Zhang Xiang A Cane Chair, 2010, Installation, woven cane, 450 x 70 x 60 cm

A distinctively Chinese designation, “academic experimental art (xueyuan shiyan yishu) refers not to experimental art within the academy in general, but to the work produced in academic programs on experimental art, particularly those at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the China Academy of Art. Unlike the more canonical “COPS” (Chinese painting, Oil painting, Printmaking, and Sculpture), “experimental art” is a relatively loose concept, one that corresponds to contemporary art and to a more expansive notion of visual culture. The all-encompassing nature of this “category” means that within China’s long-established art academy system, there is no singular fixed syllabus or fixed group of teachers. Many Chinese contemporary artists have been invited by institutions to form their own “experimental art” departments— not only to teach, but also to participate in designing the way in which “experimental art” will be taught. Having begun within the first two years of the twenty-first century, this kind of effort is a considerably enlightened one on the part of the schools. In the decade leading up to this exhibition, pedagogical reform in arts education has ushered in a new tide for the art academy, the impact of which has not yet been fully comprehended.

All the same, as compared with the stilldominant “COPS” departments, “experimental art” occupies a fringe position; the relative inferiority of teacher ratings and the allocation of top students, for instance, are two objectively pronounced issues. But thinking back on the unfair treatment experimental art has received in the past in China, the respect granted to experimental art inside the academy as heralded by the opening of “Harmonious Differences” is indeed something to marvel at; the exhibition takes up almost the entire museum. Moreover, just before the exhibition’s closing, CAFA held a four-day symposium on experimental art education in China. These demonstrable structural changes in the academic system are in one sense the ultimate proof of the gradually increasing depth of influence of contemporary art in China. However, overall, the current works on display are not far off from the works shown at the academies’ annual graduation exhibitions. A focus on pedagogical trends, it seems, outweighs a more discerning curatorial glance at the works as such.

“Harmonious Differences” is divided into two parts. One part is comprised of student works placed into separate units according to curricular focus. In this section, all stages of an education in experimental art are laid out clearly, one by one: from a broad-based visual training in order to broaden students’ consciousness with regard to the physical world, to investigating and researching the application of a new medium, and ultimately to the development of students’ own personal modes of expression. The second part of the exhibition showcases documentary materials related to each academy’s signature experimental art course or curriculum. The regrettable fact is that the majority of the works here simply demonstrate the degree to which students have rotely realized the lessons of their respective curricula. The more systematic experimental art departments become, it seems, the more similarities there will be between what the students studying in these departments produce. It is clear that “experimental art” education has already begun to embody a degree of dogmatism; it is just a matter of whether this problem is a result of teaching methods or of a lack of introspection and reflexivity on the part of students. Perhaps it is a bit of both. Regardless, the moment this kind of query presents itself, another rather confounding dilemma naturally arises, i.e. the age-old “can art be taught” question. Sadly, the fruits presently born of experimental art education do not— at least not as of yet— offer much in the way of a positive answer. Sun Dongdong (Translated by Katy Pinke)