Gallery di­rec­tor sees great value in tra­di­tional Chi­nese art­work

China Daily (Canada) - - ACROSSAMERICA - By CARO­LINE BERG in New York car­o­lineberg@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

Her pres­ence was felt, with­out even be­ing there.

“It was my plea­sure to be her side­kick in this project,” a Prince­ton Univer­sity pro­fes­sor said about the di­rec­tor of the China In­sti­tute Gallery in New York dur­ing a re­cent lec­ture. “She re­ally de­serves 90 per­cent of the credit for this project, or maybe 95 per­cent.”

The project was re­search­ing what would be­come the ex­hi­bi­tion, In­spired by Dun­huang: Re-cre­ation in Con­tem­po­rary Chi­nese Art, now on dis­play at the China In­sti­tute and the topic of the lec­ture given by Jerome Sil­bergeld, the P.Y. and Kin­may W. Tang pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese art his­tory at Prince­ton and di­rec­tor of the univer­sity’s Tang Center for East Asian Art.

“[Wil­low Weilan Hai Chang] opens our eyes to a whole new set of pos­si­bil­i­ties,” the pro­fes­sor said about the gallery di­rec­tor. “It’s not just that th­ese are good works, it has to do with their in­ter­ac­tion and their com­mon source that makes us think and makes us think very dif­fer­ently about how art works.”

The China In­sti­tute is in the midst of its Year of Dun­huang, which kicked off in April with the ex­hi­bi­tion, Dun­huang: Bud­dhist Art at the Gate­way of the Silk Road, and now its con­tem­po­rary ex­hi­bi­tion, on dis­play un­til June 8, 2014.

“I’ve al­ways been in­ter­ested in old stuff,” Chang told China Daily in her of­fice this week, sur­rounded by stacks of pa­pers and books. “So, from the be­gin­ning, I just think any con­tem­po­rary show we do at the China In­sti­tute Gallery, we should have our own trade­mark, which is go­ing back to the tra­di­tion.”

Dun­huang, lo­cated in Gansu prov­ince in western China, is known for its more than 800 Mo­gao Caves that were carved out start­ing in 366 CE as places for Bud­dhist med­i­ta­tion and wor­ship. In 2008, Chang made her first pil­grim­age to the site.

“I think Dun­huang is re­ally a best ex­am­ple to show tra­di­tions visu­ally, be­cause it has been around for thou­sands of years, and across dif­fer­ent dy­nas­ties,” Chang said. “From this lo­ca­tion, I see many lay­ers of tra­di­tions. I’m in­ter­ested in its cus­toms, re­li­gious prac­tices, then the art you see from sculp­tures to paint­ings through thou­sands of years.”

When the show of tra­di­tional Dun­huang art was pro­posed in the spring of 2009, Chang said her thoughts jumped on cre­at­ing a sec­ond ex­hi­bi­tion.

“Once the plans for the show were nailed down, I im­me­di­ately thought we should in­clude a con­tem­po­rary show in­spired by Dun­huang,” the gallery di­rec­tor said. “Yet the chal­lenge is, I got this idea, I’m very ex­cited, but how to make it hap­pen?”

Dur­ing the lec­ture, Sil­bergeld praised Chang for her courage in un­der­tak­ing the project, which had not been re­searched fully be­fore and held great risk of fall­ing flat.

“The whole idea was hers, and a lot of us were look­ing at this kind of [con­tem­po­rary] ma­te­rial with­out know­ing what we were look­ing at,” he said. “She’s the one who de­cided to ex­plore it, no doubt with the sense of its pos­si­bil­i­ties, and I it’s very much a prod­uct of [Chang’s] imag­i­na­tion and her sense of dis­cov­ery to make this project hap­pen.”

Chang has been fo­cus­ing on China’s his­tory at least since 1977, when she be­gan her univer­sity stud­ies in China and chose to ma­jor in ar­chae­ol­ogy.

“We have al­most 6,000 years of ar­ti­facts, his­tory and tra­di­tion,” she said. “I think study­ing this his­tory is a jour­ney that will never end.”

Chang taught ar­chae­ol­ogy in China be­fore mov­ing to the US 25 years ago. In 2000, she was named gallery di­rec­tor for the China In­sti­tute.

The in­sti­tute was founded in 1926 by a group of Chi­nese and Amer­i­can ed­u­ca­tors, but the gallery didn’t open un­til 1966. It was the first non-profit gallery to open in the US that reg­u­larly show­cased Chi­nese art and cul­ture ex­clu­sively. Now, the gallery presents two ma­jor ex­hi­bi­tions an­nu­ally, and puts to­gether trav­el­ing ex­hi­bi­tions, ex­hi­bi­tion cat­a­logs, and gallery tours through Dis­cover China Through Art — an ed­u­ca­tional pro­gram for all age groups.

To date, the space has hosted more than 100 ex­hi­bi­tions in dis­ci­plines in­clud­ing cal­lig­ra­phy, paint­ing, ceram­ics, bronzes, dec­o­ra­tive art, folk art, ar­chi­tec­ture, photography, tex­tiles, and con­tem­po­rary art cov­er­ing Chi­nese his­tory from the Ne­olithic pe­riod to present day.

“It is re­ally a great joy for me to do this [job],” Chang said. “It’s what I con­sider as a mis­sion, which is to share what­ever I’ve learned and what­ever I’m pas­sion­ate about — art — to share with peo­ple.”

Chang said be­cause she is an artist — a painter and a cal­lig­ra­pher — she is very dis­cern­ing of what is put on dis­play in the gallery, par­tic­u­larly when it comes to Chi­nese con­tem­po­rary art.

“For a long time, I didn’t see much good [con­tem­po­rary] art­work out there,” Chang said and gig­gled. “Maybe I have my own stan­dard.”

Chang said she also cre­ates com­mon threads for the ex­hi­bi­tions to link all the art to­gether.

“I al­ways try to find an an­gle a per­spec­tive to in­tro­duce the con­tem­po­rary art, in­stead of just hav­ing a bunch of artists and throw­ing their work up,” she said. “I think each ex­hi­bi­tion must have a mean­ing.”

Look­ing ahead, Chang said 2015 will be the year of six dy­nas­ties, from the third to sev­enth cen­turies.

Mean­while, the Year of Dun­huang will con­tinue with more pro­grams to help make the cur­rent ex­hi­bi­tion more mean­ing­ful and ed­u­ca­tional for visi­tors, Chang said.

CARO­LINE BERG / CHINA DAILY

China In­sti­tute Gallery di­rec­tor Wil­low Weilan Hai Chang has mil­len­nia of Chi­nese art his­tory and ar­ti­facts to source for her work.

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