Lighten the Grip

China’s Evolving Public Art

By Pam Beyette, Norie Sato and Barbara Swift

In the Chinese golden month of October 2011, eight to nine months into the Arab Spring and with the fear of a potential Jasmine Spring, the Art + Design Delegation (of which I was a member) sponsored by the China Worker’s Center for International Exchange (CWCIE) traveled to Beijing and Shanghai to explore the implications of rapid and explosive change through the lens of the arts and environmental design. Ten days of nonstop meetings, visits to cultural touchstones, art districts and extraordinary food resulted in a rich context against which to discuss public art and its state in China and in the United States. Meetings with groups representing the China Artists’ Association, the Central Academy of Fine Arts and the Shanghai University Fine Art College involved vigorous discussions that challenged the capabilities of the delegation’s brilliantly skilled interpreter. Formalities were quickly dispensed and meetings typically ran beyond the scheduled one and one-half hours to three hours, with issues ranging from artist rights, copyright, ecological concerns, education programs, artist selection process, censorship and fabrication. Where interpretation became a roadblock, hand signs and laughter filled the gaps.

— Barbara Swift

The following are thoughts and observations about the state of public art in Beijing and Shanghai from Norie Sato and Pam Beyette, members of the Art + Design Delegation.

Public Work

The rate of infrastructure development in Beijing and Shanghai (and throughout China) is astronomical with tremendous new opportunities to integrate public art into light rail, public plazas, open spaces, streetscapes, city centers and waterfront development. The interest in and level of infrastructure development and investment in public art is enviable from our point of view but must be seen within the context of the culture and opening up.

Large architectural firms sometimes employ staff artists to design public art for their projects rather than engaging independent professional artists. While this method seems the closest to an integrated art model, there is little evidence of a collaborative-design team approach, with public artists as full partners, associated with infrastructure projects in China. Will these opportunities be structured to support a more visionary integration? To this, Wan Hongyi, the vice chief magazine editor of Public Art, a Shanghai University publication, believes that China’s elite cultural system limits the development of public art because public art is antielitist, anti-tradition and anti-class art. This new way of thinking about public art in China is promising.

Tianamen Square LCD Screens. Photo: Nori Sato
Tianamen Square LCD Screens. Photo: Nori Sato

Education + Leadership

The government sponsored art academies and universities are powerful resources for public art with departments dedicated to the discipline; they also act as the primary pipelines for faculty and senior student public artists. The training in the academies is oriented toward mastering traditional sculptural formats, but in the public art program, architecture, urban design and landscape architecture are incorporated into the core education. An interdisciplinary way of working appears to be a fairly new concept, but as newer generations of artists come to the forefront, there will be a shift toward context driven, holistic and community-oriented artworks in Chinese public art.

University senior faculty develops public art opportunities, creates projects, manages selection processes and provides other functions. It appears that the respect that these university members have from cultural leaders, officials and developers has been useful in getting public art into urban developments. At the moment, many of the public art professors are frenetically busy with mega projects from an endless stream of government and private sources. Using their institutional weight, art academy administrators negotiate with factories and fabricators to assist their faculty in producing public art, rent large studio spaces and provide other facilities to produce the work—an enviable situation from our point of view.

Three Shadows Photography Center, Beijing. Photo: Pam Beyette
Three Shadows Photography Center, Beijing. Photo: Pam Beyette

Artist’s Rights + a Public Art Tradition

There is an increased interest in artist’s rights and copyright issues and to address this, the China Artist Association has set up a Copyright Protection Office. Artists are finding that due to the speed of development, public art that was produced just a few years ago is being destroyed without notice or compensation. Luckily, in the US there are some protections.

The US system of providing a percentage of a project’s (typically large-scale developments) budget for the arts was raised in discussions associated with building a tradition of public art. Interest focused on how our selection process is structured, including the role of a peer jury. In China the rules, regulations and procedures for the selection of public art currently tend to be inflexible and draconian with public officials or wealthy developers calling the shots, with little room for professional artistic evaluation or input.

Sustainability and environmental issues do not yet appear to be explored by Chinese artists in their public art. In a county as populous and demanding of resources as China, these ideas are critically important. Public art and Chinese public artists may frame part of the discussion.

As public art becomes more prevalent in China, it is becoming a means to promote social progress and dialogue. It is evident that public art in China aspires to the US model of collaborative, site-specific, community place-making. Capitalism and free expression is tricky in a communist state, and the evolving role of public art, reflected in the light of a potential Jasmine Spring, will be interesting to watch.

The Art + Design Delegation was led by artist Norie Sato and landscape architect Barbara Swift and included Seattle artist Pam Beyette and Los Angeles architect Tracy Stone, with coordination and facilitation by WTE, Inc., Redmond, WA.

Pam Beyette is a Seattle artist working in the public realm. She collaborates with architects, engineers, scientists, writers, communities and public agencies to create site specific public art nationally.

Norie Sato is a Seattle artist whose work in the public realm includes art in civic buildings, transit, university facilities, airports and parks, among others, both regionally and around the country.

Barbara Swift is the founding member of Swift Company, a landscape architecture and urban design practice working in the western United States and is past chair of both the Seattle Arts Commission and Design Commission.