Thinking collectively in a time of separation

Zairong Xiang, assistant professor of comparative literature, is curating one of the main exhibitions in the Guangzhou Image Triennial 2021. Photo by Qiling Wang

By Anisha Joshi ’22

Student Media Center

While people around the world are experiencing feelings of isolation and separation, Duke Kunshan professor and artist Zairong Xiang is busy curating a new exhibition that will impel audiences to consider the exact opposite.

The show asks the question ‘Why Collectivity’ and will open in March as one of three main exhibitions in the Guangzhou Image Triennial 2021, held in southern China.

With the triennial’s overall theme ‘Rethinking Collectivity,’ each exhibition will deal with a different aspect of collectivity and create a collaborative experience in which both artist and audience participate in the meaning-making process, exploring how various clusters of people approach the concept.

‘The exhibition is precisely the question,’ says Xiang, assistant professor of comparative literature. ‘We are asking the audience without answering the question, nor assuming we know what it is.’

Although the concept of rethinking collectivity stems from the obvious concern around Covid-19, which has resulted in millions of people worldwide experiencing lockdowns, social distancing and other isolating measures, he says the exhibition will not speak directly to the pandemic.

Xiang is curating the exhibition with collaborators Bingfeng Dong and Yuing Teng, with whom he co-founded Hyperimage Group in 2018. The group draws together different artistic and academic specializations, with the aim to move beyond narrow art-historical inquiry and analyze the contemporary hyper image-driven age through interdisciplinary approaches.

While Covid-19 is not the show’s focus, it has certainly had an impact on curatorial meetings and other preparations, forcing more online interactions and requiring innovative solutions.

‘But that’s fine,’ says Xiang. ‘If art is not innovative, what is it?’

Artistic atmosphere

Xiang’s interdisciplinary understanding of art and comparative literature comes from working and studying across three continents.

In Central America, he studied the ideographic script of the Aztec/Nahua civilization. Seeing how the system blurred the lines between literature and art impelled him to consider how it removed many of the distinctions between the written and the visual world.

This research informed his first book, ‘Queer Ancient Ways: A Decolonial Exploration,’ in which he calls for broader understanding of queerness drawing on ancient sources, to bring focus to often-neglected perspectives overshadowed by European thought.

Since joining Duke Kunshan in the fall, Xiang says he has been deeply impressed with both the diverse student body and the vitality that interdisciplinarity lends to the university’s curriculum.

In September, the university held a humanities research conference themed ‘Hum/Animal,’ which explored the relationship between humans and animals through multiple perspectives including sociology, bio-art and philosophy. In addition to keynote lectures and expert panels, the conference also featured academic research and film projects by students, with topics ranging from transcendentalism and environmentalism to social credit systems.

As DKU’s associate art director, Xiang plans to work with students to enhance the artistic atmosphere on campus. Photo by Qiling Wang

‘Our students are very intelligent and very motivated. I could never have been able to do this during my undergraduate studies,’ Xiang says of the variety and unique nature of the work that was on offer at the one-day conference.

In addition to his faculty role, Xiang also serves as associate art director, a new position at Duke Kunshan. To complement the university’s cutting-edge arts and humanities curriculum, he plans to create more opportunities to immerse students in the arts.

‘Our campus is beautiful, but it’s perhaps overly protected. We lack artistic experience,’ he says, explaining that he intends to build a more artistic atmosphere on campus through creative spaces, installations and performances. ‘The plans are in the preliminary stages and a bit of a secret, so I hope students can actively get in touch and we can see where to go from there. We can make the campus more lively.’

Xiang is working on projects that aim not only to revitalize the artistic experience on campus but also around Kunshan. Recently, he helped the Humanities Research Center launch a three-month research-creation residency in collaboration with Shanghai’s Chronus Art Center that was awarded to visual artist Guo Cheng. Student fellows will work with Cheng during his residency.

As well as bringing visiting artists and curators to campus, Xiang also plans to arrange internships for Duke Kunshan students to provide professional industry experience, as the art world can seem opaque and mysterious to onlookers.

In general, people perceive the arts and humanities as lacking in terms of career opportunities, but it’s not true, argues Xiang. He says cultural practitioners are essential to creating a healthy society worth living in.

‘Arts and humanities are fundamental to the function of our society, to our existence and survival as a community, whether we realize it or not,’ he adds. ‘I hope this is something the faculty and students can insist upon ‘ the seemingly useless yet essential function of the arts.’

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