Curatorship and Li-Jen Shih's Rhinos
by European Culture Centre

[the rhino] attracts from everywhere. Walking through Venice, I have heard hundreds of people conversation discussing a 'peculiar work' they passed while on a vaporetto. Whit not doubt, this huge sculpture of an endangered animal will be stored in visitors' minds for a long time after visiting the gardens - Arina Farthuk (Cultural Mediator at the ECC)

Located in the middle of a large room in palazzo Bembo, one of Li-Jen Shih's impressive rhino sculptures is made of reflective material; this allows the viewer to recognize himself/herself as guilty and to understand that he/she, mankind, has caused the destruction of Mother Nature. Therefore, the rhino provides the visitor a mirror to hold himself accountable and reconsider his or her life choices which affect nature. The choices are not restricted to killing rhinos but to any decisions that impact on the environment negatively.

The word 'curator' stems from the ancient Latin 'cūrāre', and is translated into: 'one who looks after, superintendent, guardian'. The short but tumultuous history of curatorship sheds light on a matter in particular: its nature is continually and consistently changing. Imperative to keep in mind regarding (art) curating, is that the actual practice not only depends on its current 'real-time' setting, or existence, considering space and time, but also on political, economic, intellectual, and social context.1 This means that although, for an art curator, the important matters have, of course, always revolved around aesthetic principles, the foundations and outcome of curatorial practice are ever-changing. With the interest in art and the increasing museum space, the Venice Biennale and its satellite and collateral events welcome approximately half-a-million visitors this year. If we understand the increasing number of visiting individuals as what it represents – global influence – it's wellunderstandable that the appearance and completion of the Biennale and the surrounding events have known many different faces over the 122 years that the event exists.

Li-Jen Shih's rhinos are part of the exhibition Personal Structures: Open Borders, organized by the Global Art Affairs Foundation and the European Cultural Centre, its simultaneous occurrence is worth looking into as it sheds a light on not only today's curatorial practice, but also on the wider significance and reach of Li-Jen Shih's artwork. Curatorship and artistry try to conquer the new subjects of the world and its inhabitants. During the last decades of the previous century, the idea behind curatorial communication underwent an important evolution. Curators no longer limited their manner of communication to effectively getting the message across to their audience, but the concept of 'dialogue' became more and more important, a trend which continues into this very day.2 For the contemporary Venice Biennale, opening a platform and/or creating a space 'whose method – and almost raison-de- être – is dedicated to an open dialogue between artists, and the between the artist and the public', is essential.3 The specific, and connecting, theme this year is 'Viva Arte Viva'. A theme chosen by curator Christine Macel, which celebrates, or even almost gives thanks to 'the very existence' of artists and their art.4 The reason for this thankfulness is, according to Macel, the fact that art 'expand[s] our perspective and the space of our existence'.

Macel describes contemporary art and artistic effect to be an act of resistance, combined with liberation and generosity.6 Artistry throughout (art) history has however often professed an inclination towards rebellion and resistance, of liberation and confrontation. One of the most beloved themes in art and art history had always been nature and the effect of humankind upon our earth. Man's achievements have often been celebrated on canvas, panels,
and in the curves and edges of sculpture and installations. However, mankind's deathly tendency to dominate its surroundings has proved to be a very popular theme, too. In this Biennale 'inspired by humanism'7 in its contemporary definition of love, collectivity, conservation and sustainability, Shih's chosen subject is a strong example of the confrontational and philanthropic intentions artists chose to express. Macel:

art bears witness to the most precious part of what makes us human. Art is the ultimate ground for reflection, individual expression, freedom, and for fundamental questions. (…) The role, the voice, and the responsibility of the artist are more crucial than ever before within the framework of contemporary debates'.8

With many artworks this year focusing on migration, Shih focuses our intention on the natural world, the animal, and on a possibility for extinction that is possibly even more frightening in what it says about our 'humanism'. When we speak about the meaning of the word 'curator', we can see how, in a certain sense, this is also what Mr. Shih intends to do for the rhino as a species – and what his rhinos seem to do in palazzo Bembo, but most prominently in the Giardini della Marinaressa.

Artists are those who intuit not only today’s, but also tomorrow’s world.9 Taking Shih’s ideologies into consideration, we can understand how important the manner of curating is, so that the meaning and possible extend and physical and psychological reach of the artwork is not limited, but emphasized and strengthened by external factors. To the curators of the Global Art Affairs Foundations, in collaboration with the European Cultural Centre, creating a platform from which ideologies and initiatives such as Shih’s can manifest themselves, is essential. They strive to create a space in which reflection, disciplinary encounters and experimentation come together to ‘stimulate international mobility through arts, culture, science and research’.10

One of the main contributions to the success of the rhinos is the way in which they interact with their surroundings. In the Giardini Marinaressa, the enormous rhino reflects the golden Venetian sun, making sure the sculpture will not go unnoticed by anyone approaching Venice from the lagoon:

I can recall a group of tourists who were fascinated by Rhino and persistent to take a great picture with it. So, for a very long time, they were jumping up and down in front of the garden so they could have a picture with them in the air and the Rhino in the back. Their efforts were hilarious to both us and them - Lana Čop (Cultural Mediator at the ECC)


Nonetheless, despite its physical beauty and impressive appearance, its reflection of the sun and the surroundings subtly emphasize the inevitable passing of time: of constant movement without change. In Palazzo Bembo, the (functional) rhinos occupy two spaces, creating their own, immersive environment while hinting at pop-culture, but never quite shaking their historical weight, significance, and trauma.

With their underlying message, the rhinos perfectly fit – in Shih’s personal way – the exhibition’s underlying values of ‘Time’, ‘Space’, and ‘Existence’. These three concepts could arguably be the pillar-stones of what artists hold dear in today’s world focused on sustainability, immigration and the consequences of our habitation of this planet. The GAAF and the ECC aim to create ‘a more conscious thinking’, so that we can (re)gain a more critical perspective on our lives and those of others.11  It’s placement in Venice, then, in a garden overlooking the historical lagoon, and in a palazzo dating back to one of the first Venetian families, overlooking the monumental Rialto bridge, is more than fitting for these magnificent, ancient beasts. While having been so incredibly powerful centuries ago, both the rhinos and Venice are in danger of becoming history in its purest sense of the word: no longer present. In a world (space), focused on the future and righting the wrongs of the past (time), both entities, especially combined, remind us that some forms of existence are fragile despite their appearance and endurance. Li-Jen Shih’s rhinos are a perfect example of the complexities, but also of the beauty and possible power of contemporary curatorship.

1  Helen Wilkinson, ‘Learning from the history of curatorship’,­‐from-­‐the-­‐history-­‐of-­‐curatorship/
2  Helen Wilkinson, ‘Learning from the history of curatorship’,­‐from-­‐the-­‐history-­‐of-­‐curatorship/
10 ‘Introduction’, ex. cat. Personal Structures: Open Borders.
11  ‘Introduction’, ex. cat. Personal Structures: Open Borders.