Cu­ra­tor masters the art of in­tro­duc­ing Chi­nese cul­ture BIO

China Daily (Canada) - - PEOPLE - By CINDY LIU in Los Angeles cindyliu@chi­nadai­

T. June Li, cu­ra­tor of the Gar­den of the Flow­ing Fra­grance at the Hunt­ing­ton Li­brary, be­lieves the gar­den is like a scroll paint­ing, com­posed of lay­ers of mean­ings that re­veal a pro­found, artis­tic and an­cient view of Chi­nese artists.

The gar­den (Liu Fang Yuan), based in San Marino, Cal­i­for­nia, is one of the largest Chi­nese gar­dens out­side of China and has been un­der Li’s lead­er­ship since 2004. Work­ing as an ex­pert in Chi­nese art his­tory for al­most 40 years, Li has carved out a ca­reer tap­ping into the pas­sion of Western­ers who want to learn more about Chi­nese art.

Li’s pas­sion for Chi­nese art started in child­hood.

“I was al­ways in­ter­ested in art as a stu­dent,” she said. Raised in Hong Kong, she learned pen­cil sketch­ing and wa­ter­col­ors. Upon dis­cov­er­ing she didn’t have the artis­tic talent to be a pain­ter, Li fol­lowed her other in­ter­ests in­stead.

“I love his­tory — there are so many ex­cit­ing sto­ries es­pe­cially in Chi­nese his­tory,” said Li. Af­ter fin­ish­ing her col­lege en­trance ex­ams in Hong Kong, she de­cided to find a way to merge her pas­sion for art and his­tory and stud­ied art his­tory. One day af­ter a world art his­tory class, Li’s teacher came to her and said that since she was from China, she must know all the Chi­nese artists.

“I still re­mem­ber the shame I felt at that mo­ment. I had to ad­mit I didn’t know about the Chi­nese artists,” Li re­called. “That day made me look at things from a view that I never had be­fore.”

Vow­ing to rec­tify her lack of knowl­edge, Li fo­cused on ori­en­tal stud­ies and Chi­nese art his­tory for her mas­ter’s de­gree in the US.

Af­ter mov­ing to Los Angeles with her hus­band, Li started work­ing at the Los Angeles County Mu­seum of Art (LACMA) as a reg­is­trar of the art collection. Be­cause of her spe­cialty in Chi­nese art, she was selected to be in charge of sev­eral ex­hi­bi­tions on Chi­nese art, es­pe­cially two ma­jor trav­el­ing ex­hi­bi­tions from China. One was a tomb sculp­ture from Chi­nese mu­se­ums ( The Quest for Eter­nity) in 1986-1988, while the other fea­tured sig­nif­i­cant paint­ings from the col­lec­tions of the Palace Mu­seum in Bei­jing and the Shang­hai Mu­seum ( The Century of Tung Ch’i-Ch’ang), 1990-1992. Li was then pro­moted to cu­ra­tor in the East Asian art depart­ment due in large part to the suc­cess of the ex­hi­bi­tions.

Later she or­ga­nized additional ex­hi­bi­tions of Chi­nese art. One of them was a set of paint­ings about the gar­den Zhi Yuan by the pain­ter Zhang Hong ( Paint­ings of Zhi Yuan: Re­vis­it­ing a 17th Century Gar­den) in 1995.

Her suc­cess in up­grad­ing the Los Angeles mu­seum was rec­og­nized by Jim Fol­som, di­rec­tor of botan­i­cal gar­dens at the Hunt­ing­ton Li­brary. At the time Fol­som had thoughts of cre­at­ing a Chi­nese gar­den. Fol­som needed some­one who knew Chi­nese art in­clud­ing paint­ing, lit­er­a­ture, and ar­chi­tec­ture be­cause a Chi­nese gar­den in­cor­po­rates all of those spe­cial­ties. Li’s ex­hi­bi­tion on Zhi Yuan fi­nally con­vinced Fol­som that she was the right per­son for the Hunt­ing­ton.

She joined the Hunt­ing­ton in 2004 as cu­ra­tor. The cre­ation of the Chi­nese gar­den be­gan in 2000 and was truly a cross-cul­tural ef­fort from start to fin­ish.

“We had de­sign­ers, en­gi­neers and ar­chi­tects from Suzhou Gar­den in China. They trans­lated our mas­ter plan into build­ing plans, fill­ing in all the de­tails,” she said. “Then our Amer­i­can ar­chi­tects had to trans­late the Chi­nese plans into work­able ones with all our safety codes in­cluded. We had to work out mis­un­der­stand­ings about what we want such as sim­plic­ity in a de­sign that was more iden­ti­fied with the Ming Dy­nasty than the more elab­o­rate Qing Dy­nasty.“


Cu­ra­tor, the Chi­nese Gar­den of Flow­ing Fra­grance in the Hunt­ing­ton Li­brary, Art Col­lec­tions, and Botan­i­cal Gar­dens in San Marino, Cal­i­for­nia • MA in Ori­en­tal Stud­ies and Chi­nese Art His­tory, Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia(1977) • BA in Art His­tory and East Asian Stud­ies, Univer­sity of Toronto(1973) Cu­ra­tor of Liu Fang Yuan, The Hunt­ing­ton Li­brary (2004-present) As­so­ciate cu­ra­tor of Chi­nese and Korean Art, Los Angeles County Mu­seum of Art (1990-2004) As­so­ciate reg­is­trar of Ex­hi­bi­tions and Art Col­lec­tions, Los Angeles County Mu­seum of Art (1985-1990) Ad­junct lec­turer of Chi­nese art his­tory, Univer­sity of Delaware, Swarth­more Col­lege, Tem­ple Univer­sity, Univer­sity of Penn­syl­va­nia (1978-1984)

Li im­mersed her­self into ev­ery de­ci­sion con­cern­ing the con­struc­tion of the gar­den.

“We chose flow­ers rel­e­vant to the Hunt­ing­ton, such as camel­lias over the more of­ten used peonies. We chose our own in­scrip­tions and found our own cal­lig­ra­phers in­stead of us­ing what the Suzhou Com­pany would sup­ply.”

Li re­called that she had to build the gar­den from a unique van­tage point. “The choices were hard be­cause for ev­ery de­ci­sion I made, I needed to think in a Western Point of view for my Amer­i­can au­di­ence. This is be­cause it is not a Chi­nese gar­den in Suzhou; it is a Chi­nese gar­den in Amer­ica.”

De­spite her per­sonal jour­ney from the East to West, Li still keeps her Chi­nese cul­ture in many ways. “I cook Chi­nese food. I speak Can­tonese to my fam­ily. When I travel to Hong Kong, I still feel a strong con­nec­tion and feel at home there.” She said. “I am a Chi­nese Amer­i­can. I sel­dom get both­ered by the cul­ture dif­fer­ences or self-recog­ni­tion is­sues that many of­ten en­counter.”

Un­der Li’s lead­er­ship, the Hunt­ing­ton has hosted more than 50 pub­lic lec­tures, sev­eral sym­po­siums, and many ex­hi­bi­tions, work­shops and mu­si­cal pro­grams with the goal of in­tro­duc­ing Chi­nese cul­ture to an Amer­i­can au­di­ence.

The Chi­nese Gar­den, which is still un­der con­struc­tion in sev­eral ar­eas, will even­tu­ally con­tain more than 10 pavil­ions. Li just launched a mu­si­cian–in– res­i­dency pro­gram that fea­tured a con­cert by Wu Man, a pipa player from China, ded­i­cated to fos­ter­ing a deeper con­nec­tion be­tween a Chi­nese mu­si­cian and an Amer­i­can au­di­ence.

Re­al­iz­ing that many Amer­i­cans wanted to learn more about Chi­nese art and cul­ture, she helped to set up an ad­vi­sory com­mit­tee in 2005. It is made up of schol­ars and in­cludes Richard Strass­berg, pro­fes­sor of Asian lan­guages and cul­tures at UCLA, Yang Ye, as­so­ciate pro­fes­sor of Chi­nese stud­ies at the Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia at River­side, and Wango H.C. Weng, who is a pri­vate col­lec­tor and scholar. Each mem­ber pro­vides ad­vice on art, cul­ture, mu­sic and lit­er­a­ture.

“We take a long time to dis­cuss who and what topic to be ex­plored,” Li said. The se­lec­tion of the artist at Hunt­ing­ton de­pends on var­i­ous fac­tors such as the artist’s rep­u­ta­tion, peer recog­ni­tion and pro­fes­sional ex­pe­ri­ences. For ex­am­ple, Wu Man was named Mu­si­cal Amer­ica’s 2013 In­stru­men­tal­ist of the Year, the first time this pres­ti­gious award has been be­stowed on a player of a non-Western in­stru­ment.

The artist’s will­ing­ness to com­mu­ni­cate and ed­u­cate the au­di­ence is also a con­sid­er­a­tion for Li when choos­ing an artist. At the con­cert on June 17, Wu Man in­tro­duced to the au­di­ence the pipa, a fourstringed Chi­nese in­stru­ment.

“I would like to keep the mu­si­cian-in-res­i­dency pro­gram flex­i­ble so that each artist may work dif­fer­ently from the other and each res­i­dency is tai­lored to the artist’s ac­com­plish­ments,” she added.

Li has her own ex­pla­na­tion of what makes art in­ter­na­tional. It could be a Chi­nese mu­si­cian who plays tra­di­tional Chi­nese songs with a Western in­stru­ment. Li be­lieves that mu­sic has to be some­thing that is cre­ative, pow­er­ful and beau­ti­ful.

The se­ries of lec­tures, ex­hi­bi­tions, sym­po­siums and con­certs that Li and her team have brought in have cre­ated a loyal fol­low­ing of Amer­i­can fans who want more.

“I have been so for­tu­nate in hav­ing a good fol­low­ing of Western au­di­ences who take a keen in­ter­est in Chi­nese art, mu­sic and cul­ture,” Li said.


T. June Li, a cu­ra­tor at the Hunt­ing­ton Li­brary, makes it her goal to in­tro­duce Chi­nese cul­ture to the Amer­i­can au­di­ence.

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