Europe's capital studies China

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BRUSSELS, Belgium — This fall and winter, the capital of Europe has taken on a distinctly Asian feel as China takes center stage at what the organizers are touting as the continent’s largest cultural festival.

The festival, Europalia.China, comes on the heels of China’s contentious guest of honor status at this year’s Frankfurt Book Fair. Both are an illustration of Beijing’s ambitions to develop a wider cultural influence to match its global economic and political weight 60 years after the founding of the People’s Republic.

From October to February, Chinese artists, musicians, writers, dancers, filmmakers, acrobats, puppet masters, marital arts maestros and even tea makers will flood into Brussels. More than 50 exhibitions and over 400 concerts, plays and events will showcase Chinese creativity, from the beginnings of civilization though the glories of the Imperial court to the raw experimentation of today’s thriving art scene.

Organizers say the festival seeks to put the rapid rise of China into a cultural context to increase understanding of the assertive new world player. It comes at a time when Brussels diplomats are concerned that Europe’s place in the world could be undermined by the emergence of a “G2” of the United States and China.

“Psychologically, the Chinese dragon has grown too big too fast for us to grasp the scale on which global change is occurring, and the West has difficulty abandoning its grammar of superiority in the world,” said Philippe Pirotte, director of Switzerland’s Kunsthalle Bern, who helped organize the event.

Europalia festivals have been held at irregular intervals in Brussels since 1969, usually focusing on the culture of an invited nation. The Europalia organization, a Belgian non-profit, is run by government and private sector officials. Each festival is organized in partnership with the featured country. At first organizers looked only to Europe, but in 1989, Europalia Japan brought in a record 1.6 million visitors. Organizers hope China will give them another blockbuster for the festival’s 40th anniversary.

The flagship exhibition this year, “Son of Heaven,” brings together more than 250 Imperial masterpieces in silk, porcelain and precious metal from 3000 B.C. to the fall of the Qing dynasty in 1911. There are performances by the Kunqu Opera, the Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra, Guangdong Modern Dance Company and experimental Jazz saxophonist Li Tieqiao. There are rickshaws and dancing lions in the streets, and tai chi and calligraphy demonstrations in a reconstructed Beijing tea house.

With European countries eager to court China, senior Belgian officials headed by King Albert II joined Chinese Vice President Xi Jingping for the launch of the festival. European Commission President Jose Manuel Barroso opened one of its central exhibits — the contemporary art show “The State of Things."

However, like the Frankfurt event, the Chinese focus in Brussels has raised concerns by human rights campaigners.

“Culture and human rights are intimately linked,” said the Belgian branch of Amnesty International. “Criminalizing freedom of expression is an attack on fundamental rights.”
The human rights campaign group called on Belgian Prime Minister Herman Van Rompuy to raise the case of jailed Tibetan filmmaker Dhrondup Wangchen.

Europalia organizers say the participation of several critical artists in the festival illustrates a more relaxed approach to culture by Chinese authorities.

“It’s a change, an opening,” said leading Belgian painter Luc Tuymans. “It’s a miracle this show happened.”

Tuymans pointed to the cooperation of Chinese authorities in organizing “The State of Things,” which brings together contemporary Belgian artists with some of the most controversial works from the Beijing and Shanghai art scenes.

Tuymans co-organized the show in an unlikely collaboration with a pillar of the Chinese cultural establishment, National Art Museum Director Fan Di’an and Ai Weiwei, a dissident superstar of the Chinese art world who has frequently clashed with the authorities.

Ai, who co-designed Beijing’s “Bird’s Nest” Olympic Stadium, went on to denounce the 2008 games as a public relations sham by the China's communist government.

Ai's blog has become a platform for social criticism and just two months ago he was arrested and, he said, beaten by police while campaigning for an investigation into shoddy building work he blames for the high death toll in last year’s Sichuan earthquake.

However, in Brussels Ai thanked the authorities for “great help” in organizing the exhibition, which contains images of cheerful self mutilation, bubbling black liquids and pastiches of the Socialist Realism style favored in the days of Chairman Mao Zedong.

“This is very important for China and for contemporary art in China,” Ai told reporters, expressing excitement that the show is scheduled to move to the National Museum of Art in Beijing next year.

Novelist Mo Yan, a perennial tip for the Nobel Prize for Literature, is described by his English translator as “the bane of China’s official establishment.” His 1996 historical epic, “Big Breasts and Wide Hips,” was initially banned in his homeland before becoming a much pirated best-seller. Yet he was invited to be part of the official delegation to the Frankfurt fair.

“I agree that it’s strange, but it is also a sign of progress,” Mo said in an interview before starting a Belgian speaking tour as part of Europalia.

“In the 1960s and the 1970s, if I’d written ‘Big Breasts and Wide Hips,’ I would end up in prison or sent into exile in Inner Mongolia. Since the 1980s, things have changed a lot, they criticize my work, but they don’t persecute the person who writes those books. That book may be banned, but I can continue writing.”