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