“My University (1990-2010): Liu Dahong and the Shuangbai Studio” opened on June 20, 2010 at Iberia Center for Contemporary Art in Beijing. Liu Dahong, artist, professor, and director of the Shuangbai Studio, graduated in 1985 from the Oil Painting Department of Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, and has served as an instructor at Shanghai Normal University for the past two decades. Not only has his own work remained remarkably distinctive while still working within the final stages of the planned economy, he has also founded the Shuangbai Institute to embrace a pedagogy defined by taking “society as model,” one that continually introduces new challenges to creative methods.
“THE UNIVERSITY, THE WORK UNIT” FORUM
DATE: 2010.7.12 / LOCATION: IBERIA CENTER FOR CONTEMPORARY ART
Professor of Fine Arts, Shanghai Normal University; Director, Shuangbai Institute
Professor of Literature, People’s University
Professor and Dean of Sculpture Department, Central Academy of Fine Arts
Professor, Tongji University Institute for Cultural Criticism
Moderator; Curator of the “My University” exhibition, Director of the Iberia Center for Contemporary Art
In what we call China, to put one’s self forward reflects the concept of being a “free artist,” though I feel disgusted, because this “freedom” feels fake, it doesn’t truly exist. I feel that everyone has to face their own reality within the work unit, and everyone ultimately hopes to produce change. My deepest impression is that so many intellectuals and university professors are extremely intelligent and understand how things should be done—they have a high level of theoretical understanding and are more forthright in stating their views than I am—but what they lack is action. Why is everyone going to such great lengths to say things about art and education? So many problems with education have become apparent and everyone criticizes the academic departments and China’s education system, but how many people are actually addressing the problems from the inside? How many of our professors, instructors, and heads of school are getting involved on the ground and actually working together to build the new face of university education? So I wonder, with so many people of understanding, why more don’t take a stand.
Looking at the section in this exhibition on “Thesisgate,” I suddenly felt some sentimental feelings wash over me—this is indeed the state of college education in China. Every spring term I read theses until I’m in agony—undergraduate theses, graduate theses, and a long round of doctoral dissertation defenses. While I’m reading these theses, the students won’t be jumping off any buildings, but as a teacher you feel just about ready to jump. It’s a painful process, seemingly hopeless. These theses reflect the state of the Chinese education system and our nation’s culture—they make you feel hopeless, but you’re a teacher, so you have a sense of responsibility. You have to go the extra mile to carry your students along. Many of the issues that colleges face right now are not problems with the institutions themselves, but problems set in place during the time between kindergarten and high school. We are now giving our college students a re-education because during high school they are intellectually castrated. There are some who can be re-taught and enlightened, while some are very hard to teach, as they are too set in their ways of thinking. I believe our college education should, in fact, be as Adorno said: “Philosophy is really there to redeem what lies in an animal’s gaze.” Education should also work to redeem what lies in an animal’s gaze, to allow students to rediscover themselves—to discover their natural abilities, such as in literary pursuits or in a penchant for language, and to ultimately display their self-awareness.
In fact, at this point I have begun to reflect on the moment in 1997 when I began to chair my department and suddenly had the idea to transform the sculpture program. Strictly speaking, my presentation of my idea was responded to quite slowly. What I wanted to carry out was a reform, only because I wanted to see something provocative emerge from within the CAFA system, which had long been overly conservative. After all the books I had read during the 1980s “enlightenment” craze and all the thinking on Chinese society, history, and reality that followed, this spirit resurfaced in my band of reformers, who hoped that this society could take reform ideologies and put them into practice on all fronts. Of course, I never really had a chance to get this thought off my chest. It was only at the end of the 1990s, once my patriotic fervor finally had a chance to diminish, that I had the chance to reform the sculpture department. I wanted to make a department based on a monolithic understanding of realism more pluralistic, to incorporate things beyond realism, such as modern materials and contemporary ideas. And a pluralistic system like this would not be the product of my thinking; indeed I was simply drawing on a precedent set by Peking University president Cai Yuanpei in the 1920s. He believed that the university should be interdisciplinary and able to blend all aspects of scholarly ideas together within the school. So in fact, I was able to gain a bit of momentum toward making a change, but in the process I had doubts about my own inclinations. I therefore opted for this interdisciplinary approach because I did not want to carry out a complete revolution. I didn’t want to make the complete shift to an entirely experimental teaching approach like that of Qiu Zhijie or Lü Shengzhong. The ideal teaching approach that I aspired to practice was one that maintained a piece of the traditional, yet also had greater potential for new developments.
Our university education seems very bleak in one sense, yet it also shows a great deal of promise, in that students today are not only receiving education from within the system. They have other spaces for learning that function as a kind of balance or buffer. In the classes that I currently teach, I clearly state to my students that I will give them an anti-brainwashing, taking their previously brainwashed minds and scrub them once again. The students love to listen and follow everything I say. They ultimately give in to my own form of brainwashing, accept the work I assign them, and reestablish their foundation of understanding. They take the false understandings embedded in their minds and wash them clean. The most important aspect is not a particular concept or idea, but rather a method of thinking. I can only speak about what is directly in front of me in the realm of teaching, and try to build something like Liu Dahong’s method, a method that contains possibility and flexibility. If every instructor were to teach with his approach, I feel that the Chinese education system would have hope yet. There will always be this kind of parallel space. It can come from parents, from the external influences of Western society, from Taiwan and Hong Kong, and build upon particular concepts to inform the direction of the educational system.