China, art history and curatorial practice: New Future Fellowship project

The Faculty of Arts extends its congratulations and welcome to Dr Claire Roberts, who will be returning to the Faculty in July as an ARC Future Fellow. Future Fellowships support research deemed to be of critical national importance, and are awarded to the best and brightest mid-career researching making outstanding contributions to their field.

Claire completed a Bachelor of Arts and Master of Arts at the University of Melbourne, majoring in Chinese and Art History. She has since completed a PhD, curated numerous exhibitions on East Asian material, published multiple articles to peer-reviewed journals and studied as a Research Fellow at the Radcliffe Institute for Advanced Study at Harvard University. Here Claire shares with us an insight into her ARC research project, which will use modern and contemporary Chinese art to understand intercultural communication in the 21st century.

Claire Roberts
Dr Claire Roberts

To what extent are people prevented by limitations of language and cultural or historical awareness from accessing meanings and perspectives inherent in works of art? How often is our understanding based on assumptions or politically determined interpretations and, in fact, misunderstanding? How can we move away from art paradigms that see works of art in terms of frameworks that have been historically imposed, or that rely on stereotypes or repeat stereotypes?

The Australian Research Council Future Fellowship project 'Reconfiguring the World: China. Art. Agency, 1900s to Now' takes modern and contemporary Chinese art as an explanatory case study to think more broadly about the challenges of intercultural communication in the twenty-first century. The project is based in collaborative intercultural inquiry and the ideal that only through cultural literacy and actively engaged, informed dialogue can people from different backgrounds create useful understanding across cultural divides.

The activities of artists and the creation of artworks will be considered in relation to China's changing political landscape and the outflows and inflows of people and ideas. The focus of research will be key works of art and visual culture created by significant Chinese and non-Chinese artists that have played an important role in creating different understandings of modern and contemporary Chinese art. Works to be considered will include brush-and-ink painting, oil painting, printmaking, photography and experimental contemporary art—in other words both 'traditional' and 'modern' media and art and visual culture. Through a collaborative research process the circumstances of the creation and production of these works of art and their cultural foundations will be analysed, probing complex influences and contexts that are both Sinophone (emerging from the Chinese-speaking world) and engaged with world currents. The project takes account of the mobility of people and ideas across time and space and the capacity of artworks not only to variously transcend national borders but also to resist translation in universal terms.

Central to this approach to modern and contemporary Chinese art is the role of informed curatorial practice relating to exhibitions, events and academic research (art histories, exhibition catalogues and associated public events) that create the context in which publics come into contact with artworks. Exhibitions and art histories produced within and outside China will be compared, taking note of modes of communication and issues of translation, curatorial discrepancies, art historical gaps and distortions, and interventions not acknowledged.

The research project proposes a new conceptual framework for thinking about modern and contemporary art in the twenty-first century that incorporates multiple perspectives, recovered histories and expanded contexts. China's long cultural history, its unique political system and its recent extraordinary transformation and rise in power require an account that goes beyond the usual globalization or intercultural/ transnational 'inbetweenness' narrative. China has made strategic and opportunistic use of internationalism while also operating by its own rules and in its own interests. In this way its globalism can be seen as a way of benefiting from the global while resisting it at the same time. As cosmopolitan concepts deriving from the West are applied in or to China, misunderstandings can occur and the results can be difficult to interpret. Through a process of deep and critical collaborative inquiry, involving a number of roundtable discussions with key academics, art historians and curators that will take place in Australia, China, the United Kingdom and North America, the project seeks to find a way through these issues. Research and discussion will contribute to exhibitions and publications that consider modern and contemporary Chinese art and visual culture in an international context.

Claire M. Roberts is Associate Professor of Art History and Australian Research Council Future Fellow in the School of Culture and Communication at the University of Melbourne, Research Fellow in Art History at the University of Adelaide, and Visiting Fellow at the Australian Centre on China in the World, Australian National University. She is a historian of Chinese art and a curator specializing in modern and contemporary Chinese art and visual culture. She was Senior Curator of Asian arts at the Powerhouse Museum, Sydney (1988-2010) and held research fellowships at Harvard University (2011, 2009-10), and the Australian National University (2006-09). Claire studied at the Beijing Foreign Languages Institute (1978-1979) and the Central Academy of Fine Arts, Beijing (1979-1981). She has a Bachelor of Arts (1983) and a Master of Arts (1987) from the University of Melbourne. Her PhD (2006), undertaken at The Australian National University, focused on the work of modern Chinese brush-and-ink painter Huang Binhong (1865-1955). Claire has published widely on Asian art and curated numerous exhibitions. Her most recent books and exhibition catalogues are Yang Zhichao: Chinese Bible 1949-1999 (2015); Photography and China (2013); Go Figure! Contemporary Chinese Portraiture (2012); Friendship in Art: Fou Lei and Huang Binhong (2010); and Other Histories: Guan Wei's Fable for a Contemporary World. Documentation of an Exhibition (2008).