Mirror of Change through China's Young Artists ; Students' Works Reflect How Attitudes toward Art Have Evolved

Article excerpt

A show of artwork by the cream of the nation's young artists has attracted collectors and gallery owners from around the world.

Each summer for the past five years, the Central Academy of Fine Arts in China, one of the nation's top art academies, has celebrated the graduation of its best students with a major exhibition of their works called, appropriately, "The Start of a Long Journey."

Held in the academy's 160,000-square-foot, or about 15,000- square-meter, museum here, this year's exhibition opened in June and closes Sunday. It includes 155 jury-selected works by departing undergraduate and graduate students from CAFA's six schools: Chinese painting, fine arts, design, architecture, urban design and humanities.

"It's their calling card, to introduce them to society," said the academy's vice president, Xu Bing, an artist and MacArthur Fellowship recipient who spent many years in New York. "I want to present our students in the same way as professional artists," he added. "This has become a very important exhibition."

The show is an example of how popular arts education has become in China. Many art schools rent stadiums in which to hold entrance exams. Applicants who make the initial cut paint outside at easels and afterward, professors walk through the forest of completed works, selecting the best for further consideration and tossing the rest into a recycling pile.

"Our acceptance rate last year was 1 percent," Mr. Xu said. "We had 90,000 applicants and we admitted 900."

This figure is echoed at other schools; the China Academy of Art, in Hangzhou, saw a 50 percent increase in applicants in 2012, with 89,567 students vying for 1,665 spots, according to its Web site.

"The Start of a Long Journey" has received considerable media coverage in China, and its opening attracts collectors and gallery owners from around the world. The show has also spawned a nationwide touring exhibition that includes works by the top graduates from each of China's nine arts academies, including CAFA. (The 2013 national exhibition will open Nov. 1 at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou.)

Students selected to exhibit their work in "Long Journey" are the cream of China's aspiring artists and, beginning this year, CAFA has instituted a program that will track their career progress.

"We will follow them for 10 years," Mr. Xu said. "These are the students with the best hope for the future, but we will study them. Then we will know more about the strengths and weaknesses of our arts education."

The works on display at the CAFA show run the gamut of contemporary art and design, including sculpture, painting, installations, multimedia, jewelry, furniture, print-making, photography, animation, and more -- one small room is even set aside for the perusal of the best dissertations by humanities graduates. Viewed as a whole, the works in "Long Journey" demonstrate years of hard work.

Chen Mingqiang, for example, spent three years on a piece that explores the changing nature of marriage in China. For his project, Mr. Chen constructed fantastical wedding suits out of salvaged scrap metal and then replicated a marriage ceremony with his girlfriend in an elaborate video performance in a village outside Beijing.

"I'm close to 30," he said, "And I was thinking about getting married."

By trawling through flea markets, he collected 400 marriage certificates dating from 1949 to the present, many of which are on display in the show. …