Ye Su, Jiang Zhuyun, Nabuqi, Miao Ying, Hu Xiangqian, and Liang Shuo discuss social and ideological shifts in Chinese art academies at the turn of the millennium.
The following conversation is Part Two from the “Forum on Contemporary Art Education in China since the 2000s.” Please read the Preface in Part One for additional context. The conversation has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In Conversation with Hu Xiangqian and Liang Shuo
5th Studio at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, and the Department of Sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts
Towards Rational Freedom
Anthony Yung: Now, let’s turn to our next two guests. Hu Xiangqian and Liang Shuo, please.
Hu Xiangqian (HXQ): My artistic enlightenment, or more specifically, my enlightenment with contemporary art, came relatively early for me. In high school, I read a feature about performance art in a peculiar magazine called The Golden Age. Although I had started learning painting in high school, I didn’t know what performance art was, and found it unusual when I first encountered it.
Later, I came to Guangzhou for preparatory courses and met my teacher Xu Yixiang, an artist who graduated from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts. At the time, he was teaching us sketching and colour theory; he wasn’t deliberately trying to teach us anything else. But during sketching classes, he would bring along art magazines or theory books. Back then, we didn’t know what contemporary art was, nor did we care. I’m a person who enjoys books, so I borrowed some from Xu. He noticed that I was interested, so he recommended I check out the pirated DVDs and reference books at these shops in the alley next to the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.
I suppose I was rather lucky to have had picked up an interest in contemporary art at a relatively young age. Fast forward to my first year at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, and I already couldn’t stand the classes, because we were still forced to practise figure painting. We didn’t have any foundation courses—we were admitted to the Year 1 classes at the Department of Oil Painting directly, but we were still painting plaster statues. When I was in my third year of high school, I had already seen many exhibitions. I can still recall seeing Chen Shaoxiong, Qin Jin, and Cao Fei’s exhibitions, even though I didn’t know these names back then. I knew nothing, but I thought their works were so cool, particularly the one about unfinished buildings exhibited in a dilapidated house. That was in 2002, 2003, or 2004. I came to Guangzhou in 2002. The artistic atmosphere in Guangzhou was pretty good then. There was Park 19 and so on, for example. Things were growing in the wild.
Because of these experiences, I just couldn’t go back to the drawing classes. In fact, I felt like it was as though I hadn’t studied at an art school at all. My drawing skills remained at a pre-institution level, even though I was admitted to the Academy with a pretty high score; I didn’t really make a proper drawing after entering the Academy. But frankly, as a young adult who’s seen a fair amount, how do you settle with these things at school that were so uncool? There was so much chaos out there in the world—you lose interest in the sculptures and portrait models at the Academy. By the end of my freshman year I considered dropping out, but my family didn’t allow it.
In the first semester of Year 2, we were still on the old campus, and Huang Xiaopeng returned to the Academy as a teacher. The 5th Studio did not yet exist, but by the end of that semester, he had launched an elective course on experimental contemporary art, and “contemporary art” was gradually becoming a more familiar term to us. The course was open to all students, so I enrolled in it. Xiaopeng was a source of enlightenment for me even before the 5th Studio was established. But that course was relatively short, with all kinds of students from different departments. Classes were mainly based on discussions, and assignments and creative practice were minimal. We also read books, watched movies, and chatted about our favourite artists and so on. The course lasted for just two months. When it was over, in early 2005, the Academy moved to the Guangzhou Higher Education Mega Center, and the 5th Studio was established. I abandoned the idea of dropping out because I thought, this teacher is pretty great, and it turns out there’s these kinds of things to learn at school.
When I was first picking my major, my dad wanted me to apply for the Department of Sculpture. My father dabbled in art, so he knew that sculptors made more money. But I enrolled in the Department of Oil Painting because my teacher Xu Yixiang told me that there was the most freedom there, even though I didn’t know what he meant by that.
When I was a freshman, I was still painting since there were other classes. I didn’t want to do figure paintings, so I came up with the idea of doing “bad paintings.” But I didn’t even know how to do that, because there’s a standard for what a “good painting” is, but it’s hard to know what to draw for a bad painting. Every day I was in class, just drawing random things. Once, a model actually told me off and said, “Are you here to waste the country’s resources?”
The teacher did see my paintings, but they didn’t care what I was doing because the Department of Oil Painting was most known for its laissez-faire teaching approach. They didn’t even care whether you attended the class—they didn’t know how to teach you. But I do remember when a teacher in my freshman year said to me, “You don’t run before learning how to walk; you don’t fly before learning how to ride.” At that time, I thought, “I don’t care about learning how to walk or ride; I simply want to fly!” And that was the mentality I had when I joined the 5th Studio of the Department of Oil Painting.
At the 5th Studio, Xiaopeng gave us lots of freedom. But unlike the Academy’s kind of laissez-faire freedom, the freedom he offered was very rational. For instance, he would throw a lot of questions at us when we’re discussing our projects or during our chats, questions to which many students, including myself, had no answers for, because we had not been trained that way. Xiaopeng’s pedagogy originated from Europe; he put a great emphasis on contextuality and rational thinking. Obviously, none of us had been exposed to these types of ideas. It was in our first semester at the 5th Studio when we realised that everything revolved around “rationality.” The training in the 5th Studio was crucial to me. Even though I don’t seem to be a rational person nowadays, I still tackle problems in a rational way, which can be attributed to my education.
When I was first discussing my proposal with Xiaopeng, I didn’t know what I wanted to do, so I asked him a question about materials. At the time, my idea was to utilise something like a building. He said, “It’s fine. You can even use the Earth as your material if you want.” What he said came as a shock to me. So I set out to find materials; I looked around the island where our campus was located, and sought to sail it out into the Pacific Ocean. In a way, that work was entirely inspired by Xiaopeng.
The kind of freedom found within being “free from limitations” is very different from the kind where you’re left to your own devices.
Being inspired by Xiaopeng from the time I was a student opened up a whole new world for me. I think his influence is still embedded deep within my work and my body.
Anthony Yung (AY): Recently, Art Forum published an interview with Hu Xiangqian on their Chinese website, in which he also mentioned these two types of freedoms, which I would really recommend.
We are honoured to have Professor Liang Shuo with us today. Liang, could you tell us more about your teaching and learning experience at the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts?
Breaking Away from Traditional Art Education
Liang Shuo (LS): I am a very typical art academy graduate. I began drawing when I was a kid. By “drawing” I just meant sketching, and nothing else. It was just everything one would expect from someone in the academy. I was a very serious student and I took my studies very seriously. I think I matured rather slowly. I was twenty-four when I graduated from the academy, and it was only then when I realised that what I learned didn’t feel quite right. This came after more exposure to society—I was a bit more innocent in school, and didn’t know much about the outside world, but by then contemporary art was already happening, and I had vaguely heard about it. In our cohort, there were names like Chen Lingyang, Sun Yuan, and Peng Yu—I had heard of them, but I didn’t really care about what they were doing. I just wanted to study sculpture; it was simple as that.
After graduation, I got to know more people in society and only then did I start rebelling. All of a sudden I found myself disgusted by what I had learned at the Academy. I felt like a bit of a coward for being so obedient. When I learned about contemporary art, I thought it might be able to help me counter that sensation of nausea. It was almost an act of teenage rebellion. I felt this need to live all over again, and contemporary art was something that could cut that disgusting flesh out from within me, bit by bit. For a good decade or so, I was motivated by this desire to resist all that I was taught, that which had been deeply ingrained and injected into my blood.
I had to find a cure for this thing in me, which I genuinely saw as pretty detrimental. But it had happened when I was a child—being indoctrinated in that way—and it was nauseating, though it wasn’t anybody’s fault, it was just the way things were. To me, this was also the relationship between art academies and contemporary art.
AY: After betraying the institution, you wanted a second life—but apart from being an object for betrayal, did it leave anything for you that was useful?
LS: One of the most tangible benefits was that it made me a lot of money. Whenever my works didn’t sell well, I could still work—I had the advantage of being able to support myself through these skills I had. That made me happy; I would have been in trouble otherwise. But students won’t get this now; we don’t teach them this way.
The days in the Academy were simpler back then. We couldn’t get much of anything in the Academy’s library. Antony Gormley’s books were already the most avant-garde work. I felt that they were pretty avant-garde at that time. Henry Moore and Marino Marini—they appeared so contemporary to us.
That was 1995, all the way to 2000. So, things were simple. You learn what you learn. I think the Academy equipped me with the ability to delve deep into something. Once you reach a certain level of depth, you would discover something. With that ability, you would be able to discover something different even when you’re diving into another area. The sensation of discovery is universal—regardless of what you discover, that feeling of discovery is the same. I noticed this somehow after trying other things. When I studied far enough into realism, I was able to touch something; but that “something” isn’t easy to define.
AY: You once mentioned that your current teaching approach emphasises the hands-on elements in addition to concepts and ideas. Is this practical skill an advantage you gained from art education?
LS: I think so. My family was another factor. My father was very skilled. My family members were workers and farmers who made ends meet through their labour. I think I also carry this tradition within my body. I like laborious work that is physically strenuous. And sculpture has this characteristic.
AY: It seems that many artists have a similar experience to yours. They go through a long period of training in an academy, then spend as much time or even longer to eliminate or diminish its impact. However, art students nowadays may not have a burden they have to rid themselves of or an imaginary enemy to conquer, which may lead to freedom or nihilism. From your experience teaching, how do you tackle this issue?
LS: This issue is becoming more apparent than ever. I think post-80s students are fine, but it’s particularly prominent for students born after 1995.
I feel like they know and see more things than I do. Sometimes I question my role as a teacher because I don’t even know what I’m teaching them. I would not position myself as such if I knew what I was doing. Logically speaking, I can’t see myself as a teacher; it’s just my job and I have to go to work...I receive my salary, students come to this place, and we meet. If I’m good enough at what I do, I can help you a little, because I have a bit of experience—that’s what I think teaching means. We talk about things like the teacher-student relationship, the teacher being the students’ role model—I don’t think that exists. I believe that students don’t think this way either.
AY: The 3rd Studio at the Central Academy of Fine Art is still the Department of Sculpture’s studio. It is related to the sculpture medium to a certain extent, even though it was established for contemporary art. What are the key differences between its teaching methods and those of the newer departments such as the Department of Experimental Art?
LS: Sculpture itself is not the issue. All our backgrounds are in sculpture, we can’t simply free ourselves from the mindset. We can always abandon sculpture and work on performance art, moving images, or writing. But we would still have this sculpture mindset; the form of sculpture relates to space, volume, and body. Even if we are not working with sculpture then, people will notice that we are sculptors by training because we are particularly sensitive to the size, weight, and materiality of a matter. We’d see something, knock on it twice and say, “Oh, it’s fibreglass.” We rejoice in being able to discern the material. These are instinctive habits of people with sculptural training.
The Best Examples of Contemporary Art Education
AY: Now, let us all come together for a discussion session. What might the best contemporary art education mean? What types of conditions are necessary?
Ye Su (YS): It may be something similar to what Hu Xiangqian mentioned just now. The starting point should be creative freedom; under the principles of respecting the individual, there should be some sort of guidance, or even a collaboration or shared creativity. Back then, Xiaopeng didn’t regard himself as a teacher. Sometimes, he would even share his works in progress with us. I only realised the power dynamics inherent in teaching after a few years of experience. There is a latent, invisible power dynamic the moment one enters the classroom. I believe deconstructing these power relations is the foundation of contemporary art education.
Jiang Zhuyun (JZY): Speaking from the perspective of the profession of a teacher, I certainly hope to have an equal, interactive relationship with the students so as to soften the power imbalance between us. I think teachers should exist to prompt the students to ask questions.
Nabuqi: I’ve never really been a teacher—I’ve only taught some prep classes. I have never taught creativity, but I can imagine how hard it is. How does one inspire students and give them guidance without simply instilling your own thoughts into them? It may not be a bad thing for a teacher to influence their students, even though I did have the experience of being hugely inspired by someone, then discarding it. It’s sort of contradictory—teachers are teaching students, impacting them, but they’re reluctant to do so. I suppose a better way might be for there to be a relationship of synergy between the two. In the process of teachers sharing what they know, those who are being taught also reciprocate or offer a kind of energy that drives both parties forward.
Miao Ying (MY): I find the model adopted by the Department of New Media rather ideal. In schools overseas, the relationship between teachers and students is more balanced, and there’s more of a mutual encouragement. I think the influence of teachers is pretty crucial for the field of art. Compared to arenas like engineering, a large portion of the knowledge in fine art is derived from experience. If the teachers are artists, their first-hand experience and what they do make them important role models, which could really impact students.
Those of us who are here today—many have had exceptional art teachers regardless of which academy they went to. The teachers’ practice no doubt serves as indirect inspiration for their students.
HXQ: I would like to respond to the quote from Geng Jianyi. Art can, without a doubt, be taught and learned. But there are some conceptual nuances we need to clarify. When we say that art can’t be taught, we mean that we can’t teach them how to be creative, or make your work for you. But as Miao Ying said—art itself can definitely be taught, even if there is no perfect teaching approach. Although I am not familiar with Liang Shuo, and only learned about his situation from what he said just now, I can still tell he is an excellent teacher, I think we can all sense that. Isn’t that the most important?
Education is absolutely crucial to our society, and we need more teachers, better teachers. But it is a profession that requires a lot of commitment. Many people ask me whether I am willing to go back to teaching again—and honestly, I’m not keen. But I am eager to share my experience with young people, tell them what I learned from my teachers such as Huang Xiaopeng and other artists. I am always happy to share these stories, albeit in bits and pieces. To truly take on education like Huang Xiaopeng, Zhang Pelli, Geng Jianyi, Liang Shuo, and other exceptional teachers—that’s a daunting task.
LS: I was wondering what Anthony means by his question. Are we trying to envision an ideal art education model?
Some of the teachers we were discussing just now—even though I’ve never worked with them or studied with them, just by hearing what they’ve done, I can tell they’re great. They’re not only great artists but great teachers, and that’s rare.
But what if they didn’t come along? What if they were dead and gone? Would good art education still exist? My current take is that you can only rely on good teachers, and not much more.
The current world is changing too fast, and it’s quite impossible to develop a mature, well-structured education system that just works. The world is not in a relatively stable stage of development. In fact, any moment now, something completely unexpected could happen. I think it’s quite difficult to establish a system that could be guaranteed to work in ten years’ time. That’s why what Ye Su and Jiang Zhuyun said just now is very important. We should at least prevent something we definitely don’t want, like the power imbalance between teachers and students. That’s one thing we’re doing well in the art circle. We’re quite conscious about minimising this imbalance as far as possible. If this is something that the younger generation of teachers could also be aware of, I think that’s great.
This is not to say that teachers no longer serve as role models. When I was a student, I was heavily influenced by Sui Jianguo. It wasn’t his artworks that made a significant impact on me, but the fact that he was still making art. Even though many other teachers around us taught us a lot of useful things, what was most impactful for me at the time was having an artist near me and seeing him constantly at work. I think many problems can be solved by schools recruiting more artists as teachers. If they are artists that aren’t interested in being in positions of power, they’d already meet eighty percent of the criteria. It’s a plus if they’re clever and not afraid of being selfless when needed.
AY: Jiang Zhuyun mentioned that these artists had to be “active players“ in the field, not “retired“ ones, which I thought was a great analogy.
LS: Even active artists like us are not necessarily qualified to teach, let alone retired ones.
AY: OK, let’s take a look at the graph from Ye Su.
YS: I would like to use this graph to discuss whether art can be taught. Are the items on the left leading those on the right, or is it the other way around? Those on the right are a bit more well-defined, palpable. But in my limited experience teaching, I tend to encourage students to trust their intuition or reflect on what’s around them.
Contemporary Art Education: Practical Challenges
AY: Shall we move on to questions from the audience? The first question is: Contemporary art education is becoming more and more institutionalised. What are your thoughts on this change?
Second question: If, from the 1990s to the early 2000s, there was a significant gap between art academies and the contemporary art scene, to the extent they were in conflict with each other, what is the relationship between the two now?
JZY: I always wondered if we were students at a very particular time in history. Back in those days, knowledge had not yet been commercialised, and a wide range of resources were diverted into academies. It was this context within which the Department of New Media, the 5th Studio, and more, were born.
This led me to wonder—what should art education today be like? The biggest challenge institutions these days face is that, if you want to learn a skill, you could just learn it off the internet, or through other commercial channels. In the contemporary context, the competency level of a specific skill one tries to attain is obviously connected to their “conception.”
Perhaps I am being somewhat optimistic, but I believe art academies are going to take the direction of adopting a more rational approach to education, or become more refined.
I would still view contemporary art education and the contemporary art scene as two separate things—it’s not a case of “which came first, the chicken or the egg,” but they are two independent fields that exist in parallel and interact with each other. We can’t exactly say that the contemporary art scene is directly affecting contemporary art education, or that art institutions are responsible for cultivating contemporary artists. Rather than being in a direct relationship, they’re in a more organic, interactive relationship with each other.
AY: How do others view the institutionalisation of contemporary art education?
LS: One benefit is that it provides employment opportunities.
JZY: Liang is clearly more optimistic than me! I am rather concerned about the employment prospects of art graduates.
MY: Art students in western countries are facing the same issue; art academies now recruit more students than before. In China, at least tuition fees aren’t a cause for concern. Graduate students in the United States pay up to US$70,000 a year for school fees; they would have even more considerations.
AY: If we put aside the employment issue and focus on the teaching aspect, is it possible for there to be an institutional model for contemporary art that is effective?
HXQ: Before we discuss this, we first have to tackle the sociopolitical issues we face today. For example, Huang Xiaopeng leaving the Academy, Zhang Peili’s experience—both of these were a result of flaws within the sociopolitical system itself. So, before we can look at the issue of contemporary art education, we first have to tackle the complicated issues within the institution.
JZY: When a system has existed for some time, it requires external stimulation, and it would actively seek out this stimulation. Take Zhang Peili returning to teach in the China Academy of Art as an example—even those within the system recognises the inherent problems, and they need people like Zhang to stir the waters. And now, after a period of time, it feels as though the system doesn’t need that external stimulation anymore. There are cycles that the system goes through, and you can see this if you go back in history. Zheng Shengtian also played a similar role of acting as stimulus in 1985.
With regards to institutionalisation, the reality is that in the recent decade, the system has incorporated contemporary art into its narrative. According to traditional ideologies of resistance, art education should help us identify art that was merely a new form of patriarchy. What is depressing is that once we depart from the traditional master-disciple system, we are developing unpredictability within artists. That may result in a situation where the resources devoted do not produce a proportionate output, and that is a factor that all institutions consider. I’m thankful for all the artists and organisers who push ahead despite these circumstances.
AY: One last question from the audience: If I don’t study at art academies, is it possible to self-learn art? Is it possible for me to become an artist?
Nabuqi: Of course you can. With the internet these days—Liang said just now that he feels like he knows even less than students. I think it’s definitely possible, but there’s an implementation process you need to establish; the amount of information is overwhelming, and it’s a process that requires a lot of time and effort.
AY: Thank you very much to all of our six guest speakers, and thank you to everyone who participated online in our forum today.
Anthony Yung is AAA’s Researcher specialising in Greater China.
Jiang Zhuyun (b. 1984, Hangzhou) graduated from the New Media Department at the China Academy of Art in 2007, and received a master’s degree from the School of Intermedia Art in 2014. Based in Hangzhou, he has been teaching at the School of Intermedia Art since 2014.
Ye Su (also known as Zhang Fan, b. 1983, Shaoxing) graduated from the 5th Studio of the Oil Painting Department at Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 2007. He obtained a master’s degree from the Experimental Art Department of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2010. His works have been exhibited at the Shanghai Biennale, OCAT Xi’an, the Inside-Out Museum, Taikang Space, Goethe-Institut, and Tang Contemporary Art, among others. His critical writings can be found in various media and art publications.
Miao Ying (b. 1985, Shanghai) graduated from China Academy of Art’s New Media Art Department in Hangzhou in 2007, and earned a Master in Fine Arts in Electronic Integrated Arts from Alfred University, a statutory college of the State University of New York, in 2009. She is best known for her projects and writing around Chinese Internet online culture. Her works inhabit multiple forms including websites, machine learning software, VR, installations, paintings, etc. She currently lives and works in New York and Shanghai.
Nabuqi (b. 1984, Inner Mongolia) graduated with a master’s degree from the 3rd Studio of Sculpture Department at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2013. Her recent exhibitions include Noire Lumière, HOW Art Museum, Shanghai (2020); Study of Things. Or A Brief Story about Fountain, Brick, Tin, Coin, Wax, Stone, Shell, Curtain and Body, Guangdong Times Museum (2020); and Do real things happen in moments of rationality?, 58th Venice Biennale (2019). She currently lives and works in Beijing.