Bazaar of ideas

China, UK artists and fash­ion de­sign­ers seek new ways of think­ing ing

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ark Dun­hill com­pares Chi­nese artist Qi Baishi (1864-1957) to French artist Henri Matisse (1869-1954).

“I saw an ex­hi­bi­tion of Qi’s paint­ing last time when I was in Bei­jing. I was com­pletely knocked out by his works,” says the aca­demic dean at Cen­tral Saint Martins, the renowned fash­ion de­sign school in London.

“They are amaz­ing. I would like to com­pare him with Matisse. It’s in­ter­est­ing to dis­cover the so­phis­ti­ca­tion and sim­plic­ity of his works, and they gave me a real in­sight to un­der­stand a lit­tle bit more about Chi­nese tra­di­tional art,” Dun­hill said at a re­cent Sino-UK fash­ion and art event held in the For­bid­den City in Bei­jing.

The China-UK Art & Aes­thet­ics Fo­rum was or­ga­nized by Phoenix Art, part of the Sino-UK cul­ture ex­change year. Artists and fash­ion de­sign­ers from both coun­tries shared their ideas at the fo­rum.

Be­fore the fo­rum, Phoenix Art launched a menswear de­sign con­test fea­tur­ing 83 de­sign­ers from both coun­tries.

A jury chaired by Chi­nese fash­ion de­signer Zhang Zhaoda and artist Xu Lei chose 14 fi­nal­ists, who showed their de­signs at a gala af­ter the fo­rum.

Their work “com­bined tra­di­tional Chi­nese el­e­ments into mod­ern cut­ting and styles”, says Dun­hill.

In re­cent years, Cen­tral Saint Martins has ad­mit­ted more Asian stu­dents, es­pe­cially from China.

Dun­hill says they bring an “ap­proach to con­tem­po­rary cul­ture that is maybe newer and fresher”, adding that they are very brave — and very com­pet­i­tive— to leap from their own coun­try to a city like London.

“Some Chi­nese stu­dents are very quick to see the pos­si­bil­i­ties and po­ten­tial.”

Lan­guage is still a prob­lem, for ex­am­ple, writ­ing, but the main dif­fer­ence is that Asian stu­dents have to change their at­ti­tude to­ward study­ing.

Asian stu­dents hold pro­fes­sors in high es­teem, he says.

“You have to do what they tell you, whereas in the UK it is not that the pro­fes­sors and teach­ers are not the author­ity, they just don’t be­have in the same way,” he says.

“It’s much more about what the stu­dents bring in and how they can de­velop their ta­lent. It is not bet­ter, just a dif­fer­ent ap­proach to teach­ing. It re­lies more on the stu­dents be­ing self-mo­ti­vated and hav­ing their own ideas, not just fol­low­ing what some­body tells you to do.

“So we are very care­ful about the stu­dents we ac­cept. They ab­so­lutely un­der­stand how the ed­u­ca­tion sys­tem works, what’s go­ing to be ex­pected from them.”

As a sculp­tor as well as dean of a fash­ion school, Dun­hill be­lieves an artist and a fash­ion de­signer should be eval­u­ated in the same way.

“It’s the clar­ity of the idea, the ex­e­cu­tion of the idea, and the orig­i­nal­ity that you con­ceive,” he says.

He be­lieves that fash­ion de­sign has now come of age and gained con­fi­dence. It’s able to op­er­ate on a so­phis­ti­cated level, be­sides be­ing very stylish and beau­ti­ful.

“Fash­ion de­sign­ers are re­ally thought­ful and provoca­tive. They should chal­lenge us to con­sider how cloth­ing changes our be­hav­ior and our un­der­stand­ing of the world,” he says.

He also sug­gests that de­sign­ers should grasp the con­text that they work in.

He says that Cen­tral Saint Martins of­fers dif­fer­ent courses for all as­pects of spe­cial­ity in the fash­ion in­dus­try.

“An artist has to un­der­stand how the cu­ra­tor works, how the art mar­ket func­tions, how they are go­ing to mea­sure suc­cess, not just in com­mer­cial terms but in broad func­tion terms, too.”

Dun­hill notes that so­cial me­dia makes things more com­pli­cated for artists and de­sign­ers be­cause to­day, by pro­mot­ing the idea that every­body is an artist, every­body is a de­signer.

“It’s a mas­sive com­pe­ti­tion. The world is flooded with ideas and im­ages — how can you move through that and get your work seen? What I see is an ex­plo­sion of global cre­ative cul­tures, all in­flu­enc­ing each other,” says the 60-some­thing vet­eran.

“I don’t have the an­swer. But I’m sure the young will find their way through.”

Dun­hill has been to China a few times, usu­ally help­ing to de­velop in­ter­na­tional part­ner­ships with var­i­ous in­sti­tu­tions and art schools.

In many Asian art schools, he finds a real de­ter­mi­na­tion to hold onto tra­di­tions, such as cal­lig­ra­phy and Chi­nese paint­ing, along­side con­tem­po­rary fine art.

He of­ten trav­els abroad, meet­ing peo­ple, talk­ing about “what the arts school might be in a new time, how we adapt to de­vel­op­ments”.

Dun­hill also tries to un­der­stand the dif­fi­cul­ties faced by stu­dents, in terms of fees and cost of liv­ing.

“London is a very ex­pen­sive city, like Bei­jing prob­a­bly. We don’t want art school to be only for rich kids.”


A menswear de­sign con­test is held as part of the China-UK Art & Aes­thet­ics Fo­rum. De­sign­ers from both coun­tries showed their cre­ations in a gala af­ter the fo­rum in the For­bid­den City in Bei­jing.

Mark Dun­hill, aca­demic dean at Cen­tral Saint Martins, at a fash­ion event in Bei­jing.

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