HB STATION: A Case Study of Alternative Art Education in China

July 10, 2014
Asia Art Archive in America
Transcribed by Hilary Chassé and edited by Jane DeBevoise

Jane DeBevoise (JD): My name is Jane DeBevoise and we’re really pleased to welcome Liang Jianhua who is here with us in New York, Huang Xiaopeng who is joining us by Skype from London and Xu Tan who is joining us via Skpe from San Francisco. Everybody’s going to speak Chinese and Xiaofei is going to translate. I’m not going to say much more than that, except to welcome everyone to Asia Art Archive in America, and thank you all for coming.  My colleague Xiaofei (Mo) is going to give the introduction, then after that, we will have a discussion, so I want everybody to be thinking of questions.

Xiaofei Mo (XM): Huangbian (HB) Station is an alternative art education platform based in Guangzhou. After artist Huang Xiaopeng was dismissed from the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts (GAFA) in 2012, Times Museum in Guangzhou invited him and Xu Tan, another artist dismissed from GAFA years ago , to use a storefront space adjacent to the museum to initiate an alternative platform for art education and research. HB STATION was soon founded, and it is one of the few independent art programs outside of the academies in China. HB STATION is solely funded by the Times Museum and is not an accredited school. From the start the ‘educational contract’ between teachers and students is the source of ongoing debate. There is no default relationship between them. What are the functions and responsibilities of the teachers? Can students self-organize curriculum? How can the program be designed democratically? This is a challenging experiment, and every step forward requires constant negotiation. So to begin, Liang Jianhua, project manager and curator at the Times Museum, will introduce Huangbian Station, and then Huang Xiaopeng and Xu Tan will join the discussion later.

First workshop organized by HB Station members

Liang Jianhua (LJ – translated by Xiaofei Mo): I’ll introduce myself first. I’m a curator at the Times Museum and I represent the Times Museum in the HB Station project. I’ll briefly introduce the structure of HB Station. The HB Station project is located in a storefront adjacent to the Museum, which is located in a residential area. A write-up about the Times Museum is available on our website. By way of background, I briefly want to introduce the ecology of the art scene in Guangzhou. Guangzhou has a relatively small art scene. There are only a few really good institutions — one really good gallery, one really good museum, and one really good bookstore or publishing organization. But that’s all. For a young artist, living in Guangzhou is pretty tough because compared with Beijing and Shanghai they have limited support and they need to think hard for themselves and about their identity as an artist. For the Times Museum, one important part of our work is to encourage the development of the local art scene and we realized that with very little money and very little effort we could make a big difference. So in 2012 Huang Xiaopeng was dismissed from the Guangzhou Academy of Art, where as many of you know, he had run the 5th Studio for 8 years. We thought it would be meaningful to continue his work. We also thought that maybe outside of the academy system his project might be even more successful. That was the founding of HB Station. Our focus is art education in China.

I want to add another point, in China, with the exception of CAFA (the Central Academy of Fine Art in Beijing) and the China Academy of Art (in Hangzhou), there are not that many art schools that teach contemporary art practice. In Guangzhou most of the young students have limited information about what’s happening in the international art scene, so when Huang Xiaopeng stopped running the 5th Studio, education (in Guangzhou) about contemporary art dropped to zero.

Now I want to talk about the structure of HB Station. The core members are Liang Jianhua, Huang Xiaopeng and Xu Tan, and besides them, we regularly invite visiting artists and scholars to supplement what Huang Xiaopeng and Xu Tan are teaching. We have an application process to enroll in this program. Any young person who has completed an undergraduate program but has been working for less than five years can apply. They need to send a description of what they have done in the past 2-3 years and a proposal outlining what they want to achieve at HB Station. We set this criteria because we want them to know enough about the discipline to communicate, express their ideas, and think critically. This a very different situation from the 5th Studio. In China the exam system to get into art school is based on painting and drawing skills. Students who joined the 5th studio were the students who had been eliminated from the other departments, such as the sculpture and painting departments. Every year only one or two students actually wanted to join the 5th Studio. [All the rest were rejects from the other departments.]

Hu Xiangqian is an artist and graduated from the 5th Studio, and he is here with us this evening. He has corrected me. He thinks things are changing and this year nine students actually wanted to join the 5th Studio, but that’s a top record for the 5th Studio.

The mentors at HB Station are Huang Xiaopeng and Xu Tan. They collaboratively set up the curriculum which is divided into in courses. These courses do not really follow a (strict) student-teacher relationship. Many of them involve a lot of discussion. Huang Xiaopeng initiated the research program which I will introduce later. Another part of the program are student self-organized sections called Project Lab and Harvest. This word Harvest evolved out of discussion with the students because during the course of the program the students had fierce arguments and questioned each other’s practice. We wanted to turn this debate into a project that we hoped would be fruitful. I also want to point out that the two parts of the structure will influence each other constantly; it’s a process of negotiation. The self-organized curriculum provides a good opportunity for the teachers to share their experience because in a classroom setting teachers tend to tell a linear story of their experience and it’s very hard for them to understand the multiplicity of different students’ practices. Through this mutual influence they get to see a lot of different aspects of the student’s practice and they can share their experience accordingly.

Next, the third part is the exchange program. Because we’re associated with the Times Museum, artists or scholars coming to do a project at the Museum can stop by and organize projects or presentations at HB Station. Also, Huang Xiaopeng and Xu Tan invite artists they like.

Starting this year the student participants will also invite people to present their work. This a photograph of Huang Xiaopeng’s class in 2013. In 2013 he focused on the question of modernity because he thinks it’s a basic concept that young artists should be familiar with. But the class changed a lot in 2014. This year, the subject became what is art practice and how do we engage it. You can see Huang Xiaopeng really adjusted his position as a teacher through this process. Xu Tan’s participation was part of his Keywords project. His method was to bring his current project and share it with the students. Xu Tan also changed his curriculum just as Huang Xiaopeng did. In 2014 his course was called ‘Me and the Others’. It was a very broad topic. Basically students could propose a project which they would discuss. In April this year Huang Xiaopeng started a research project and the first one involved AAA researcher Anthony Yung and a Guangzhou based artist Cai Hui (蔡回). Their topic was about literature and contemporary art. It was comprised of two parts. In the first part Anthony and Cai Hui clarified the concept of literature. The second part was a case study of different works and projects in contemporary art.

Project Lab No.2: Shi Yijie (史毅杰)

This image shows the Project Lab that I talked about briefly. It may look like an exhibition but we made it very clear that this is not about organizing an exhibition. It’s about realizing a work, about process, methodology and thinking, which will become clear as the manber realize their work. After every project, the manber make a little brochure with a budget of about 20 USD. They print 100 copies and this is part of the work they present at HB Station.

This is a photograph of the Harvest Project. After every project, everybody sits down and has a discussion. I think the biggest benefit of this discussion is that the young artists find out about their own position. That kind of knowledge and clarity is really different from what you get by studying art history or in textbooks.

Reading list selected by HB Station members

The window project is very simple: artists can use the front of the window space and present their work to the public. These are some examples of our exchange program. Here you can see a screening with Zhou Tao. We also have curators stop by and introduce their exhibition projects. These events happen on an irregular basis, so they are hard to generalize.

Xu Tan (XT): I want to say that, based on Liang Jianhua’s introduction, HB station might look very similar to any other educational program in the world, but what’s really special about it is the background of art education in China and its specific conditions. It’s a fact that totalitarian communism wants to control through education the next generation and the generation following that. Here I mean dictatorship, not just communism. In a county under a dictatorship, even if the government can’t control everybody, they want everybody to at least stay neutral. For my generation of artists and for the younger generation, we are really influenced by this situation, and for that reason, there’s a lack of energy in general. With the exception of Hu Xiangqian and Huang Xiaopeng, most young artists have a very blurry understanding of the social and political situation. That’s what I mean when I say the art academy In China is very conservative. The primary objective for HB Station is to provide a situation where people can feel free and energetic. That’s the thing that I think is very special about this program. Dictatorships and communism not only control through ideology, they also provide a market that commodifies art practice. This is very seductive for young artists but also very challenging, because it gives the appearance of art being independent. In China not only is there no state funding for contemporary art, there’s also no private funding or private foundation to support it. But HB Station is quite unusual. Even though HB Station is funded by the Times Museum, the Museum never asks for any (specific) outcomes or anything in return, so in that respect I think that young artists feel real freedom and respect there. I’m called a mentor in HB Station but I really don’t think that’s very important. For me, I think what’s most important is for the students to feel and experience freedom and democracy from doing this project. This is, I think, the most important role of education. Many people criticize me because while I say I’m not a mentor, because people still respect me a lot which gives me authority in this project. But in fact, every time I organize sessions I let the students initiate discussions first and I think that process is very [egalitarian]. So, to sum up, I hope students can, through HB Station, learn to love art and feel freedom and cancel out the negative energy and emotions you experience under a dictatorship.

Audience Member: When you say ‘dictatorship’ at  the Guangzhou Academy of Art, do you mean that it has a dictatorial system or that there’s just a lack of contemporary art background? And the second question is regarding the freedom of HB Station, what aspect are you talking about specifically?

Huang Xiaopeng (HX): First, the fact is that all the universities in China are state-owned. Universities are not independent, so it’s very hard to say they have any (freedom or) academic value (as Xu Tan described it). Secondly I think many teachers at academies in China become complacent. It’s like a union situation. They have a job and they will never get fired, so many of them become very irresponsible which affects the quality of teaching. And what we mean by the freedom at HB Station is our program can more or less be considered a social engagement project. It emphasizes self-construction, this is, based on the idea of ‘Social Sculpture’ from Joseph Beuys. For example, we start to practice democracy program and freedom in HB Station when this country is still under dictatorship. Of cause, to understand what are ‘democracy and freedom’ is very important; they are not just bring you ‘right’ but ‘responsibility’ as well.  For me, self-construction is political, but many young artists seems don’t realized this or, deny the political property of HB Station, I think this is very strange.

XT: From my perspective, from traditional Chinese culture (pre-modern China) until today, we do have some kind of freedom. But it is what I would describe as ‘Animalistic Freedom’. Some art critic mentioned words like ‘negative freedom’, or  ‘pessimistic liberalism’ in the history of western philosophy,  but I think they are still not exactly the same with ‘animalistic freedom’. There are many examples of this that you can find in traditional literature, like in martial arts stories (武侠小说) or in the literati tradition where people escape into the forest [become hermits] rather than interfere with social matters. I think this represents an attitude of  ’animalistic freedom’ which is some how close to ‘pessimistic liberalism’. What I mean by freedom is to encourage the students to really care about the society and to think about the relationship between themselves [as individuals] and the others. That’s the freedom we want to construct.

HX: I just want to add one point, that in an art academy in China, the curriculum has to be censored; but at HB Station we don’t have that censorship. Also, the Times Museum has been producing really good exhibitions and projects and that supports what we’re doing as well. It’s been a very open environment so far. Apart from our own projects, I hope young artist can also engage more to some of the Times Museum’s exhibitions and discussions; This is a very special bound between Times Museum and  HB Station, it will help them in their professional career.

Audience Member: Is Xu Bing being the director of CAFA, the Central Academy in Beijing, a good thing or a bad thing?

JD: He’s a vice-dean and there’s a significant difference between the role of vice-deans and directors or full deans.

XM: Chris, I was wondering if you had any comment as an artist and an educator? Is this tension fundamentally different from what you would find in the U.S.?

Christopher Ho (CH): Well, I’m surprised at the similarity of the constellation of terms that are on the table: social-discursive art, social practice, social engagement. State control however has less of a place here in the United States where I think government institutions are seen as more benign and less instrumentalized than in other places, like China. But I do actually have a specific question. My understanding is that this step between the student and the kind of curriculum that is built there, that’s one step. But the other step, in terms of the political possibilities of social practice, is that you can face critique publically, which would be the Times Museum or the storefront. I was wondering if you can elaborate more on how that storefront with the window works as an interface to the public, because the only thing said so far is that realization of discourse in that project is about changing the students understanding of his or her practice. This of course can be different than the actual conclusions drawn by the public.

HX: First of all, there’s a lack of basically philosophy thinking and no introduction to these basic concepts in the academic curriculum, so I thinks it is very important to discuss  and understand the concept of  “modernity” and what is critical theory before we can move forward. The second part is the research process. Of cause this must based on the student’s own artistic practice. Most people here believe that art is based on “instinct” and ”wildness”, sure those are  important nature in art, but we live in a much more complicate world today and have the ability to  analyze and abstract thinking is also important too.

XT: Social engagement is actually a very sensitive term in China. I prefer to use the word like ‘social practice’. I want to give you a couple of examples which reveal how limited our resources are. For example, three of the young artists at HB Station publish a magazine every month. How they do it is by printing it on their home printers. They then contact six different locations in Guangzhou, some are newspaper stands, some are supermarkets, and they print 100 copies every month. They personally distribute the magazines by giving them away for free at the six locations they have picked out. The price is 5 RMB which is about 90 cents. Last year we had another project by Li Yao, one of the members of HB Station. His title of the project was ‘why shut down HB Station’. It went first viral on Weibo (an app in China, similar to Twitter) and the internet, people got confused. They asked us ‘why do you want to shut yourself down?’  From my perspective, I definitely didn’t want to shut down HB Station on which we spent a lots concern and efforts. Then we promoted the debates online, about what kind of Utopia we want to explore in our art practice and art education practice.  By this way we supported him to do this project in our space.

As we mentioned, Times Museum is actually located on the 19th floor of a residential building so our projects are particularly positioned to engage the public, and many of the residents in the neighborhood participate. I think we have put a lot of effort to encourage students to work on social practice projects, but I don’t think the result has been that satisfying. I think part of the reason has to do with the social and educational context. It’s not just the problem with young artists; it’s the same for us too. For example, regarding an artist from Chengdu, he considers himself an artist working with social practice but his argument is that if he engages too much he will end up in jail. So what he did was invite some workers to a rural area to practice shooting. I think doing social practice work will be a long and difficult process. It has to do with the cultural tradition we come from. Therefore, we need to think of many different ways and methods to try it out, because not every artist can go to jail and get out quickly. I think one of the possible methods of doing social practice work in China is to do research about all the details of regular life and to intervene with it on an everyday level.

Audience Member: Can you provide a little more detail about how the ‘shut down HB Station’ project engaged the public?

XT: Li Yao first communicated his project using social media and the internet. As a result a lot of people would run into me and ask ‘is your project closing very soon?’ Actually in China, the virtual space and the internet is extremely important in offering some freedom. Li Yao did a great job of utilizing the internet. He also selected other works that drew attention to the neighborhood. Everyone who saw these works was saying ‘something is happening here in relation to our neighborhood’. For example, one piece was that he set up a smoke machine in the neighborhood. This machine produced a lot of smoke so that it almost looked like there was a fire. Many people came by to ask what was going on. Although  as I mentioned, we didn’t want to close HBS definitely, we didn’t like the idea of ‘closing HBS’ as the title of this project proposed. But as a way to supported the project, it turned out Huang Xiaopeng participated in the project event by doing public dancing. Another provocative piece that Li Yao did was he bought many hammers and then he turned the handles into penis sculptures and sold them in the neighborhood. That got the attention of the management and they said ‘you can’t do too much of that’. It turned out all the taxi drivers got a hold of the hammers and were shouting in the street and not working. I think this is one way of engaging socially, because those motorcycle taxi drivers are from the lower class in Chinese society. The curator planned it out as a process [and a way to get them involved]. Also, in Guangzhou there are places that homeless people are not allowed to stay. Another artist created these [concrete pyramid-like] structures and sold them on the street. I think these projects are very different from what you see in a museum because they are mostly happening outside of a museum. They are also promoted using the internet. These kinds of curatorial decisions and processes have a lot to do with social practice.

XF: Thank you Xu Tan, Liang Jianhua and Huang Xiaopeng. Happily, this three way Skype conversation worked well. We really appreciate your participation and look forward to continuing the discussion.


All images courtesy of Liang Jianhua and HB Station

Huang Xiaopeng (b. 1960, Shanxi Province) is a video and installation artist who lives and works in Guangzhou. Huang joined the Southern Artists Salon after graduating from the Oil Painting Department at the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts in 1983. In the late 1980s, he pursued his MFA degree at the Slade College of Arts in London. From 2003 to 2012, Huang taught at the Guangzhou Academy where he ran the 5th Studio, a studio in which students are encouraged to explore contemporary methods and media. He has exhibited in the Third Guangzhou Triennial: Farewell to Post-Colonialism, Guangdong Museum of Art, Guangzhou (2008); ‘Departure: Contemporary Art Exhibition of Guangzhou,’ Shenzhen, Hong Kong and Macau, OCT Contemporary Art Terminal & He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen (2008); and Lianzhou International Photo Festival (2007). 

Xu Tan (b. 1957, Wuhan) currently lives in Shenzhen, Guangzhou and New York. In 1979, Xu was admitted to the Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, where he received his BA and MA degrees in Oil Painting in 1983 and 1989 respectively. In 1993, Xu joined the Big-Tail Elephant Group, organized by Chen Shaoxiong, Lin Yilin and Liang Juhui. Since 2007, Xu has been working on the Keywords School project, a series of workshops, publications, and exhibitions. Xu’s works have appeared in major exhibitions such as the 50th and 53rd Venice Biennales (2003, 2009), the Second Guangzhou Triennial (2005), the Fourth Gwangju Biennale (2002), the Second Berlin Biennial (2002), the Third Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art (1999), and ‘Cities on the Move,’ Vienna, Bordeaux, New York, Copenhagen, Bangkok and Thailand (1997-1999).

Liang Jianhua (b. 1977, Guangdong Province) is a Curator at the Times Museum in Guangzhou, and Project Manager of HB STATION Contemporary Art Research Center.




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