Wenny Teo: "The Unicorn and the Dragon" brings China closer to Venice

Many Chinese artists exhibiting in Venice over the years have attempted to retrace the rich historical and cultural connections between Italy and China. Indeed, some might still recall Cai Guo-Qiang’s dramatic gesture of Bringing to Venice What Marco Polo Forgot in the form of an exotic junk boat loaded with traditional Chinese medicine, spectacularly marooned somewhere along the Grand Canal, in 1995. The maverick artist, curator and critic Qiu Zhijie’s current offering at the Fondazione Querini Stampalia is no less visually seductive, but far more conceptually refined.

Qiu Zhijie, preparatory study for "The Unicorn and the Dragon", 2013.


Qiu at creates his "mind maps"

Qiu has created a series of fantastically detailed "mind-maps" that chart the visual and verbal ties between the Occident and Orient across space, time and place. Mythological beasts, decorative motifs and English and Chinese scripts float across sublime, grey-scale landscapes that are inked directly on the walls or imprinted onto paper through the "stone rubbing" technique—a traditional Chinese method of image-transfer that the artist demonstrated with much gusto during the opening. The exhibition is, in fact, the first stage of an ambitious collaborative venture, entitled “New Roads”, between the Fondazione Querini Stampalia, the new Aurora Art Museum and Arthub Asia, both located in Shanghai. Qiu’s work was inspired by the unique collections belonging to the two Chinese museums.

A visitor admires Qiu's cross-cultural ink works


References to Marco Polo surface again here in the title of the exhibition, "The Unicorn and the Dragon". As the story goes, at some point along Marco Polo’s voyage from Italy to China, he chanced upon a beast with a single horn that he had never seen before. Drawing from the Western imaginary, he immediately identified it as the mythic unicorn, when it was, in fact, a rhinoceros. This curious anecdote comes by way of Umberto Eco, the renowned Italian philosopher and semiotician, who cited it as an example of how we tend to classify, codify and mythologise the unfamiliar according to our own familiar standards. Operating against this logic, Qiu’s maps are deliberately disorientating, comprised of hybrid forms and arbitrary connections that defy order and instead celebrate the messy business of cross-cultural exchange. The exhibition is complimented by a wonderfully curated programme of captivating short films by Italian and Chinese artists, appropriately entitled "Off Course", that explore similar thematics of derive, disorientation and dislocation. "The Unicorn and the Dragon" is definitely worth the detour.

Wenny Teo is the Iwan and Manuela Wirth lecturer of Modern and contemporary Asian Art at the Courtauld Institute of Art

Published Tue, 18 Jun 2013 14:52:00 GMT

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