While still a student at Mount Holyoke College, Bingyi Huang organized exhibits of Asian calligraphy, interned at Christie’s and the Guggenheim, and edited the "Women’s Art Coalition" — the only undergraduate academic journal focusing on issues related to women and art in the nation. As a doctoral candidate in Art History at Yale University Huang continues to supplement her studies with art projects: working and curating at Beijing galleries, producing a documentary film about Chinese artists communities, and constantly pushing herself in her own writing and painting. Huang will begin writing her dissertation, on Han Dynasty Art, in the spring of 2002. The interview was conducted by Ilana Stanger of TheArtBiz.com.
You curated exhibits of contemporary Chinese artists while still in college–what led you so early to this sort of career?
I never thought of it as a career, more as a hobby. I still do think of it as a hobby. I am being trained as a professional, but still think of myself as a writer and painter who has a little bit of ability to do this and that for my colleagues. I just did it because no one else was doing it.
I came to the States to study art. In China I was studying biochemical electronic engineering, and I wasn’t able to switch majors. I was way too wild for that kind of department, so I started designing ads to make money. When I came here I went to a class taught by Bob Herbert [Professor Emeritus of Fine Arts at Mt. Holyoke] and he really impressed me with his ability to talk about images and open up hearts and minds. He was a major inspiration.
Why did you decide to pursue a PhD?
I wanted to be able to talk about art in the way that Bob Herbert taught me–to open up some minds and hearts. People don’t realize that one of the most important ways to practice art is to talk about it–not bullshit about it, but talk about what you feel. The PhD is important because it entitles you to do that in formal setting.
A PhD is pretty consuming: does the academic study complement or conflict with your own creative work?
It definitely conflicts, but less so now. I think I finally came to terms with what I do sometime last summer. I went to China and wrote a film and two small catalogues, and realized the PhD keeps me going. It gives me structure and destination. Really, the PhD relieves me from the pain of not knowing what will happen next year. I know for the next three years that I’ll be working on this specific work.
What’s your academic focus?
I’m writing my dissertation prospectus right now. It’ll be on Han Dynasty Art– specifically a site from 168 BCE, which was when the large cultural unity of the Han Empire formed.
How has your own work been influenced by your study of other artists and theoretical frameworks?
Well, there are three things I study. First there is my study of ancient traditions; second, art theory and practice–our contemporary reality; third, the real people I know who I don’t study but observe.
The first gave me room for writing intelligently and thinking with imagination. Anytime of transition means turmoil, confusion, misunderstanding, recontextualization, and that period [Hans Dynasty] of change and transition allows me to imagine. I shouldn’t say that, but that’s how I feel about history. History can be fictional in many ways–it involves good storytelling.
From the second I learned how to talk. How to debate. How to provoke mainly.
Do you worry that "learning how to talk" in academic programs privileges academics and makes art inaccessible to others?
More than worry–it’s a necessary evil. Education is a privilege, art is a privilege, and contemporary art is the most precious privilege of visual education. I do feel that way, but I think on the other hand that also helps us as teachers or writers. We have a mission to publicize and talk widely, break barriers, bring art to everyone. That’s the reason why I started doing shows.
And as far as the influence of other artists you know?
They humble me. We all know artists lead hard lives, but in China I looked at how they pull through with such spirit and sense of humor. They’re really able to take it easy more than I do, and that really opened my mind.
You created a documentary about contemporary Chinese artists. What did you learn about the artists in making the film?
Actually, the film is not edited at this point. I lost my theme. I think there’s a difference between interviewing people as an interviewer and as a friend. I slowly got to know the artists–I was with them for four months. I came a lot closer to them and what I did before doesn’t make sense anymore. I had a clear idea: I was going to talk about the differences between three artistic colonies in three parts of Beijing and how their lifestyles are different: Tong Xian, which includes several villages, Huajiadi, where artists live in modern communes, and Dashanzi which is far out and segregated.
Is it common for Chinese artists to be organized into communities?
Yes. There’s a story I heard of an American curator who went to Beijing and while he was observing the sense of connection and identification with each other that the Chinese artists shared, he started complaining about the lack of communication and support in New York City. One of the Chinese artists asked him how many artists lived in New York, and he said, ‘Uh, about 50,000.’ The Chinese artist was furious, and told him ‘My goodness, the total number of Chinese contemporary artists is not more than 1,000. We have to be cluttered and ghettoized because otherwise we couldn’t survive.’
Why are there fewer practicing artists in China?
When we talk about who is an artist we have to talk about how someone identifies him or herself. In China there’s not a supportive system so it takes a lot of dedication and commitment to be a professional artist. It’s very hard to raise the notion that ‘I am a vanguard artist’ and so on. Almost all the artists know each other. But, with the film, I just didn’t want to treat the artists like objects anymore and I don’t have the distance to tell the complete story.
Do you see yourself becoming an art history professor?
I’ll definitely be a professor of some sort. I like talking about art. One way to talk is to talk to young people who haven’t formed biases. As for writing, that’ll never leave me because it nurtures my mind.
Any advice for aspiring artists and academics?
I’m not sure whether I’m in a position to give advice because I’m still a student and still learning. The only thing I would say is feel what you love. If you love something, there should be no fear. Don’t be afraid that you have to make a living. There are simple ways to be artistic–painting, drawing. If you are determined to make a living, don’t worry that you can’t–you will. If anyone at a gas station or bank can make a living, you can make a living too.