Exhibition: ‘Thinking Chinese’ at Ming-Ai Institute (UCL)

Just over a week ago, I was invited to teach for the day at Sotheby’s Institute on their ‘Asian Art and its Markets’ short course. Whenever I go to London it is always a case of what (in the way of culture) and who I can see in the limited twelve hours that I am (usually) there. There’s a lot going on in the field of Chinese contemporary arts in the UK at the moment (hard to keep up with!)…and if you’re not too careful, you end up with options paralysis..or I do anyway.

On my walk to Sotheby’s Institute from Euston station very early that Friday morning, I went via UCL on Gower Street to see the ‘Thinking Chinese’ exhibition produced by Ming-Ai Institute (London) in partnership with University College London as part of the British Chinese Workforce Heritage project. I wasn’t quite sure of where I was going or what I was looking for (due to limited info online), but eventually found the exhibition lining one wall and the hallway floor of the South Cloisters, Wilkins Building as you can see in the images below.

Thinking Chinese Ming-Ai Institute UCL 19 Thinking Chinese Ming-Ai Institute UCL 18 Thinking Chinese Ming-Ai Institute UCL 14

This research-led exhibition draws attention to the work of a number of academics, exploring their interest in historical intellectual exchange between Britain and China. Visualised through text and interpretive information panels, photography, documentary film and moving image, it shows the histories of Chinese individuals who studied, published or researched in the UK. It also made reference to the development and representations of “Chineseness” in the UK, a notion that’s part of my current PhD research…also part of the March 2015 symposium (In)Direct Speech. “Chineseness” in Contemporary Art Discourse and Practice, Art Market, Curatorial Practices and Creative Processes’ symposium where I presented a paper.

The exhibition and timeline represent the many histories of Chinese presence in the UK. ‘Waves of twentieth to twenty-first century Chinese migration have transformed UK high streets and our everyday lives, but the history of intercultural exchange has barely been told. The panels showcase those who came to study and went on to becoming leading figures in the arts and in the technological and professional development of China.’ They include profiles of Luo Fenglu and Sa Zhenbing (Engineering); Lao She, Xu Zhimo and Samuel Chinque (Literature/Publishing) with a poetic interlude ‘Second Farewell to Cambridge’ by Xu Zhimo; Wong Fun (Medicine); Lu Gwei-Djen (Science); Wu Tingfang (Law); Shih-I Hsiung and Dymia Hsiung (Arts). It was great to see that much of the research was done by familiar friends and colleagues including Diana Yeh (University of Winchester) and Anne Witchard (University of Westminster) and more.

The impactful historical pathway design on the floor by Akio Morishima leads audiences through a timeline that charts the larger population movements and working patterns and reflects landmarks chosen by the UK Chinese. The interpretive information panels, I felt were particularly text heavy and would have benefited from more photographs and images…visual parallels to the short histories alongside more documentary films, moving image and even audio, oral-history narration. In terms of more historically-grounded exhibitions like this, audiences learn and respond more through visuals (where the timeline prevails here) and audio, instinctively assimilating what they quickly see and hear to their own histories and experiences – “hearing histories” acting as an empathetic trigger. However, I do realise that visual media and audio for this exhibition was perhaps difficult to source or completely unavailable, as I well know from my research and projects…archival information in this area of research in very lacking and thus, limited and always under research.

The exhibition is on show at UCL until 12 May 2015 alongside a series of events looking into the more peripheral and diasporic themes including ‘Thinking Chinese Symposium: Lady Precious Stream (18 May 2015)‘, the first ever play in London’s West End written and produced by a Chinese, going on to become one of the most performed plays in the world with a discussion with Dr. Diana Yeh (Senior Lecturer in Sociology, University of Winchester and author of The Happy Hsiungs: Performing China and the Struggle for Modernity), Dr. Frances Wood (Historian, author of The Lure of China: Writers from Marco Polo to J. G. Ballard), Dr. Ashley Thorpe (Lecturer in Drama & Theatre at Royal Holloway, researcher of Chinese xiqu or Peking Opera), Natasha Betteridge (acclaimed theatre director in the UK and China) and Daniel York; and ‘Thinking Chinese Screening: When China Met Africa’ (20 May 2015), a screening of the award-winning observational documentary When China Met Africa (2011) which explores China’s influence in the continent through the stories of three individuals in Zambia with a discussion by the directors Nick Francis, British economist Benny Dembitzer, and Director of the UCL China Centre for Health and Humanity, Dr Vivienne Lo.

I wish I could attend these events to see some of my friends and colleagues speak…especially the wonderful Dr. Frances Wood who I have worked with in the past. Her wealth of knowledge and story-telling style is sublimely captivating where I could listen to her for hours on end. I often feel like I don’t get the chance to immerse myself in the more historical contexts of China, and Chinese arts and culture. As you well know, I am usually swept away in the frenetic pace of the here-and-now of contemporary China, which I’ll be talking about in my next blog post about taking the Sotheby’s Institute students to see Liu Ding’s latest exhibition ‘New Man’ at MOT International…somewhat at the other end of the exhibition spectrum!

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