From 13 May to 26 November 2017, Tese 98-99 in Venice’s Northern Arsenal will host Memory and Contemporaneity, a collateral event of the 57th International Art Exhibition - La Biennale di Venezia, promoted by The Palace Museum of Beijing, organised by Pegasus Media in partnership with First Italy Limited and curated by Davide Rampello, Gianfranco Maraniello, Wang Yamin and Sun Jianjiun.

The exhibition reflects on China’s past as it becomes artistic, cultural and spiritual memory. Starting from Beijing’s Forbidden City, 17 contemporary Chinese artists – Xu Bing, Gu Wenda, Qiu Zhijie, Feng Lianghong, Song Dong, Sui Jianguo, Li Songsong, Song Ling, Leng Bingchuan, Zhu Bingren, Geng Xue, Peng Wei, Jiang Jian, Li Hongbo, Zhang Qikai, Li Mingwei and Shang Yang – reinterpret one of the symbols of China and of its thousands of years of history. The task of describing an ideal bond between Venice and China, as an element of mediation between their two cultures, has been entrusted to five master of Italian design – Antonio Citterio, Michele De Lucchi, Stefano Giovannoni, Piero Lissoni and Italo Rota – who have worked in partnership with Italian craftsmen to create everyday wooden objects that allow for the potential of adding silk or ceramic, inspired by the applied and decorative arts of China.

The exhibition experience gives due consideration to the serious accident that took place on 4 April, when a fire broke out on board the cargo ship MSC Daniela when she was navigating off Colombo, in Sri Lanka, transporting the works of the Chinese artists, thwarting their arrival in Venice. Basing their approach on a stated consciousness of this event, the curators decided to interpret their task as an adventure, suggesting a new exhibition design based on a dialectic comprising a prologue, a dialogue and a synthesis, originally dedicated to the display of the works, in a provocative meditation about their absence.

The first ‘act’, conceived as a prologue, comprises a thorough immersion, through images and installations, in the treasures emanated by the Forbidden City for some six hundred years: from the beginning of the fifteenth century, when the immense imperial palace was built in Beijing by the Ming dynasty, to the present day to which it has been bequeathed and in which it has been cross-fertilised and recreated in a multiplicity of linguistic, historical, visual and philosophical idioms.

In the second act, which takes the form of a dialogue, this Chinese cultural bequest becomes a resource inherited by five maestros of Italian design, who were asked to express their creativity and ingenuity by applying them not only to issues and languages of the art in question, but also to the materials in which it has been made manifest throughout history: wood, silk, iron and ceramics. The results of these interactions are a chair by Antonio Citterio, a lamp by Michele De Lucchi, an armchair by Stefano Giovannoni, a cupboard by Piero Lissoni and a table by Italo Rota, all works that are accompanied by black-and-white videos that illustrate the backstage of their creative processes.

The third act is announced by the seventeen short films shot in the studios of the 17 contemporary Chinese artists as they were concentrating on making their creations, reflecting on how China’s past becomes an artistic, cultural and spiritual memory. Their works interpret the memory of China and of its thousands of years of history. These images generate a widespread sense of imminence, which then underlies the inexorable coup de théâtre of the news from Sri Lanka: “Cargo ship on fire: works for the Biennale blocked en route”.

As Davide Rampello points out: “And so the itinerary of a visit continues, following the route of a symbolic and increasingly clear awareness of what happened. Sometimes by using storytelling to conjure up its tangible traces, sometimes by seeking the way forward amid the profound resonance of the words in an ‘etymological vocabulary of the event’ and sometimes by coming face to face with a huge photograph of the cargo ship in flames. Here is a representation of something that never actually took place. The unfinished work that is completed in the eye of the beholder. An abstract simulation of a real situation that has not yet come about. This, then, is Contemporaneity that becomes Memory.”

The aim of the exercise, to reflect on the value and the destiny of art in modern-day China, is not lost. In recent decades, contemporary Chinese art has witnessed the rise of an important generation of artists and the advent of new galleries and collectors, as well as the sudden creation of museums and some quite formidable academies and universities, which are encouraging a broad, well-informed and conscious public. As Gianfranco Maraniello states: “Memory and Contemporaneity is not just an opportunity to observe the works of some of the most interesting Chinese artists to tread the scene recently: it is also an attempt to consider the deeper roots of a cultural tradition that, starting out from the image of the Forbidden City, opens the way up to heterogeneous values for contemporary art.”

This is guaranteed from the start by the display of a first nucleus of works (which were not on board the cargo ship) and will later be completed when all the other works are also installed, once they have arrived in Venice.