Chinese Little Vases

Portugal occasionally holds that sort of exhibitions which fall into the realm of interculturalism and migrate from one side of the world to be displayed right here. Fundação Oriente has gone the extra mile to bring a fair share of eastern culture so that the Portuguese can grasp and enjoy it. This time around, MAAT was the one accountable to enact these cultural exchanges, with the exhibition Branco e Azul [White and Blue] of the artist, potter and writer Bai Ming.

Cultural exchanges have become increasingly acknowledged, as they bring together what at first is far away. It’s the outcome of a globalisation which should be more human and creative and not so acetic, frantic and destructive. And Portugal is in a desperate need for these changes, given how chronically incipient its investment in culture is, as well as the nation’s inability to show abroad what is produced right here. Amid this perennial stalemate, it’s our duty to acknowledge that we need to welcome the Other, to learn from him, to know him and expand ourselves.

Bai Ming brought with him all the lexicon of the ancient Chinese ceramics and updated it with a pictorial and abstract component, which is not all common in this country’s traditional ceramics, and that has always mesmerised the Portuguese, something consubstantiated by the Silk Route. Chinese ceramic was fascinating from an aesthetic point of view, particularly because of the white and blue colours, a pleasure which, alternatively, Bai Ming says he recognises in the city of Lisbon, in the Tagus river, in the sky and in the vitreous tiles of buildings.

The exhibition and the presentation of the artist, conducted by the President of China Central Academy of Fine Arts Fan Di’an, references these centenarian bonds between Portugal and China, from the Portuguese sea expeditions throughout the world, up until the global poignancy of Chinese capitalism, which has been spawning bases all over the world. The discourse and the exhibition are a diplomatic effort, even a forced endeavour of a museum that is powered by a company which went from being state-owned to a private one, handled by yet another enterprise, a Chinese public corporation. There are no ruptures, nor ideological narratives. There cannot be any; that would fall into the trap of modern cynicism.

Therefore, the curious thing in this exhibition is what remains to be said and the understanding of the Chinese political and cultural discourse, more than what is displayed in itself. These are two totally different and antagonistic entities. In this context, the West and the East couldn’t be more apart. The works exposed are unable to transpire any sort of political debate, precisely because Chinese art does not take part of this perception on western contemporaneity, in which the contemporary element interacts with a political, and not all neutral, discursivity. The perspective of the Chinese artist is a passive one and he does not have the intention to force the transformation of what he sees. Instead, he looks, learns and replicates in a way more or less figurative, more or less mimetic.

However this doesn’t mean that interesting and noteworthy works are nowhere to be found. And the subtleness of the porcelain stands on its own. The fact that Ming uses ceramics more as a pictorial support than a utilitarian tool is also a stimulating component of his work. The installation Tubo-Gíria (2011) exhibits itself in harmony with the Tagus river and the sky, standing in front of the wide windows. A series of blue platforms and a specific disposition of the white ceramic pieces give a sensitive fluidity to this set. It’s tough not to recall ivory bones washed in water, as grim as this may sound. A short video leads us into a Zen state of mind, as we contemplate the choreography of the hand and brush, both waving over the spinning vase. Equally impressing are the paintings in tea, India ink and incense burns on rice paper. The abstraction takes part of that country’s tradition. A share of the natural vitality of the tea plant drips onto the painting, something that water wouldn’t be capable of expressing.

The discourse around abstractionism was acknowledged by Di’an. If in the west abstractionism makes us think about a whole set of avant-garde branches spouting off of modern painting, in the east the roots of abstraction are much older. It’s not by chance that eastern calligraphies were so important for western modern artists, particularly the Japanese, which always kept itself in touch with the American abstract expressionism. Ming tries to recheck all these differences and similitudes a bit all over his show, while the diplomatic trait and the refusal of bringing art, politics and life closer avoid any smirk of boldness.

Regarding the exhibition itself, the curatorial choice of displaying pieces of ceramics outdoors, as already mentioned, an installation which mishmashes itself with the outer landscape of the wide windows, is something that should be emphasized, but it’s hard to understand the repeated rebuttal of many exhibitions held at Central Tejo to obliterate, with white front walls, the industrial heritage that they could add to it, or, with the energy and heat produced by generators and pipes, reinforce the narrative associated with baking clay and the vitreous agents of ceramics. (It’s just not a mere coincidence that, right next to it, Fernanda Fragateiro wanted to tear down the walls and show this building’s materiality and singularity.)

Between moments of closeness and estrangement, this is an exhibition of frustrations, of what remains to be said and of what everyone would have liked to hear being said.

Branco e Azul | Bai Ming – Lisboa can be seen on display until September 4th at Central MAAT and was commissioned by Fan Di’an, Rosa Goy and Margarida Almeida Chantre.

José Rui Pardal Pina (n. 1988) has a master's degree in architecture from I.S.T. in 2012. In 2016 he joined the Postgraduate Course in Art Curation at FCSH-UNL and began to collaborate in the Umbigo magazine. Curator of Dialogues (2018-), an editorial project that draws a bridge between artists and museums or scientific and cultural institutions with no connection to contemporary art.

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