Students collaborate to curate new Flaten Art Museum exhibit
The students of Associate Professor of Asian Studies Karil Kucera’s Visual Culture of Modern China class were brought together this fall by a unique opportunity: to help curate the Flaten Art Museum’s newest exhibit, Mixed Messages: 20th Century Chinese Prints.
Drawing from a rich collection of prints donated to St. Olaf College by Associate Professor Emeritus of Chinese and Asian Studies Richard Bodman, the selected works illuminate China’s evolution from Confucian philosophies to Communist ideologies through the present day.
Mixed Messages explores the multiple readings embedded in a single work by featuring informational placards in both Chinese and English, making it the first bilingual exhibit in Flaten. As curators, Kucera’s students worked to create a cohesive exhibit that showcases a complex historical moment for viewers of all backgrounds, emphasizing what is grasped and lost in translation by inviting visitors to experience each piece from multiple perspectives.
“Mixed Messages represents the best of what a college art museum can do in partnership with students and professors. It’s thrilling to see our collection being used at the core of coursework,” says Flaten Art Museum Director Jane Becker Nelson ’04. “As a curator, it’s exciting to watch students research this rare collection and make collaborative choices for the exhibition.”
Getting students involved
Bodman’s donation gave Kucera’s class, and Assistant Professor of Chinese and Asian Studies Ka Wong’s Foreign Languages Across the Curriculum (FLAC) component, the opportunity to combine their interests in art history and the Chinese language to share their expertise with a larger audience.
“This class is the perfect blend of my two areas of study at St. Olaf: art and Chinese,” explains Ida Sobotik ‘15. “I am also taking a Chinese language class and a printmaking class this semester, so Visual Culture of Modern China allows me to tie the two subjects together.”
Kucera and Wong’s students worked with everything from traditional Chinese New Year’s prints to Communist propaganda posters that provide visual evidence of China’s response to modernity. However, their classes quickly realized that appearances are deceiving.
“The art displayed does not represent the realities of China during the 20th century,” says Sobotik. “If you go into the gallery just to look at the art, it will seem like a very happy time period, as many of the people in the prints have smiling faces and are greeting each other. However, many of the prints in the show are ideals of that time that actually hide the extreme suffering many people endured.”
This disconnect between image and reality, and the Visual Culture class’s experiences curating the pieces, inspired the exhibit’s provocative name.
“I personally came up with the title ‘Mixed Messages’ when I was originally working with the students in the class and came to recognize that what those who couldn’t read Chinese saw in the imagery of the prints was very different from those who could read Chinese,” says Kucera. “Hence, the notion of ‘mixed messages,’ where image does not necessarily reflect text.”
For Wong’s FLAC students, curation presented their language skills with unique obstacles.
“My language background definitely enhanced my understanding and appreciation for the pieces in the exhibition,” says Alisha Jihn ‘15. “As one of our assignments, we had to read excerpts from Mao’s speeches, as well as translate the large character poster on display in the exhibition. The colloquial Chinese vocabulary and grammar we’ve learned can be quite different from written Chinese, so that was a definitely a challenge.”
Translating posters into art
Early in the semester, Kucera’s students visited the Minneapolis Institute of the Arts with Becker Nelson to explore exhibition design — how curators craft the narrative flow of an art show, use wall color strategically, and create innovative educational opportunities to provide visitors with the richest possible experience.
To recreate the experience of how these prints were first experienced, the class carefully designed the exhibit space to resemble their natural setting. For example, they came up with the idea of using a magnetic system that leaves the prints exposed in a fashion comparable to how they would originally have been presented.
“The idea of presenting an exhibition of prints is intriguing because, back in the day, these posters were simply hung on walls — like posters we have hanging in our dorm rooms,” explains Jihn. “I think this, in itself, is a ‘mixed message’: there are many contradictions in so many of the pieces, starting with the fact they were originally just mass-produced posters, not art.”
Prints include a striking floor-length woodblock print of Mao Zedong and miniature figurines of prominent Chinese leaders. The students decided on painting select walls of the exhibit gray to mimic building walls and draw attention to the posters.
“One of my favorite pieces is titled ‘I Am Chairman Mao’s Little Red Soldier,’” says Jihn. “The slogan at the top of the print says ‘Study well and improve day by day’ — which I find ironic, yet fascinating since during the Cultural Revolution education was essentially abandoned.”
The exhibit features an interactive activity as well, inviting visitors to pair propaganda posters with their original captions. Despite the Chinese captions being translated, the images rarely correspond with what would appear to be the obvious choice; this, in effect, embodies the exhibit’s goal of creating an exhibit that can be interpreted from vastly different perspectives.
“My own hope is that the themes we presented in the show open up some new perspectives for people when thinking about China,” Kucera says. “Hopefully they also make visitors aware of what incredible changes have occurred in China over the past 100 years and what those changes have meant for the Chinese people.”
Mixed Messages will be featured in the Flaten Art Museum until December 8.