"Our nomination as European City of Culture under the Ruhr.2010 campaign demonstrated that, when it comes to partner-like cooperation, the cultural Metropolis Ruhr can compete on an international level. CHINA 8 is going to be opening in the Rhine-Ruhr region one week after the Vienna Biennale. We hope that this will make it another important landmark in the European art calendar."
Fritz Pleitgen, former Managing Director of Ruhr.2010 GmbH
It was quite the idea. Planned by the Stiftung für Kunst und Kultur e. V. and implemented by the museums of the Rhine-Ruhr area in summer 2015, CHINA 8 was the first of its kind – an international joint project following the Ruhr area's appointment as European City of Culture as part of the RUHR.2010 campaign. The aim: to let intercontinental cultural exchange shine. Never before had the Metropolis Ruhr seen a more intense transfer of contemporary art from China to Germany for an inter-city exhibition spanning eight RuhrKunstMuseen and the NRW-Forum Düsseldorf. The artistic direction, made up of Walter Smerling, Speaker of the Board of Trustees and Director of the MKM Museum Küppersmühle für Moderne Kunst Duisburg, Ferdinand Ullrich, then Director of the Kunsthalle Recklinghausen, and Tobias Bezzola, then Director of the Museum Folkwang in Essen, provided the press with the following quotation: "It is the biggest museum-based stocktaking of contemporary Chinese art that has ever taken place in the world."
The major exhibition began in May 2015. As the patron, Federal Minister at the time Sigmar Gabriel opened the exhibition to end all exhibitions in the MKM Duisburg. A total of 9 museums across 8 cities in North Rhine-Westphalia provided a huge stage for 500 works from 120 contemporary artists. The area had never before seen so much Chinese art. CHINA 8 took place from May to September. The combined ticket to view half a thousand works of art cost a grand total of 18 euros. And on top of this, a free shuttle bus travelled between the museums across the area in order to put the concept of networking the cultural area of the Ruhr into practice. This proved to be very popular. After being open for only 10 days, CHINA 8 was able to announce the following: 14,000 visitors – including an above-average number of young people – had already visited the exhibition to make use of the exclusive opportunity to experience the most comprehensive collection of contemporary art ever to be displayed in Germany up-close, as well as to follow in the footsteps of a culture which is, in many regards, exceptional. The results made it clear: the culture and mentality of the "Land of the Dragon" was a source of curiosity not just for the whole of North Rhine-Westphalia, but also for an international audience, which travelled to Germany specifically for the occasion. The surprises and sore spots provoked by the exhibition served to encourage intercultural dialogue.
CHINA 8 was not only a mammoth project, it was also an ambitious attempt to gain an insight into and an overview of the different fields of contemporary Chinese art. Sculpture, photography, ink drawings, calligraphy, installation works and object art, as well as video art and sound art, could be found distributed across the various exhibition centres according to genre. For example, the Lehmbruck-Museum Duisburg presented the exhibition "Neue Figuration – Erzählende Skulptur" (New Figuration – Narrative Sculpture), which focussed on sculptures that told stories of the Chinese past, present and future, the Kunstmuseum Gelsenkirchen explored ink painting and calligraphy with "Tradition heute – Tuschemalerei und Kalligraphie" (Tradition today – Ink Painting and Calligraphy), the Skulpturenmuseum Glaskasten Marl focussed on video and sound as a medium of 'frozen time' with "Die angehaltene Zeit – Video und Sound", and the NRW-Forum in Düsseldorf offered a starting point to help visitors get their bearings in the form of "Overview – Blicke auf China". Those who could prove that they had successfully completed the exhibition marathon in that they had seen all CHINA 8 exhibitions won a special prize. The hefty 500-page catalogue, richly illustrated with over 300 images, was gifted to those who demonstrated an intense interest in the event. The exhibition is documented in an exceptional compendium which, to this day, provides an overview of contemporary Chinese art – available in hardback for 49.80 euros in retail stores.
However, what would a large exhibition be without the provision of in-depth mediation services? CHINA 8 put on an inspiring show, with a range of cultural events with a philosophical and art-historical focus. It ensured lively discussions. In a manner which was in keeping with the times, it set the pace for cultural exchange between Europe and Asia. What makes Chinese art special? What distinguishes it from "western art"? Why was famous Chinese artist Ai Weiwei not included in the series of exhibitions? How were selections made? The dates of birth of the artists were chiefly limited to a period of time between 1950 and the middle of the 1970s, meaning that the older artists had lived through Mao Zedong's 1966 cultural revolution (which lasted until approx. 1977), while this Maoist past was nothing more than hearsay to the younger artists. Visitors were encouraged to see whether and/or how the contemporary Chinese art on display reflected the historical development and rapid structural change of the country, a task which they willingly accepted. More than once, comparisons made with the structural change taking place in the Metropolis Ruhr meant that CHINA 8 stood out "as a milestone in Europe's cultural calendar".
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