If there is one nation of people who can spectacularly whip up magnificence out of mess, carnival out of chaos, all in a teeth-clenching, last-minute manner, then you have to give it to the Chinese. As a proponent of the let’s-make-a-plan-and-stick-to-it theory, I have learnt plenty about the art of spontaneity and the spontaneity of art from living in China.
At Nanjing University of the Arts, the summer graduate show is not simply called a “degree show”; instead it’s called a “carnival”, and deservingly so. In one hell of a Sunday, the university miraculously put on almost 100 exhibitions, stages, screens, auctions and installations, in an eye-popping spectacle that saw every nook and cranny of the university smothered in creativity.
While it was not humanly possible to see everything in just 1 day, it is even more challenging to capture the scale and diversity in less than six hundred words. The best I can do is point out what, to me, stood out.
One overriding (and perhaps predictable) theme in the main art gallery of the university was technology. In a collaborative work by Wu Nansi, Zhu Yuxiang and Wang Ziming from the School of Media, a Chinese handscroll painting was brought to life by digitally animated figures and features that skipped across the surface. But rather than simply projecting one image onto another, the animation was first reflected into a mirror, then onto a pane of glass, creating a multidimensional surface full of illusionary appeal.
In the Humanities Department was a room full of painting and ceramic restoration, a discipline all too often ignored, but one to which museums are deeply indebted. Next to each finished piece was a photograph of the fragmented scraps that each student had painstakingly pieced together, filling in the gaps with individual fibres and touching up painting with seamless expertise. It’s a reminder of the living nature of art objects, a reminder that what we see as ancient may very well have traces of today’s craftsmen.
A stone’s throw from Humanities, I’m not too sure if what I’m faced with is art or zoo. Can you name another university in the world that builds a peacock pen, complete with eight peacocks, for graduation?
I thought not.
I wonder what the peacocks thought of the wafts of biryani and pulse of African drums that resonated from the usual marketplace of culture brought by the international students. On the stage behind rows of tents, directors Amir Frik and Anna Tarasenko, together with their talented multicultural group, brought us a contemporary dance performance called Savitri, based on an ancient Indian legend. Each character, so wildly different in appearance and movement, mingled and communicated tremendously, while a voice over chanting an assortment of different languages implied depth of meaning, yet preserved a sense of mystery.
Before I’ve even had the chance to delve into the wonderful sculpture, industrial design or calligraphy, I must mention the highly anticipated fashion show, which this year was rather over policed, in comparison to the sprawling excitement of 2017. Suo Feiya’s colourful cocoons were pieced together from panels which seemed to make use of every bit of ribbon, thread and glitter from the craft drawer, while fluffy purple pompoms made a comforting contrast to ripples of gauze in Nunu’s purple outfits. I won’t dwell on the model dressed as a rather more fashionable black plague doctor, but I will applaud her graceful stamina.
It puzzles me why such a wealth of artistic talent must be squashed into such short time, yet the vibrancy of this feat of organisation was infectious, making a spectacular finale to what marks, for many, the start of a new chapter.