By Mary Lou Aleskie
In October 2013, Mary Lou Aleskie, Executive Director of the International Festival of Arts and Ideas, and Yale-China took a trip out to China and met with a number of artists, administrators, and developers of cultural projects in China. In the excerpt below, Mary Lou, with her decades of international arts experience, comments on a China that is fortifying its cultural diplomacy, lending a hand to a great burgeoning of Chinese arts, and poised to invest in the unique talent of its people.
China: From Cultural Revolution to Evolution through Artists
In 2007 China became a founding contracting party to the UNESCO Convention on the Protection and Promotion of Diversity of Cultural Expressions drafted in 2005. China is recognized by UNESCO as an active participant in leading the Convention's advancement and implementation in China and around the world, particularly in emerging nations. The Convention serves to recognize the influential role played by cultural and creative policies in seeking to foster peace, social cohesion and sustainable development.
This Convention was the center piece of a high-powered international forum entitled INCLUSIVENESS, OPENNESS AND INNOVATION: Respecting Cultural Diversity, Promoting Dialogue Among Cultures organized in October 2013 by the China Shanghai International Arts Festival as part of its 15th anniversary. The forum, with a particular focus on the power of festivals in advancing these ideals, brought together scholars, administrators, and policy-makers from throughout China and around the world to share principles and practices in the advancement of respect for cultural diversity. Most notable among forum participants were Danielle Cliche, Secretary of the UNESCO Convention, Jonathan Mills, Executive Director Edinburgh International Festival and internationally acclaimed composer, Tan Dun. Our International Festival of Arts & Ideas was invited to join these luminaries to share our model for programming as a global example of inclusivity and respect for diverse cultural expression.
My five days as a delegate to the Shanghai Festival was the center-piece of a visit devoted to better understanding opportunities to build U.S.-China cooperation in advancing the arts. This exploration opened up opportunities for deeper insights thanks to overlapping travel with Yale-China Association Director, Nancy Yao Maasbach and her Yale-China team. The trip was at the same time enlightening, encouraging, and bewildering yet important as we [the International Festival of Arts & Ideas] consider the changing world around us and our Festival's future as it looks to begin its third decade.
To understand the context of the visit, first let's take a look at the UNESCO Convention that served as the springboard for the forum.
What is the Convention? (according to the UNESCO website)
The Convention on the Protection and Promotion of the Diversity of Cultural Expressions is a legally-binding international agreement that ensures artists, cultural professionals, practitioners and citizens worldwide can create, produce, disseminate and enjoy a broad range of cultural goods, services and activities, including their own. It was adopted because the international community signalled the urgency for the implementation of international law that would recognise:
• The distinctive nature of cultural goods, services and activities as vehicles of identity, values and meaning;
• That while cultural goods, services and activities have important economic value, they are not mere commodities or consumer goods that can only be regarded as objects of trade.
Recognizing that culture can no longer be just a by-product of development, but rather the mainspring for sustainable development, the Convention ushers in a new international framework for the governance and management of culture…
Why would China, not just sign on to this Convention, but lead its global advancement? The cynics might say its timing points to China’s attempt to generate warm feelings and tourism during the 2008 Beijing Olympics. Or perhaps it is an effort to distract global attention from its human rights track record. I would suggest that as with most things in China, the answer is both more complex and profound with no clear answer rather just many essential questions to consider. Intentions seem best learned through observation of actions than through commitments to any particular covenants.
To date, 132 countries and the European Union have agreed to the tenets of this Convention. The U.S. is not among them.
Zhang Jiangang (Council Member and Deputy Director of Research Center for Cultural Policy at the Chinese Academy of Social Science), a scholar and inter-ministerial policy influencer, speaking at the recent forum said China should do two things as a contracting party of the 2005 Convention:
1. Proceed with Cultural Reform within China and step up rapid development of cultural and creative industries; and
2. Advance wide-ranging cooperation in the international cultural market and policies.
While discussion around promotion of cultural diversity begins with an eye toward putting culture at the center of diplomacy in pursuit of peace and understanding, comments like those of Mr. Zhang’s quoted here move the dialogue quickly toward economic development and balance of trade issues abandoning the higher ideals.
Yet to the credit of Shanghai Festival organizers the artistic programming for the 15th Festival included many projects co-created with international partners and artists. A number of these offered opportunities for young artists to work together with professionals from other countries and for emerging Chinese artists to reconnect with their own history and heritage through contemporary contexts framing multi-disciplinary performances.
A good example of a Festival project that attempted to represent the themes of inclusivity, cross-cultural respect and promotion was Shalom Shanghai, a new musical by a Chinese writer, directed by American theater director Lee Breuer and composer Eve Beglarian. It tells the story of Jewish refugees in Shanghai at the end of World War II and was performed with a mixed company of western professionals and students of the Shanghai Theater Academy.
The most profound artistic statement in the Festival’s programs also was the most impactful reflection of the Festival’s theme. It was a commission from Tan Dun of an emotional new work performed by the Shanghai Symphony for 13 micro-films, harp and orchestra called Nu Shu: The Secret Songs of Women. This work featured a unique women’s only language passed down from generation to generation found exclusively in Northern China in Jiangyong County, Hunan Province near the composer’s birthplace. Internationally acclaimed composer Tan Dun, known widely as the Academy Award winner for the score of the ground-breaking film Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon spent 5 years researching in preparation for this work.
In a time when women were barred from formal education, Nu Shu was devised as a private script passed down from mother to daughter through embroidered texts and songs. It is one of the few languages that is sung and not spoken, and the only known language to be gender-specific.
As China’s landscape becomes increasingly urbanized, Nu Shu, along with many other rural ethnic traditions, is at risk of extinction. Tan Dun traveled to Hunan to film the last known custodians of the language singing in Nu Shu and used the footage to create 13 “micro” films to pair with the music. A project of preservation, Tan Dun’s new work gives a fading language new life. The women of Nu Shu traveled to Shanghai for the premiere. The project was commissioned by an international collection of acclaimed orchestra’s including Japan’s NHK Symphony Orchestra, The Philadelphia Orchestra, and the Royal Concertgebouw Orchestra in Amsterdam.
Tan Dun, who was among the first graduates at the end of the Cultural Revolution from the prestigious Central Conservatory of Music in Beijing, has gone on to enjoy international critical acclaim as well as financial success. He is a triumphant hero in China appearing on the covers of popular magazines and lauded by many. With this latest composition, he is spreading the diversity of China’s cultures to the world and fulfilling the hunger for Chinese traditional arts evident in many of the Festival offerings and audiences. It is no coincidence that Tan Dun was named UNESCO Global Ambassador in 2013. He is a cultural icon and a role model.
Beyond the Festival
While the China Shanghai International Arts Festival programs may not have all been of consistent quality with some projects missing the mark for a world class performing arts festival, its ambition to demonstrate a commitment to history, heritage and international collaboration were well represented in its programming. Projects, in some cases seemed to be well received by local audiences, but eluded international visitors who did not have the context of Chinese histories and traditions that were being explored in a contemporary context. Yet even these were thrilling to witness as we saw the commitment to the values embodied in the UNESCO Convention play out onstage and in front of enthusiastic audiences.
In addition to the performances and forum, the Festival even hosted a western style showcase and trade show featuring a wide range of Chinese and international performers available to presenters for future performances throughout China. These wrap around activities to the Festival programming for the general public targeted at cultural professionals advanced the market place opportunities also embedded in the themes of the Convention.
The China Shanghai International Arts Festival is undoubtedly impactful in numerous ways; however, there are projects underway throughout China that indicate a much broader purpose.
The contemporary art scene in China is on fire with recent reports claiming that the Chinese art market is now the world's largest surpassing the U.S. The rising wealth and hunger for luxury items of the Chinese upper class has fueled much of this rapid growth and nowhere is it more evident than in Beijing's influential arts district 798. I was fortunate enough to visit a top gallery director in the district with our Yale-China colleagues and was asked to participate in a Sun TV documentary with camera crew following us on our visit to record our reactions.
In the late ‘90’s Beijing’s Central Academy of Fine Arts looking for cheap and sizable workshop space to accommodate its growing program turned to a rundown post-industrial military factory complex now known as the chic global arts center 798. At the time the property owned by Seven Stars Investments were happy to just have some revenue from this decaying array of Bauhaus-inspired factory buildings that were the remnants of a Chinese-Russian mid-century collaboration to build military electronics and equipment.
The attention of the Central Academy of Fine Arts drew artists from across China and abroad to the district creating a nuisance for both the landlord and the Chinese government who attempted to limit activities in order to discourage artistic growth in this now prime real estate poised between downtown Beijing and the airport. Until finally in 2001, interestingly the year China was admitted to the World Trade Organization, it attracted the attention of Robert Bernell. Mr. Bernell, a Sino-phile Texan who fell in love with China in college and moved to Hong Kong to find his wealth in investment banking, saw an opportunity to invest in the district while bringing to life Timezone 8 publisher, bookstore and overall promoter of Chinese artists to the world.
Mr. Bernell’s investment in the district and success in capturing the attention of the world’s art markets for Chinese artists caught the Chinese government by surprise. Bernell was excited by the energy of contemporary Chinese artists and believed strongly in the need for Beijing to be seen on a par with other international art cities. In Bernell’s view, "Beijing is a global city, and needs to be able to take part in the global discourse. There are artists here with strong messages, and they need to be able to communicate those messages in a viable way." Bernell’s Timezone 8 is doing just that. By 2009 threats of closure of 798 from the government and property owners, turned into government protection and investment in the district along with funding for the now prestigious Beijing Biennale. Mr. Bernell and many others believe that these actions send a signal to the world about a changing appreciation within China of the importance of the country’s home grown talent and a growing respect for arts and culture along the lines of what we witnessed in Shanghai.
While at 798 I had the opportunity to visit with the Tong Juanjuan, Director of Hive Center for Contemporary Art, one of the top two most successful prestigious galleries in the district. She was remarkably calm it being just two days before a big blockbuster exhibit was to open. Her office and the gallery spaces were abuzz with the usual activity you would see in a typical gallery before a high profile opening. Lots of painting and carpentry to prepare the walls. Crates and ladders scattered about waiting to be opened prepped and hung. Staff buzzing about with stylish clothes and a symmetrical hair.
We went out for a bit of lunch and a tour of the district (film crew in tow). While at lunch she got a call from a high powered artist represented in the show. The call left her distracted and apologetic saying that there was some communication in the media about the show that had upset the artist. Well certainly that is a situation anyone who has dealt with artists can relate to. But upon returning to the gallery and seeing military guards on hand for the unpacking of the art crates, given recent news reports about censorship I couldn't help but wonder if there was something more happening. Juanjuan scurried into her office and we never got to say goodbye.
An informal meeting the next day with a Beijing based real estate developer seemed to further confirm Chinese commitment to investing in culture as a central economic development policy. He revealed yet a new emerging district in the over –populated capital city identified by artists who can no longer afford to be in posh 798. This developer shared a prototype for a government backed plan to invest in a village of amenities and resources around this newly found artist’s “squatter” colony with a focus on design and fashion to compliment the already arrived creatives who have decided that this is the “next great place to be”. Driven by well-developed technology and tested manufacturing heft, this developer spoke of marrying design and output in a way that could move China’s industrial economy to an economy of ideas. With artists of all disciplines living in the district, fashion design fueled by 3 D printer technology and other advanced manufacturing techniques could move garment mass production to Chinese designed haut couture reinforcing the value of ideas, intellectual property and creative cultures.
I was able to see this kind of development first hand. Shanghai’s West Bund Biennale, a temporary art installation of massive proportion on view this fall, transforms an abandoned mid-century cement factory and fuel storage facility into a major exhibition of architecture and contemporary art that celebrates and engages the world’s avant-garde. The exhibition which celebrates Chinese architectural history is an extraordinary showcase of interdisciplinary experimental work combining sound, video, music and avant-garde theater in an atmosphere intended to be an incubator for new ideas. With construction sites encircling this temporary exhibit on prime real estate along the Huangpu River, one can already see the beginnings of Shanghai’s next major destination neighborhood. In fact, the troops of construction workers emerging from the nearby subway station at the close of day to work through the night make it feel as if the development will appear in the blink of an eye. None of this takes into consideration the significant investments domestically and internationally in entertainment and media. Variety reported this year that China’s entertainment and media markets are growing at rates of 40% to 65% per year. Joint ventures between U.S. and European media companies and Chinese partners are growing almost as rapidly. Most notable was this year’s majority stake investment by China’s Sun Innovation acquiring 70% of the ground-breaking special effects LA firm Digital Domain, producers of the much anticipated live action film Ender’s Game. Digital Domain with its new investors (which includes our Beijing arts/fashion center developer) have developed award-winning performance capture and virtual production studios that offers unparalleled feature film and videogame production expertise in the performance-driven facial and motion capture pipeline. This technology has also made possible this year live onstage performances of resurrected pop stars like Teresa Teng and Tupac Shakur. In fact, Tupac in hologram appeared with Dr. Dre to open California’s famed Coachella music festival singing a number of hits solo and collaborating with the still living Dr. Dre in a few selections.
Development and growth moves quickly in China and there is great curiosity and interest in the American ability to garner energy from friction that comes from our nation’s diversity. The lessons of how this contributes to our civil society as well as commercial, artistic and diplomatic ventures globally are worth sharing. As Ambassador Gary Locke said to the Yale School of Management’s CEO Global Summit gathering I attended, what benefits China's economy also benefits the U.S. Our nations' futures are inter-connected, and we should always be aware of this as we consider investments and policies.
It is clear that there are lessons to be learned from China as it grapples with its post-industrial realities and attempt to put culture at the center of a sustainable economy. Yet the recent attacks in Tiananmen Square by ethnic minorities remind us that promoting and respecting cultural diversity, and indeed all diversity, is an essential element in any society. Recent reports of forgeries and price manipulation in the art market destabilizing the value of traditional and contemporary Chinese art in the world market points to the need for commitment to authenticity as well as freedom of expression and markets. Whether these ideals can be implemented in a universal and tangible way is yet to be seen.
Hans-Georg Knopp, Senior Research Fellow at the Hertie School of Governance for International Cultural Policy summed it up well in his talk at the forum … Berlin: Sexy and Poor: “There is a gap between cultural policy and cultural practitioners. To be successful we must fill that gap.”
What we witness in China at this point with regard to this gap is policy makers and their financing partners focused on "cultural markets" and “industrial cultural villages”. Yet it is in the passion of the practitioners—everyday people striving to be artists, arts administrators, and students of art interested in bridging their history and talents to the future—that we see hope. If China is to be the cultural force in the world it hungers to be, it is these voices that will get it there by giving strength and credibility to what is uniquely Chinese and relevant in today's world.
Over the past 18 years the International Festival of Arts & Ideas has been working person to person to advance opportunities for artists and thinkers by connecting them to audiences and community. The results speak for itself in terms of community building, civic engagement, artistic and intellectual outcomes as well as economic impact coming from the work of our Festival. Our record is the reason we were tapped to present our model to the international forum at the Shanghai Festival.
For the past 18 months I have been serving on an arts advisory committee to Yale-China Association helping to design an arts residency program that would welcome emerging Chinese artists of all disciplines into our Yale-New Haven community for an immersive six months of interaction with Yale's professional art schools as well as artists in the region. It is our hope that person to person we can learn from these young artists how to support the future of artistic Chinese partnerships. And likewise, they will see the opportunities in knowing us and themselves more deeply and directly. This kind of person to person development has been the hallmark of Yale-China’s successes in education and public health in China for over 100 years. Together we might just have an opportunity to put artists at the center, if not in China widely, at least in our work together in advancing the human condition.