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Case study: “Nanting Research”

Case study: "Nanting Research"
In 2012, Chen Xiaoyang, a professor in the Sculpture Department of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, initiated a socially engaged art course titled “Nanting Research.” Nanting is an historic fishing village on Xiaoguwei, a river island on the southeastern edge of Guangzhou. In 2001, the city government decided to transform Xiaoguwei into a college town to accommodate at least 10 universities, and 200,000 students. Most villages on the island were destroyed to make way for this megaproject. Nanting was one of the four villages that survived,
and soon had a new neighbor: Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts.
Chen Xiaoyang, an accomplished sculptor, developed a deep interest in anthropology, and pursued a PhD in the Anthropology Department of Sun Yat-sen University. She also wanted to introduce anthropology to her students, so they could develop an expanded understanding of art and incorporate anthropological methods in their artmaking. Anthropology training usually starts with fieldwork. No other site would be more convenient than Nanting. While students were somewhat familiar with Nanting, and frequented the restaurants and small shops that had popped up in the village, they paid little attention to Nanting’s long history and the villagers’ traditional way of life.
Over an intensive period of five weeks, students learned the basics of fieldwork. First, Xiaoyang asked the students to conduct a survey with the villagers. Then she told the students not to trust the initial survey result, but to build relationships with the villagers and engage them in long conversations. When Xiaoyang asked the students to identify a public issue that concerned the villagers, the consensus of the class was that Nanting villagers were deeply worried about the loss of their traditions.
Unlike anthropology students who would produce a piece of writing at the end of their research, these art students created artworks based on the knowledge and insights that they gained through fieldwork. Li Peixuan conducted research on the traditional ritual to celebrate the birthday of Guan Yu, a deified historical figure worshipped by the Guan family, one of the two major families in Nanting. She interviewed several senior villagers, and reconstructed the route of the parade. She then recorded the scenes along the route, and created a three-channel video installation to simulate the view of the deity, who would be seated on a sedan chair in the center of the parade.
At the end of the course, the students set up an exhibition in the Shrine of Guan Family. With food, drinks, and firecrackers, the opening was a big festival for both the village and the art school. Since then Nanting Research has been a regular course in the Sculpture Department. It gives students an expanded toolbox, and helps them to develop a sense of community, history, and locality.

In 2012, Chen Xiaoyang, a professor in the Sculpture Department of Guangzhou Academy of Fine Arts, initiated a socially engaged art course titled “Nanting Research.”

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Discovering Socially Engaged Art in Contemporary China

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