Penn Undergrad’s Research on Chinese Art Takes Her on a Cross-cultural Journey

By Christina Cook 

Researching virtual and ephemeral art in China is no simple task, especially when done under a complex theoretical framework informed by the ideas of Mikhail Bakhtin, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. This did not put off Kimberly Schreiber, though, a senior and University Scholar at the University of Pennsylvania who is spending the summer doing just that.

Described by Kevin Platt, professor of Slavic languages and literatures in the School of Arts & Sciences, as “unafraid to take on research challenges,” Schreiber says her goal this summer is to explore “how contemporary Chinese art addresses challenges to identity formation in present-day China” and “what it means to become an individual in the most populous nation on earth.”

Schreiber says these are complex questions that no one discipline can answer alone and calls the multidisciplinary nature of her inquiry “both challenging and richly rewarding.” 

“I do not have one professor who can act as the sole advisor for my thesis, encouraging me to stick to a plan or meet certain deadlines. Now, however, I realize that this is a blessing in disguise,” Schreiber says. “Coming from different disciplines, professors Kevin Platt, Julie Davis and Karen Beckman all have widely disparate interests, methodologies and areas of expertise. I am so lucky that I can mine such a wide range of perspectives, taking from their various approaches to create something that is uniquely my own.”

The student from West Hartford, Conn., recalls “being nervous that as I continued my academic career I would have to choose a single topic to pursue at a deeper level, ultimately forsaking my interests in other disciplines. To my relief, I found a way to explore all of these interests in a new, interdisciplinary way.”

The discovery came to her in a seminar on contemporary East Asian art taught by Davis, associate professor in the history of art.

The realization “that this topic was the confluence of all my seemingly disparate interests, critical theory, contemporary Chinese studies and art” was a turning point for Schreiber, who is now majoring in comparative literature with a concentration in literary and cultural theory and minoring in art history and Chinese.

Wishing to pursue further research on the topic in China this summer, Schreiber sought a grant from the Center for Undergraduate Research and Fellowships. The proposal was accepted, and Beckman, professor of the history of art, put her in touch with Duan Yundong, an associate professor in the Fine Arts School at Southwest University in Chongquing, China. Beckman had kept in touch with Yundong since his term as a visiting scholar at Penn’s Center for Global Communication Studies in the Annenberg School for Communication in 2011.

Beckman says, “This kind of global intellectual exchange that directly supports the research agenda of our undergraduates makes very clear why it is important for us to keep fostering international relations through cross-cultural conversation,” adding that Schreiber’s research project “demonstrates that art and other kinds of creative practice can be a great vehicle for fostering these kinds of exchanges.” 

Beckman also connected Schreiber with Penn alumnus Chris Bremble, founder and director of Base FX, the leading visual effects studio in Asia, who in turn facilitated other key connections for her. Among these was Philip Tinari, a curator of contemporary Chinese art and director of the Ullens Center for Contemporary China in Beijing's 798 Art District

While visiting 798, Schreiber saw A Room of My Thought, which she describes as “a really surprising and inspiring video work by the Chinese artist Ye Funa.” 

She was especially struck by the ways in which the work “spoke to many of the concerns of China’s contemporary urban dweller” and “addressed issues related to China’s recent urbanization in a unique way.”

“In typical Chinese cities,” Schreiber says, “enormous high-rise buildings have popped up at an unprecedented rate. Each building, and each apartment within these buildings, looks exactly the same. In my mind, Ye’s piece allows for the liberation of the body through improvisation and dance –- a body that is increasingly controlled by these highly-regularized architectural structures.”

Works of this nature are a challenge to document and record, she says.

“Since most of the pieces I am interested in are ephemeral installations or short video works, it is difficult to acquire images or copies of the work in full to revisit at a later date.”

One piece that posed a particular challenge to Schreiber’s research methods was RMB City, a work of art embedded in a computer game called Second Life and created by the artist Cao Fei, whom Schreiber credits as “catalyzing my interest in this topic.” Fei is, according to Schreiber, “a product of China’s ‘On/Off’ generation,” being “born after the Cultural Revolution and growing up in a nation continually shaped by an influx of technology, consumerism and urbanization.” 

Schreiber says that “in China, where there are tangible limitations to how your identity can be performed in real life, this virtual ‘game’ can provide an outlet for people to act out their individuality and their purest desires in a way that is perhaps more ‘real’ than in their earthly world. I am interested in the possibilities created by this elision between the virtual and the real. What are the consequences when the mechanics of control cannot be executed in virtual space? Is where we are more free also where we are more real?” 

When asked about her work in broader terms, Schreiber says that, “on a very abstract level, my research is about the close tie between art and life. This is not to suggest that relevant art is representational, overtly politically charged and/or socially oriented. Instead, I would argue that the very act of creating, participating in and viewing art is a way of encouraging alternative thinking, something that essential to anyone living in modern China, where there are very real limitations to what you can say, create or believe.”

Having traveled to China five times prior to her current visit, Schreiber is approaching this research with extensive cultural knowledge. This includes not only travels to its major cities but also the remote Xinjiang and Yunnan Provinces.

This summer’s trip gave her a chance to expand her cultural knowledge even more when, during her stay in Taiwan, she took a break from doing research to journey by train, then by bus and last by ferry to Lanyu, a tiny tropical island off Taiwan’s southeast coast.

“Lanyu,” says Schreiber, “is home to a remarkable yet dwindling aboriginal population and unparalleled natural beauty. Quite recklessly, I arrived on the island with no lodging plans. Luckily, I was taken in by an extremely generous husband and wife duo who shared secret snorkeling and hiking spots, as well as many of the traditions and superstitions that are unique to their culture. Their hospitality made the experience very memorable.”

Schreiber says the cross-cultural journey on which her research is taking her has “expanded my definition of what I considered ‘China’” allowing her to appreciate the country outside of “a single, urban lens.” 

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