Shanghai

Performance with the participation of craftspeople from Shanghai’s Jade Temple, 2004 Shanghai Biennial.

The piñata is famously linked to the cultural identity of Latin America, but its origins are Chinese. Impressed by the colourfully decorated container, filled with treats and broken during special occasions, Marco Polo brought the concept to Europe. During the Spanish colonization, most Latin American countries enthusiastically adopted the piñata tradition, and it is widely practiced by all social classes up to this day.

My idea in Voyage to Shanghai –a project developed for the 2004 Shanghai Biennial– was to “return” the piñata to China, in order to pose questions about the hidden meanings of migration and the limits of representation and national identity.

I built this piñata with the traditional papier-mâché, in close collaboration with Shanghai craftspeople who owned a souvenir shop opposite the famous Jade Temple. For nearly a month, we worked together intensively in the design of the piñata and became friends, although we could communicate only by signs. These Chinese artisans felt pride in their creation, but when invited to the opening of the Biennial they refused to go, alleging that they could not feel at ease in museums since the art institutions of Shanghai were notoriously arrogant and elitist.

The biennial’s opening day was on the Moon Festival, one of the two festivities –along with the Spring Festival, according to historical records– when the piñata used to be broken in countryside celebrations in different parts of China. Ironically, the Chinese people who assisted to the event didn’t recognize the piñata as theirs.

A traditional Chinese banner, with the title of the performance in English and Mandarin, was created for the occasion and hung next to the piñata in the Shanghai Art Museum, headquarters of the Biennial. During the performance, at the rhythm of a drummer, blindfolded artists, curators, and spectators smashed the piñata, spilling all of its contents: candy, Chinese paper-cut designs, and one-dollar bills. This provoked an aggressive response from some people in the audience, who desperately tried to grab the money.