The Politics In Art: Untangling The Cultural Exchange



Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

Ai Weiwei, Dropping a Han Dynasty Urn, 1995 3 black and white prints, each 148 x 121 cm Courtesy of Ai Weiwei Studio Image courtesy Ai Weiwei (c) Ai Weiwei

In 2008 Beijing hosted the Olympics and Paralympics, four years later it was London’s turn. To celebrate each country hosted two festivals. In 2008 the UK played host to China Now, which showcased cultural and sporting events from the country. The events included China Design Now, an exhibition that took place at the V&A. The show explored new design in China, focusing on the effect that rapid economic development had on architecture and design in three major Chinese cities: Beijing, Shanghai and Shenzhen. The exhibition focused on a wide range of design from architecture, including the ‘Bird’s Nest’ stadium, to fashion. In 2012 the festival UK Now took place in China and included exhibitions of work by Tony Cragg and Rankin as well as tours from the English National Ballet. The two festivals enabled creative discussions across the two countries and different institutions as well as displaying the quality of each country’s contemporary art scene.

In 2011, according to an article written by the China’s vice minister of culture Ding Wei, the idea of cultural exchange between China and the EU was reiterated at the China-EU summit. In the article published online in The Parliament Magazine, Ding Wei stated the importance placed on cultural exchanges between countries: “Cultural exchange and cooperation is an important part of the China-EU comprehensive strategic partnership. It plays an irreplaceable role in enhancing mutual understanding between people and in promoting the value of our relationship”. 1 This idea of cultural conversation has led to culture and exchange events between China and several EU member states including France and Germany. 2015 now marks the 40th anniversary of China-EU relations and to celebrate this a range of events throughout China and the European Union will take place. This will include the ‘Chinese contemporary art – European tour’ and the ‘Danish cultural season’. The series will also include the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange’.

At the moment of writing, events showcasing areas of British culture are taking place in China, including exhibitions, performances, design, films, animation and digital art. Later on in the year, aspects of Chinese culture will be shown in Britain in a similar display.

It’s interesting to note that 2015 is also The Year of Mexico in the UK and the UK in Mexico. Which raises the question: how many of these events take place? On the website, the official website for all things do to with the UK Government, an article written by the British Embassy Mexico City uses language similar to other articles on the website detailing the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange. The aim is to promote partnerships between the two countries via arts, education, business and trade.

The oddity is that these two event series are rarely mentioned in conventional media, indeed it’s difficult to find news articles on the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange outside of the or British Council websites. Finding coverage on The Year of Mexico in the UK and the UK in Mexico is easier, possibly due to the fact that events involved in the year have already taken place in the UK. Whereas events taking place in Britain, which are part of the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange are (at the time of writing) due to take part later this year.

However, this year is supposedly a showcase of British and Chinese contemporary culture; surely it ought to be shouted about? The truth is that is has, although not through channels normally trodden by those looking for cultural news. Prior to the formal announcement by Chinese Premier Li Keqiang in 2014, according to a news piece on the British Council website, David Cameron visited China in 2013 during which various agreements were renewed all designed to “demonstrate the growing strength of UK-China relations, with creativity and cultural exchange at the heart of developments.” 2

Worryingly, politics is completely interwoven within the event series. Politicians placing art at the forefront is not a bad thing, but too much politics within the arts can muddy the waters. On the website, there are news articles detailing the announcement of the ‘2015 UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange’. The process feels so bound up with politics that past news articles have a disclaimer detailing which government they were published under. At the head of two news articles, including one published on the day of the launch on 2nd March, written in bold is the following: “This world location news article was published under the 2010-2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government”.2 Since the news items were written, the UK has voted in a Conservative government. It’s odd that a cultural news item would need this announcement. Perhaps this indicates that there is more here than simply cultural enjoyment, or at the very least a worrying presumption that culture can be a tool for politics. Can there be international cultural exchange that is meaningful but without politics?

There is the need for good and honorable international relations. Art can be used to strengthen the ties between nations but not seen as a tool just because a nation wants to trade with another. Culture is more than a commodity. Cultural exchanges should be used to showcase the artistic talents of each nation and develop cultural ties and collaborations between organizations. This co-operation is mentioned in the GOV.UK news article ‘2015 UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange’ published on the 9th January 2015: “Our two cultures continue to inspire innovation and creativity, and audiences in both countries will enjoy many opportunities to explore what this creative partnership means in the 21st Century.” 3These exchanges are taking place but there was a certain amount of wading through sycophantic Politician language before finding out what the cultural goals of the exchange are. The Royal Shakespeare Company Translation Project is one example of a meaningful collaboration in which the RSC and Chinese partners bring new translations of Shakespeare’s plays to a Chinese audience and introduce UK audiences to Chinese drama.

There are great exchanges taking place, including the exhibition ‘Chinese Photobook’, which has been exhibited in London and Beijing. The show explored China’s history through the photobook through a curatorial collaboration between Martin Parr and photographer team WassinkLundgren. The exhibition and the translation project demonstrate what is possible when there are meaningful collaborations. The work becomes more than a showcase of a nation’s cultural muscles: there is a lasting impact.

This cross-organizational approach is one that should be pursued and celebrated. The V&A is an example of an institution that is forming cultural ties with China. As well as taking part in the China Now festival, the museum has curated a number of contemporary and antiquarian exhibitions. This includes two shows which coincided in 2013: ‘Masterpieces of Chinese Painting: 700 – 1900’, which presented the first overview of the tradition of Chinese painting in the UK since 1935, and ‘Travelling to the Wonderland’, in which the artist Xu Bing transformed the garden at the V&A inspired by a Chinese fable Tao Hua Yuan (Peach Blossom Spring). The museum also regularly works on a number of exhibitions in China. The V&A will also be helping the development of a new design museum in Shenzhen. Opening in 2016, the building is billed as the first major design museum in China. The museum will be part of the Shenzhen Sea World Cultural Arts Center and aims to present the best of Chinese and international design.

The V&A’s programme demonstrates a goal to be working with China long term; the V&A website gives details of exhibitions going back to 2005, in addition to their important Chinese collection, which holds approximately 18,000 objects. However the V&A’s work is not discussed within the news releases mentioning the year of cultural exchange. Neither do they mention the previous cultural festivals China Now and UK Now. This gives the impression that each event is separate to the other and just spring up from nowhere. This is a worrying indication that these events do occur without referencing the other, meaning that the effect of cross-cultural exchange is only temporary as it is overtaken by the next event. What cultural conversations are put into motion within this festival, the translation project for example, need to be carried over and reinforced into the next few years and future festivals. The collaborations need to exist long after the festival, like the V&A, but they also need to be publicized and written about. These writings need to be more than just official governmental releases. I wish to see essays from curators, artists, museum directors and more. This way the cultural dialogues will exist after the governmental ones and will continue election after election. They should be supported by politics but separate from it.

There is a danger that the art will get lost within politics. Visitors to the events taking place as part of the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange should be aware that, ultimately, the politicians have curated what’s on show. Examples of this can be found in both the Chinese and the British programmes. ‘Now – Michael Craig-Martin’ is one such example. The touring exhibition has been to Shanghai and Wuhan earlier this year, and featured fifty new paintings examined daily life through objects. Craig-Martin is regarded as the godfather of British conceptual art, but he was also an influential figure to many of the YBA’s (Young British Artists) like Damien Hirst, Tracey Emin and Sarah Lucas. This year, at the Venice Biennale, Lucas represented Britain with her exhibition ‘I SCREAM DADDIO’ at the British Pavilion. The exhibition is written about on the UK Now website, but is not included in the Cultural Exchange programme list. Surely a form of Lucas’ work linked to ‘I SCREAM DADDIO’ would have been relevant to be included in the events list. Lucas’ omission is perhaps due to the fact that her glorious phallic structures are considered too controversial to send. This begs the question: who decides the schedule? Did someone decide to send a less risky form of art? They sent the less provocative teacher instead of the student. This doesn’t make Craig-Martin’s work any less enjoyable and worthwhile to include in the programme, but it is interesting to note that none of the YBA’s work, often considered some of the best examples of British contemporary art, are incorporated within the exchange.

Another, and perhaps the most obvious, omission is Ai Weiwei. The Chinese artist’s ongoing intellectual and political battle with his government is often documented. It’s no surprise then, that currently Ai Weiwei is not included in the Chinese section of the exchange programme. Although his work was included in China Now, as he was one of the architects involved in the design of the ‘Bird’s Nest Stadium’ featured in the V&A’s China Design Now. Coincidently the Royal Academy of Arts will be hosting a major exhibition by Ai Weiwei in the autumn of 2015. In 2011 Ai was detained by the Chinese authorities for 81 days and has not been able to leave China since, as his passport was confiscated. In solidarity the RA made him an Honorary Royal Academician in May 2011. The exhibition, taking place from 19th September till 13th December 2015, will be a major display of the artist’s work. The RA will present a selection of Ai’s work from 1993 onwards, which marks his return to China from New York.

This coincidence draws attention on the omission of Ai Weiwei’s work from the schedule, similarly with Sarah Lucas. The timing of Ai’s RA show and Lucas’ exhibition at the Venice Biennale means it would have made perfect sense to include both of them in the Cultural Exchange programme. The UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange was initiated by politics. Does that mean that politics decided what art should be sent to both countries to improve relations?

Politics is tangled within the Year of Cultural Exchange. Each government should support and enable the arts, recognizing its value to each nation. The nation, however, should not see culture as a means to trade business with another nation. International cultural conversations, particularly those that take place between different institutions and organizations, should be supported because of its merit alone. There is nothing wrong with the arts events taking place within the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange. Many of them, as discussed, have the potential for longevity and future partnerships. As long as any viewer, in whichever nation, goes in with the awareness that these art events are government sanctioned and, therefore should only be taken as an example of the art each nation has. There is a need for more and stronger cultural exchanges to happen.


2008年北京舉辦了奧運會和殘奧會,四年後,倫敦成為東道主。中英雙方為了慶祝對方舉辦的兩屆盛會各自主辦了一系列活動。2008年,英國舉辦了展示中國文化及體育盛況的《當下中國(China Now)》展,其中舉辦於維多利亞與阿爾伯特博物館(Victoria & Albert Museum,以下統稱為V&A博物館)的《當下中國設計(China Design Now)》展也是活動之一,展覽探索了中國的新設計,聚焦中國的北京、上海和深圳三座大城市中經濟的高速發展對建築和設計的影響。展覽關注了與設計相關的廣闊天地,從諸如鳥巢體育館的建築設計到服裝時尚。2012年,中國舉辦了《當下英國(UK Now)》,活動包括藝術家托尼·克拉格(Tony Cragg)和時尚攝影師蘭金(Rankin)的作品展覽,以及英國國家芭蕾舞團(English National Ballet)的巡回演出。兩次活動促進了國與國、制度與制度間的創意討論,展示了兩國當代藝術的風貌和素質。

2011年,根據中國文化部副部長丁偉所著文章的精神,中歐峰會上重申了中歐文化交流的觀點。丁偉在網絡版《議會雜誌(The Parliament Magazine)》上發表文章,指出國家間文化交流的重要性──“文化交流與合作是中歐全面合作夥伴關係的重要組成部分。其在加深兩地人民的相互了解和提升我們的關係價值方面扮演著不可替代的角色”1。這種文化對話的理念促成中國和法國、德國等歐盟成員國共同舉辦了一系列文化交流活動。如今,2015年恰逢中國歐盟建交40周年,為了慶祝這一歷史時刻,遍布中國和歐盟的一系列活動將展開,包括“中國當代藝術——歐洲巡回(Chinese contemporary art – European tour)”和“丹麥文化季(Danish cultural season)”,以及“中英文化交流年(UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange)”。



但奇怪的是,傳統媒體都甚少提及這兩個系列的活動。實際上,除了GOV.uk和英國文化協會(British Council)的網站上,我們很難再找到關於“中英文化交流年”的文章。而找到英國的“墨西哥年”和墨西哥的“英國年”的報導顯得較為容易,這或許是因為“墨西哥年”的活動已經在英國舉辦,而“中英文化交流年”中英國部分的活動則要等到今年晚些時候才舉行(相比於當前寫作時間)。

一般認為,今年的活動展示的是中英兩國的當代文化,所以不大肆宣揚怎說得過去?實際情況確是這樣,只不過不是通過人們常規獲取文化新聞的途徑。根據英國文化協會網站上的一則新聞,早在2014年中國總理李克強發表關於“中英文化交流年”正式聲明之前的2013年,大衛·卡梅隆(David Cameron)在到訪中國時便更新了許多協議,以“展示不斷壯大的中英關係,並將創新和文化交流置於中英關係發展的中心”。2


我們需要有益體面的國際關係。藝術可以用來增進國家間的關係,但不應該單單因為某國為謀與別國貿易而被視為工具。文化不僅僅是一種商品。文化交往應該展示各國的藝術天才,增強組織間的文化聯繫和合作。這種合作關係在 2015年1月9日刊登的文章《2015中英文化交流年》也有所體現:“我們這兩種文化繼續激發革新與創意,來自兩國的觀眾都能獲得充裕的機會探索這種創新的夥伴關係在21世紀的深厚意義。”3這樣的文化交流正在發生,但是在找到交流真正的文化目標之前,確實還有一些諂媚奉承的政治話語需要去應付。皇家莎士比亞劇團翻譯項目(Royal Shakespeare Company Translation Project)便是一個有意義的合作項目,皇家莎士比亞劇團及其中國合夥人把莎士比亞戲劇的全新譯本帶給了中國觀眾,同時也把中國戲劇介紹給英國的觀眾。

許多重大的文化交流也在發生,包括《中國攝影書(Chinese Photobook)》展,已經在倫敦和北京展出。展覽結合了英國攝影師馬丁·帕爾(Martin Parr)和攝影團體魯小本&泰斯(WassinkLundgren)的策展合作,通過“攝影書”的方式探索了中國歷史。這種展覽和前述的翻譯項目展現了當有意義的合作存在時,可能帶來多麽好的成果。這樣的作品已經超越了展示國家文化“肌肉”的意圖:它的影響是更深遠的。

這種跨組織的辦法是值得效法和贊揚的。V&A博物館就是和中國締結文化聯繫的機構之範例。除了參與了《當下中國》,V&A博物館還策劃了一些當代和古文物展覽,包括:《中國畫大師精品展700﹣1900》,這是自1935年以來在英國的土地上首次對中國繪畫傳統綜覽式的展覽;以及《桃花源的理想一定要實現(Travelling to the Wonderland)》——藝術家徐冰汲取中國傳說“桃花源”靈感,把V&A博物館的花園改造得耳目一新。以上兩場展覽恰巧都在2013年舉辦。V&A博物館經常在中國舉辦各種展覽,同時也協助推動著深圳一座新設計博物館的進程。這座博物館將於2016年竣工,宣傳稱其為中國首座大型設計博物館,將成為深圳海上世界文化藝術中心的一部分,目標是呈現中國以及世界上的最佳設計。


藝術一旦與政治沾染,便有迷失的危險。中英文化交流年活動的觀眾必然意識到,說到底,政治家們策劃了活動。這樣的例子在中方和英方都可以看到。比如說,《此時——邁克爾·克雷格-馬丁(Now – Michael Craig-Martin)》就是這樣的例子。該巡回展覽已經在今年早些時候在上海和武漢舉辦,展出的作品包括五十幅通過物件審視日常生活的新畫作。克雷格-馬丁(Craig-Martin)被認為是英國觀念藝術的教父,但他同時對達明·赫斯特(Damien Hirst)、翠西·艾敏(Tracey Emin)和薩拉·盧卡斯(Sarah Lucas)等年輕英國藝術家也有著深厚的影響。今年,在威尼斯雙年展上,盧卡斯作為英國代表在英國館展出了其作品《我大喊(I SCREAM DADDIO)》。此次展覽在“藝述英國(UKNow)”網站上有所記載,但卻沒有包括在文化交流項目列表中。誠然,和盧卡斯《我大喊(I SCREAM DADDIO)》相關的某些作品形式本來就有相關性,也應該被列入活動列表中。但是之所以盧卡斯沒有被囊括進來,可能是因為她作品中誇張的生殖崇拜結構被認為太具爭議性。這就引出一個問題:誰決定了這種安排?是不是有人決定用風險較低的作品形式取而代之?於是,他們決定用不那麽激進的“老師”取代“學生”。雖然這並不會讓入選該項目的克雷格-馬丁的作品少了趣味和價值,但是年輕英國藝術家的作品,這些經常被認為是英國當代藝術的最佳範例,卻沒有一件被囊括進文化交流項目中,這不失為一件耐人尋味的事情。

另外一個例子,或許算得上是最明顯的一個,便是艾未未的缺席。中國藝術家艾未未與中國政府的思想和政治抵牾已經是公開的秘密。所以,當艾未未沒有被列入中國方面交流項目的名單就不足為奇了。儘管他的作品被收入《當下中國》展覽──因為他是參與“鳥巢”設計的建築師之一,而V&A博物館的《當下中國》恰好有關於“鳥巢”的展覽。碰巧的是,皇家美術學會(Royal Academy of Arts)將在2015秋天主辦艾未未的大型作品展。2011年,艾未未被中方拘留了81天,其護照已被中方沒收,所以自那時起他便被禁止出境(發稿時艾未未已經順利取得護照和英國簽證)。皇家美術學會在2011年5月決定授其榮譽皇家美術學會院士稱號。此次艾未未展將從2015年9月19日持續到12月13日,將是艾未未作品的集中展示。皇家美術學會將從他1993年以後的作品中挑選展品,那一年,他剛好從紐約回到中國。






∗ Since the writing of this article, finished on the 21st July, Ai Weiwei has been given his passport back by the Chinese authorities after it was taken four years ago, upon his arrest in 2011. The artist announced the news on his Instagram account on the 22nd July.
∗ 7月21日該文寫成後,中國當局已在2011年艾未未被捕四年後歸還其護照。該信息是艾未未於7月22日在其Instagram上發布的。
∗ On the 30th July Ai Weiwei posted a letter from the Visas and Immigration department of the UK government stating that his application for a three-month visa had been denied. The reason given was that Ai Weiwei had supposedly neglected to mention that he had a criminal conviction. They refer to the allegation of tax evasion that Ai Weiwei was detained under by the Chinese authorities. The crime that Ai Weiwei was accused of has been widely condemned as politically motivated. Ai Weiwei has been given a three-week visa, although in a statement on Instagram he said it was unlikely he would be able to attend both the install and the opening of his Royal Academy exhibition. It is understood that Ai Weiwei is currently challenging the decision by the UK Visas and Immigration Department, stating that he has never been convicted of a crime. German authorities have given Ai Weiwei a four-year multiple entry visa.
∗ 7月30日,艾未未展示了英國政府簽證和移民局的一封信,信上表明他的三個月簽證申請已被拒絕。原因是,據稱艾未未沒有提及其犯罪紀錄。所謂犯罪紀錄,指的是艾未未被中國當局拘留時所受的逃稅指控。艾未未的罪名指控,實際上面臨廣泛的指責,即此舉實為政治驅動。英方給予艾未未為期三周的簽證,但艾未未在Instagram上宣稱,如此他便可能無法參加其皇家美術學會展覽的布展和開幕。因而,我們也不難理解艾未未目前正在質疑英國簽證和移民局的決定,堅持稱他從未犯過罪。德國當局便給了艾未未四年多次入境簽證。
∗ On the 31st July, the UK Home Office announced the decision by home secretary Theresa May to order officials to grant Ai Weiwei the six-month visa. This reverses the earlier decision; Theresa May also apologized to the artist.
∗ 7月31日,英國內政部宣布了一項決定,內政大臣特里莎·梅(Theresa May)命令相關官員給予艾未未為期六月的簽證。這一決定推翻了之前的決定,特里莎·梅也向藝術家道歉。
1 ‘Cultural Exchange is ‘irreplaceable’ in China – EU Relations’, by Ding Wei in The Parliament Magazine, on 5th October 2014: 2 ‘Duke of Cambridge Launches the UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange’, British Embassy Beijing on GOV.UK, on 2nd March 2015: 3 ‘2015 UK-China Year of Cultural Exchange’, British Embassy Beijing on GOV.UK on 9th January:


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