The Szechwan Tale: A conversation with Anren Biennale curator Marco Scotini

The first edition of the Anren Biennale, featuring more than 120 participating artists from over 20 countries, is scheduled to take place from October 28 to February 28, 2018 in the historical town of Anren near Chengdu, China. We met with Marco Scotini – curator of this Anren Biennale, titled “The Szechwan Tale: Theatre and History” – for an interesting conversation about art, cinema, and theater.

Vincenzo Estremo: As it often happens in your curatorial practice, you devote a great deal of attention to the notion of observation. Even in this case, besides the conceptual attention on the political theme of sovereignty and the current imperialistic economical model, your gaze has a kind of topographical positioning. What I mean to ask is, how does your curatorial research, fueled by a strong and solid knowledge of post-structuralism, come into contact with the new political geography of our contemporary world?

Marco Scotini: One of the great merits of post-structuralism was to show the limits of thought, that was supposed to be free from any relationship with power, and therefore objective, scientific, universalistic. Indeed, it is no coincidence that Foucault starts his whole theory from the well-known encounter between our classification methods and those of Jorge Luis Borges’ «Chinese Encyclopedia,» and then challenges the idea of the medical viewpoint as a universal device to legitimize regulatory practices that are thus considered to be “true.” The moment that contemporary art proclaimed itself as universalistic (thus appropriating the so-called tribal African art) coincided with the highest point for Western imperialism. So, if we want to end it with all this mythology, we should declare our localism. The topographic point of observation, as I think it, states that we are located somewhere, therefore, it relativizes our gaze, letting the basis of our regime of visibility emerge. Before claiming any kind of sense of possession on the observed object, we should disclose the point from where we observe. The Straubs (Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet) have taught this to us. For this reason, in the exhibition about the Middle East I curated, titled Too Early Too Late, I started from  Napoleon’s Description de l’Égypte; similarly, my project for the show about African Art called White Hunter started with a journey including testimonies from Italian colonialism in Africa and Mussolini’s imperialistic claims. Here at the Anren Biennale, everything starts from Bertolt Brecht.


Szechwan, szechuan, Qiu Zhijie, Greeting (detail), 2013.

Qiu Zhijie, Greeting (detail), 2013.


VE: The contemporary debate about post-factuality and post-truth seems to contain a promise, that of the return to normative forms of discourse in order to curb the spreading of so-called fake news, or what in the United States is called Fringe History, or Pseudoscience. Don’t you believe that the narrative openness of history – which we find in many works by Yervant Gianikian and Angela Ricci Lucchi, Peter Friedl, Clemens von Wedemeyer, and Maya Schweizer – has helped shifting the «ideal» position that is the point from which we view contemporary society?

MS: History, as presented by these authors (I would also include the Chinese artist Mao Tongqiang), is plastic, convertible, something that is never finished. You don’t fight fake news with a presumed or demagogic truth (that who’s in power feeds us). Instead, I am interested in how the tools of image production are just as important here as the image itself. The narratives multiply, recombine. The (hi)stories they tell have something to do with something that has escaped the image and is still out there: what lies at the edges of a frame, the involuntary traces, what is repressed or removed, etc. It is rather the calling into question of history that is becoming repetitive. In the place of History, the “Politics of Memory” are emerging – temporal fragments and alternative perceptions of time. Let’s say that facts and events are staged as in Brecht’s theater, that never ceases to interrogate us.


Szechwan, szechuan, Peter Friedl, The Dramatist (Anne, Koba, Blind Boy)

Peter Friedl, The Dramatist (Anne, Koba, Blind Boy)

Szechwan, szechuan, William Kentridge, Marco Scotini, Anren Biennale,

William Kentridge, Notes Towards a Model Opera, 2015


VE: Another recurring theme of your curatorial macro-narrative is the problem of modernity. I personally think that your research has contributed and is contributing – in the context of recent art history – to the contemporary cultural debate around modernity, by providing a number of historiographical suggestions. In this edition of the Anren Biennale, The Szechwan Tale: Theater and History, how can the figure of Bertolt Brecht become a tool of trans-historical and trans-spatial dialogue between past and present, West and East?

MS: Brecht has been the starting point because the Biennale is in Sichuan, and in 1940 he wrote The Good Person of Szechwan. Likewise, another important element to think about was the sculpture group The Rent Collection Courtyard at Anren, which has been a real manifestation of the Cultural Revolution. Let’s say that there are two modernities in comparison. Brecht – who had never been in China – places many of his works there, and after seeing the great Mei Lanfang in Moscow in 1935, he starts writing a text about the estrangement effect. The sculptors of the Sichuan Academy conceive their pieces by taking Western realism as a model. In his theater, Brecht refused the psychological component of which the Chinese artists were in seek. Brecht’s work began entering into China only after Mao’s death, and I discovered that here in Anren an important Chinese writer who worked together with Zhang Yimou, Wei Minglun, rewrote The Good Woman, the Bad Woman in 1998 through a process of indigenization and popularization of the original. I discovered the book by chance in a tea house in Anren and through it, I met translators, exegetes, theater historians and Brecht interpreters in China. Actually, there would be another long story to tell, but let me just say that I was also interested in the fact that Brecht wrote his theatrical play in exile at the worst moment of National Socialism. So there is also a metaphorical level.


Szechwan, szechuan, Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades, The Path to Cairo, 2012

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades, The Path to Cairo, 2012

Szechwan, szechuan, Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades, The Path to Cairo, 2012

Wael Shawky, Cabaret Crusades, The Path to Cairo, 2012


VE: I found it extremely interesting that you chose Antigone (1992) by Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet. In my opinion, the film is a compendium of man’s law and duties, unwritten moral laws, categorical imperatives, and on what has to be done at all costs in order to define what a man can and cannot be. But it is also a wonderful example of how it’s possible to act dialectically. I wonder if through this Antigone you personally call for an intellectual action, a political stance in the face of an international scenario where everything seems to be predetermined, predictable and immutable, if not by the “tools” of financial practice.

MS: Let’s say that if Brecht characterized Creon as the Führer, Straub-Huillet have the German imperialist reunification under their eyes. After presenting the Disobedience Archive for years, nowadays protest spaces are increasingly being taken away by the financial strongholds. In China, where capitalism is not less developed, censorship is very strong and these days – while the nineteenth congress of the Communist Party is taking place – Google and Gmail search engines are also blocked. I deemed that the best way to say what we think are masks, costumes, and scenes. Naturally, as Brecht said, one can still represent the world, provided it is presented as something that can be transformed. We can’t then but return to Antigone, and to his opposition to the constituted power.

1st Anren Biennale: The Szechwan Tale: Theatre and History
curated by Marco Scotini
Anren, Chengdu
Sichuan Province, China
28 October 2017 – 28 February 2018

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by Vincenzo Estremo
in Letters from China

Wed Development by Digital Art Factory