History unveiling before our eyes: Sculptures soon to be featured on campus

History unveiling before our eyes: Sculptures soon to be featured on campus

Regina Spadoni

For the QC

This May, a fascinating sculpture set from Dandong, China will come to our campus as a permanent installation. 

The story begins in 1985 when Randall Davidson, member of the Whittier College Class of 1988, chose to study abroad in Beijing, China. At the time, there were only about 800 foreign exchange students in China, so he had to get creative with finding friends. One of Davidson’s friends, whom he had met at the Irish Embassy, offered to introduce him to a local up-and-coming artist, Wang Luyan. As they chatted and got to know each other, Davidson quickly discovered that Luyan’s brother, Wang Xinsheng, was coincidentally studying abroad in Southern California. The discovery became even more stunning when Luyan showed them a picture of his brother. In it, Xinsheng was standing in front of the Whittier College sign. They were both delightfully surprised by such an unlikely twist of fate, and from then on, their serendipitous friendship bloomed.

At the same time, in L.A., Xinsheng was working with Professor Robert Marks of the Whittier College History Department who — at the time, was Dean of Faculty — to coordinate an exhibition of Luyan’s work in the Greenleaf Gallery. But first, Luyan had to acquire several visas to exit China and enter the US. When he had finally done that, he was told he would have to pay for his plane ticket in U.S. dollars. Disheartened by the immense cost, Luyan told Davidson he would not  be able to go. Determined to help, Davidson personally fundraised money from his fellow students, his professors, and even his boss. Ultimately, he was able to raise the money, and Luyan purchased his ticket. By this time, it was May of 1986, and Luyan had never traveled outside of China, making Whittier the location of his first international exhibition.

Enjoying California and the good company of his brother, Luyan remained in Whittier for quite a while after first arriving for the opening of his exhibition. He did not know it at the time, but his brief visit in Whittier would be the last time he saw his brother before Xinsheng passed away in 2004. Realizing Whittier College held a special place in his heart — and inspired by the encouragement of Davidson — Luyan expressed his wish to donate a sculpture to Whittier College in honor of his brother. Though Professor Marks and Davidson tried to lobby for this within the College for many years, the timing was never quite  right . . . until 2017. 

When Professor Marks was attending an environmental conference in Tianjin, China about a year and a half ago, Davidson suggested they both meet up with Luyan in Beijing while they were all nearby. When visiting his studio, they expressed their enthusiasm for the idea again, and Luyan told them he would like to donate a sculpture set titled “The Walkers” to commemorate both his brother and the special friendship with Davidson that was forged through the incredible coincidences made possible by the Whittier College study abroad program. From there, a plan was formulated to include other Whittier College faculty and students in the planning and implementation processes needed to bring this vision to fruition.

This dream team of Poets is made up of alumnus Randall Davidson ‘88, Professor of History Dr. Robert Marks,  Associate Professor of Business Administration Dr. Daniel Duran, Administrative Coordinator of the LIASE Project Denise Wong Velasco ‘13, and eleven dedicated students. Working together, using each of their unique strengths, these students coordinated research, budgeting, the logistics of navigating the sculptures through customs, selecting a site for the artwork, translating Mandarin, and promoting this exciting new addition to campus, both internally and externally.

When I met with three members of the team, on March 5, they were in the final stages of the process and were clearly excited to see their hard work pay off. Second-year Christian Renteria, who shifted his academic studies from Business Administration to International Business because of this project, nonchalantly showed me the current location of the sculptures on his laptop, having played a major role in getting those sculptures safely and legally onto the ship that was sitting in the San Francisco Bay. This was exciting news to second year Maya Choy, who chimed in, “Hey, I’m from there!” Choy joined the team after Dr. Duran presented the opportunity to students in his International Business class, telling me her interest was piqued by the chance to “have a personal experience with what we’re learning about in class.” Third year Amy Trinh, whose studies are in Digital Art & Design, Consumer Behavior Marketing, and Chinese, said she initially joined because of her experience with promoting events on campus. However, she became more deeply involved because it presented an opportunity to collaborate with students she does not usually see in her specialized class schedule and because of her interest in what art can bring to a space. 

Overall, they hope the sculpture will serve as both a touching reminder of the power of friendship and a thought-provoking work of art that will add an air of intrigue and contemplation to its site just south of Wardman Library. If you want to come celebrate with the team and the rest of campus community, there will be a party in Villalobos on Sunday, May 5.

Now for a bit about the artist. Luyan is an accomplished contemporary Chinese artist most known for his artwork critiquing China’s materialistic society but  is also deeply interested in mechanical design and the absurdly contradictory. His artistic interests in machinery and paradox comes partially from his background as a trained mechanical engineer and partially from his early involvement in the Chinese avant-garde movement. 

In beginning to discuss the Chinese avant-garde movement, it may be useful to first define the term avant-garde. Avant-garde, in the art world, is another way of saying a work of art is “edgy” or “subversive.” In this context in particular, it also had connotations for the role of the artist. In the Chinese avant-garde movement, artists were given the responsibility of activism — of progressing society through the use of experimental or nonconforming ideas.

In order to fully appreciate the radical nature of Chinese avant-garde art, you have to understand what it was in response to. The movement arose in the late ‘70s, shortly after the death of the communist dictator Mao Zedong in 1976. Chairman Mao attempted several social movements during his political career that resulted in a great deal of violence and turmoil, but the most relevant for our purposes is the Cultural Revolution. Beginning in 1966, the Cultural Revolution was a movement which sought to purge capitalist influences and bourgeois thinking from Chinese government, education, media, and art. In other words, Western thought and culture was off-limits in the Chinese art world during this period.

Wang Luyan was born in 1956 and grew up amidst this tumultuous social climate. He became involved with the newly-emerging avant-garde art scene of the late ‘70s in his late teens/early twenties and went on to become one of three members of the New Measurement Group (1988-95) during his thirties, when the movement really began to take off. The group was primarily interested in communicating personal experiences using Western analytic geometry. Analytic geometry is basically just math using shapes and coordinates; if you have ever graphed points on a coordinate plane (that thing with the x - and y - axes), you have done it yourself. Now imagine trying to describe your day using only that. That is the most basic version of the type of thing the New Measurement Group was interested in.

Following the 1989 Tiananmen Square protests — you may know of this incident from the iconic image of the man standing in front of a tank — and the ensuing political unrest, the Chinese avant-garde movement largely came to a halt. The collective societal priority became economic development, leaving the movement’s thoughtful artwork in the periphery. It was not until the early 2000s that a more open and diverse art scene began to emerge in China, enabling Luyan to create work that could be presented in the appropriate context.

The artwork he chose to donate to the Whittier College campus to honor his brother, Wang Xinsheng, it consists of ten identical, human-like sculptures, each measuring over six and a half feet tall, which ambiguously seem to be walking in both directions simultaneously. Viewers are encouraged to walk among the sculptures, seeing their own reflections in the polished steel. The work presents the question of identity, the consequences of human contradictions, the ever-growing distance between technological innovation and humble humanity, and, above all, confusion. Luyan has said, in reference to this work, “We do not know where we are going, and I exist in this moment of confusion.”

David Moreno/ Quaker Campus    The staues in Wardman Gym before they were placed in the Lower Quad for students to pass on their daily walks to class.

David Moreno/Quaker Campus

The staues in Wardman Gym before they were placed in the Lower Quad for students to pass on their daily walks to class.