Considering Socially Engaged Art in China
In April 2014, artist volunteers from the Women’s Caucus for Art (WCA) created an exhibition and interactive events for women artists in China and the U.S. at Luxun Academy of Fine Arts in Shenyang, China, entitled “Half the Sky: Intersections in Social Practice Art (HTS:IISPA)” We were invited by the academy’s president and gallery director, who wished to create a dialogue between artists and their works about women’s issues. WCA has a 40+ years history of activist art, yet the choices about the collection of art and the events we brought to China were greatly influenced by the political and cultural restrictions there. Here is a conversation about our decision-making and reflections over time about our experience from some of the thirteen working delegates who went to China as key figures in this project.
This project,with a documentary video of interviews of Chinese participants, will be presented under the title “Considerations and Challenges: Socially-Engaged Art in China” at Open Engagement Conference, Saturday, April 18, 2:30-4:00 pm, Room 307, 3rd Floor, College of Fine Arts Building, Carnegie-Mellon University.
- Sherri Cornett (HTS:IISPA Director/Delegate Artist, WCA International Caucus Chair, Partner/GutfreundCornettArt, sherricornett.com)
- Kay Kang (HTS:IISPA De-installation Coordinator/Delegate Artist, artspan/kaykang)
- Mido Lee (HTS:IISPA Technology & Language Director/Delegate Artist, cargocollective.com/midolee)
- Neda Moridpour (HTS:IISPA Event Leader/Documentation Team/Delegate Artist, Executive Director “Louder Than Words”, nedmorid.com)
- Sandra Mueller (HTS:IISPA Cultural and Community Events Director/Delegate Artist, WCA Vice-President/Special Events, profile/sandra-mueller)
- Brenda Oelbaum (HTS: IISPA Delegate Artist, WCA President, brendaoelbaum.me)
- Priscilla Otani (HTS:IISPA Logistics Director/Delegate Artist, WCA Treasurer, ARC Gallery/San Francisco Partner, mrpotani.com)
- Christine Giancola (HTS:IISPA Documentations Director/Delegate Artist, Webster University Adjunct Associate Professor and SIU/Edwardsville Photography Lecturer), christinegiancolaphotography.com)
PRISCILLA OTANI: We had a serious debate just prior to our social practice art interactive pieces. I recall that we felt conflicted and debated as to whether we should cancel or go forward with the performances. In the end, we decided to go forward. I felt our discussion, and what ensued, was an important milestone. Some of the unease came from a cultural sensitivity, a feeling of not wanting to impose Western values and standards on Chinese students, artists and academics who may not have the same perspective or readiness. I remember making a comment that our role was to “sow the seeds of discomfort,” to bring forth concepts and ideas that may be new, strange and uncomfortable. Of course I didn’t know if in fact we would have any impact at all, or if we would have even an audience. In the end, I felt very good about the events of the day. And after viewing the short video created by Mido Lee, I was surprised at how much of an impact we did have, and based on recent letters, how the women-based exhibition and performances continue to have on students at the Luxun Academy.
Nearly a year after our Half the Sky project, in what ways have your views and opinions about what happened with our socially-engaged events at the Luxun Academy changed or evolved?
SANDRA MUELLER: Taking the time to weigh our intentions and consider the risks permitted the full group to make a shared commitment to the morning event. It was no longer that several delegates were presenting four events––two that addressed sexual violence––but, all these offerings now stood as a core reason why we as the WCA delegation were there and why Half the Sky cultural exchange and exhibition itself was a social practice project. The morning permitted the projects rooted in community engagement to come alive for everyone including our own team of delegates––which, in turn, permitted the social justice content of all the artworks in the exhibition to be more apparent.
Shifting from “exhibition” pieces that documented past efforts to “social practice” works required building solidarity in our group––a point that Jing Deng, who was responsible for our invitation made clear when she offered to do the Mandarin portion of the “call and response” in the “Myths of Rape” piece.
The breakfast discussion was also a culmination of thoughtful multiple exchanges with artist teams that began months prior with the selection of those teams as delegates as we had all known these works and the participatory elements were politically and personally sensitive.
The sequence of the morning mattered as well. By opening the participatory events with attendees saying their name in English or Mandarin, they symbolically held up “Half the Sky” and then everyone, who wished, writing in their respective language, what they did or wished to do together, ground was laid to experience the events that followed in a communal, participatory mode.
The respectful tone that was so necessary for the morning had been thoughtfully woven into the traditional tools of the exhibition with the bi-lingual catalogue, the installation of the exhibition and the ongoing documentation at the outset of our time in China. Rosemary’s thoughtful consideration and exchange with each artist on their work and partnering with the gallery director set a tone of shared involvement that placed respect and consideration into the fabric of our time at the academy as did the non-intrusive, yet thorough, mode of the documentation.
It was my experience with the “Pearls of Wisdom: End the Violence”––a social practice project that I wrote about in my catalogue essay––that there comes a moment in these projects when the terms of “community or social engagement” need to come to life that is very, very sobering. That is, it is one thing to write or say the words but quite another when it comes to enacting them. Hence, I might suggest that our morning deliberations were a communal pausing to acknowledge what that looked like at that moment and taking stock of the resources available.
NEDA MORIDPOUR: Half The Sky: Intersections in Social Practice Art provided LOUDER THAN WORDS (S.A. Bachman+Neda Moridpour) an opportunity to create an interactive installation solely for the purpose of a cross-cultural exhibition and exchange. Our project, THESE WALLS CAN TALK, addressed domestic abuse and included “domestic violence” wallpaper, video, information on gender violence, and “don’t remain silent” stickers. The project was represented in both English and Chinese and our aim was to generate public dialogue about abuse.
During the five days of our visit, I believe the most crucial aspect of this project occurred during our multiple gatherings with all of the delegate artists to have conversations around “Lazy Susan” round tables while sharing food. Our conversations created cycles of interaction, shared experiences, collaboration, preparing, performing, and installing that informed the exhibition content. The delectable Chinese food extended a concrete, tasty meaning into our dialogues on issues of gender, power, cultural identity, sustainability, and community. And by adding these meanings to the exhibition, I believe we tried to stretch the boundaries between art and everyday life as well as breaking the common art disciplinary traditions.
I represented LOUDER THAN WORDS in China and, as an Iranian- American artist, I am keenly familiar with the western representation of modern China, Orientalism, and the pattern of dictatorship in both China and Iran. Although censorship has become a part of the Chinese culture, I believe we were able to provide a safe space through the interactive events in this exhibition that enabled the community to engage in conversations about abuse and rape without being censored. And, in our last conversation with the gallery director, we listened to the Chinese artists and I was reminded again of the importance of framing gender-based violence as an international human rights issue, rather than implying this issue more on the traditional disadvantaged countries.
In conceiving of this exhibition in China, I strongly believe that we were successful in increasing the process of collaboration and negotiation among the team members, gallery director, volunteer students and participants, and provided a counterbalance to traditional art practices that foster individual expression, self-aggrandizement, commodification, and solitude.
This exhibition marked an institutional celebration of exhibiting the work of Chinese and American feminist artists and the blossoming of social practice art in China. Let us hope that more galleries and museums support feminist art and Socially Engaged Art practices in the future.
After recovering from the culture shock I think that every part of the Luxun Academy events were really wonderful. Although my installation did not focus on social practice, it was very clear that many of the other pieces would be challenging to the Chinese community. One thing that I did notice was, when pushed, the staff and the students are very proud people and for the most part they did not wilt under pressure of challenging topics, they answered directly and questioned our purposes boldly and with candor.
We were, after all, presenting them with some new ideas that are very far from their traditional vision of art and art education and how art might function as a tool (not just for the government) but also for personal ideologies and criticism.
All in all I think what was presented was well received, if not exactly as we had intended, at least as a vehicle for collaboration and friendship and mutual fascination. We have a lot to learn from their methods and they from ours, this was just a beginning.
PRISCILLA OTANI: I agree that learnings were on both sides. Though we tried to be as prepared as possible, the unexpected occurrences or interactions enriched my experience. Brenda, the fact that your diet books were held back at customs because of their “suspicious nature” caused both the delegates and the gallery staff to work together to create a piece of art. Just the interactive nature of that activity (painting over and retitling Chinese books) could be, I suppose, a form of social practice art. And nicely captured on the video. I also thought it was wonderful that the students wanted to interact well beyond the performances. One young woman approached me and said that she wanted to keep Neda’s sticker to give to a friend who was in an abusive relationship. We talked a little bit about this. I was surprised at how much candor the woman had, how much she shared. It felt almost like an American conversation. In my own culture (Japanese), women would not be as forthcoming.
SHERRI CORNETT: The seeds of my questioning around social-engaged work, as director of the project, began early in the year-plus of planning and development for this project. I remember hours and hours of discussion with our leadership team. How could we design interactive programming that was diplomatically appropriate yet still true to our 40+ year activist roots in the Women’s Caucus for Art? Our hosts asked us to avoid topics around the one-child rule, China’s relationship to Tibet and Taiwan and China’s human rights record. How could we reconcile this with Western values of free speech and concerns of censorship. We knew that any art we wanted to bring to China had to be approved by the Cultural Bureau in a country that controls and often shuts-down the internet for content objectionable to the government and appeared to have little tolerance for dissent. We were going to one of the most conservative regions of China. It was rather humorous that the only works that eventually did not get through customs in China were Brenda’s 150 diet books, but, at the time, we did not have confidence in telling our artists what would and would not make it through. How could we write a call for art that asked for activist art, social-engagement proposals and new media and write juror instructions that narrowed the definition of “appropriateness” in ways uncomfortable to most artists familiar with WCA’s past exhibitions. We couldn’t have any kind of conversation with Chinese artists in China if we, and our art, couldn’t even get to China. These questions and restrictions created a climate in which we started to review our designs, adjust our expectations and revise our stances on “in your face” activism in order to keep the door open for an exchange with the Chinese. And these questions and adjustments continued through our intense breakfast discussion that morning before the presentations of our socially-engaged works at the academy.
This project has been a tremendous learning opportunity. It being my first trip to China, it taught me so much. I learned that Northeastern China has its unique culture and society that, in a way, is more conservative than other parts of China. My Taiwanese background made it easier to relate to the struggle of communicating with a Mandarin-speaking audience.
To begin talking about gender equality we have to first talk about Chinese culture and language. Mandarin Chinese is a genderless language. There is no word for “he” or “she,” but there are words for “man” and “woman.” In daily conversation, we do not define gender. Most of the time, we do not even define the subject while we talk. Additionally, Chinese culture does not promote individualistic thinking. Because of the one-child policy, in place since 1979, present-day China has made some progress in becoming a more gender equal society. And although there are fewer gender stereotypes in China today, it is still far from being actually gender-equal.
In the beginning, students and artists in Shenyang were relatively conservative as we talked about gender inequality in general terms. Some of them believed that there is no gender inequality in China. However, as the exhibition went on, artists and students began to think about what is really meant by gender equality and why they have not considered it in the first place.
When they thought no one was listening, some of the audience would criticize American art as being ugly. They did not say it out loud in English. When interviewed they would say the exhibition was wonderful but American artists should make prettier art works. This gave me the sense that contemporary Chinese art is still highly process oriented and focused on aesthetics. I think it might come out from the traditions of calligraphy, Chinese traditional painting, and stamp making. Artists normally go through decades of training to earn the name of artist. When American women artists presented performance and conceptual work, most of the students were shocked. I believe that Half the Sky has changed the fundamental meaning of art for those students in Shenyang. With all the misunderstandings and the language barrier, it was a kind of miracle that we successfully brought Half the Sky to a Chinese audience.
KAY KANG: My installation “It’s A Girl” were received differently in China than when it was exhibited in various institution in US. As most people know China and Korea share similar culture and customs. For the last two decades Korea had unspoken two-children rule which should include least one boy.
Most Chinese students were indifferent toward my piece, especially males. But a few female students came and spoke to me about their situation and were envious of the Asian women who stood up and shouted as “It’s A Girl,” which their mothers could not do it in their country. One girl hugged me and told me that her family moved away from Beijing so they didn’t have to go through of pressure of giving her up. I felt her mother’s pain and admired her father’s courage not to leave his wife and daughter.
CHRISTINE GIANCOLA: The openness in which Chinese students embraced the socially engaged events was refreshing and somewhat unexpected. I was more of an observer than a participant due to my background as a documentary photographer that encourages my objectivity not engagement when documenting people and events. I had the opportunity to closely study the expressions and body language of many of the Chinese and Americans interactions during the events. Most of the Chinese were very engaged and eager to participate. I was especially drawn to an elderly woman during Elana’s “Myths and Facts about Rape” event. She stood near the front row of people and was visibly very moved. I saw her eyes scan over the English/Chinese translations several times. I couldn’t help but wonder what she was thinking and how rape might have impacted her life or the life of someone she knew.
It is hard to know the impact of an action or event in someone’s life. I know for me listening to the Chinese students Mido interviewed in the video was very encouraging and insightful. I was very impressed with the courage that it must have taken for them to speak out so openly about their lives and to express so freely what they had taken from the experience and the changes they were experiencing.
Since Half the Sky, I think a lot about the power and possibility of social change through social practice art. I have asked myself what I learned from the Chinese that will alter how I view and interact with the world. I was especially intrigued by the Chinese people’s relationship with the art. In observing them I noticed that in general, they moved closer and closer to the point of almost touching the art to point out a detail or share an observation with someone. This made me somewhat uncomfortable and created a bit of tension as I watched them expecting for an alarm to ring indicating that they have crossed over a line in the gallery. When I view art now I find myself moving closer as though given permission. I think too how ironic that in the West with all our freedoms, we restrict our ability to view art that closely yet in the East we are free to move as closely as we choose.
SHERRI CORNETT: Yes, Christine, after all of our worries and discussions and ultimately reconfirming, the morning before the presentation of our interactive events, as Priscilla said, that our role was to sow seeds of discontent, I was pleasantly surprised to see the museum crowded with art students, staff and others, to see how intently they listened to Jing’s translations and responded to her invitations to participate in each event and to ask questions. Each of the delegates and the working teams of which they were members had defined responsibilities during our time there and, when I was flying out of Shenyang, I found myself envious of you, Christine, and the others on our documentation team. Spending much of your time behind a camera, you were, of necessity, more removed from participation. But, on the other hand, you had a tool through which to intently look at our audiences’ faces. My focus was both more diffuse and on the mechanics of making sure the event leaders were getting the support they needed. The differences in body language and facial expressiveness appeared, in my board visual sweeps of the audience, more reserved. Especially when considering the many questions we had received from the women artists and teachers at the roundtable discussion the day prior. That day, most of the discussion was focused on their questioning the need for activist work, especially around women’s rights, and our efforts to explain the history and purpose of art activism in the Women’s Caucus for Art. I remember holding on to the fact that the president of the academy and the gallery director, both men, had invited us to the academy because they did believe that art should move viewers to question and act.
When we returned home and I had the opportunity to see some of the thousands of photographs you took, Christine, and the video footage from Elana and Neda and Mido’s interviews, I had such a profound sense of relief and gratification and warmth towards all involved on all sides of this project and its events. .I saw intent discussion, revelations, smiles, laughter. Building community and connections were certainly paramount in our efforts. And, as with all socially-engaged projects, the work of our documentation team brought our efforts together into a meaningful and re-viewable way.
About the contributors: The International Caucus of the Women’s Caucus for Art and its membership of women artists and academics, develops collaborative projects with other global organizations and entities around activist themes, uses WCA’s NGO status to bring attention to UN priorities and honors activist artists. WCA’s International Caucus has created exhibitions at the United Nations, in South Korea and in China. wcainternaitonalcaucus.weebly.com
Women’s Caucus for Art was founded in 1972 in connection with the College Art Association (CAA), WCA is a national member organization unique in its multi-disciplinary, multicultural membership of artists, art historians, students, educators, and museum professionals. The mission of the Women’s Caucus for Art is to expand opportunities and recognition for women in the arts. WCA is committed to education about the contributions of women, opportunities for the exhibition of women’s work, publication of women’s writing about art, inclusion of women in the history of art, professional equity for all, and respect for all individuals without discrimination and support for legislation relevant to our goals. nationalwca.org
The mission of the Women’s Caucus for Art is to create community through art, education, and social activism. They are committed to:
• recognizing the contributions of women in the arts
• providing women with leadership opportunities and professional development
• expanding networking and exhibition opportunities for women
• supporting local, national, and global art activism & advocating for equity in the arts for all