By Jiang Yuehong
I’ve always been curious about the teaching atmosphere of the jewellery department at the Central Academy of Fine Arts. What was it that made the experience there so lively, that brought such cheer to the faces of faculty members and students alike when they described the myriad possibilities contained in its curriculum? This contemporary jewellery exhibition, entitled “10years-Re:jewellery”, displays the fruits of a decade of teaching in jewellery art and design. Such a ground-breaking choice for an exhibition inspired me to approach Teng Fei, and ask her in person about her own teaching experience and pedagogical philosophies. How had Professor Teng’s destiny linked her to the story of contemporary jewellery design in the first place? How did she come into her role at the Central Academy of Fine Arts?
A student of the craft: there was just something special about it.
You matriculated at the High School of the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 1979, and graduated with a bachelor’s in fine arts in 1987. What was your experience like? What did you gain from the experience and what were you dissatisfied with?
From middle school all the way through to university I was fortunate enough to have been surrounded by a positive cultural atmosphere and learning environment, and to have the opportunity to encounter good teachers who were not only talented but also had integrity. These are the kinds of things that exert a subtle but transformative influence on one’s life. Figure drawing class, landscape sketches, and woodcutting were all the most enjoyable parts of university for me. I remember once I had an allergic reaction and my face was covered with swollen red bumps. The doctor prescribed bed rest, but that was the last thing I wanted to do. Sketchpad under my arm, I insisted on coming to class day after day. That sort of obsession and tenacity when it comes to painting is a unique state of mind. I was proactive about learning and I was unable to stop; I think it was out of a real love and passion. In those years, what I wanted was the space to make my own decisions. I wanted a relaxed learning atmosphere. It was an extremely strong desire. The mentality I had as a student informs the way I care about my students now; it helps me understand them a little better.
You studied at the Universität der Künste Berlin for five years for your research masters. How was it, as compared with professional arts training in China?
Universität der Künste is a place without boundaries. In the past I’ve used ‘like a fish in water’ to describe my experience in that atmosphere. Berlin is a young person’s world. The rhythm of life goes at a faster pace than in other cities; people there walk a little bit faster. During the school year students studying plastic arts were both attending classes and engaging in their own practices outside of school. They were in contact with galleries and art spaces that spoke to ideas they were working on, and had opportunities to participate in solo and group exhibitions. The life of a student in those days could be one of extraordinary independence.
In Berlin, your works were basically all installation pieces and objects. Your growing attachment to jewellery was actually born from coincidence. What about your jewellery course in Berlin has it left you with the most lasting impression?
The jewellery studio wasn’t particularly large, nor was the teacher particularly well known. At the time it was a relatively marginalized field. It was like an isolated corner; no one paid much attention to it. But to me, there was just something special about it. In reality I was probably most moved by the handmade element of the process and the rustic quality of the materials. I studied for three semesters, and the whole process was very interesting. My objects and installation works themselves were always linked somehow to hands-on materials and handmade processes. Things changed though when we began to study metalworking in the studio. The teacher taught us the basic elements of the craft, and out of the class I would do a lot myself. I would practice a lot, using any materials that took my fancy. Time in school was spent learning the crafts. Time outside of school was spent going to see exhibitions, finding my own study materials, and learning about jewellery in different cultural contexts, including China. I was following everything I could. Though at the time the search for information was nowhere near as convenient as it is today, I would still do my best to pick up all the relevant pieces, little by little.
A teacher of the craft: potential is realized with time, and work.
When you left Germany and returned to CAFA, what inspired the idea to set up the jewellery major?
The idea was directly related to my life in Berlin. In school the teachers did not lecture much. It was about going out and experiencing things yourself. Where I lived, every week there was an art flea market. It was a big local attraction, with visitors and members of the community all coming out to shop. Moreover, my dormitory at the time was right next door to the event; looking back now I see that it was an essential part of that period in my life. A good friend of mine who was studying sociology worked at the art flea market. He just had a little booth there, but he did very well. Along with jewellery, there were accessories and clothing, old and new. They had everything. But the main point was not earning money. People were really just doing what they liked to do, able to be fulfilled, happy and self-sufficient. The refreshing scene, filled with new inspiring things, was an integral part of local life. At the time, China severely lacked this kind of thing. In my years studying in Berlin I already knew that jewellery was more ‘out there’, not in the mainstream of art or design, and especially not in China. But like the people in their booths, those considerations did not matter to me. Jewellery was more interesting, because I could come into contact with so much material, whether soft and malleable or hard and brittle. I was especially taken with natural materials. After seeing enough of something, you start to understand how much possibility there is, and that is something that can inspire a true interest.
When I returned to the academy I became one of the six or seven tenured professors in the department of design. If one wanted to do design, it was about being a big picture thinker; the big and small picture both had to be there. The scope couldn’t be too narrow. I brought up the idea of jewellery, but got no feedback. In many respects, China in the nineties lacked the foundation for this kind of major. But then, after several years had passed, I was on my way to work when I turned the car radio on to all of these conversations on life, design, and even jewellery. There was a sense that life was improving, and that people were beginning to pay more attention to the craft. The initial hint of a demand for the course began to appear on the horizon. In 2002, jewellery classes were put on the agenda; this was already seven or so years after I had returned from Germany to begin teaching. At that time there were private institutions that also offered metalworking and similar courses. I had observed these and felt that they were aesthetically limited. I’m sure they were doing many things that were worth doing, but when we opened up our own curriculum, we wanted to explore the ‘other’ possibilities. And with the vibrant platform provided by the Central Academy of Fine Arts, that is how we began. There is always a stir of excitement in doing what others haven’t done before; though it’s not the mainstream, there’s this sense of being ahead of the curve, of looking forward.
Could you speak specifically of the motivation behind opening the Experimental Materials class?
In ‘95 when I returned from Germany to teach at CAFA, I came upon a very unfortunate state of affairs: some of the students in the plastic arts major had become passive and uninterested in their own subject. This disturbed me. At the time, I was vocal in saying that the process of selecting class materials had to be about student interest. You put together new coursework with the students’ interest in mind, so that you could get students to take the initiative. My emphasis in teaching is on finding a way to inspire and activate the minds and hands of students. In class, I remind them that what they are doing is not ‘homework’; it is artwork. It is a process. They come up against difficulties; they search for the solutions to problems. If students can consciously invest enough energy into the problem-solving process, they will ultimately produce good work. It is about finding ways for them to gain exposure to different solutions, ways to mobilize their critical thinking capabilities, ways to provide them with first-hand knowledge of the aesthetics of materials. On this point, the potential impact one can have on students is very great. Whether what they do afterwards is design or art, their demands of superiority in material aesthetics will be an indispensable component of their success. In the beginning, my Experimental Materials class was opened both as a basic level course for the School of Design, and as an elective course for different majors in the Academy of Fine Arts. Students attending the course came from all different backgrounds, including sculpture, oil painting, printmaking, and traditional Chinese painting. We treated it as a path by which students could learn about contemporary art through experience. They were shown contemporary art from abroad. There were still no online resources back then, so it was all through my slides. I could sense their hearts opening, their horizons being expanded. When we talk about higher standards—when we demand a higher level of work from students—we must give them the opportunity to see examples of real, high-quality work. Then they can get down to it, and practically implement what they’ve learned. That first group of students had the chance to take in ideas, material aesthetics, and visual experiences all very much in sync with what was going on abroad at that time. Creativity should not be so inflexible that it falls only within a limited set of prescribed options; with the Experimental Materials course as our entry point into the subject matter, we were able to cultivate in each student both a keen mastery over material and an individual approach to creativity.
Before you studied in Germany you worked at the Institute of Fashion Technology; did this have any influence on your later thoughts on teaching?
Right after I began working there, I was chosen to attend a workshop with one of the most famous makeup and hair stylists in China. In retrospect it became clear that as one goes through life, along the way there will always be countless chance encounters and accidental opportunities. If you are open to seeing where they take you, these varied experiences are what will give you a broader perspective on the questions that arise, broader than if you were on a single track the whole time. You will consider a single point from several different perspectives. This also ends up being useful for teaching; it gives you a degree of comfort as you guide students through their learning processes. Instead of rushing them to acquire skills in as short a timeframe as possible, you become more concerned with how to help them come to know themselves. It is a kind of growth that comes of gradual enlightenment. Students’ inner potential needs time and refinement to be fully realized, before it can come out in full relief. And the results won’t be instantaneous. In contrast, emphasis on the development of a single skill, without nurturing other facets of a student’s mind and interests, will quickly drain the student of all vitality. Boundless tolerance is a virtue. This is my teaching philosophy.
To be continued…
Courtesy Teng Fei and CAFA ART INFO.