In pursuit of the higher – Mountains beyond Mountains

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Jun Jiang the curator behind China’s architectural pavilion at the Venice Biennale speaks to Glass about the philosophies behind his national exhibit

China have this year based their pavilion Mountains beyond Mountains, on a book written by the Western art critic James Cahill reflecting on traditional Chinese imagery. Talking to the curator Jun Jiang it’s plainly clear that their exhibition is positivity consuming – the energy and detail in which he philosophises could easily be compared to mountains.

Unlike previous years the pavilion is a collaborative exercise resulting in three components – elastic bandages, recycled tea packaging and steel structures – which Jiang has cleverly orchestrated the tensions between, emphasising the tensions that he sees evident in our everyday existence while attempting to correlate the last century of architectural thinking in China and Asia. All in one pavilion. There’s a maze of parallel themes in China’s exhibit – manifestations of content and content insight of space, space and content that are correlated – a tangle if you wish. To explain the importance of the tensions between the three collaborators Jiang recalls an anecdote from the US occupation of Japan where the western soldiers were confounded by a native Japanese game. Architectural relations between East and West are clearly one of many themes the pavilion wants to address.

Slightly different from other pavilions – Jiang’s friendship with Koolhaas allowed him to address both the main pavilion (Fundamentals) and national pavilion’s (Absorbing Modernity) briefs – China stands apart in both size and conceptual theme. The publication I Ching (Book of Changes) is clearly a big pillar to Jiang’s inspiration, the tensions mentioned above are inherent to the central theme of the publication, and whilst the curator has taken his own interpretation from the text, themes of change, difference and progression have certainly been addressed in Venice.

Tell us about the space you have for your pavilion.
This time the Chinese pavilion is quite a different from the previous pavilions because it has got much bigger. Previously the venue was the an oil warehouse with around 43 oil tanks and through a series of negotiations 42 of them have been removed so now the whole size of the pavilion has doubled, or you could even say tripped. This made our exhibition one of he biggest in the Biennale, which meant that if we didn’t have enough content the space would look empty.

So how did you become involved as the curator for this project?
Personally I’m not very into the work of curator-ship but the reason I finally took the responsibility is because Rem Koolhaas himself wanted me to be involved and we’ve been friends for many years. I’m also very interested in what he wanted to talk about – Fundamentals. He has two titles, one being Fundamentals and another of Absorbing Modernity but I’m more curious and interested about the first one. Despite Absorbing Modernity being assigned to all the national pavilions but I wanted to combine both.

Why are you so curious with fundamentals? And why do you think Koolhaas wanted to go back to basics?  
I think he was quite skeptical about the term and that’s why he addressed it. He doubted the existence of the fundamental but he wanted to invite people to discuss it. It is still necessary in modern terms to talk about the fundamentals. What he’s done in the central pavilion draws back to the classical understanding, the western understanding which is about architectural elements.

And Chinese fundamentals are different?
From our perspective the element is not the real fundamental, it’s about the form. Chinese fundamental for us is quite strong and it’s actually what is hidden behind the sustaining civilisation for the past thousands of years, the civilisation is never interrupted, its has always continued even though the dynasty has changed in language and text – what were now reading, using and applying – is still based on the fundamentals that was erected around 2-4,000 years ago.

The I Ching [Book of Changes] explains this further. The fundamental itself means that something’s never change but at the same time things are ever-changing, so basically I in Chinese means three things; change, un-change or never change and the third meaning is the relationship between never changing and the ever changing.

For me there is a fourth meaning – there is a way to explore this evolution from never-change to ever changing. I Ching is a difficult book, so from our perspective this is a very good opportunity to talk about fundamentals and maybe how it’s really understood and accepted – it can be a universal value for the world.

You talk about tensions and the exhibition plays with these contractions and meanings, one being between East and West. Can you elaborate on that?

The core difference between the classical Chinese and the western fundamental is – and Rem has pointed this out in the central pavilion – the theory of rhetoric, he wanted to make an order of perfection by means of all the criteria’s including scale, proportion and ratio, a series of geometrical and mathematical rules that all of can be described through the artistic work by Da Vinci in the Renaissance time.

For China, mathematics isn’t always the truth. It is just like the difference between the Forbidden City and a western church. There is a difference between the bigger and the smaller, the public and the private, between all these relativities and that is very different from the western notion that it is about the pursuit of the highest. This is about the pursuit of the higher.

So how did you decide on the name of the pavilion?
We decided to call it Mountains beyond Mountains because in the theory of art there is a western art critic [James Cahill] and he wrote a book with the same name in Chinese. In English it’s translated to The Distant Mountains, but the original Chinese name is much better!

For me it’s quite different, it’s about something behind and more abstract whilst being about relativity, it’s about a bigger and a smaller, closer and further, it’s about the specific and the abstract so it has quite a different meaning, making the tension between two things. The world you are living in depends on this tension.

So Mountains beyond Mountains for me is about the poetic expression of the roots of the Chinese fundamental – the Yin and Yang – the fundamental is all about the metaphysical so we put a lot of emphasis on the interrelationship and our work can be described as a physical expression of what is metaphysical, the interrelationship and what the value of the interrelationship within the Chinese pavilion is.

How did you practically approach this brief?
I could have done it quite simply, but I chose to do it quite difficultly. Previously the pavilion has always selected different participants and every participant would give some kind of sponsorship for the exhibition so everybody would make an installation. The problem was that there was no interrelationship between all of the work, so everything was isolated.

China is notorious for its great unity and the notion of great unity, but here for me the great unity is not about the politics, it’s about the notion and nature, because the universe is united and nature is also united, so for us it’s very natural to talk about great unity because it’s not only about the political power, it’s also about the cultural conception of the world.

For me it’s very important for me that everybody should be interrelated, but what is the fundamental behind this inter-relationship? In I Ching it was described as the mutual generation and mutual restriction, it’s just like when the American soldiers occupied Japan they found there was a really strange game over there – A can win B, B can win C and C can win A – and they never understood why C can win A. That is a simpler example of what is mutual generation and mutual restriction.

So this year I invited three architectural participants who were going to play this game. The work has been divided into three parts – it’s like your circulation, nervous and bone system in your body so this time there are three architectural teams working on three systems and these systems are inter-generating and inter restricting each other. In the pavilion these three systems are the structure system of steel, the division system of the elastic bands/ bandage and the foundation system of the stool boards. So three systems.

Tell us a little more about the three systems.
The first system, steel, was invented in the United States in the 1920s and that was one of the concepts we wanted to use because we thought that was the moment when the technology of Asian/Chinese architecture had been surpassed by western civilisation after the industrial revolution.

We wanted to use sections of steel because it is, on one hand, invented by the United States and the other hand we wanted to showcase globalisation and the history of the material from the United States to China – through Japan in the 1950s, to Taiwan in the 1970s and finally to China in the 1990s.

From the [steel] particles that were invented100 years ago we are now using 30 particles of the system, and they [United States] are using 300. Through the protection of copyright and patents Chinese factories can only use 30 particles. So you could say this is exactly the system invented a century ago but it is also different from what the United States are using now, so I think it’s quite symbolic.

The second system was used from the fashion industry. We wanted to blur the boarder-line between product and architecture through the elastic bands used in trousers. We re-made, customised and treated it for architecture so now it’s fire-proof and because of its elasticity you can install the exhibit as the wall and can even walk through it, so it looks paradoxically like a wall system but actually a pillar system, so a play on the Eastern and Western fundamentals.

The third element is the stool board, recycled milk and cold tea boxes and packaging, the packaging is a mix of green, red and white and you can see all the colours and the text of the product on the boards. We made them into the boards and customised them into three different heights and two different widths. With the three different heights – the smallest being 15cm – you can use it as a floor, 30cm can be used as stairs, and 45cm can be used as chairs and stools. You can also pile the stools to create different forms so you can make them into different furnishings, chairs, tables and cabinets, and finally you can pile them into a mountain and a different landscape. You can hide electrical lights into it so you can make them into lamps – small lamps and big lamps.

This was designed to blur the borderline between materials, the previous life of the products, architecture, furniture, the landscape and the lighting system. They always transmit from one to another and all the three systems work together to make a whole. The core idea is still about the theory of fracto-science and the logic of Asian and Chinese architecture and its furnishings. Chinese furniture is not simply a mimic of the structure of architecture, you can say it’s exactly the representation of the mountain beyond the mountains but every mountain has a similarity, so through the views of the smaller mountains you can understand the larger mountains. The structure of the furniture is the same structure of the architecture; although it’s smaller the logic is still the same.

How close are we to understanding the fundamentals?
There’s a long way to go, to get to the real fundamentals of everything, but for me it’s very possible to re-interpret this diagram of everything from thousands of years ago, into the contemporary world and into the future. For me the core interest for the Chinese pavilion is that I can have a chance to apply this diagram to the physical, modern and/or contemporary thing so people can have a chance to say “OK it can by pliable” and still have a universal value for the contemporary world.

by Stephanie Clair

China and all other national pavilions are open at the Venice Architecture Biennale until November 23, 2014

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Glass Online culture and arts writer

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