Across the Divide Project is a platform for Chinese artists and scholars serving in American universities to share creative practice/research/teaching through exhibitions, symposiums, and other related events/activities.
The Project engages the public with open discussions and exchanges of viewpoints, addressing cross-cultural identity, and diverse directions in artistic development/research, as well as varied pedagogies in contemporary studio art teaching.
With a rich Chinese heritage and art trainings from both the East and the West, Across the Divide Project participants bring unique value and perspective to the international fields of arts and art education.
An Introduction to the Chinese Artists in American Academia
The idea of creating the Forum Across the Divide originated in a conversation that I had with my friend Xu Bing during his visit to Eastern Illinois University in 1997. Since we each knew a number of Chinese artists who were teaching in American Universities, we became fascinated with the possibility of bringing them together into an exhibition. Three years after I began teaching at California State University Long Beach, I believed that the time was right to initiate the project. With support from my department, I gradually built a connection with 14 Chinese artists who were teaching in universities across the United States. After one-year of careful and extensive preparation, all these artists met on the campus of California State University Long Beach in the fall of 2003, and successfully held their first exhibition and symposium opening a public dialog on their cultural positions in American society.
Since then, the project Across the Divide has grown in the number of artists involved from 14 to 40 individuals throughout the United States. A study of this group reveals a large trend of a significant increase of Chinese artists teaching in American universities during the past two decades. In contrast, before the 1980s, there was virtually no presence of Chinese artists in academia in the US. There are three noticeable factors that can be attributed to this recent occurrence: the strength of American universities in recruiting the most professional and capable individuals for teaching, the efficacy of China’s educational system in studio training, and a recent wave of cultural integration triggered by globalization. Considering the past, these artists were fortunate to have taken part in this particular moment of history.
Art schools in China have played a critical role in preparing these artists reflecting an educational endeavor, which coincidently has paralleled the struggle of modern China. Contemporary studio teaching in China can be linked to the appearance of the oil painting medium, which came with the arrival of the 17th century European Jesuit missionaries. When Italian painter Giuseppe Castiglione (1688-1766) arrived in Beijing in 1715, he not only served the emperor Qianlong as a court painter through incorporating his western approach with the traditional Chinese painting media, but also fascinated his viewers by representing images of nature in chiaroscuro shading. During the past 100 years since the demise of Qing Dynasty and the Republican Revolution in 1911, Chinese scholars chose to learn from the West as a way to reform their own poverty-stricken homeland. As result of this struggle, the study of art in the west gradually became a new tradition for Chinese artists. Many of these individuals returned home with an incisive appreciation of the western aesthetic tradition and knowledge of artistic skills. Modern art schools were founded with an emphasis on perceptual understanding. This change provoked a criticism from traditional Chinese painters denouncing a curriculum focused on drawing as a foundation in studio training. Also, social conservatives chose to condemn the study of nude models as moral decadence. It is understandable then, that through these conflicts, the graduates from these schools became catalysts of the change in modern Chinese culture, paving the way for today’s Chinese art institutes.
By the mid 1960s, a political campaign called the Cultural Revolution (1966-76) hijacked the revolutionary effort of modernizing Chinese art schools by cutting off an already limited cultural tie with the West. At this point, all Chinese art schools suddenly ceased to function, and with them individual expression was silenced. Although President Nixon’s 1972 visit to China marked an ebb of political fanaticism, the ill-fated Revolution kept the country in the dark until after Mao’s death when China embraced an open door policy in 1978. Following China’s economic reform, art schools reopened and the study of art in the West resumed.
As direct beneficiaries of China’s recent reform, all artists involved in Across the Divide came to America after the 1980s for their graduate studies. Sharing a similar cultural experience, this group of artists consists of two distinct generations in relationship to the chronology of the Cultural Revolution. Artists of the first group, from the Late-Mao era, were immediate survivors of the darkest moment in China’s modern history. These artists generally uphold an artistic belief in a pictorial tradition emphasizing the merit of plastic language, demonstrated by a focus on drawing as a foundation in their search for personal expressions. Later generations of artists belonging to the Post-Mao era have enjoyed a more open access to a variety of artistic media and investigated different methods of rendering of images. Both groups of these artists found in their American graduate schools an academic environment that not only encouraged independent studio research, but also placed personal expression into cultural and social context for critiques. In this environment, they learned to interact with differing aesthetic currents and developed an individual focus on artistic themes. While developing mature work, these individuals have experimented with a wide range of media in styles from perceptual to conceptual, and have endeavored to reconcile a discrepancy between their observation of American society and psychological impulses arising from their native cultural instincts. By bringing their studio experiences into teaching, these artists have utilized their Chinese academic training in combination with pedagogical approaches that they acquired from American graduate schools, offering their students technical interpretations of artistic processes with unique cross-cultural viewpoints. Evidenced by positive results of their dedicated teaching, students left classes with confidence in handling plastic form and enhanced capabilities of expressing themselves in visual language.
The Forum Across the Divide is not only built on a basis of quality of individual studio practice, but also on a consensus that all participating artists contribute with diverse personal interpretations of their immediate cultural and social experiences. This Forum has become a platform for these artists to exchange ideas with the public and to voice their positions on cultural assimilation and aesthetic conflicts. It is the collaboration of these individuals that brings meaning to this project. Its importance goes beyond daily studio routines and a limited range of personal works. Should we take it for granted without grasping its palpability, we may fail to testify the essence of our struggle in this new era of globalization.
School of Art
California State University, Long Beach
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