To Voice: “Chinese Whispers” in Vienna

Ai Weiwei, Descending Light with a Missing Circle, 2017, Sigg Collection. (MAK, Vienna, 29 January 2019. Photograph by author.)

‘I consider myself a researcher. I probably am not a collector by nature’, says Uli Sigg, former Swiss Ambassador to China who has assembled the world’s largest collection of experimental art from the Sinophone spheres. In the form of an exhibition, part of this collection travelled from the Kunstmuseum Bern and the Zentrum Paul Klee to Vienna. It is housed at the MAK (Austrian Museum of Applied Arts / Contemporary Art) until 26 May 2019.

‘Chinese Whispers’ is its title, inherited from the Bern exhibition three years ago. The Anglophone term’s pejorative overtone seems to escape the German Sprachraum. Presumably thinking, as point of reference, of the less loaded Stille Post, the curator yet likens, in the 2016 catalogue, ‘Chinese whispers’ to téléphone arabe. Now the MAK re-introduces their concept, altogether muddled: ‘The idea of repetition and distortion can be understood as an ironic allusion to intercultural communication.’

Is political correctness an issue here (I actually believe in the curators’ goodwill), or is linguistic dislocation (here between English and German) the issue? If the latter, ironic indeed.

The strength of the exhibition resides in its imaginative choices of works, for instance that of a landscape painting by Christian Hidaka. At last, one need not be ethnically Chinese to feature in such a show. Identity politics take a break; a wider conversation ensues. Hidaka’s cerebral shanshui is deeply affecting, amidst neighbouring landscapes breathing differing thoughts. 

Juxtapositions with the MAK’s own predominantly 19th-century China collection give another dimension to the conversation. This wordless interplay is at once animating and confounding: in effect, some objects tell more about the museum’s history than about the supposed tradition they supposedly stage.

Notwithstanding this historical presence, neither the past nor the present appears historicised. Every few years in China’s recent history is a different story, requiring careful unpacking. There is a world of contextual difference, for instance, between Wang Xingwei’s My Beautiful Life (1993-95) and Zhao Bandi’s China Dream (2015). These contexts are hazy. What one gets instead is a vague sense of an old empire morphing into an authoritarian state, whose repression these artworks negate. This does little justice to the complex material in question. 

To be fair, such a curatorial setting – foregrounding China itself as its theme, invariably politicised but inadequately historicised – cannot but be riddled with carelessness and vagueness. That said, care and clarity is at the heart of erudite curation, exemplified by a 2012 exhibition titled ‘Go Figure!’ (working also from the Sigg Collection, it was mounted at the National Portrait Gallery of Australia), and by the MAK’s current Koloman Moser exhibition, situated one floor above the Whispers.

For it is indeed baffling at times to read the Whispers’ labels and wall texts. One such statement – ‘In China cultural products are not always linked to individual authorship but are often created collectively’ – is both mystifying and factually false. Is it conceivable that, so long as group shows are the model, speaking of the collective is the norm? All things being equal, essentialising seems, in the absence of precise knowledge, a default device, one which resorts to reduction, albeit that which is reduced says no.

Where the collective is veritably concerned, the soullessness of assembly lines and the facelessness of migrant workers are nowhere so exactly captured as in Cao Fei’s 2006 film, Whose Utopia. And nowhere do introverted corporal moves in a trance radiate more poetry, nor frontal portraits of workers in repose more dignity, than they do through Cao Fei’s gaze: the dignity of each and every human being.

And just what it means to be human, in terms social and political, is put to the question in Zhu Jiuyang’s 27-minute film, Declaration of the Blind (2015). After three years of rehearsal, five blind elderly musicians travelled from rural Shaanxi to the capital. Filming begins when they sit, each with their folk instruments, on a temporary platform in Peking; and sing, in dialect, one by one and word for word, the Universal Declaration of Human Rights adopted by the UN in 1948 Paris. As one watches ten blind eyes wide open, and hears the Declaration’s thirty articles bellowed out in rugged tones, one wonders which articles are being adhered to today, where, and by whom.

The moral exigency from which the Universal Declaration was born has lost none of its relevance. Mankind’s postwar reckoning, namely that inalienable human rights were in reality alienable, and that at stake was ‘the right to have rights’, led to international alliances in reciprocal agreements. Seventy years on, our forebears’ united resolution is being all but disinherited, by none other than ourselves. Everywhere states through sovereign power deprive fellowmen of their rights, betraying conventions we all ratified, forgetting a history we all share. 

During a panel discussion at the Whispers’ opening, where free speech in present-day China (or the lack thereof) was considered out loud from varied angles, a gentleman in the audience asked Ai Weiwei for his view on Europe. ‘What kind of Europe are we talking about?’, Ai asked back, questioning the very idea of humanity as one historically associated with Europe but now facing (or not facing) the refugee crisis. Unpopular no doubt, in Austria no less, this response was given without hesitation. The Viennese audience did not hesitate in responding with applause. At that moment, a public realm – one in the sense Hannah Arendt meant it – was alive. Socrates believed that talking about justice made a man more just. Arendt likewise believed in the transformative virtue of open dialogue: ‘Only in the freedom of our speaking with one another does the world as that about which we speak emerge in its objectivity and visibility from all sides.’ 

Walking through this dynamic, problematic, eye-opening and thought-provoking exhibition, a public realm par excellence, one sees many a fine painting, many an intriguing installation, many an arresting film; and with luck, one hears peculiar noises at the end of the hall. A jade head held by steely mechanics thrusts itself slowly, surely, infinitely, into the wall. This marvellous head is a thing like no other. Suffice to say, works in this show subvert its title. Anything but whispers, they are lucid voices, clear and distinct.

Click here to view the video.
Shi Jinsong, Jade Work, 2010, Sigg Collection; Christian Hidaka, Glaukos, 2010, Sigg Collection. (MAK, Vienna, 29 January 2019. Video by author.)

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