Hangzhou has a long history of inspiring Chinese artists and the connection remains strong. The latest graduate show at the city's China Academy of Art is all about building a better future. Ian Belcher takes a look.
A futuristic medical instrument that generates "organs", a 3D model based on neolithic jade discs, a high-tech planting device that sows virtual seeds… These are just three of the intriguing installations in a recent exhibition by graduates of Hangzhou's renowned China Academy of Art (CAA) – mainstay of the Fourth Zhijiang International Youth Art Festival.
The event, which has an increasingly high-profile international reputation, brought together more than 5,000 young artists, designers, writers and academics from the city and the surrounding province of Zhejiang. Underlining Hangzhou's growing status as a creative powerhouse, the engaging series of exhibitions, performances, workshops and discussions took place in venues across the city, including Zhejiang Art Museum and West Lake Museum.
Xiangshan Campus of CAA
The theme of this year's festival was Vital Force, and it could not have been more timely, with students encouraged to reflect on the way our lives are changing and how the world is adapting to survive the perfect storm of rapid technological change.
The idea of "vital force", which refers to both individual energy and a communal effort to survive, was championed a century ago by Chinese educator Tao Xingzhi. He saw it as a path to liberation and enlightenment, adding depth and realism to art.
Building on last year's Graduate Works Exhibition – called History of the Present and tasked with considering a world reshaped by Covid-19 and dizzying technological change – Vital Force featured several cutting-edge works that explore the intersection between art and science.
Meta-Organ, created by students from the CAA's School of Design and Innovation, is an imagined futuristic medical device that continuously transmits, reorganises and harnesses data to generate new organs. Dedicated to French philosopher Bernard Stiegler, who was a professor at the CAA until his death in 2020, the artwork is inspired by his thoughts on the relationship between human, technical and social organs.
Love Letter to Yaoshan, a 3D model shaped like the jade discs that were carved by the neolithic Liangzhu culture of the Yangtze River Delta, highlights how the area's resources – including a rich history of music and dance – can be harnessed for the good of society.
Love Letter to Yaoshan
Other exhibits offered a different take on establishing a better future for humankind. Green with Easy, a conceptual smart planting tool, uses the latest technologies to create virtual green community spaces with big data for soil. Drawing inspiration from classical Chinese gardens, it demonstrates how tech and design can help promote traditional cultures.
Green with Easy
The CAA preserves Chinese cultural heritage and uses fresh artistic expression to explore and define the contemporary social landscape. The 2022 exhibition, which also featured superb paintings and calligraphy, embodied the CAA's core ethos of inspiring a creative dialogue between nature and the human mind.
Since its establishment in 1928 by acclaimed education expert Cai Yuanpei, the academy has nurtured many major Chinese artists, including Lin Fengmian, Pan Tianshou and Liu Kaiqu.
Initially focused on traditional arts, the CAA has changed with the times. Now it embraces a diverse pool of technical and cultural disciplines, including departments of industrial design, open media and animation. The School of Design and Innovation – established in 2018 – aims to integrate art, technology and commerce to create a new era of design education based on big data and smart media.
A major influence on modern art in China, the academy has almost 10,000 students spread over four campuses, including the original Nanshan campus that overlooks West Lake and the Xiangshan campus, which is home to the Kengo Kuma-designed Folk Art Museum.
The serene views of Unesco-listed West Lake and stunning natural setting of Xiangshan are key to the unique spirit of the academy. Throughout the academy's life, Hangzhou's union of landscape and architecture has inspired generations of artists to observe, reflect and create.
West Lake is a photogenic composition of pagoda-topped hills rising above willow-lined waters, along with causeways, islands and classical gardens. Tranquillity also reigns around tea villages such as Longjing, where emerald bushes carpet the surrounding slopes.
In contrast, the bustling stalls, theatres and traditional medicine shops of Qinghefang Old Street epitomise Chinese urban life.
The CAA's graduate show – which expanded beyond the academy to become a citywide art week in 2019 – reflects these two faces of the city: old Hangzhou, picturesque inspiration for ancient Chinese poetry; and new Hangzhou, home of ecommerce giant Alibaba and buzzing technical hub with increasing investment in the creative industries.
Most importantly, the exhibition represents the power of art to help societies endure and thrive in these challenging times.