Art is about exploration of ideas: lessons from Beijing Art Trip 2017

Visiting the studio of Sui Jianguo: the exchange with one of the most best known Chinese contemporary artist proved to be the perfect conclusion of the four-day art journey in Beijing. Photo: Vivienne Chow

Artists aren't just craftsmen who make pretty objects. They are the greatest thinkers and critics of our times who put forward their ideas into the works they create. Learning about art, history and the world and forming opinions about them are pivotal in the training for young artists.

This summer, 20 teenagers from Hong Kong were brought to Beijing for a four-day art exploration trip. They are not the usual teenagers. These are teen artists who have won recognitions at this year's The Wharf Hong Kong Secondary School Art Competition. The trip was a reward to their outstanding achievements in their artistic pursuits.

The trip had a full itinerary, visiting museums and exhibitions ranging from traditional and classical Chinese and western art to contemporary works as well as meeting two of the greatest artists of our times - Fang Lijun and Sui Jianguo. Hong Kong artist Chui Pui-chee and I were invited to join the trip as mentors to the student artists, discussing art and sharing our experiences with them.

Rather than just being another thematic holiday, the trip was essentially an art journey giving these young hopefuls an opportunity to widen their horizons and explore new art ideas, whether with us or among themselves. It was not about "educating" them from a top-down model, but an exploration of ideas and sharing views and knowledge on an equal footing.

Say cheese: at CAFA Art Museum. Photo: Vivienne Chow

There is no absolute right or wrong when it comes to expressing personal opinion, as long as your argument is logical and you can back your points up with facts and evidence. The students were incredible in this regard.

They were mostly in their senior years in secondary school. Some of them have just graduated and are about to pursue tertiary education locally and abroad in autumn. They came from various schools, from traditional local schools to schools operating the IB system and international schools.

Regardless of their background, these young people shared one great quality - they were opinionated and paid attention to their surroundings. This wasn't just my own personal view. When inspecting students' award-winning entries, Sui was very pleased to see that these young artists had a lot to say about the world they were living in, and were critical about their student lives and the society.

Sui Jianguo was very curious of students' creations. Photo: Vivienne Chow

One example, The Disappearing Mushroom Pavilions, the competition's champion and winner of Hong Kong. Harbour. 20 Years special prize, depicts student artist Suen Yat-ching, 17, mourning for the disappearance of his beloved "mushroom hut" dai pai dong brought upon by urban redevelopment and the treasure of the city's collective memories. Howard Law's portrait of Martin Luther King Right for the Black impressed Sui, who complimented the 18-year-old's vision and awareness of global issues and history. To Sui, independent thinking was the, if not the most, important foundation for a good artist.

While all the students have demonstrated their craftsmanship and techniques in drawing and painting in their award-winning entries, forming an informed opinion about art could be a little bit of challenge to some at the beginning. But this trip filled the gap and gave them the chance to think twice about the meaning of art.

Whether it was the exhibition of Dutch old master paintings at Rembrandt and His Time: Masterpieces from The Leiden Collection at the National Museum of China or the Andy Warhol exhibition at Riverside Art Museum; the solo exhibition of Zong Qixiang modern paintings at CAFA Art Museum or Hong Kong artist Lam Tung-pang's first Beijing solo show Fragmentation at Chambers Fine Art and Yang Jiechang's abstract ink paintings at Ink Studio in Cai Chang Di art district, they were all very curious and they had a lot to say.

Touring Ink Studio with Hong Kong calligraphy artist Chui Pui-chee. Photo: Vivienne Chow

Cheung Hoi-yan, 17, and Ma Lik-ki, 21, were impressed by the diversity of the artworks they were shown during the trip. They appeared to be more receptive towards abstract and conceptual works. Here's a video of Cheung and Ma sharing their views of the art they have seen.

At National Art Museum of China. Photo: Vivienne Chow

Pang Po-yi, 17, showed great interests in old master works at the Leiden Collection exhibition, where the realist paintings were artworks that she could relate to from her traditional painting training. To 14-year-old Audrey Lam, fine Chinese paintings and calligraphy at the National Art Museum of China were new artistic adventure as she was not exposed to such works previously.

Visit to Today Art Museum's multimedia exhibition .zip Future Rhapsody was a mix of adventure and culture shock. The group exhibition showcased a range of large scale video installations and conceptual pieces questioning the digital age we were living in. Some of the students were in awe of the challenging works, while others took their time to ponder the meaning of these art pieces.

Getting arty at Today Art Museum. Photo: Vivienne Chow 

It was a stark contrast with the visit to the Palace Museum, the symbol of Chinese dynastic history and house of classical art treasures. Some students including Venus Lam, 16, said they had been to the palace when they were little, and thus the tour of the museum and meeting with the museum's management were an eye-opener.

Be bold: a fruitful dialogue with Fang Lijun. Photo: Vivienne Chow

But viewing exhibitions could not be compared to meetings with Fang and Sui at their studios located in the outskirt of Beijing. We first visited Fang's place. The artist greeted us at the entrance of his studio, leading us to the space where he allowed students to roam around freely before sitting down for a chat over juices and sliced up water melon. They were a little bit shy in the first place, but after warming up, they took turn to ask Fang questions about his creative journey.

One of the students Sam Ng, 17, asked Fang how he dealt with his down times while making art. It seemed to be an ordinary question but Fang took the question seriously. After the group chat, Fang ran up to Ng, asking the teenager if he had unhappy experiences while making art. I didn't follow the conversation but the scene warmed my heart.

'this is just a start in their art pursuit. these kids are entitled to apply for the wharf art scholarship which is now supporting 12 students' art or design studies in universities around the world'

On our way home, Chui and I had a quick chat to conclude the busy four-day art journey. It was an invaluable opportunity to be exposed to such great variety of art and cultural treasures and we hope the students will cherish this experience and continue to explore new ideas. This trip was merely the beginning of their artistic pursuits - they are eligible to apply for the Wharf Art Scholarship, which has been awarded to 12 students' studies in art or design in universities locally and abroad.

These youngsters are our future.

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