November 2, 2005

Censored Avant-Garde Art Visits C.U. From Beijing

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The Cornell University Library recently acquired one of the country’s most unique collections of Chinese modern art, titled “The Wen Pulin Archive of Chinese Avant-garde Art.” The collection is a video archive consisting of 400 tapes compiled by Wen Pulin, a documentary filmmaker.

“This is probably the best collection of modern Chinese art in the country,” said Thomas Hahn, curator of Cornell’s Charles W. Wason Collection on East Asia.

The archive chronicles the work of Wen for the past 20 years, a testament to a “critical time period,” Hahn said. “This is one of the most important periods of time in terms of economic, urban, and scientific development in China,” he said. “This collection records the movement of Chinese artistic expression [during that time.]”

What makes Cornell’s acquisition of this collection so significant is the fact that, due to the sensitive nature of some of the imagery, much of the art has not been widely displayed in China. The website for the collection states, “This unique collection … is at present still restricted in use in China, [and] will provide students and researchers with previously unseen documentation of the important developments in contemporary art in China over the past 20 years.”

Wen took particular interest in Tibetan culture when compiling the collection. According to Hahn, Wen traveled to Tibet three or four times a year while collecting the materials, and he has a 12-year-old son who is a living Buddha in the area.

“He has an interest in the religious side of Tibetan culture, as well as the artistic traditions, and scientific traditions of Tibetan culture,” Hahn said.

The collection was originally in a number of various different formats, many of which were antiquated to a point where Cornell had a hard time finding equipment to digitize it. Now it exists as 145 DVDs and 340 gigabytes of information sitting on a library hard drive. Wen also has one copy of the collection.

About 50 interviews with major international artists are also contained within the collection, artists whom Wen has helped promote. The tapes also include follow-up interviews with artists five to ten years later, with the intent to parse their individual careers and goals.

“Some tapes got confiscated, and haven’t been returned to him,” Hahn said. “They’re not included in this archive.

He also explained that much of this collection is “not necessarily safe in China.” He said that while some of it is public knowledge, and some of it has been featured on national television, too much of it is too sensitive.

“Some images are very strong, and can be considered repulsive to a sensitized audience,” Hahn added.

The archive is the first of several planned collaborations between the University and the Dongtai Academy of Arts in Beijing, founded by Wen.

“Mr. Wen is very pleased to cooperate with a major research institution such as Cornell,” Hahn said.

A conference was held at Cornell in late September to provide a public showing of the collection in the Wason Collection and Goldsen Archive, Kroch Library and was organized by Prof. Timothy Murray, English.