmatively by the Scottish Arts Council, the Chinese Ministry of Culture and La Biennale di Venezia, they are not universally accepted truths. As contemporary art shows accelerated symptoms of globalisation, artists and curators are working in nomadic ways that ignore borders and favour culturally invested portfolios. Molly Nesbit, Hans Ulrich Obrist and Rirkrit Tiravanija’s Utopia Station at the 2003 Venice Biennale was a typical example of an exhibition dictated by a porous multi-dimensional conceptualisation of cultural identity and a deep suspicion of purportedly jingoistic celebrations of ethno-history. In such exhibitions, globalisation is presented as a process that affects everyone everywhere through its impact on local economies, the environment, technology and mounting urbanism. Today’s kunstlers cannot afford to imagine that they are depraved troglodytes and scabrous couch potatoes existing in splendid isolation. However, if art is to be globally omnipotent, available everywhere always, must it also eradicate all traces of place and origin, of labour and of the social relations involved in production?
If nationalism is being pronounced dead with such regularity by cultural contracting conglomerates, why are China and Scotland so eager to enter into an allegedly defunct nationalist arena? China boasts the world’s largest population and is a growing player in the global economy, while Scotland is one of the world’s smallest countries, a nation struggling to emerge from its former guise as a colonial partner in the British Empire into a modern European micro-state alongside Wales, Cornwall, Alsace-Lorraine, Brittany, Catalonia, the Basque Country… This presents a paradox. As the art world becomes increasingly globalised, it also becomes more localised, a forum for vernacular mobilisation and an analysis of suppressed parochialisms. Scotland and China’s presence in Venice might be seen as indicative of a global desire to create credibly distinct cultural foundations. In 2003 a Manchester pavilion (a neon sign that said ‘Manchester’) appeared for the second time in Venice, a droll self-declaration of city-state status. In a global economy, establishing the true illusion of cultural diversity that imparts ‘world-city’ status is often seen as the most important means of gaining visibility, hence the rush of city-led bienniales such as those in Prague, Liverpool, Glasgow, Gwangju, Beijing, Sydney and Blackpool.
What does this tells us about the role of the nation-state in a globalised art world? Curated by the New York based artist Cai Guo-Qiang, Virgin Garden: Emersion is a sampler for what is almost certain to become a permanent Chinese Pavilion at Venice. There are echoes of Scotland’s 1990 garden-based installations, the Virgin Garden featuring a fengshui project by Wang Qiheng and Yung Ho Chang’s open bamboo canopy. Guo-Qiang has selected artists who ‘will explore notions of spirituality and essence, while recognising the inherent challenges in articulating such intangible life forces with visual art, by employing elements of Chinese philosophy and culture to frame the dialogue’. The prevailing European philosophical traditions that have dominated Western art since the birth of modernism in the 1860s are thus challenged.
Guo-Qiang is confident that China’s presence will finally transform the international exhibition’s historically Eurocentric structure and present a more inclusive picture (just don’t mention human rights abuses). For Scotland the opposite is true. As Richard Demarco has convincingly argued since the 1960s, Scotland’s independent participation in Venice is essential if it is to assert its cultural and political independence within a European stage. Its British imperial days long gone, Scotland has at last officially signed up to realign itself with its Euro credentials. While Scotland is cashing in its European cultural inheritance, the Venice Biennale is understandably far more concerned with embracing larger markets outside Europe. From the Communist Party of China’s point of view, future prosperity relies on selling the myth that the 21st century will belong to China. Virgin Garden: Emersion is an inaugural attempt to realign the cultural agenda at Venice and gain valuable brownie points for the totalitarian regime. How can Scotland possibly compete?
Membership of a global art world can come at a price, requiring trading in the linga franca of globalised art’s prolix lieutenants. Unlike the Communist Party of China and the Lib-Lab Scottish Executive, Scottish artists have shown remarkable signs of resistance to the brave new world of cultural and spatial recursive serial monotony. Curated by Midwest’s Rachael Bradley and Jason E Bowman, Selective Memory, Scotland’s Venice entry this year, is marked by a focus on the labour of production. Bradley and Bowman have selected art that flies in the face of cultural market intelligence, deliberately jerry-built work that will prove to be more difficult in translation than 2003’s Zenomap . Tatham & O’Sullivan, Alex Pollard and Cathy Wilkes are all, in their own ways, shaped decidedly by the nuanced developments in the Glaswegian art world in which they work as much as by global art.
Demarco has long rallied against the Edinburgh establishment’s conservative bias towards belle peinture in favour of a rigorous engagement with Eastern European, German and Italian art. Francis McKee and Kay Pallister’s Zenomap at the 2003 Venice Biennale certainly established a discourse in name (the title of the exhibition referring to two Venetian brothers who charted the North Sea); Claire Barclay and Jim Lambie made installations in relation to the interiors of the Palazzo Giustinian-Lolin; while Simon Starling’s installation ‘Island for Weeds (Prototype)’ looked at home amidst Venice’s watery topography. This year Tatham & O’Sullivan and Wilkes will also engage directly with the site, a former convent, while all will no doubt satisfy Demarco’s long-standing desire to establish a dialogue with Italian art movements such as arte povera and futurism.
Neil Mulholland is a critic and lecturer in Critical Studies at Edinburgh College of Art