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

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

Why art education matters: and what it's got to do with Ai Weiwei

Last week I took a group of 30 senior high school students to the exhibition of works from the Sherman Collection of Contemporary Asian Art, 'Go East' at the Art Gallery of New South Wales. (I reviewed the show for 'The Art Life' - click here for my thoughts.)
Jitish Killat, Public Notice 2 (detail)  in Go East, image The Gene & Brian Sherman Contemporary Asian Art Collection and the Art Gallery of New South Wales
I was curious to see their responses to a show which is in many ways quiet and cerebral, opening with Jitish Kallat's (admittedly visually overwhelming) tribute to Mahatma Gandhi's famous Salt March speech, in which every word is represented with letters made out of replica bones, arranged on narrow ledges on a wall painted the colour of turmeric. The students were fascinated, responding thoughtfully - even tired, at the end of a long day, very close to final exams, and close to the looming deadline for the submission of their own bodies of work. Their willingness to look for the conceptual intentions and possible meanings behind each new artwork they encountered was heartening.

They have spent the last two years with me, immersed in contemporary art from around the globe. At first they had been frankly sceptical - we'd had a few of those "But how can that be art?" conversations that every teacher knows. So it delighted me to hear their earnest discussions of Song Dong's endurance performance, in which he lay prostrate on the winter-cold surface of Tiananmen Square, and then upon a frozen lake, discovering (rather to his surprise) that in that location his warm breath had no discernible effect on the ice. They talked about the subtle symbolism - and clever satirical intent - of any Chinese work produced after 1989 that uses the potent location of Tiananmen. Some saw a comment on the continuing elemental power of the natural world in comparison to the puny efforts of humanity. Others discerned a comment on the failure of artists and pro-democracy demonstrators to change the tragic course of events 26 years ago.
Zhang Huan
Family Tree, 200
C-type prints. Suite of 9 images
Edition 2/3
227 x 183 cm (Framed)
Image courtesy: The Gene and Brian Sherman Collection, and Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation, Sydney
Photo: the artist
They looked with interest at Zhang Huan's 'Family Tree', reading it variously as the overwhelming power of written language and traditional culture over individual desires and freedoms, or alternatively as the sadness and loss of diaspora. Charwei Tsai's quietly meditative Buddhist sutra written on a mirror reflecting the ocean enthralled them, as did Tibetan artist Nortse's installation of the robes of Buddhist monks, arranged as if the seated monks have vanished into the blowing sand that covers the hem of each robe, overturned yak butter lamps indicating the overturning of tradition, religious practices and - again - the loss of language. Some knew about the practice of self-immolation, and others were completely horrified to learn of these acts of desperation.
Nortse, Zen Meditation, 6 monks' robes, butter lamps, Chinese money, scriptures, sand, metal frames,
image courtesy the Gene and Brian Sherman collection
The work that caused the most intense discussions, however, was by Ai Weiwei. Familiar with many of his works, from the iconoclastic smashed Han Dynasty urns to porcelain sunflower seeds, from 9,000 school backpacks representing young lives lost in the Sichuan earthquake to the recent (and I must confess, a little disappointing) installations on Alcatraz Island, my class were excited to see 'An Archive' - a work newly commissioned by Gene and Brian Sherman, and generously gifted to the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Ai Weiwei, 'An Archive', huali wood, xuan paper, edition of 2 + 1 AP, image courtesy the Gene and Brian Sherman collection and Art Gallery of New South Wales
We had discussed its possible references and the artist's intentions before we went to the gallery, reading a little about the work, watching an informal video of Ai talking about it (and endearingly dropping the video camera, so the end footage is upside down). Nothing prepared them for the size of the beautifully constructed huali wood box, and its contents of 6000 large sheets of rice paper with every (banned) blog post and tweet made by the artist since around 2005. I had deliberately made no reference to it, wanting that first immediacy of seeing the actual, physical object to be a memorable and palpable experience: a salutary reminder of the power of an encounter with the original work of art rather than its reproduced 'shadow image'.

 I listened to their impassioned discussions in response to my question - why a wooden box? Why stacks of paper that cannot be read? Why transcribe something so essentially ephemeral as tweets? I cautioned them against identifying Ai Weiwei as a secular saint - the patron saint of free speech according to some western observers, or alternatively as a giant ego who "hoovers up all the oxygen" in the Beijing artworld, according to others. And with four (yes - four!) concurrent shows at four major Beijing galleries, nobody could say he's invisible, or unheard, even despite the continuing and constant surveillance to which he is subjected. Nevertheless, polarising though he might be, his practice provides rich and fascinating opportunities for my seventeen and eighteen-year-old students to hone their artwriting chops. I confess I would be a little happier if I didn't occasionally read responses that told me that Han Dynasty urns were important artefacts of the Cultural Revolution, but hey, you can't have everything!

At the end of the day, the bizarre rite of passage that is the Higher School Certificate examination aside, what I take with me from this afternoon is the genuine interest my students showed in looking carefully, slowly and with keen intelligence at contemporary art that is not easy or quick to decipher. Even more importantly, that critical ability to make connections, to "join the dots", to make informed inferences and logical deductions, as well as those all too rare intuitive, imaginative leaps that make the heart sing. “So if you set a model of what it means to look hard at something, think a while about it before you open your mouth, and then articulate it carefully—you will have done your job as a critic," said  Robert Storr, Dean of the School of Art at Yale. He was talking about art criticism, but what a principle for an intelligent, interesting and thoughtful life!  I believe that my students (maybe not all, but certainly most) will take this with them into their adult lives, and be the richer for it. And THAT is why an academically rigorous and challenging art education matters.

Ai Weiwei, 'Overcoat', military coat and 2 digital prints, image courtesy the Gene and Brian Sherman collection