Sunday, May 04, 2008

Xu Bing, the new vice president of China’s top art school, reveals his plans for the institution’s future

"Chinese artists today have an easier path to success"

Xu Bing, the new vice president of China's top art school, reveals his plans for the institution's future

By Jason Edward Kaufman | From Features | Posted: 13.3.08

Xu Bing, the Chinese artist who has achieved an international reputation since moving to the US in 1990, is the new vice president of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing, the oldest and most prestigious art school in China. His selection for the influential post at the only national educational institution operated directly by the Ministry of Education is an indication of the Chinese government's desire to train native artists in the ways of global culture.

Xu Bing, 53, will spend most of his time in Beijing where, according to an academy spokesman, his primary responsibilities will be to guide the school's international relations and artistic direction. Approved by the ministry to a four-year term, he succeeds Fan Di'an who left to direct the National Art Museum of China in Beijing.

Since the academy was founded in 1950, virtually all of its leaders, including Xu Bing, have been graduates. Alumni include current market darlings Zhang Huan, Fang Lijun, Zhang Peili, Liu Wei and Xia Xiaowan.

Xu Bing joins the Central Academy during a period of rapid transformation as programmes, faculty and enrolment grow to meet the demands of China's current art world boom.

The academy has recently added new divisions for Design (2002), Urban Design (2002) Architecture (2003), Literature and the Humanities (2003), and Experimental Art (2005). The school now offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees in everything from Chinese painting to digital media.

Annual allocations from the central government have risen from RMB20m ($2.8m) in 2000 to RMB150m ($21m) last year, and over that period admission has quadrupled while remaining highly competitive. In 2000 only 200 students were admitted from 8,000 applicants; last year 800 were accepted from 20,000 candidates, with annual tuition fees of RMB15,000 ($2,100m). The great majority of students are Chinese, but there have been visiting students, mainly from elsewhere in Asia with others from Africa, Europe and the Americas. The academy's museum, established in the early 1960s and housing 13,000 Chinese works from antiquity to the modern era (including student works), is constructing a new 14,800 sq. m building by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki to open in September.

At a time when Chinese contemporary art is associated mainly with soaring prices, the choice of an intellectual such as Xu Bing, a 1999 MacArthur Foundation "Genius" award winner who has resisted the temptations of the market, appears conservative, especially as his work is steeped in traditional Chinese painting, calligraphy and language. It is however, evidence of the value the ministry places in artistic aspirations beyond financial returns. We talked to him about his new position.

The Art Newspaper: What role do you envisage the Central Academy playing in China?

Xu Bing: The Central Academy has always been the guiding light in Chinese art. It is China's artistic frontline. Both internationally and domestically, the most influential groups of artists have, for the most part, been graduates of the Central Academy.

TAN: Will you teach classes?

XB: If I teach, I really want to teach art fundamentals, a class that is really important for artists. But not the old concept of fundamentals.

TAN: Will you have a public role as spokesperson for the academy?

XB: I am in no way taking on the role of spokesman for the Academy. I lecture all over the world, and when I do, I speak about my individual thoughts, understandings and attitudes towards art.

TAN: What new courses and programmes would you like to introduce?

XB: I hope to have more opportunities for direct communication with students, opportunities to help young artists better understand what art is about, how to have an exchange with society, and also lead them to a greater respect for art's relationship with society and culture.

TAN: The Academy has collaborated with the Glasgow School of Art to offer a joint degree programme for Chinese students and further discussions are underway with the New School in New York. Will you bring foreign students as well as lecturers to Beijing?

XB: I want to bring the greatest minds from around the world working in a variety of fields to inspire the students of the Academy. I want to try out direct collaboration with Western educational institutions in running certain programmes, which could lead to the development of art-educational approaches more in tune with the future international order.

TAN: With which foreign countries would you especially like to collaborate, and why?

XB: There are two components to future collaborations. One, establishing relationships with major Western institutions of higher learning that specialise in new disciplines, things like high technology, new media, modern design, etc. The other is working with non-Western institutions and artists to share and learn from our experiences that come from working in and with the West. Also, the Central Academy is the top educational institution of fine arts in China and among the finest in the world: artists and institutions from around the world are eager to establish relationships with China, so the Central Academy is naturally a first choice for them.

TAN: Where would you like to send Chinese artists?

XB: I would encourage students to consider exchanges with any institution that can provide suitable conditions and positive opportunities. Regardless of what country it may be, they will definitely gain valuable experience.

TAN: What distinguishes Chinese artists from non-Chinese artists?

XB: Most significantly, Chinese artists have at their disposal a more diverse range of cultural nourishment and references. They have experienced more trials and tribulations than artists in other regions; and more than artists of any other region, today's Chinese artists have an easier path to success. I don't mean success in the market sense, but in an artistic sense. China is at the beginning of a new period in which there is increased respect for intellectuals and professionals, a fact now frequently reflected in both Chinese and foreign media. This also signals a new period in contemporary art. Every Chinese person has felt Mao Zedong's influence on culture.

TAN: Are you a Maoist?

XB: I am not a Maoist. The term "Maoist" is a Western concept. A prerequisite for the rapid emergence of China as a creative environment is a cultural and artistic upsurge. Moreover, it is not simply a question of desiring this emergence; instead this emergence is conditioned on many factors. As I see it, China currently presents the world's most suitable environment for the growth of contemporary art: it possesses so many intricate cultural phenomena and factors, so many complex cultural elements and social forms; it is an entirely unprecedented, completely new situation.

Even though it may be seen as chaotic or immature, it is neither traditionally Western nor traditionally Eastern, nor does it belong to the previous socialist period, but it is a state that came into being because of all of these factors, which can only exist in our country in this specific period. It is a situation that cannot be categorised with any other in human history, Even specific methodologies are new, and they all possess Chinese characteristics.

And the antecedents for these Chinese characteristics are very complex, very fecund. You can hardly put your finger on what this modality is: Westerners don't know, we Chinese people don't know exactly where it is headed, what it will become. Nobody knows what it will produce. Anything of value is so because of its unknownness. If everyone were to know where the future is headed, then these things would be rendered predictable and inconsequential.

TAN: Can students at the government-run Central Academy make art that criticises the government? Is censorship an issue?

XB: The government has never been as glad

as it is today to work with contemporary

Chinese artists.

TAN: Which contemporary Chinese artists do you admire, and why?

XB: In terms of Chinese contemporary artists, I most admire Qi Baishi and Gu Yuan. These two artists made me realise that art is not a matter of craft—that the part of a work which can truly be called art is attributable only to the artist. It is singular and predestined.

TAN: Which Western artists do you admire?

XB: At one time the French painter Millet had a very deep influence on me and one must seriously regard the importance of the work of Warhol and Duchamp. Duchamp's attitude toward art and life is in step with Chinese Chan (Zen) Buddhist methods. His approach is very koan-like. Warhol really understood the idea that "Buddha is everywhere, right next to you." There is a Chan saying: "Only in the complete absence of reference to (or conception of) him, will Buddha appear." This is how Warhol approached art.

TAN: Do you believe 20th-century Western art owes an overlooked debt to Chinese culture?

XB: I am not saying that 20th-century culture owes a debt to Chinese culture. Instead, as an artist with some understanding of Western and Eastern cultures, I am likely more sensitive to the existence of many similarities between the methods of the great 20th-century Western artists and Eastern philosophy.

TAN: Will you have time to do your own work?

XB: Of course I will. It would be a great disappointment to the academy if I were to stop making art. What the Central Academy needs from me is not an administrator. Instead they need my art and how I think about art.

Translation by Jesse Coffino Greenberg

The artist's work will go on view at London's Albion Gallery from 8 May to 27 June.

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