NEW YORK, November 2, 2009 – As part of the Carnegie Hall festival Ancient Paths, Modern Voices: Celebrating Chinese Culture, Asia Society Museum Director Melissa Chiu led a conversation between avant-garde visual artist Wenda Gu and award-winning composer and conductor Tan Dun. These cutting-edge artists passionately discussed their common desire to preserve ancient Chinese traditions and culture in the changing modern world.
The two men described the sources of their original inspiration. In the midst of the Cultural Revolution, the young Tan discovered music in everyday life. Growing up in a village in Hunan province, he would pick up the rhythmic sounds women made as they washed their clothes in the Laiyang River. “I transpose those laundry sounds and swimming sounds … into orchestrations,” Tan explained, adding that he was also seduced by the music of the local Hunanese ghost operas and folk traditions.
In a similar manner, the young Gu was excited by Shanghai’s revolutionary atmosphere. By modernizing and showcasing ink painting, one of the most traditional forms of Chinese visual art, he expressed his radical and progressive worldview. The painter quickly learned the art of calligraphy and became fascinated by street posters with large fake characters that were created by untrained, uneducated yet spirited painters. Those posters, Gu argued, contained some of “the most creative calligraphy in modern China.”
While these vanguard artists inherited a rich cultural background, they represent the emergence of a new brand of Chinese art and culture. Both acknowledged that they have been affected by the multicultural environment of the United States and that their work often seeks to unite east and west as well as the traditional and contemporary. As one example of these vanguard tendencies, Tan composed the very first Internet Symphony, which brought together musicians from all around the virtual world, with the help of Google/YouTube.
Two of the most visionary artists in the Chinese diaspora, Dun and Gu are extremely mindful of their heritage. Tan and a friend are collaborating on a large-scale initiative to help promote classical Chinese music, which he feels is slowly disappearing from today’s rapidly developing world. For his part, Gu is currently working on a large scale-landscaping project that will be an ode to the traditional Chinese garden.
Reported by Sulagna Ghosh