Xu Bing is one of the most internationally recognisable Chinese artists, through his art that for many years has addressed issues of cultural and symbolic communication, and for his role as Vice-President of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. Born in Chongqing in 1955, Xu earned his bachelor degree at CAFA in 1981, staying on as an instructor afterwards. He left China in 1990 to teach at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, living and working in the United States for 18 years before returning again to China in 2008 to take up his current position. CAFA is one a set of eight academies that represent the official route to recognition as an artist, in China. Xu’s appointment as the head of CAFA represented a loosening of the forms of art acceptable within the academic system, opening the doors to a more general embrace of contemporary art in China’s academia. In 2008 CAFA opened its onsite Museum in a building designed by the Japanese architect Arata Isozaki, which Xu proudly describes as “the best museum in China,” and it was here that Xu sat down with Art Review to discuss academic life in China and his part in it.
Xu Bing (right) with the author
Interviewee: Xu Bing (XB)
Interviewer: Edward Sanderson (ES)
Translation: Nin Haiping, Lei Chak Man
Date and location: 17 April 2013, CAFA Museum Cafe
ES: I understand there are 8 top-level academies in total in China, of which CAFA, as its name makes clear, is the “central” one. What is the role and purpose of these academies in the Chinese arts and cultural scene?
XB: Art education is very important in China, and the eight top academies have a very special place in the Chinese arts scene. In my personal opinion CAFA in particular has the role of representing and maintaining a complete and healthy art “eco-environment.” Differences between classical or modern, western or Chinese, shouldn’t exist here. So, for example, the European classical arts or Chinese traditional arts might not be in fashion right now, but as long as one student wants to learn about that, we should be able to provide this program. It is the duty of the academy to preserve all these art “genes,” so the student can absorb the healthiest nutrition from their environment.
ES:What is the relationship between the academies? Do the others look to CAFA for guidance?
XB: Amongst the Chinese art academies there is a tradition that whatever CAFA does, the other academies will follow. In the past the central government paid a lot of attention to CAFA as a means of disseminating their cultural or artistic policies. First CAFA experienced them, and then they spread out to the other institutions. But now it’s different, because there are a lot of different views around the different ideologies, and some art academies have a much shorter history, so they have a lighter burden of tradition.
ES:So has this system changed since you returned to China?
XB: My initial observation was that the system had a lot of things that were very difficult to change. But my coming back had a symbolic meaning [for the future of the academies]. In the past the students in the academies would not be encouraged to do the more experimental kind of art that I do, because the teachers didn’t have enough knowledge to judge it. Since I came back, the materials and formats the students now choose have become richer, as you can see in their graduation shows.
ES:What benefits does having an on-site museum bring an academy?
XB: At a superficial level, having the museum gives the academy a good image. But it’s obviously also a huge benefit for the students studying there.
The first exhibition I curated after the museum at CAFA was opened was the exhibition of graduate work called “A Journey of a Thousand Miles.” We deliberately planned this exhibition like any of the other, big-name shows we have here, making really beautiful programs and catalogues for the artists. We pushed the young artists to a high standard – which is good for their future development.
This show has become an annual event, and it is also uniting the eight art academies from all over China to work on it together. This is really good for building up the platforms for Chinese art education, allowing one to compare the results from each educational institution.
ES:In terms of the institutional system, I’m sure it was a shock coming back to China after 18 years in the States.
XB: China was very different from when I left: its methods, its internal mechanisms – but also its possibilities.
ES:So when you came back to take up this position, what did you feel your contribution could be to the system of Chinese academies and to CAFA?
XB: I think that art’s current connection to international diplomacy through cultural exchange is similar to the way China was once known internationally as the nation for ping-pong. I have a particular part to play in the current situation, given my time spent abroad.
I had actually taught traditional Western sketching in CAFA for 10 years before I left China. I only started practicing contemporary art after I moved to the States. My own artistic practice is part of the situation. The more progressive my own artistic practice becomes, the more beneficial it is to CAFA. In this way CAFA becomes more attractive to the world, and also more attractive for the students. As an artist, what I hope to find out is the meaning of art making. In fact this is a very basic question. We have wasted a lot of time in discussions of “what is the past,” and “what is contemporary,” “western” and “eastern.” We shouldn’t be wasting so much time on these questions, because this is not the essence of art practice.
ES:How do you see CAFA developing in the future?
XB: The future will basically be a combination of internationalisation and increasing self-government of the academies. Within CAFA for example, our Museum is now working with many other international, first-class museums, like the V&A, the Louvre, etc. setting up exhibition projects together.