An Unseen Artist
What does it mean to be unseen? What does it mean to display the unseen? What does it mean to experience the unseen? How can the unseen be directed and edited? How does the unseen happen? Those were among the questions that occurred to me when I received the invitation to attend the 4th Guangzhou Triennial, opening 28 September 2012 in China.
Its theme is ‘The Unseen’
The text written by the curators, Jonathan Watkins and Jiehong Jiang, is inspiring: ‘The Unseen is apprehended as a visual journey through both space and time. Concerning the former, it might refer to distance – something perhaps light years away or, simply, hidden behind a wall – or that which is veiled, wrapped, or confined. It can signify slippage between different political and cultural realms, so that what is easily seen in our milieu is unseen in others, and vice versa. In order to pursue the Unseen, we are obliged to communicate through cultural diversity.’
After some months, alerts started to arrive from the curators – there were problems with my visa. Slowly it became more and more clear that I could not attend and my work couldn’t be included in the show without me. All of a sudden, I learned that a work of art, too, needs a visa. The decision for this was unseen. So were the reasons.
I was left to speculate. Did this have to do with my Norwegian citizenship? Did this have to do with the fact that the Nobel Peace Prize committee, which happens to be Norwegian, had given the 2010 Peace Prize to the writer and poet Liu Xiaobo, the Chinese literary critic, professor and human rights activist who has called for political reforms and an end to single party rule in China – and who is in a Chinese prison for his beliefs.
That seemed improbable. I am a London-based artist. My Norwegian citizenship is, of course, a fact of my life. I reflect upon the significance of that neither in my daily life nor in my art practice.
According to Alfred Nobel’s donation, the committee is obliged to act independently from Norway. They can’t take into consideration Norwegian interests and foreign policy issues when deciding which candidate fulfils the criteria for the Nobel Prize.
Two years ago I opened my solo show ‘looking for balance’ at Platform China. Meeting Chinese audiences in Beijing through lectures and interviews was meaningful, inspiring and stimulating. Now it was hard to imagine that a single artwork, vertical on my own, was barred from being installed in the space ready to receive it in the Guangzhou Triennial. The curators informed me that they hadn’t been given a particular reason for my visa being denied. The message, however, was clear. My citizenship was the problem. Period. The other Norwegian artist Kristoffer Myskja was in the same situation. This seemed unbelievable. I wrote an open letter to the newly appointed Chinese ambassador, Zhao Jun, in Norway. My purpose was to give him a possibility to either sort out the matter or to explain the situation to me.
Open letter to Ambassador Zhao Jun.
Chinese Embassy in Norway
Tuengen Allé 2B, 0244 Oslo, Norway
London 30th of August 2012
Your Excellency, dear Ambassador Zhao Jun
Humanity has a lot to thank your country China for. China’s contributions in different fields are of inestimably high value. Especially when it comes to art. Art is a transnational phenomenon, and thus an important civilizing force. It is important for the international contemporary art scene that China has the Guangzhou Triennial. This year’s theme is beautiful – The Unseen. The 4th Triennial states on its website that ‘The Unseen is apprehended as a visual journey through both space and time. Concerning the former, it might refer to distance – something perhaps light years away or, simply, hidden behind a wall – or that which is veiled, wrapped, or confined. It can signify slippage between different political and cultural realms, so that what is easily seen in our milieu is unseen in others, and vice versa. In order to pursue the Unseen, we are obliged to communicate through cultural diversity…’
I am writing to you because of the very sad message I have just received. Six months ago I was invited to participate in the 4th Guangzhou Triennial. Now I have learned that the work, vertical on my own cannot be exhibited. Apparently the reason is that I have Norwegian citizenship. I am not alone in this. My Norwegian colleague Kristoffer Myskja is in a similar situation.
Almost two years ago I opened my solo exhibition looking for balance at Platform China. The meetings I experienced with Chinese audiences in Bejing through lectures and interviews were meaningful, inspiring and stimulating. Now it is hard to imagine that a single artwork vertical on my own is stopped from being installed in the room ready to receive it in Guangzhou.
There is no face behind the rejection. My piece is not stopped by any individual. There is no specific formal rule referred to. All I see is a grey cloud of vagueness.
Dear ambassador Zhao Jun. Certainly your job is not easy. The moment is difficult. There seems to be a gap between my country Norway and your country China. Now, we both need to build bridges. I want to contribute. My hope is that you too will do your utmost to solve this.
With regards A K Dolven – Unseen Artist in the 4th Guangzhou Triennial – starting 28th September 2012.
I received a polite reply. I was invited to come in person and discuss the matter.
Dear Ms. Anne Katrine Dolven,
My name is Zhao. I’m in charge of culture affairs in the Chinese embassy. Our ambassador Mr. Zhao jun have received your letter and asked me to contact with you. You said in your letter that your works is stopped displaying at the 4th Guangzhou Triennial, and it seems that you are not so clear and satisfied with the reason. I hope I can help you in some way. So what’s the reason they gave to you, and have you talked directly with them about it?
It seems that you are not living in Oslo. But if you have a chance to come to Oslo next week, you are welcome to the embassy to have a talk. If you are not convenient to the embassy, we can just communicate by mail or phone.
Culture Office, Embassy of the P.R. China
Tuengen Alle 2B, 0244, Oslo, Norway
I am very grateful for your email, and I am happy to accept your invitation
to come and have a talk about these issues. I can not answer more specifically to your question here below as I have not been in direct contact with any officials, but been informed by the two
curators for the Triennial, Chinese curator Jiehong Jiang and British curator Jonathan Watkins
that it is troublesome to bring my piece forward for the 4th Guangzhou Triennial. Please contact Jiehong Jiang who has approached the officials in Guangzhou.
I appreciate your invitation to talk about this with you, but perhaps it might bring further clarity to the matter if you first consult the curators. Therefore I cc them in this email.
I look very much forward to meet with you. I live in London but can take a flight to Oslo for our meeting. As it is a very short time to the Triennial(opening 28th of September), I can meet with you on short notice. Please let me know what is convenient for you?
Best regards from
Shortly after, a less polite email arrived, unsigned, in which there was no mention of the invitation to come and talk. Again the unseen appeared. The correspondence from the Chinese Embassy contained no reference to any rule. Nor was there was any justification or reference to any procedure. This was correspondence without a face.
Dear Ms. A K Dolven,
I tried through my channel, but it seems that the embassy can not make any change to this result.
Your British curator J Watkins said it was because we do not issue you visa, but you know it was not true because you have not applied visa from us til now. I think the Chinese side has the right to make any decision on this kind of issue during the exhibition, and I don’t think your media friends both from Britain and Norway can help you to solve this problem either.
Ai Weiwei addresses an important point in his recent article in the Guardian. In order to be a part of the art scene, some criteria has to be fulfilled. If China uses art as one of the cards in the deck of its foreign policy – in my case to retaliate against Norway for the Peace Prize – then it’s difficult not to read art being made in China in that light.
Involuntarily, I have ended up as the personification of the theme of the 4th Guangzhou Triennial. I am an unseen artist. I am displaying an unseen piece. Someone unseen has directed this to happen. China appears as the unseen art scene. The unseen seems to have happened.
AK Dolven, London, September 2012