Ming: 50 years that changed China, at the British Museum

This post was contributed by Yi-Wen Huang, a PhD student in Arts Management in Birkbeck’s Department of Film, Media and Cultural Studies.

Carved red lacquer on wood core, Yongle mark and period 1403-24, South China. Diameter 34.8 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

Carved red lacquer on wood core, Yongle mark and period 1403-24, South China. Diameter 34.8 cm © The Trustees of the British Museum

A few weeks ago, I, along with my fellow students, attended the British Museum’s current exhibition Ming: 50 years that changed China which opened on 18 September. The visit ended with a Q&A session with the project curator, Dr Yu-Ping Luk. The exhibition is divided into five sections, namely the Ming Court, the Arts of War, the Arts of Peace, Beliefs, and Trade and Diplomacy. The arrangement of the exhibition allowed for the depiction of the aesthetic qualities of the works. In addition, the display and accompanying text alongside the exhibitions also provided a contextual perspective through highlighting how these objects reflected the social hierarchy and conditions of Ming China.

One of the questions that I had in my mind before attending the exhibition was trying to work out in what ways did the fore-mentioned 50 years in the Ming Dynasty change China? According to the curator, the 50 years between 1400 and 1450 were important for three reasons: the shift of the capital of China from Nanjing to Beijing in 1421, the emphasis placed on art by the Emperor Xuande and the explorations undertaken by Zheng He. The exhibits on display thus reflected these three shifts.

Palace Museum scroll arrows: Detail from ‘Amusements in the Xuande emperor’s palace’ showing the emperor playing an arrow-throwing game. Handscroll, ink and colours on silk. Xuande period, 1426–1435. Anonymous. The Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum

Palace Museum scroll arrows: Detail from ‘Amusements in the Xuande emperor’s palace’ showing the emperor playing an arrow-throwing game. Handscroll, ink and colours on silk. Xuande period, 1426–1435. Anonymous. The Palace Museum, Beijing. © The Palace Museum

The objects that impressed me the most were the long scroll paintings on loan from the Palace Museum, Beijing. These paintings depicted hunting activities, eunuchs playing polo and horse-riding. If you look carefully enough, you would be able to find images of the emperor appearing in different scenes participating in the various activities. These paintings reflected life in the imperial court through an insightful observational panorama brought to life through the technical skill of the artist on a long scroll. The landscape paintings with accompanying calligraphy were another display that I found interesting. Landscape painting has long been part of an intellectual tradition of the literati in China. In the Ming regime, landscape painting was one of the Four Arts (四藝 sih yi); the other three being able to master the musical instrument, the Gu Qin, being able to play Chinese Chess and becoming skilled in calligraphy. These landscape paintings at the exhibition explicitly reflected the elegant (雅 ya) culture among the literati. Finally, I was also fascinated by the display of the very first Koran in China which reflected the multicultural and multi-faith in the society in Ming China.

The Q&A session after our visit with the project curator Dr Luk was the most rewarding part of the visit. Through sharing her experience in curating the exhibition, Dr Luk highlighted how this exhibition was the result of five years of research, preparation and collaboration between scholars and professionals from different institutions. Learning about how the objects were loaned from China for this exhibition also provided some insight on the various negotiations that had to take place between government institutions in China. It was also interesting to think that there was a need to consider political sensitivities when presenting information about the objects on display.

It was great to be able to learn more about the exhibition through the Q&A and additional activities about this exhibition, such as the Curator’s Introduction are being organised throughout the duration of the exhibition. Based on what I learnt on our trip, I will definitely be trying to attend more of these events.

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Artist and empire

This post was written by Dr Sarah Thomas, Lecturer in the Art History department at Birkbeck.

In winter next year Tate Britain will host a major exhibition called Artist and Empire. I have been conducting research for the curatorial team at Tate, and on the last day of Birkbeck Arts Week gave a lecture called Curating ‘empire’ at Tate: Dissonance and British Art. I considered some of the major art historical and museological questions that this ambitious exhibition’s premise raises. These include: what chronological parameters might the exhibition best deploy, given the longevity of Britain’s empire? Should the exhibition consider empire’s legacies and thus incorporate the work of contemporary artists? What are the stories of empire that have most preoccupied artists in the colonial period, and do these continue to have relevance today? From whose perspective are they told? What were the effects of what is often called the “centre-periphery” relationship – metropolitan Britain at the powerful centre of a global empire – on the production, reception, and classification of artworks? How might painful and contested histories be dealt with?

I suggested that Artist and Empire provides an opportunity to examine how artists have responded to – and sometimes resisted – imperial themes, and how colonialism and its deep legacies continue to engage artists today.

A podcast of the lecture is now available.

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BBKtalks: Working in the Arts

This post was contributed by Éimear Doherty, a student on Birkbeck’s Arts Policy and Management.

BBKtalks was the result of a competition being held by the Centre for Media, Culture and Creative Practice. This three-part series of talks was organised by two MA students of Arts Policy and Management and funded by the Film, Media and Cultural Studies Department, Birkbeck. The talks took place over three weeks in February and March 2014 and introduced six Birkbeck alumni to staff and students at Birkbeck University, as well as very welcome attendees from UCL, King’s College and Goldsmiths.

The overall aim of the series was to engage with a topic which preoccupies many Film, Media and Cultural Studies postgraduates: working in the Arts.

A piece of advice offered at ‘SU Employability: Elevator pitch & Networking Guide’, a workshop organised by the Birkbeck Career Services on 5 November 2013 became the first and crucial step on the way to producing BBKtalks. The guest speaker recommended the audience to “do something every day that will bring you closer to where you wish to be”. BBKtalks aimed to be one of those steps, for all involved.

The following is a summary of the guests’ comments from across the three nights, in response to the topic at the core of BBKtalks: the challenges and potentials of working in today’s Arts sector.

The guidance referenced is a mixture of that provided by guests’ during their presentations and interviews, as well as during post-talk discourse.

1. What rules?

There are none.

Something which rang clear each week was the fact that there is no pre-established path into the Arts.

“There are no rules, officially, when it comes to the arts. London is wide open. You need to create your own rules.  Virginie Peurtolas Syn revealed to the BBKtalks attendees on 6 March. The accounts were provided by Leslie Primo and Lucy Taylor, who have forged careers from two very different directions, availing of postgraduate education at varying points in their professional lives.

However, there are some qualities which are essential. Before you decide what your rules will be, “you need to do your homework and be informed”.

2.       Do Your Homework”

Preparation is key.

The importance of staying informed is crucial. From researching key players in the Arts, to examining the key events and discussions taking place on various platforms. Without the right information, effective networking and successful interviews are not an option.

Two BBKtalks guests, Virginie Puertolas-Syn and Aser El Saqqa, began working in the Arts after over 15 years working in the business sector. Their advice to those making a career change or in the early stages of climbing their chosen ladder, was to make time to do some personal homework by considering their own skillset and finding effective ways of communicating their transferable skills.

3.       Experience, Education and Transferable skills

Practical forms of engagement need to go hand-in-hand with knowledge and information.

Both Lucy Taylor and Hannah Cross acknowledged the benefits of interning and how work placements in various institutions acted as stepping stones as well as networking tools during the early stages of their career. Experience is key. They encouraged the audience to engage with the Arts in a professional capacity as much as possible and as soon as possible. Caro also emphasised this point and found that her internship gave her the freedom to engage with the work and ask questions, without the kind of pressure you would have felt in other roles.

Caro Skyrme enrolled at Birkbeck years into a well-established and successful career. However, for her, much like Virginie, the MA gave confidence, underpinning her expertise. For Caro, the MA was a change to stand back from her working practice and consider issues she could not see or put aside time to engage with from within.

4.       Be Pro-active

If the opportunity is not presenting itself, you have to make the break for yourself.

After getting to know some artists, Caro Skyrme created her own role and became a visual arts consultant. “Just do it”. This could mean moving to a new city and leaving all that you know behind but you need to take a risk and invest in yourself before you can expect anyone else to. For Caro, the key to being pro-active lies in being able to make decisions and follow through. She advised the audience that one take consensus and be prepared to take the slack and the praise. Good planning and preparation (‘do your homework’) is also key, ensuring that solutions and alternative routes should never be far from reach.

Creativity is sometimes about making your own opportunities. Once you make a start, opportunities, offers and openings will follow. However, this “snowball effect” depends on your reputation. “People talk”, said Virginie Peurtolas Syn, making the Arts “a very transparent industry”. Lucy Taylor also emphasised one’s reputation as their most valuable commodity and reminding the audience how the London Arts scene is much smaller than it was first appear.

5.       The 30 second Pitch

It is important to know your key skills and how to make the most of them.

Something which was emphasised over the series of talks, in various ways, was the importance of being able pitch; either yourself or an idea. Ideally, according to Virginie, in less than 30 seconds. The speakers suggested that the audience ask themselves ‘what makes you different?’.

Effective pitching links back to the importance of networking and maintaining a good reputation. Human relationships are key and can determine a lot. One speaker stated how “you need to engage yourself with the sector of the arts who wish to become a part of. Go to people and introduce yourself.” Those among the guests who had experience working abroad championed London for its “flow”, explaining that unlike many other cities they had worked, London was a place where you could network with ease and build genuine contacts and working relationships.

6.       Perseverance and Passion

“People have asked me, ‘why do you do it?’”, admitted Aser to the audience on 6 March

His response? “Because I love it“.

Know what you wish to do and be prepared for the long haul. “Working in the Arts is a lifestyle choice”, remarked Hannah Cross on the second night. This is something that was also discussed by Lucy Taylor and Leslie Primo, who spoke candidly to members of the audience about how they spent their free time. Both emphasised how their work never left like ‘work’; an attitude shared by each of the BBKtalks speakers. Their passion for what they do was unmistakeable.

Finally,

Some words of advice, imparted by our generous guests.

  1.  “Don’t waste your time worrying”
  2. “Don’t be ashamed to ask for help”

It is a challenge to summarise the range of discussions which took place over the three part series of talks and the value advice provided by our six speakers was enough to fill a book.  Should anyone want more information on the talks, please contact Éimear Doherty and Stefania Donini at bbktalks@gmail.com or visit facebook.com/bbktalks2014 and @bbktalks.

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