The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Monday, March 21, 2011

Day 7 – From the Western Academy to the Ming Dynasty Watchtower

After spending Sunday learning as much as possible about the history of Beijing, with an utterly exhausting and fascinating tour of the Forbidden City (ask me anything about the significance of the phoenix, the dragon, the lion, the colour yellow or the number 9, I can now tell you!)  today I am catapulted into the 21st century and then back again to the Ming Dynasty.

I began Monday morning with a long taxi ride on the Airport Expressway out to the suburbs where the Western Academy of Beijing is located. I had some instructions for the driver written in characters but was slightly panicked by trying to say things in Chinese like 'Take Exit 4', "go to the second traffic lights and take a left, then turn into the school parking lot and drive to the security guard's office" - all while the taxi driver was tearing along at breakneck speed, swerving back and forth across 6 lanes of traffic, and cursing all the other drivers.

The WAB campus is huge, comprising a pre-school, elementary school, middle school and high school. Architecturally it is fantastic, with many references to Chinese traditional architecture within the modern buildings of the campus. Tamara Palmer, the American art teacher who began her teaching life in the New York public school system, but has since taught in the Netherlands, Jakarta and Bangkok, tells me the school was established by a visionary educator who really wanted a school that connected with China, where the students were not cocooned in an expat bubble. All students study Chinese up to the 9th grade in this IB school, and most continue their study of the language into High School.

I was fascinated to hear that this is a school where all the arts are truly valued, and students have the opportunity to select from Art, Music, Dance, Drama and Film. In fact all students MUST have an arts subject in their pattern of study for the IB, and many opt to take more than one of these. An obvious comparison occurs to me with the situation in NSW schools where 'arts' teachers are all too often caught in a negative spiral of competing for student elective numbers.

I spend the morning in Tamara's art room, where I watch, listen, and ask lots of annoying questions. The students are relaxed and comfortable in this environment, yet are also challenged to produce work of a high quality. IB standards are rigorous (although not more rigorous, I believe, than the NSW curriculum). Tamara is teaching a class of 10th graders in a unit of work called 'East Meets West', They are currently making sculptural ceramic forms inspired by an eclectic mix of influences, such as Nazca and Mangbetu pottery, and also a range of Western and Chinese artists. Earlier in the academic year they completed a painting which combined Western and Chinese elements in order to make a social comment - an interesting way to introduce students to postmodern practices of appropriation. Some paintings were technically excellent and all were thoughtful and interesting.

Photograph used with permission of student and teacher
In order to produce these works the students had studied the Cultural Revolution and Mao's history, and had researched the important 'Cynical Realist' painters Wang Guangyi and Yue Minjun (Year 12 Loreto students should recognise these names!) They had done some research about Cultural Revolution Propaganda and had also seen an exhibition by one of the teachers at the school, who had photographed and interviewed a range of Chinese people about their memories of the Cultural Revolution. This had a profound effect on the students, as I realised when I read their comments in their "Workbooks" (the IB version of our "Visual Arts Process Diary").

In the senior years of 11th and 12th grade the approach is very much one of student-centred 'discovery learning'. In a two year program students produce a body of work, a significant essay, their workbook or process diary, and are then interviewed by an IB examiner. I watch some 12th grade students painting, and discuss their work with them - they are confident, articulate and thoughtful young 'Third Culture" people, adept at finding an identity and a path through the maze of family history, and current and past locations, and a sense of their place in the world, which cannot always be easy. Some have been to school in 4 or 5 countries, some have lived only in China, many are learning in their third or even fourth language.

I talk with one 11th grade student who has always lived in China - in her workbook in writing about her own identity she says that she is truly 'Made in China'. Her father is Spanish, but came here as a young Communist during the Cultural Revolution, and her mother is Venezuelan. She is planning a really fascinating series of artworks for her IB body of work exploring this somewhat confusing identity.

Tamara has invited a photographer to show the students an 'Afghan camera' - this is used in Afghanistan to take passport and identity photographs and is essentially a wooden box which acts like a pinhole camera, except it also contains a dish of developer and fixer, so works as a portable darkroom. This student plans to take 'passport' photographs of herself, her young brother, her parents and their 'ayi' (maid), and then also make passports for a Chinese family, which would have father, mother, daughter (but no brother due to the One Child policy) and an 'Ayi' (an auntie in a Chinese family). At the same time she is working on a series of photographs of herself in Venezuelan dress, carrying a book about the Spanish architect, Gaudi, standing in a traditional Chinese hutong. She will contrast this with another series of photographs taken in Venezuela over the summer, wearing a Chinese dress and carrying a book about another Spanish artist, perhaps Picasso. She is also painting, and printmaking. As an 11th grader this is just the beginning of her IB body of work - I can see advantages to working so broadly, avoiding some of the problems inherent in the NSW HSC, where students can get really bogged down or disheartened.

Students in this school seem to be very independent - they obviously believe they are in charge of their own learning to a much greater degree than I see at home. I watch them ask Tamara for assistance when they need it (as is always the way, someone's ceramic form collapses beyond resuscitation before the end of the lesson!) but essentially her role is much more backgrounded than the very directed teaching that often happens in NSW schools. I am impressed by the quality of the work and the sense of student ownership. I will be asking myself some hard questions about how to develop this level of autonomy more effectively in my students, and how I can help them to be less dependent on me as a teacher:  to see themselves as effective and active learners, rather than as passive recipients of my teaching.

After lunch I race off to meet Brian Wallace at Redgate ( I have no idea what to expect of this gallery and am completely astonished by its location, in the Ming Dynasty Watchtower of the old Beijing city walls. My visit coincides with the 'Plum Blossom Festival' - there are many official cars and besuited men (cadres? I have always wondered what a cadre might look like!) seriously walking among avenues of lanterns and fake plum blossom attached to the trees, amid the usual Beijing traffic mayhem and a few old men serenely flying kites amidst the cacophony. It is a very windy and bitterly cold day - the wind comes straight from the Mongolian steppes - and also very rarely and amazingly, the sky is actually blue. When I woke up this morning and looked out my window I couldn't work out what was different, then I realised that it was the first day I wasn't looking at the city through a thick haze of brown dust.

Once past the many guards dressed for the festival,  improbably wearing sky blue satin Ming costumes and bizarre hats, and up many very steep crumbling Ming stairs, I emerge onto the old stone city wall that surrounded this city at the centre of the world. "Zhong guo", or China, literally means "Middle Kingdom", the centre of the earth. Certainly many Chinese, such as my young guide for the Forbidden City, take this very seriously now as an indication of China's future strength and power. She did keep assuring me that Chinese were  a very peaceful people who had never been invaders, and said this so many times that it started to make me a bit nervous! Once inside the extraordinary interior of the old Dongbianmen Watchtower, with its enormous red painted timber columns and intricate network of staircases and carving, I sit with Brian Wallace in his office to talk about his significant role in shaping the contemporary art scene in China.

Brian first came to China in 1984 so has witnessed all the extraordinary changes since that time. In the late 1980s under Deng Xiaoping's "Open Door" policy there was a brief flowering of contemporary art, with young artists trained in the rigorous academic techniques of socialist realism suddenly experimenting with performance art, conceptual art and new ways of thinking about painting.  Before Brian opened the gallery at Redgate he had been organising exhibitions with artist friends at the nearby Ming Observatory. The observatory's store of astronomical instruments had been expanded during the Qing Dynasty by the Jesuits (there is always a Jesuit connection!) who had entered China to spread Christianity but had been welcomed by the Ming and Qing courts for their scientific expertise and their skill as court painters. There was no gallery system and no art market in China at this time - Brian and his friends were able, amazingly, to organise exhibitions in venues such as the Old Summer Palace, the Confucian Temple and the Altar of the Sun, in Ritan Park. Hence Brian's wry observation that contemporary Chinese art began in the Ming Dynasty.

One of the most influential features of Redgate today is their artists' residency program. In 2010 they had 133 applications, and awarded 70 places to artists, writers, and academics to stay in an apartment or studio for 6 - 8 weeks.  I asked Brian about the ongoing dialogue and artistic 'conversation'  that continues to resonate between Chinese and Australian artists....there really does appear to be something, albeit perhaps intangible, that creates a connection between our two cultures. Of course there are those, such as Lindy Lee, who are Australian born Chinese and come back to find that sense of a Chinese identity; and others such as Ah Xian and Guan Wei who came to Australia many years ago but who now really straddle both places in their life and work. Other artists who have benefitted from the residencies, such as George Gittoes or Graeme Blondell , have produced interesting bodies of work as a result of their immersion in Beijing. Some, such as Jane Dyer, have stayed on and now live in China. China changes people! Brian points out that his and other Chinese residency programs  are so popular because, let's face it, "China is THE place to come". On Sunday there is an Open Studio exhibition of the current resident artists at the 'Premium Red' Restaurant, which will include work by artists from Australia, Scotland, Finland, Austria and the United States.

Ironically perhaps, as a result of the aforementioned Plumblossom Festival, Brian has had to remove many of the works from the exhibition of the three Shanghai artists, "China Dream", which just opened on Saturday, as they were deemed by officials to be insufficiently celebratory and festive. I am really disappointed not to see the entire exhibition, but what is still there is quite wonderful, in particular works by Pu Jiu. The catalogue notes explain that this artist comes from a wealthy Shanghai family who was dispossessed during the revolutionary era. He found his own visual language through his practice of filling sketchbooks with drawings of village life, creating a massive genre of stylized paintings that have "come to represent China's modern age".
Image used with permission of Redgate Gallery
This exhibition, like much new art in China, seems to be an attempt on the part of artists, curator and, indeed, audience, to understand this new China and their part in it. It is subtitled "Narrating Society and the Floating Worlds in China" - as the catalogue notes, "Chinese society is an ever shifting world of constant change. People reinvent themselves, whole cities appear in short periods of time, people's relationships change, and many people live in a floating world of inconsistence".

As I wandered through the vast 'Malls of Oriental Plaza' on my way home after my conversation with Brian, I was musing on this change. I watched elderly grandparents doting on their 'Little Emperors' carrying bags of designer brand name baby clothing. Young people sit in Starbucks listening to iPods and texting, while glamorous couples exchange their Mao-emblazoned renmimbi for more designer label goods.
Meanwhile out on the streets, women in fur hats ride rusted bicycles, and old men still wear cloth shoes and Mao style caps to fly kites beside the fake plumblossom!