Ye Su, Jiang Zhuyun, Nabuqi, and Miao Ying discuss social and ideological shifts in Chinese art academies at the turn of the millennium.
The following conversation is Part One from the “Forum on Contemporary Art Education in China since the 2000s.” It has been edited and condensed for clarity.
In China, whenever there is a shift in the existing order, a small fissure appears within the system and offers a brief window of new possibilities. Art education in China experienced several such moments, and with time, art academies gradually moved away from its strict traditions and rigid, paternalistic pedagogies.
In the 1960s, the Sino-Soviet split prompted Chinese artists who were deeply influenced by the Soviet School of social realism to seek out new ideas in the relatively unrestrained schools of thought within Eastern European and Latin American art. Later, during the Cultural Revolution, as art became a tool of political propaganda, the window of exploration closed and would remain so until after the movement.
In the late 1970s, tertiary education gradually returned to normalcy and universities admissions resumed; the artists who had earlier been inspired by new ideologies became the next generation of art teachers. They coaxed students away from the rather technical training they had been used to, in favour of more innovative approaches.
At the turn of the millennium, another moment emerged amid China’s economic transition, which had been brought about by globalisation. Universities reformed their courses and expanded their enrolment; some academies held courses on contemporary art and new media for the first time. Before this, many students had only received traditional art training, with little exposure to “contemporary art.”
As new departments and studios emerged, the gap between traditional art education and contemporary art narrowed. But for these millennial students who had only just been introduced to contemporary art, the issues became how they might break away from deeply-ingrained technical skill-driven modes of art training, and what innovative methods teachers might employ to enlighten students struggling to adapt to these new formats.
Last November, the Guangdong Times Art Museum and Asia Art Archive co-organised an online forum to enquire into contemporary art education in China since 2000. This programme was held in conjunction with the exhibition Don’t Kill Me I’m in Love! - A Tribute to Huang Xiaopeng at Guangdong Times Museum, which featured the work of the important educator.
AAA Researcher Anthony Yung invited six artists to talk about their experiences at the art academies in China. Ye Su and Hu Xiangqian studied in the 5th Studio in the Department of Oil Painting, Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts (GAFA), under the direction of Huang Xiaopeng. Jiang Zhuyun and Miao Ying were among the first cohort of the New Media Art Department (NMAD), China Academy of Art (CAA), directed by Zhang Peili. Nabuqi received training from Zhan Wang and Yu Fan at the 3rd Studio of the Department of Sculpture, Central Academy of Fine Art (CAFA), and Liang Shuo is a teacher there.
In Conversation with Ye Su and Jiang Zhuyun
5th Studio at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, and the New Media Art Department (NMAD) at the China Academy of Art
From Learning Craft to Learning Art
Anthony Yung (AY): We’ll begin today’s event by discussing the 5th Studio of the Department of Oil Painting at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts (GAFA), which was formerly directed by Huang Xiaopeng. We’ll also talk about two equally important case studies on art education at the New Media Art Department (NMAD) of the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou (CAA) and the 3rd Studio of the Department of Sculpture at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing (CAFA) during the same period.
All three case studies on these institutions began around 2003, and were coordinated by prominent contemporary artists. The six artists we invited today all played a role and witnessed these crucial moments in art education. They will be divided into three groups for discussion.
Let’s welcome our first pair of guests, Ye Su and Jiang Zhuyun.
Ye Su (YS): I’ve enjoyed drawing since I was a child, so I studied at the Affiliated High School of China Academy of Art for four years—Jiang Zhuyun, too.
At the time, I was under the impression that all oil painters were artists, so I applied for oil painting as my major. I was admitted to the Department of Oil Painting at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts a year before the establishment of the 5th Studio. I had the opportunity to join the Studio, where I encountered different mediums of art. After that, I shifted my focus from painting to visual creation. I started experimenting by mixing various visual materials with images and trying to create works in different media such as video, although I still created with the mindset of a painter.
After graduating from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, I was admitted to the School of Experimental Art of CAFA. Both Beijing and the School of Experimental Art put a strong emphasis on “culture.” That inspired me to carry out more project-based works and take part in spontaneous art residencies. Most of my projects were collaborations with galleries and NGOs.
Jiang Zhuyun (JZY): I was admitted to the Affiliated High School of China Academy of Art in 1999; I graduated and was accepted to the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 2003. After that, I started studying at NMAD in 2004, and then at the School of Intermedia Art, CAA, for a postgraduate degree in 2010.
AY: Both of you studied at the 5th Studio of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and NMAD at the China Academy of Art, respectively. Based on your personal experiences, can you talk about the unique elements of these two schools and how they affected you? Also, what were the strengths and weaknesses of these art education programmes?
YS: I was in the 5th Studio for about two years, from 2005 to 2007. Huang Xiaopeng directly adopted the European way of teaching and brought it here. The 5th Studio was divided into private and public parts: we had our own spaces, where we worked privately, and there was a big open space, where we would gather and discuss. Switching between public and private spaces was the norm in the 5th Studio, and having conversations was an essential way of learning. We kept communicating and stimulating one another on all sorts of topics.
The teaching at the 5th Studio was more lively because Xiaopeng would invite artists to be guest speakers. Zheng Guogu, for instance, kept eating peanuts and drinking beer in class. A classmate asked Zheng what contemporary art and artists were. He then took a peanut and threw it against the wall, saying, in a playful manner, “This is art. If you keep working on peanuts, and all your works are related to peanuts, and then people think of you when they see peanuts—then that’s an artist.”
In addition to inviting artists, he also encouraged students to be an active part of the contemporary art scene, such as becoming involved in the Guangzhou Triennial or international residencies, or taking up part-time work at local galleries such as Vitamin Creative Space, to bridge the gap between the school and the outside world.
I think the strength of Huang Xiaopeng’s teaching was in how he was willing to put things directly in the classroom, which was very different from the general art education in China. His own work also often deals with the conflict between Chinese and Western cultures, postcolonial mindsets, and his personal sense of internal fragmentation.
[Zheng Guogu] took a peanut and threw it against the wall, saying, in a playful manner, “This is art. If you keep working on peanuts, and all your works are related to peanuts, and then people think of you when they see peanuts—then that’s an artist.”
AY: You emphasised that you started with painting and did not abandon the painter’s mindset even when you were working with other formats. Can you elaborate further?
YS: I also wrote novels and, occasionally, exhibition reviews. Writing was a relatively important mode of expression for me. But my novels were also related to images and visuals.
At the 5th Studio, I was introduced to diverse ways of creating art, such as using new materials, images, and animation. But my creations were always primarily based upon pictures, and my ideas were conveyed through images.
AY: Pictures and images have been essential elements in your creations.
YS: Painting consists of scene-setting and imagery—just like in writing. Both are a kind of recreation of reality. The creation of both involves laborious processes and constant revision; and time is relative, variable. On the other hand, even though images can be produced quickly, and can complement text to present an argument, images have an inclination towards focus, perspective, and representation—pictures have a way of being one-way, definitive, and insistent. That’s why I’m in awe of images, but would rather keep a distance from them.
AY: Chinese art education has long been rooted in painting. Although the 5th Studio was under the Department of Oil Painting, some students found it challenging to adapt—painting was neither taught there, or at least it was not required.
YS: At the 5th Studio, you must discover, by yourself, this mode of creation that exists in a loop, without a beginning or an end. It is only after you familiarise yourself with how different media relate to each other that you can face the vast expanse on your own.
I wanted to paint at that time. But all the other oil paintings studios focused on so-called “objects,” be it the human body or the portrait models. Because such “objects” weren’t required in the 5th Studio, I could paint the images in my novels or create these images with other mediums.
AY: You grew up in Hangzhou and studied at the Affiliated High School of China Academy of Art before going to the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, you then pursued your postgraduate studies at CAFA—so, you studied at the three primary art academies in China. Why did you make the decision to study at such different places?
YS: I like travelling. I think all artists should have such an attitude; different places can bring about different sensory stimulation. I am a person who needs external stimulation.
I went to school in different places as if I was doing long-term residencies. I stayed in Hangzhou for a long time, then Guangzhou and Beijing. But the geographical gaps between the regions were indeed pretty significant, whether it was the regional cultures or the contemporary art circles.
AY: As we compare several important case studies in art education in tandem with each other, we see that the most significant difference between the 5th Studio of the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and the Department of New Media Art at the China Academy of Art is how the former is a studio while the latter is a department. The Department of New Media Art is more prominent in scale and with a more substantial budget, so it has better equipment, which is something the 5th Studio lacks. The establishment of the Department of New Media Art also represented the forward-looking vision of the China Academy of Art.
Zhuyun, can you talk about your experience with NMAD?
JZY: I chose NMAD because it was newly established at that time, with excellent teachers. Besides, its facilities were also a big attraction. Miao Ying and I were admitted in 2004, the first cohort at NMAD.
This department had some playful people like Zhang Peili and Geng Jianyi. They were not father-like figures who preached on and on. Instead, they left the freedom of creation to their students, which is very important in teaching. They didn’t have strict requirements or make anything compulsory for their students. But they did have reasonable course arrangements that focused on learning different media. For example, there were introductory digital media courses for Photoshop and website building in the first year.
In fact, we were an early group of Apple users. In 2003, Apple was not yet very popular generally, but our entire department used Apple computers. Many of us have gotten used to Apple’s system since then.
During that time, this learning environment, and the fact that some of our instructors specialised in media art, made me pay attention to digital media.
But I think the most crucial feature of NMAD was that it not only hired regular teachers but also always invited external artists from the larger social scene into the academy. NMAD emphasised “creation-driven teaching” and the “social scene.” When we were in Year 3 and Year 4, we interacted with some artists who were very active in the art scene, such as Xu Zhen, Yang Fudong, and many others. This was a unique educational resource NMAD offered.
Bringing the “Social Scene” into the Academy
AY: For a long time, there was a gap between the “academic art” in the academy and the “social scene”—the active art circles at the time. Artists in the social scene didn’t care much about the situation inside the academy. But NMAD and the 5th Studio broke that barrier by inviting artists to the academy.
Zhang Peili once said he believed all Academy of Fine Arts students were already artists, so NMAD held many exhibitions involving teachers, artists, and students. That was a very direct and effective training for students. Zhuyun, can you please talk about your experience on that matter?
JZY: Yes, Zhang’s teaching philosophy was obviously not based on words but on actions. We participated in off-campus exhibitions that featured students, teachers, and artists. Geng Jianyi once curated an exhibition, It’s All Right, which was a relatively big project for NMAD . Most of the Year 3 and 4 students participated in it.
This teaching strategy was quite successful and got students into shape quickly. Since the teachers didn’t treat us as students, it was natural for us not to treat them as teachers as well. So the relationship was more democratic and equal. Of course, they still reviewed our proposals when we were preparing for the exhibition. There was still a selection process for the proposals, and they discussed with us what changes were required.
AY: Zhang once said he was very concerned about technical training. The teaching of traditional art media is technique-based. Even today, many teachers still consider it a shame if they don’t pass on techniques to their students; the impact of technical training is especially profound on Chinese art education. But Zhang suggested that all students should start from creation and learn the technique according to their needs, because there is no end to technique learning in the field of contemporary art.
JZY: His method, which, in his own words, was about “combining techniques and concepts,” still influences my creative practice today. When the term “new media” emerged at that time, people probably thought it was a category of art that revolves around technology. However, Zhang constantly emphasised that the Department of New Media should adopt a new educational concept that combined concepts and techniques. So, excellent techniques don’t necessarily lead to exceptional works, but how an idea is combined with the technique is the quality of an artwork. You can’t pursue perfection in technique, only the proper application of it [in art].
[T]he artist-educator must be an “active player” in the scene, not a “retired” one.
AY: Compared to now, people used to think that there is a perfect technique when it came to oil painting.
JZY: Yes, that was considered craftsmanship.
AY: Ye Su also made a fascinating point about how, in the Academy of Fine Arts, one of the criteria for evaluating students’ creation was whether they had enough of a “workload.”
YS: I found out that “workload” and “completion level” were both evaluation criteria at the School of Experimental Art at CAFA.
What I agree with is that, when the teacher is an artist, they tend to focus on creativity and exploration, there’s more contingency and uncertainty involved, and they lead with intuition; this pedagogy is then complimented with the required techniques. This is the main difference between traditional and contemporary art education. However, only artists who are active in the scene are sensitive to such differences.
JZY: And the artist-educator must be an “active player” in the scene, not a “retired” one.
AY: It feels as though “workload” is this general accepted requirement in society, not just within art institutions.
JZY: “Workload” also leads to self-disciplining, especially for students—they might actively seek out this “workload” and become anxious if they cannot reach a certain level. This is a problem I’ve observed in teaching, which is a kind of confidence issue.
YS: I think art is related to strength of will. If you aren’t confident enough, you will always feel that you’re missing something, or there is a “Big Other,” be it the teachers, the art circle, art history, or the commercial world. But I think the better state of creation is one that begins with intuition.
In Conversation with Nabuqi and Miao Ying
The 3rd Sculpture Studio at the Central Academy of Fine Arts, and the New Media Art Department (NMAD) at the China Academy of Art
“Forget What You Learned”
AY: Let’s us now hear from the next group of guests, Nabuqi and Miao Ying.
Nabuqi’s learning experience was completely different from that of Ye Su. Nabuqi studied at CAFA for her high school, undergraduate, and postgraduate studies. Nabuqi, please tell us about the long years you spent in CAFA.
Nabuqi: I spent four years in the Affiliated Senior High School, then five years in the undergraduate programme of Sculpture, which is one year more than the other undergraduate programmes. After that, I extended my postgraduate studies, so I was in school for many years, and living in Huajiadi for more than ten years.
AY: Compared with the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts and China Academy of Art, the Central Academy of Fine Arts had a more robust Soviet tradition, stricter requirements for technical training, and a greater distance from the social scene.
Nabuqi: Yes, that was how I felt. Have things changed now? Maybe I wasn’t very outgoing, but the school did have a weaker relationship with the outside world when I was studying.
AY: Miao Ying, please tell us about your learning experience.
Miao Ying (MY): I attended the Affiliated High School of Shanghai Academy of Fine Arts at Shanghai University. After three years, I was admitted to the China Academy of Art as a Year 2 student in 2004. I was among the first cohort of NMAD. Then I began pursuing my postgraduate degree in New York in 2007.
AY: What was your experience like with the 3rd Sculpture Studio and NMAD?
Nabuqi: The training at the Department of Sculpture was more traditional, with courses such as realistic clay sculpture and occasionally some experimental media courses. At first, we learned about using conventional materials, such as stone and wood carving, copper casting, ceramics, etc. The core component of the course was realistic clay sculpture; it’s not dissimilar to learning figure painting skills.
Our studio was special. We had creative courses in between traditional ones. Several teachers in our studio designed the syllabus with a specific direction to let us conduct experiments accordingly. The teachers would provide us with guidance and advice when reviewing our proposals. This differentiated our studio from the other studios in the Department of Sculpture.
In the process, the more important thing was that our teachers introduced us to different artists, especially contemporary artists who were renowned abroad. I think there was a course named “Case Study.” I didn’t take this course, but my seniors did. In the class, students were asked to choose a favourite artist and research about them, then make artwork in response.
There were many courses like that. For example, Sui Jianguo gave a body-related course and introduced us to artists he was interested in, such as Antony Gormley. In this course, he’d ask students to conduct body-related experiments with clay or other materials. Zhan Wang also gave classes on performance art, and his students would conduct performances on campus or elsewhere.
AY: How did you choose this particular studio to begin with?
Nabuqi: I suppose I’d received too much training on traditional techniques and wanted something different.
The first class Geng Jianyi taught us was about conceptual art. He said, “It’s a brainwashing class. Forget everything you learned before.”
AY: Contrary to Jiang Zhuyun and others, you said you felt more like a student than an artist when you were studying, and it took you longer to become an artist.
Nabuqi: Yes, I did.
AY: What influenced you most during your time at the 3rd Studio?
Nabuqi: The inspiration and guidance. Without these things, I might have taken more detours with my journey.
AY: Miao Ying, could you tell us more about your experience in NMAD and its influence on you?
MY: I could sense there was a huge gap when I moved from the foundation courses to the Department of New Media. In the foundation courses, I could choose traditional art forms such as oil painting or printmaking. Because we were the first cohort in this department, most of us didn’t know much about new media art. Jiang Zhuyun was one of the few mature students who had been making his sound artwork ever since he started studying at the Affiliated High School of China Academy of Art. I think 99% of students in NMAD mostly drew or painted. As Nabuqi said, I didn’t choose the Department of Oil Painting then because I was already a little put off by working on technique, so I looked for new mediums and creative methods.
When I entered the department, I didn’t know what new media was, nor did I have any exposure to contemporary art.
The first class Geng Jianyi taught us was about conceptual art. He said, “It’s a brainwashing class. Forget everything you learned before.” When I joined the department, art history teachers were constantly invited to give us lectures. It was the first time we learnt about Duchamp and other artists. At the same time, Geng taught a practical class in which we were asked to make conceptual art pieces. We were all graded the same 60 marks, as a fresh start. It was a massive shock to me at the time.
AY: Did you worry about the change, or did you like it as a student?
MY: I liked it very much. I quite clearly remember I did an experimental artwork about noise at the time.
But there were also many difficulties. Our class was divided into two groups. Jiang Zhuyun and I were in the same group. Our first lesson was about Photoshop. Although I did take computer classes in the foundation courses, I was incompetent at computers. I didn’t even know how to turn them on. I never passed the computer class, nor the Photoshop course, if I remember correctly. Anyway, learning basic skills was quite tricky at the beginning. We had a lot of very advanced Macs that I’ve never used. At that time, very few people used Apple. So it was a giant leap for me in every aspect—technically, theoretically, and conceptually.
From Art Student to Artist: A Metamorphosis
AY: How much time did it take you to transition to that state of creation Zhang Peili referred to?
MY: On the one hand, we began to study contemporary art from the perspective of art history. Then, even though initially I didn’t know how to use certain software, I seemed to understand the underlying principle after learning the first. It took me two months to understand what a layer was, but I did not encounter any significant difficulties afterwards. That said, we weren’t meant to become experts in the technology; even our teacher stressed that technology was just an auxiliary tool. What mattered was our artistic concept. Now, with the advancement of technology, artists can help each other out and spend less time on working it out themselves. But over those three years of study, we learned the essential skills of all kinds of different software, including interactive software, Photoshop, video and sound editing, and so on.
I feel like I was learning constantly throughout those three years. For our graduation project, we were all rather stressed. But since we were the first cohort in our department, the teachers gave us a lot of attention. For instance, Zhang and Geng devoted a lot of their personal time to us. So I think the students were under so much pressure at the time, especially with our graduation project and thesis, and everyone worked really hard.
AY: Geng Jianyi once said, “Art can be learned, but not taught.” What’s your take on this statement?
MY: I think art can be learned through art history, but his statement might be more about creativity.
What we experienced in NMAD was a kind of enlightenment. Most students had never been exposed to contemporary and conceptual art, so I think NMAD did an excellent job of opening our eyes in that regard.
AY: NMAD organised some exhibitions where students and teachers would both take part. What was your experience in this area?
MY: When I was admitted in 2004, I didn’t know much about contemporary art. Then, when I was in Year 3 and 4, Zhang and Geng guided us to do exhibitions. We had made significant progress. It was really as Jiang Zhuyun said, we worked in a very open and egalitarian way. Looking back now, this sort of exhibition experience was really quite precious.
AY: Here, today, we’re hoping to highlight the differences between the art academies, so it would be great if you two could ask each other questions. Miao Ying, would you like to start?
MY: I’d like to ask Nabuqi when she started to make art independently as an artist.
Nabuqi: Probably after I finished my postgraduate degree. I was struggling with anxiety between 2013 and 2014, and it was a period where I felt rather stuck. I did try to make some artworks, but I didn’t finish them. I just kept experimenting, but I didn’t actually complete anything. It took another year or so before some works began to take shape.
I asked Professor Zheng when he realised that he had transformed from an art student to an artist. He told me he never thought that he did—he still felt like he was learning as a student.
AY: That is an essential point because it involves the subtle change in the mindset of transitioning from an art student to an artist. I once asked Professor Zheng Shengtian the same question. Now in his eighties, Zheng was an important educator in the Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts (currently known as “China Academy of Art”). I asked Professor Zheng when he realised that he had transformed from an art student to an artist. He told me he never thought that he did—he still felt like he was learning as a student. I was very moved by his answer, because to a certain extent, being an artist really takes confidence or willpower, as Ye Su said. But at the same time, artists and art teachers must keep reinventing themselves and learning without being satisfied with the status quo. Only with this attitude and perspective can they remain innovative and free.
Nabuqi, do you have anything to ask Miao Ying?
Nabuqi: Miao Ying, your works are created using computers or the Internet, which is very different to my creative practice. You mentioned just now that you had spent two months learning what a layer was, which is something I still don’t understand. How do you understand the nature of space in the virtual world on the Internet? How does it differ from or resemble space in the actual world?
MY: I don’t really distinguish between the reality of “online” or “offline” anymore. It seems to me that there are no longer “offline” hours since the emergence of social media. With Web 1.0., you could still say that you were away from your computer; but now, almost everything you do contributes to big data, and there’s no such thing as really being offline. Most of my works are installations, but I rarely distinguish whether I made them in a mode of being “online” or “offline.” I let them take their natural shape.
Some of the material in my work, such as images or videos, may originate from the Internet, but then they’ll be presented in physical or sculptural forms. That’s why I don’t distinguish whether they are “online” or “offline.” Does this make sense to you?
Nabuqi: I find the fact that you don’t distinguish between the online and offline worlds intriguing because the lines between these two worlds are pretty clear-cut to me. I see “space” as a physical concept. For instance, an object has a dimensional volume, and so does a human body. It may weigh 120 kg and measure 1.73 metres in height or have a diameter of 50 cm. And space is what it outside of these dimensional volumes, while also containing them at the same time.
But your explanation of why you don’t distinguish between online and offline makes perfect sense to me—I find your way of interpreting space intriguing.
AY: Thank you both.
Chelsea Ma is AAA's Editorial Assistant.
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.