Interview By Jiang Yuehong
Thoughts on teaching: as with gardening saplings, education requires some pruning.
What role do you feel the jewellery major plays in the educational framework of the Academy, as well as in the greater framework of contemporary artistic practice?
Jewellery ought to be experimental. It should maintain a certain freshness. Whether a person wants to do well as a professional or as a person, everything starts from the self and proceeds outwards from there. It’s about doing something with more precision and more care, about getting it closer and closer to ‘just right’. If you want to do something well, you need to have a strong support. You need the strength of a team for the first effort, and then you need a second wave of power and energy as you go to revisit and revise. This force is already present within students and I want to help nurture it. This requires sufficient support and a common ideal, but just to have an ideal is not enough. There needs to be strength to propel real action. If you want to develop something successfully, you need to invest yourself in it completely. In your heart, you need to possess a certain kind of strength and persistence, and this requires being well versed in your subject, and grounded.
How would you describe experimental jewellery art?
For something to be experimental it must have intellectual inquiry behind it. It must be concerned with a question, and it must point to something specific. After that, it must find the means to build a methodology towards providing a viable solution. In a discussion of jewellery there is first the traditional definition of the craft, then the issue of jewellery and its relationship to people, and then the question of the idea of jewellery as ‘being worn’. Through it all there are possibilities for linear, multi-dimensional, and subversive interrogations—of history, of the present, of culture, of society, of humankind, of philosophy, and so on. It is a practice and process that, in the traditional sense, has never existed before, and so it is brimming with new possibilities. There are things that can be accomplished, and there are things that will take longer than we have to fulfil. The process is not a conservative one; it is courageous and ambitious. Jewellery provides us with a field for experimentation, and possible points of departure within this field are numerous and varied. If we take it all apart and look inside, we will not be able to see a specific, cohesive form. But at the last minute, these many scattered points come together to reveal something that is somehow distinct.
The jewellery major has been around for ten years, and grew out of a single course; what was the thought process behind the way in which the curriculum was set up?
At the outset the basic idea was a curriculum in two parts: one devoted to the exploration of theories and concepts, the other devoted to experimentation with materials. The aim: to help each student find and establish a personal visual language, a flexible ideal model, and a strong critical voice; and to encourage each student to express his or her unique character through the work. When we begin from our own personal point of view, we are likely to put more weight on our artistic expression. There is a discernible and fundamental difference between work produced out of the traditional conception of jewellery—namely jewellery that exists only for its decorative element—and work that sees jewellery as a craft for expression. As students make their own sense of the relationship between jewellery art and jewellery design, they find their own place within that spectrum.
Towards the end of those ten years, the content of teaching and the structure of knowledge for jewellery design grew gradually more robust. As history evolves, lifestyles and mind-sets change, and this is something that must be confronted. I feel that it is important to provide students with a chance to discover and make the most of their own strong points. This means giving them a diversified platform. Yes, jewellery art is a major pillar of our teaching philosophy, but it is not the only choice; students can focus on jewellery design as well. This kind of adjustment and expansion is a necessary adaptation to changing times, as well as the sort of enhancement or development that a department must inevitably realize once it comes to a certain point in its history, lest it becomes too narrow in its scope.
We began the design track with the ‘Brand and Design’ course, which gradually drove us to deepen the reach of the overall design curriculum, developing into areas like culture, folk customs, and philosophy as new points of entry. The results teaching-wise indicated a successful beginning, and students welcomed the courses as well.
Over the past ten years, our curriculum has expanded area by area, slowly maturing as a whole. Each course topic is like a seed that’s been planted; with every step of the process, from selecting the seeds to sowing them, there is careful, measured consideration. As we first designed the curriculum we emphasized the importance of paying close attention, from as many angles as possible, to whether or not real quality was being cultivated. We wanted to do everything in our power to arm students with any and all of the tools—materially, spiritually, and intellectually—that would help them to be independent and make their own choices, while also being able to successfully integrate. Only by showing up for class and being present for these experiences can the students fully benefit from this kind of care on the part of their teachers; otherwise it is all too easy for mere fragments of ideas to reach them. This is why every time a student is absent for a series of lectures or only attends intermittently I feel pangs of regret.
In my own philosophy, the education process is like gardening saplings: it requires constant pruning and trimming. Even if there are the best growing conditions one could hope for, lots of sunlight, and ample water, if the roots are twisted and the branches are gnarled, even a seemingly flourishing exterior has to undergo some fixing before it can grow straight out of deep-laid roots, tall into the sky. This was the mind-set I had when I came back from Europe, and it is the same one that has led me through ten years of teaching in the jewellery department.
Within the framework of both practical and theoretical training for students, in what way did components like the metalworking curriculum, course topics like ‘Brand and Design’, or the establishment of themes for workshops and comprehensive training courses constitute chapters of their own, and in what way did they work in concert with one another, to embody the overall philosophy behind the department’s teaching practice?
In my teaching philosophy, course subjects are at the core of a curriculum’s implementation. A good subject will often carry forward the curricular framework, keeping it targeted and effective. At the same time, the deepening and expansion of the curriculum itself will also often bring about the genesis of new course subjects, extending their lifetimes and advancing them forward.
The metalwork curriculum is designed to be a series of basic training experiences for students just entering the major, with the intent of giving them a rich first hands-on interaction with the medium. The students are exposed to eighteen different crafts, learning about them through hands-on practice and production. Students learn the fundamentals and familiarize themselves with different skillsets, often in preparation for the ‘Brand and Design’ course, where what they have learned can be put into practice.
The idea for the ‘Brand and Design’ course originated out of several students’ participation in jewellery design competitions and theme-based collaborations with well-known brands. The first time CAFA jewellery graduates Wang Qian and Zhang Shaofei cooperated with internationally renowned crystal brand Swarovski, they were very successful. Their “Chinese zodiac” design, “resonating with the spirit of the orient”, brought a new vitality to the brand, and is still recognized favourably today by brand collectors worldwide.
Over the past few years there have been collaborations with French brand Qeelin as well as Hiersun’s “I do” diamond brand. Research into potential topics for related competitions and projects has allowed students to gain a wide breadth of knowledge and exposure. In addition to the content I teach, I often invite special guests—experts representing related fields—to come give lectures, hold discussions, and initiate exchanges, helping students lay down a solid foundation and add to an increasingly abundant reserve of knowledge. Students are in a dynamic learning environment that, while contained within a greater organization, also emphasizes their independence and allows them to try out a number of different training methods. Teaching a course like this demands that theoretical and practical knowledge are developed in tandem; it demands of the students that they master a skill within a framework that places no limit on the designer. In this course, the teaching style itself requires innovative thinking; it requires thought on how to illustrate processes (diagrams of final products, diagrams of the production process), as well as how to demonstrate hand painting, the use of 3D mapping computer software, handicrafts and other curricular content. The desired goal is to enhance students’ ability to actually apply the knowledge they have accumulated. Over the past several years in the course, many students’ designs have been used by brands, directly manufactured and put on the market.
Incorporating the notion of workshops into the curriculum comes from my experience leading the “Looking for Birthmarks” project organized by the Sydney Academy of Fine Arts. The introduction of the workshop model helps both with teaching and learning. During an intensive one-week period, all student assignments are completed catering to a specific topic. For students this is an efficient training model, allowing them to experience the process of moving from topic selection, to material experimentation, to creation. For teachers, it is a rare opportunity to examine and reflect, not only through observation but also through communication and discussion, in order to improve upon fundamental organizational issues and methods of execution within the jewellery major at large. Throughout the process, both teachers and students learn about themselves by observing others, especially when it comes to the exchange between domestic and international students and teachers regarding methods of jewellery creation and educational practices. This inspires continued growth and boosts self-confidence for all parties involved. It was a major motivation for us to participate in a three-month distance learning and exchange program with the Sydney Academy of Fine Arts Jewellery Design Department in Australia, as well as the purpose of our exchange program with the Glasgow Design Institute in the UK.
Our idea for Integrated Training is part of our effort to gradually improve our core course framework and to help students learn how to work with different kinds of visual languages. The course can be seen as a sort of ‘warm-up’ for graduation. We launch the course in response to specific problems that have been revealed in students’ graduate work for that year. For instance, in terms of display, we have had courses focused on accessory shows, on how to put together the venue, the costumes, the lights, and so on. We have also had courses focused on display. Although we have a specific topic for each course, we will open it up to an exploration of current problems and potential solutions as well. If graduate work is an optional exercise, then the integrated training course provides a set of steps that students can follow for this exercise.
We often say that graduate work is the most helpful indication of a student’s ability; what are the advantages and disadvantages of this?
Creating art is first and foremost about personal expression. At the beginning of the curriculum, we will weave in what we believe to be useful methodology, as a starting point for students in creating their own works. We also have courses with targeted, individualized design projects that require students to create something for someone else. The method forces students to be upfront with and analyze themselves. Whether they dig deep within or are moved by an external tipping point, it is about doing everything they can to express clearly and accurately what they see. Only with this kind of effort can one successfully design something for someone else. If you know how to position and define yourself, you have a foundation from which you can communicate and explore other people’s worlds, obtaining more information to bring into your process. Once you have collected your data, you can integrate all of the aspects of your newfound understanding into the work. This is interesting and meaningful design.
As graduation approaches, every student is in search of a topic. What I most care about is that students can be themselves and differentiate themselves from others. Whether work is relaxed, humorous, open-minded, disposed towards nature, or philosophical, I only hope students can focus on inspiration from their own lives. It can be simple and honest, it can be flashy, it can be about common people or about celebrities, and it can focus on the individual or on society. My hope is that the diversity across topics reflects their differences as individuals. Looking at graduate work from over the past two years, I realize that involving more young teachers in the process as advisors leads to more possibilities for students.
Different students have different distinguishing qualities; some of them are unsure of themselves and often choose topics that are wrong for them. Teachers can help get a student on track, but if the student persists in making choices that don’t work, I’ll still be supportive. Suggesting that what they are doing is wrong will only cause extra pain. And in the end, it is a process; eventually the student will figure it out on his or her own, and make a change. Some students are late bloomers, and only find their way right as they are approaching graduation. As a teacher, one needs to respect students’ individual choices and allow them to go after what they believe in, with trial and error to find out what works best. You cannot force the results. I often remind students that if a good process and good product refuse to arrive at the same time, it’s best to stick with the process first. Of course, the best outcome is getting the process and product down together.
To be continued…
Courtesy Teng Fei and CAFA ART INFO.