“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
Xu Bing, the Chinese artist who has achieved an international reputation since moving to the United States in 1990 (New York in 1993 and Brooklyn in 1998), 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, has lived in New York since 1993 but will now spend a large part of his time in Beijing where according to the academy his primary responsibilities are developing the school¹s international relations and artistic direction. Approved by the ministry to a four-year term, he succeeds Fan Di¹an who left to become director of the National Art Museum of China, Beijing.
He reports to an executive committee that oversees academy president Pan Gonqkai, an artist who formerly led the country¹s other main art school, Hangzhou Chinese Academy of Fine Arts, and former president and current academic director Jin Shangyi.
Since the academy was founded in 1950, virtually all of its leaders, including Xu Bing, have been graduates. Alumni include market darlings Zhang Huang, 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 the artworld 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 RMB15,000 ($2,100). 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 square metre building by Japanese architect Arata Isozaki scheduled 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 with Xu Bing about his new position.
The Art Newspaper: What role do you envision the Central Academy playing in the life of the country?
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: My teaching duties have yet to be arranged. If I teach, I really want to teach art fundamentals, a class that is really important for artists. But when I talk about teaching fundamentals, it is 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, what one does as an artist in this world, how to have a relationship of 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 I understand discussions are underway with the New School in New York to develop collaborative programmes. What are your ideas about foreign exchange? 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 the students of the Academy, and allow these students to take direct inspiration from their presence. 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: As I see it there are two components to future collaborative projects. One, establishing relationships with major Western institutions of higher-learning that specialize in new disciplines, things like high technology, new media, modern design, etc. The other component, is working with non-Western institutions and artists to share and learn from our experiences that come from working in and with the West. In addition to the fact that the Central Academy is the top educational institution of fine arts in China and among the finest in the world, it is also the case that artists and institutions from across the globe are eager to establish relationships with China, and so the Central Academy is naturally a top choice for them.
TAN: Where would you like to send Chinese artists?
XB: I personally 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 nourishments and referents. They have experienced more trials and tribulations than artists of other regions, and FOR THAT REASON more than artists of any other region in the world today’s Chinese artists have an easier path to success.
TAN: Are you a Maoist? Are you going to support Maoist teachings in the academy?
XB: I am not a Maoist. The “Maoist” is a Western concept. Every Chinese person has felt Mao Zedong’s influence on culture. 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 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 categorized 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 unknown-ness. 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: And 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 approaches art.
TAN: Do you believe twentieth-century Western art owes an overlooked debt to Chinese culture?
XB: I am not saying that twentieth-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 twentieth-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
In search of a common language
Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky (1987-91), an installation of block-printed from 4,000 Chinese-style nonsense characters in moveable type that he invented and carved by hand, was recently on display at the Ullens Center in Beijing. “Book from the Sky was an expression of my doubts regarding extant written languages,” says the artist, explaining that in elementary school he learned the basic Chinese script, then had to switch to the simplified script that Mao Zedong introduced to promote literacy before the country eventually reverted. His exploration of language continued with “Classroom Calligraphy” installations of the late 1990s in which museum visitors tried their hand at what appeared to be Chinese calligraphy, only to discover they were transcribing English texts in a Chinese-style script invented by Xu Bing. His latest project – exhibited at The Museum of Modern Art last year – is a pictographic novel written in a language of found graphic icons that he has collected for several years. A computer programme enables users to type English sentences and have them translated to the icon language. He describes Book from the Ground as “the expression of my quest for the ideal of a single script,” and a response to “the continued standardisation of transnational products and consumer lifestyles…and the daily-accelerating homogenisation of a global mode of living.”
Jason Edward Kaufman//
This article appeared in The Art Newspaper, March 2008 (vol. 17.189), p. 51.