Dr. Melissa Chiu gave a lecture titled “Art + Politics in Chinese Contemporary Art” as a part of the Daniel H. Silberberg Lecture Series on November 27th, traveling the few blocks between the IFA and her role as Museum Director and Senior Vice President of Global Arts and Cultural Programs at Asia Society. Chiu has published many books and articles within the field of Chinese contemporary art as well as the broader topic of Asian Contemporary Art. Her full lecture can be accessed via the IFA’s Vimeo page.
[vimeo http://www.vimeo.com/54538281 w=500&h=281]
This year the Silberberg Lecture Series is focusing on “Violence as a matter of disciplinary concern.” Violence is a recurring theme within the history of art and its various manifestations help set the tone for the understanding of a period or a particular artist precisely because it is a thread of humanity that can be represented with such variety. Chiu’s lecture thus was an inquiry into the theme of violence in contemporary Chinese art.
Okwui Enwezor gave his first talk of the Kirk Varnedoe Lecture Series on Tuesday, February 21, called “Setting the Stage: From Postcolonial Utopia to Postcolonial Realism.” His series is titled “Episodes in Contemporary African Art,” which foreshadows a methodology centered not on grand narratives but on case studies that can enliven our understanding of an emerging field behind which Enwezor himself has been the driving force.
Today, we are all well aware that contemporary art has become a “global” phenomenon; from Chelsea to Venice we confront cutting-edge works by non-Western artists. William Kentridge, El Anatsui, Yinka Shonibare MBE, and Ghada Amer have all held significant retrospectives in recent years, in addition to countless others featured in group exhibitions. However, the “globalization” of contemporary art didn’t happen overnight, and as art historians we still lack a comprehensive understanding of the transition from “traditional” to “contemporary” in many parts of the world, especially Africa. Hence, Enwezor’s inaugural lecture, aptly titled “Setting the Stage,” offered a timeline against which the emergence of contemporary African art can be set.
Enwezor premised his talk around an inversion of the dictum that begins E.H. Gombrich’s The Story of Art—“There is no art as such, there are only artists”—proposing that when it comes to Western reception of African art, the reverse is often assumed; namely, that there are no African artists as such, only African art. African art has often been associated with ritual and collective production, in opposition to Western art history’s preoccupation with artistic genius, the “Master,” and individual oeuvres.
Estrellita B. Brodsky is experiencing what for many art historians is a dream come true: less than three years after receiving her PhD from the Institute of Fine Arts, she has succeeded in curating an exhibition based on her dissertation research on Latin American artists working in post-war Paris. Now on view at the Grey Art Gallery on NYU’s downtown campus through March 31, 2012, her exhibition, Soto: Paris and Beyond 1950-1970, focuses on the early Paris years of the Venezuelan maestro, Jesús Rafael Soto, a key member of the post-war international avant-garde who is today best recognized for his optically-challenging, immersive, and kinetic art. Just a week after the show’s opening, Brodsky kindly agreed to meet with me at the Grey to discuss her research, curatorial experience, and of course, Soto.
Our conversation began in the center of the Grey’s main gallery, surrounded by examples of each of the various phases explored by Soto between 1950, the year of his initial departure to Paris, and 1970, a culminating moment in his career following his first Paris retrospective at the Musée d’art moderne de la Ville de Paris and the realization of his famous Penetrables. With a Cézannesque-Cubist rendering of a Venezuelan landscape behind us and an optically challenging Plexiglas piece to our right, I asked Brodsky to start at the beginning: why did she choose to study the work of Latin American artists in post-war Paris?
Explaining that her interest in Venezuelan art is rooted in her personal history (her father arrived in the country in the 1920s, and Brodsky was a first-hand witness to the country’s booming arts scene in the 1960s), she also admitted to a certain selfishness in picking her topic.
Robert Brennan: That might segue into another issue we wanted to discuss: the relationship between curating and teaching. We were curious about the role of teaching recent art in China and in Chinese universities, and to what extent they’ve gotten involved in making that part of the curriculum, part of university life, and whether universities have relationships with museums like they do in the States.
Wu Hung: I probably don’t know the whole picture because everything moves so fast in China. In my day there was no art history. My department was the only art history department in the entire country, and my class had ten people – that’s it. Art history in China was then basically in museums with connoisseurship. Only from my generation did people begin to study art history. Many people still don’t know what it is today. But now most universities have a particular department – they don’t call it art history, they call it the “discipline of art” or “art studies” or something like that. It includes art history and aesthetics, studio art and design. Both practice and curatorial, conservation. Somewhat like here, plus painting, printmaking, filmmaking. At some universities [in the United States] there’s a combination of studio art [and art history], but [in China] it’s more: anything having to do with visual art. [In the Chinese] model, art history is just one of several things. It’s not as prominent as it is here. Here art history is a pretty powerful humanistic discipline and very influential, in a way. But there it’s really just one of many possibilities. There are some schools that try to push art history. Some people have started here and now return to China and try to create that model.
So that’s one kind [of model] within the general, large universities – these comprehensive kinds of university settings. Then [there are] the art academies: you know, like Zhejiang, now called the China National Academy of Art, Art Academy, or the Beijing Central Academy. These kinds of academies also have [something] like a school of the humanities within the art academies. The art academies, in the past ten years, have grown into humungous institutions. In my day the Central Academy of Fine Arts—I graduated there—only had 150 students, 200 teachers and staff members. So it was tiny… But right now the same school every year takes in about 1500 or 1800 students of different kinds: painting, drawing, new media, including conservation, museum studies, and art history. All of these schools are just becoming bigger and bigger in China. Quite chaotic, I have to say. But there’s also a lot of energy. There are a lot of young people who want to study the arts, art history, or something. So again it’s quite different from here. They still need a lot of teachers. You can imagine, when you have a lot of students, you need good teachers from good schools. So different universities try to attract the teachers, people studying abroad.
RB: And are there people writing on art since the late ‘70s in an academic way, as an established practice? Or do you think that’s more in journals and criticism?
The Institute of Fine Arts was extremely fortunate to have Professor Wu Hung of the University of Chicago as a Kirk Varnedoe Visiting Professor during the Spring 2011 semester. The following interview was conducted by a group of students who participated in his seminar on contemporary Chinese art: Robert Brennan, Marci Kwon, Dianne Nelson, Holly Shen, Carrie Wladis, and Alison Young. Laura Dickey and Kevie Yang also took the seminar and provided support for the event, though they were unable to attend. The interview was transcribed by Robert Brennan; an edited version follows. This is the first of two posts.
Robert Brennan: The first thing we wanted to ask is what it’s like to work with museums in China, and if there are differences between working with museums there and working with museums here. In general is there anything that comes to mind in that regard?
Wu Hung: Chinese museums… I was part of [that field] a long time ago, before I came to this country. That was in the ‘70s, so it was a very different situation. Now I think it’s changed tremendously, but that time was very interesting. It was during the Cultural Revolution. We were assigned jobs with the museum. I was in the Forbidden City. Actually it was the largest museum in the country, called the Palace Museum… That museum is quite different from other museums because it’s an architectural complex, and there are people who study architecture and renovation, and there are the archives from the imperial house. There are many divisions. So I was part of the younger staff, first in painting and calligraphy, and secondly in bronze and stone carvings…very interesting, very traditional. And although it was during the Cultural Revolution, inside the Forbidden City it was timeless, almost. Of course we read the newspaper, heard Mao’s speeches, but there was this timeless quality. You close the gate, and you really don’t know which century [it is] — you’re there.