Published: 19/10/2011 at 12:00 AM, Newspaper section: Life

Chongqing means...

Curatorial adventures in a Chinese city that begs schizophrenic facts

China's Chongqing is or was or will be the largest city in the world, according to a variety of reports. It tends to fluctuate in the lists of top 5 contemporary mega-cities. Further, Chongqing is probably the biggest city ever built off a mountain. It is definitely the biggest inland river port in western China, and has created as many as 25 bridges to breach the Yangtze River. Chongqing is also the biggest municipality in China _ and likely the world _ because of a population of over 30 million. The world's largest reservoir, The Three Gorges Dam, is nearby.

A Lyno Vuth installation at Chongqing Youth Biennale.

So run the prevalent facts about Chongqing. Big this and big that. But when such facts flounder or shift we gain a certain insight: maybe size isn't everything. Some further facts about Chongqing: It was the capital of the country during World War II; the most beautiful women in China come from Chongqing; local cuisine is so spicy it numbs your mouth; the city is famed for coolies (a disconcerting name for manual labourers who sit about the streets and offer a mule-like service); and Chongqing is not a tourist city.

I visited the city that also no-one I know had heard of, in October, as curator of the Southeast section of the 2nd Chongqing Youth Biennale. The young Thai artists Henry Tan and Tada Hengsapkul accompanied me, with the nearly-young Jakkai Siributr and youthful Michael Lee, one of Singapore's finest artists. We stayed at the Sichuan Fine Art Institute, a prestigious school that receives 60,000 applications for 1,500 places annually.

Jakkai Siributr installation.

Maybe it would be difficult to lose sight of scale here. You can drive uncountable miles from one district to another but the infrastructure is so sophisticated that you don't necessarily notice time passing as you glide through forests of sky-high apartment blocks, countryside, and on to ever-new urban developments.

My host took me to "University Town", a less-than-five-years old site of 15 universities, including housing for students and academics. Sichuan Fine Art Institute has a new campus there. I visited a block of 300 new artists' studios there, including spaces for two legends of contemporary Chinese art, Fang Lijun and Zhang Xiaogang. The authorities want Chongqing to become a cultural hub, perhaps surpassing Shanghai and Beijing; perhaps surpassing the rest of the world.

After accepting the curatorial commission two months before my visit, my acquaintances warned me: "You shouldn't curate on short notice because sending artworks to China is bureaucratic and expensive" and "Chinese museums are notorious for handling artworks badly". But no-one warned me about political sensitivities, or any potential problems with merely seeming political. Of course, I should have known.

Tada Hengsapkulā€™s WAITING, 2010, digital print, 57 x 70 cm.

The theme of this biennale was "Link: Tradition and Future" and curators from around Asia were invited to coordinate sections from their region. The first artist that came to my mind for selection is Tada, a photographer who captures his young Thai milieu provoking local social and cultural constraints with their bodies and their attitudes. Two of his works, depicting a naked couple (one with a prodigious erection), were politely removed prior to the official visit of censors from Beijing. When Tada was interviewed by the media he was asked to avoid saying anything that could be interpreted as political, "Nothing is not political" was his response.

Lee presented a series of photographs of smashed models of famous architecture. My curatorial short-sightedness didn't notice that one is of Tiananmen Square. It was removed by official censors. Malaysia's Chang Yoong Chia creates intricate collages from postage stamps of old.

His Three Bouquets shows Mao sitting with Gandhi, Hitler and others, including Winston Churchill, in the manner of The Last Supper. Removed.

But, I tell myself, if this was another country (Thailand? Middle East?), there may have been an actual penalty to pay for potentially offending local political or social sensibilities; or, no preemptive censors and then the police come knocking on my door.

Henry Tan performance.

For the opening ceremony of the biennale, Tan created a performance that involved him being carried by coolies up the red carpet and three flights of stairs to our section. There the coolies created large drawings of the young artist. The implications were perfect for the context and our experience in Chongqing: that is, the question of how art can be rendered significant to diverse communities and therefore the matter of what individuals take away from their engagement.

About the author

Writer: Brian Curtin Position: An Irish-born artist and curator based in Bangkok.