Sunday, May 04, 2008

Art Schooling the Artists’ Republic of China

Art Schooling the Artists' Republic of China



ON a recent lazy afternoon Wang Haiyang, a student at China's top art
school, was quietly packing away some of his new oil paintings in the
campus's printmaking department. He is 23, and he just had his first
major art exhibition at a big Beijing gallery.

Many of his works sold for more than $3,000 each, he said. And he
hasn't even graduated.

"This is one of my new works," he said proudly, gesturing toward a
sexually provocative painting of a couple embracing. "I'll be having
another show in Singapore in March."

For better or for worse — depending on whom you talk to — Beijing's
state-run Central Academy of Fine Arts has been transformed into a
breeding ground for hot young artists and designers who are quickly
snapped up by dealers in Beijing and Shanghai.

The school is so selective that it turns away more than 90 percent of
its applicants each year. Many of its faculty members are
millionaires and its alumni include some of China's most successful
new artists, including Liu Wei, Fang Lijun and Zhang Huan. And with
the booming market for contemporary Chinese art, its students are
suddenly so popular that collectors frequently show up on campus in
search of the next art superstar. At the annual student exhibition
the students no longer label their works only with their name and a
title. They leave an e-mail address and cellphone number.

"I can say we have the best students and the best faculty in China,"
said Zhu Di, the school's admissions director. "And we give students
a bright future."

Yet as the academy reshapes its mission and campus, its flowering
relationship with the art market is stirring unease among those who
feel that students should be shielded from commercial pressures.

"The buyers are also going to the school to look for the next Zhang
Xiaogang," said Cheng Xindong, a dealer in Beijing, referring to an
art star, one of whose paintings sold for $3.3 million at a Sotheby's
sale in London in February. "And immediately they make contact with
them, even before they graduate from school, saying, 'I will buy
everything from you.' " (A similar phenomenon has been observed in
recent years at hot art schools in New York and Los Angeles.)

"This can be a dangerous thing," he said. "These young artists need
time to develop."

Yet many counter that the school's soaring fortunes also result from
the Chinese government's growing tolerance of experimental art, which
was once banned. While Beijing still censors art that it deems
politically offensive, including overtly critical portrayals of the
ruling Communist Party, economic and market reforms have changed the
way the government thinks about art and the way the Central Academy
trains young artists.

In the 1980s the school occupied a modest plot of land near Tiananmen
Square in central Beijing where the faculty rigidly taught Soviet-
style Realist art to about 200 students, many of whom were destined
to work for the state. Today the school has a new 33-acre campus and
more than 4,000 students. It offers majors in design and architecture
and abundant courses in digital and video art, and some of its
graduates are making millions.

In the old days, Mr. Zhu said, students had a passion for art. "They
viewed art as a way of life," he said, "and Central Academy was a
talent pool. Now, as society has changed, more and more students view
art as a job. Students are more practical."

The nation's other leading art schools are undergoing similar
makeovers. The China Academy of Art, which has trained some of the
country's most inventive artists, boasts a huge new campus in the
eastern city of Hangzhou. (It was formerly known as Hangzhou
Academy.) In western China the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, which has
a reputation for training great painters, received more than 64,000
applications this year for just 1,600 openings.

But no school has as much clout as Central Academy, the only arts
college directly supported by the central government in Beijing. And
recently, academy administrators say, the support has been extremely

The school's new gray-brick campus, 10 miles north of Tiananmen
Square, has hip cafes, attractive dining facilities, spacious
classrooms and art studios, and sophisticated equipment, including
high-powered computers and Autodesk video editing systems that cost
as much as $200,000 apiece. The campus also has an impressive new
160,000-square-foot museum and art gallery designed by the prominent
Japanese architect Arata Isozaki.

Faculty salaries average just $700 a month, but the pay means little
to most of these teachers, whose canvases might as well be painted in
gold. Liu Xiaodong, a Central Academy graduate who has been on the
faculty since 1994, often portrays China's disadvantaged, for example
people displaced in the Three Gorges Dam area, site of one of China's
biggest development projects. Yet Mr. Liu is among the country's
wealthiest artists; a huge Three Gorges painting sold at auction last
year for $2.7 million, a record for a contemporary Chinese artist at
the time.

Sui Jianguo, the school's dean and one of the country's most
acclaimed sculptors, has seen his works sell at auction for as much
as $150,000. And Zhan Wang, a professor and sculptor, is successful
enough to employ more than 40 workers in his studio on the outskirts
of Beijing.

The prestige of teaching at the nation's most elite arts school
remains a major draw for such artists, particularly at a time when
China's art scene is flourishing. This year the Central Academy
managed to lure back Xu Bing, 53, a past winner of the MacArthur
Foundation's so-called genius award, from New York, where he had
worked for the last 18 years.

"China is the most avant-garde and experimental site in the world,"
said Mr. Xu (pronounced shoe), now the school's vice president for
international relations. "Everything here is new. There's so much
happening, and I want to be a part of it."

Mr. Xu's work was controversial in the 1980s, when China had just
begun to open up to the West, and his return was a bit of a surprise
to the Beijing art world. His 1988 mixed-media installation "A Book
From the Sky," consisting of hand-printed books and ceiling and wall
scrolls, appeared to replicate ancient literary texts but in fact
contained fake, unintelligible characters. Viewed as a clever
critique of Chinese government propaganda, it created a sensation
when it went on view at the National Art Museum in Beijing. He was
also a popular teacher at the academy in 1989, when many students
were complaining about government restrictions that prevented them
from freely expressing themselves, in art or speech.

When pro-democracy demonstrations broke out in Tiananmen Square that
year, many students and younger faculty members from Central Academy
joined the protests, even making the plastic-foam-and-papier-mâché
sculptures of the "Goddess of Democracy," which became a symbol of
the student movement.

Mr. Xu said he doesn't worry about government interference with
artists or censorship. "The old concept about art and government
being at odds has changed," he said. "Now artists and the government
are basically the same. All the artists and the government are both
running with development."

Many of the changes in the Central Academy's mission grew out of the
efforts to develop a new campus, which also meant rethinking the
school's mission. Some faculty members were leery of the move from
the old campus, which began more than five years ago with a
relocation to a temporary site.

One professor, Sui Jianguo, made sculptures to protest the move, some
of which showed deformed human figures lying in the rubble of the old
campus as it was being demolished. But now he is happy with the
changes at the academy. "The whole education system had to be done in
a new way, which turned out to be better," he said, referring to the
openness to new ideas and new majors.

Some faculty members privately lament the decline of traditional
Chinese painting and disciplined training in centuries-old mediums.
And some complain that today's art students are not as inspired or
idealistic as those in the 1980s.

But other teachers said that their students, largely born in the
'80s, simply reflect the changes sweeping China, which have brought
more wealth to the country and given it more of a global
consciousness. While the enormous growth of the Central Academy has
opened the way for students without a grounding in traditional
mediums, they say, many are highly skilled nonetheless.

"I think the students are more a mix of the best and the mediocre,"
said Yu Hong, a painter who has taught at the school since the early
1990s. "But there are some students better at drawing than when I was
a student."

"Their vision is broader," she said of the students over all.
"They've experienced much more."

Most of the faculty agrees on one major shift: The students seem less
interested in politics and more concerned about their personal
struggles and issues of identity, not unlike artists in the United
States and Europe.

For example Wang Haiyang, who will graduate this year, paints
canvases depicting someone who looks very much like himself: short,
with large, expressive eyes and what might be described as a troubled
soul. He depicts his character with a physical double, in sexual
poses, in violent acts and in women's clothing. "They tell my own
story, my mentality," he said of his works. "The whole process of art
is like a process to cure myself."

Raw expression is on ample display at the academy. Students, once
required to paint the same figurative portrait again and again, are
now encouraged to look deep within themselves and to be creative.
Given that the school is no longer purely about painting and
sculpture, they can find outlets in areas like photography or new-
media art. Majors can eventually lead to career choices like
designing video-game characters for big corporations.

Chi Peng, who graduated in 2005 with a new-media degree, is viewed as
a success story. He broke into the international art market a few
years ago, at 25, with a series of photographs in which his naked
image sprinted through the streets of Beijing with blurry red planes
in hot pursuit.

Today he sells his computer-enhanced photographs for as much as
$10,000 apiece. A decade ago Central Academy graduates who were lucky
enough to sell a painting shortly after graduation would have been
delighted to earn $100.

Mr. Chi calls himself an "80s boy," part of a new generation that
grew up in a freer, more consumer-oriented society. "It's hard to
define the 80s generation," he said. "Our generation is a little
tender but not spoiled."

As for the pressures of the fast-moving art marketplace, which
encourages artists to brand themselves for big collectors, he
acknowledges some ambivalence.

Reflecting on his career ascent, he said: "It's fast, really fast. I
never could have imagined this, and I'm not sure it's a good thing
for me."

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