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September 3, 2021

School Watch: Interdisciplinariness and Learning the Future in Beijing: Experimental Art and Design at Central Academy of Fine Arts

Art & Education

He Xuan, Mental Activity in Full View of the Public, 2021. Installation view, CAFA Art Museum, Beijing. © Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA), Beijing. © Central Academy of Fine Arts.

CAFA Art Museum, Beijing. © Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Qiu Siyao, Sisyphus, 2019. Magnetic liquid metal, 3D-printed model, dimensions variable. © Qiu Siyao.

Artist and School of Experimental Art dean Qiu Zhijie conducting brainwave data testing for the study of calligraphy practice under different emotions, a project supported by the Institute of Neuroscience at the Chinese Academy of Sciences. © Central Academy of Fine Arts.

EAST Conference 2019 panel discussion. © Central Academy of Fine Arts.

Interdisciplinariness and Learning the Future in Beijing: Experimental Art and Design at Central Academy of Fine Arts
by Iris Long

The annual graduation exhibition at the Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) is a marquee event for the Beijing art world. The diversity of works on view not only compose the rich polyphony of CAFA’s graduate programs but demonstrate the cutting-edge topics that animate the artists’ practices. This year, with more than four hundred graduate students from all CAFA departments featured, READY TO-GO offered intensive engagement with over three thousand artworks ranging from painting, installation, and sculpture to design, architecture, and projects in experimental art. Among this immense amount of material and information on display, viewers encountered a young female graduate student sitting on a wooden chair, expressionless despite being surrounded by the buzz of an audience and their probing cameras. Barely visible to the naked eye, threads as thin as cicadas’ wings were attached to her eyelashes, and each time she blinked, this subtle act tugged at the threads and the translucent white balloons tied to them. An eyelash falls once every three thousand blinks, and batting her eyes against currents of air created by the crowd around her, the artist maintained her composure as balloons drifted into the exhibition hall. He Xuan’s performance Mental Activity in Full View of the Public contrasted the artist’s machine-like, emotionless control with the balloons’ tendency to float freely and the crowd’s unpredictable frenzy, a visualization of the push and pull between technology and art that characterized He’s time in CAFA’s School of Experimental Art.

He researched and developed her work in the school’s Total Art and Interdisciplinary Studies research program. During her three years of study, she worked with performance, computer vision, machine learning, and brain-computer interface devices. During field research designed by the school’s master’s faculty, He was embedded in the cardiology department at the China–Japan Friendship Hospital, where she encountered contrast media employed in cardiac imaging, techniques and equipment used in common medical procedures, and a seldom-seen disease called “broken heart syndrome.” These innovations in healthcare technology and evidence of emotional fragility, as well as the social bonds between doctors and patients that she witnessed, all inspired Mental Activity in Full View of the Public and her final projects. “Some people felt the pain and suffering imposed on my eyelashes, some of them tried to cut off the threads and disrupt the performance, some attempted to encourage me, and later on, I saw my performance all over social media,” He said. Her work in the graduation show served as both a demonstration and continuation of her research on trauma and the relationship between bodies immersed in contemporary technologies and healing practices.

Next to her performance at READY TO-GO, He presented a rope-skipping device controlled by eyeball movements, a project observers might easily file under the genre of “art and technology.” Such a categorization, however, oversimplifies the school’s mission: the School of Experimental Art seeks to be a catalyst for cross-disciplinary research and practice not defined by mediums or existing art-making parameters.

Read the full text on School Watch.

School Watch presents critical perspectives on art and academia. Featured profiles, surveys, and dialogues consider education in fine art, curating, and critical theory, as well as the ideas and conditions that influence practice.

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