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A City's Character Reinvigorated
Avant-garde art helps preserve cultural heritage
By Ji Jing | NO. 47 NOVEMBER 24, 2016


The lattice of reflective boxes highlights details of the Chaotian Palace in Nanjing (XINHUA)

The Chaotian Palace, a well-preserved historical complex in Nanjing, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, was decorated with contemporary art for its role as a conference venue for the 2016 World Historical and Cultural Cities Expo in October.

All the installations commissioned for the expo juxtaposed contemporary art with the complex's time-honored architecture. One of them, for instance, comprised 100 reflective metal boxes. Positioned on either side of a gate within the palace grounds, 50 of the boxes, each measuring 50cm x 50cm x 20cm, were stacked one upon another in a lattice and angled in various directions.

Chinese-American artist Juju Wang, who designed the installation, told Beijing Review that her intention was to enable onlookers to see architectural details of the palace that they might otherwise overlook. Besides the images reflected by the metal boxes, passersby could also see parts of the gate through the spaces between the boxes. In this way, Wang wanted to create a kind of optical illusion with the potential to blur the lines of reality between the two types of images.

The installation of contemporary art at the Chaotian Palace, which was constructed during the Ming (1368-1644) and Qing (1644-1911) dynasties and currently houses the Nanjing Municipal Museum, indicates that avant-garde design may have a role to play in preserving and reviving ancient cultural heritage.


Kaleidoscopic pictures created from photos of the Chaotian Palace (XINHUA)

Fusion of old and new

Wang emigrated to the United States from her home city of Shanghai at the age of 10. After graduating from the University of California, Berkeley, with a master's degree in civil engineering in 2009, she returned to China.

"I've always been very interested in traditional Chinese culture. Growing up with both cultures, I feel like I can fuse Chinese culture with modern skills. That can be fun," Wang told Beijing Review.

For her second design, Wang photographed various parts of the palace and processed the images to create kaleidoscopic pictures to be displayed on columns positioned inside the dimly lit spaces formed by the first installation's stacked boxes.

"All those images were derived from traditional architecture, which I find very cool. You have very traditional architecture and very modern images, which create a contrast," said Wang.

Another of Wang's design was an acrylic reproduction of the door to the palace's Dacheng Hall, which honors ancient philosopher Confucius. Wang said few palace visitors pay attention to the old door. She discarded both the substance and the color of the original and created a transparent alternative with the original door's pattern laser-etched onto its surface. As onlookers passed admiring comments on the result, Wang told them, "It's not my design. It's the design of the old door."

"Even though all of my installations are modern, they all link back to something old and traditional," the artist explained. "The installations allow visitors to linger, to explore and to understand ancient Chinese architecture in their very own way."

The blending of traditional heritage with modern art permeates Wang's designs. Apart from those on display at the Chaotian Palace, one of her previous creations features cloud-shaped pieces of Dai paper that are hung up to be rotated by hand. Dai paper has been hand-produced for over 800 years in a small village in Xishuangbanna Dai Autonomous Prefecture in southwest China's Yunnan Province.

"The clouds spin and create shadows on the wall. It feels like you're in a very pure space," said Wang.


Chinese-American artist Juju Wang (COUTESY OF JUJU WANG)

The future for the past

Initiated in 2004, the World Historical and Cultural Cities Expo is a biennial event aimed at promoting Nanjing's international image and popularity and boosting cultural exchanges among renowned historical and cultural cities worldwide.

Nanjing, which literally means "southern capital," was the capital of Wu (222-280) and a number of later states in Chinese history. The ancient city is now home to not only museums and monuments, but also intangible cultural heritage such as paper-cutting and silk-making techniques.

With China's rapid urbanization over the past years, the destruction of historical and cultural heritage has become a cause for concern. Widespread, large-scale demolition has resulted in damage to some historical sites, and lack of awareness about cultural heritage protection has contributed to the construction of overwhelmingly homogeneous urban environments.

Preservation of a city's heritage dominated the discussion at the Forum on the Sustainable Development of Historical and Cultural Cities, held on October 24 as part of the expo.

"How to sufficiently preserve and develop cultural heritage in order to strike a balance between economic growth and urban development and enable cities to become more inclusive, sustainable and livable has become a common concern of many cities worldwide," said Nanjing Mayor Miao Ruilin at the forum.

A city's individual character is what attracts people to visit it, Mayor of York City in Britain, Dave Taylor, told Beijing Review. "History and heritage give character to the city… Seven million people come to visit [York] every year, and they come only because it's an interesting historical city. They wouldn't come if it was a new city with no character."

"We should change from protecting a city's heritage to protection of the city as a whole. Not only artifacts such as architecture and cemeteries, but also folk culture should be the target of protection," said Shan Jixiang, Director of Beijing's Palace Museum, the imperial palace of the Ming and Qing dynasties.

Since China became a signatory to the UNESCO Convention Concerning the Protection of the World Cultural and Natural Heritage in 1985, 50 sites in China have been inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List, including the Xiaoling tomb in Nanjing, the mausoleum of the founder of the Ming Dynasty.

Young artists like Wang can contribute to a city's heritage conservation, according to Christopher Gerard, representative of the mayor of Paris. "[We should] open our doors to the new generation of creators and take the risk to invite as many artists as we can—including architects, musicians, painters, film directors and designers—to live in and design our cities if we want our cities to [create] new heritage for [future generations]."

Copyedited by Chris Surtees

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