As a curator of China Design Museum Zoe Zhang is responsible for coordinating exhibitions, research projects and collections with different departments of CDM. She also curated the permanent exhibition of China Academy of Art. Her own research interest is the spread and acceptance of Bauhaus in China. She's one of the curator of the China section in the bauhaus imaginista exhibition.
Early on, the Bauhaus sought contact with design schools and visionaries outside of Europe. What traces has the Bauhaus left behind in China?
Zoe Zhang: The Bauhaus has left a cultural heritage in China. In 1950s, two registered students of the Bauhaus school visited China. But they did not make significant impact on Chinese modern design during this period. What really created a cultural heritage in China was the social idea and pedagogical method of Bauhaus. For example, in the 1940s, the Bauhaus Vorkurs was applied by Huang Zuoshen in the architecture department of the St. John's University and by Liang Sicheng in the Tsinghua University. The pedagogic experiment was stopped until 1980s. The pedagogical method of Bauhaus was reintroduced in Hongkong, Japan and Taiwan to the China mainland, in form of the “three compositions” theory (graphic, colour, three-dimensional), which is still the basic teaching model of design in most Chinese universities. More traces such as commodity trade and commercial design are yet to be discovered.
The Bauhaus combined traditional handicraft with product design, thus making it possible to establish a new market. To what extent do these two approaches harmonise in China today? Are there approaches to combining Chinese craftsmanship and product design in the spirit of the Bauhaus?
The two approaches have always been fighting with each other in China. The so called “harmony” could be understood as a kind of dynamic balance between the industrial production and traditional handicraft in China. Early in 1920s, Chinese modernist artists and designers tried to combine traditional art, handicraft with western modern concepts of design. It was a combination of different philosophies behind art and design. For example, Mr. Zhang Guangyu, who introduced Bauhauslers’ architecture and furniture in his book published in 1932. He also presented his own interior design with modernist geometry in the same book. What’s more, his later well-known graphic design inspired by Chinese traditional pape r-cutting handicraft, traditional calligraphy and modernist design. He developed his own philosophy of design.
The introduction of the “three compositions” model of design teaching in China in the 1980s raised a debate or battle between traditional defenders and modernist experimenters. The result was a compromise to combine the traditional model of Pattern Teaching and a Bauhaus model translated by Japanese. With the development of society and international communication, contemporary teachers in China are looking for much more possibilities of design teaching based on the “three compositions” model.
The chapter of bauhaus imaginista that also includes the exhibition in the China Design Museum is entitled “Moving Away” – how can this “departure” be represented spatially?
I think the section of “Moving Away” is echoing with other four sections of “corresponding with” “learning from” and “still undead”. The title “Moving Away” indicates the migration of Bauhaus ideas, and a complicated process of transforming and misunderstanding the original ethos of the Bauhaus. The products designed by Bauhauslers were imported into China without the name of Bauhaus.
On the other hand, the teaching model of Bauhaus was introduced into China directly by a few students of Walter Gropius at Harvard University as well as indirectly by Japanese educators and Hongkong designers. The spread of Bauhaus across China seems like a waving net with different paths. The most interesting thing is that when some so-called Chinese successors of the Bauhaus idea, the young Chinese designers born between 1960s had the chance to go to the Bauhaus’s motherland in 1980s, they found the Bauhaus idea they learned from their textbooks were so different from the original Bauhaus concept. What they learned actually was “Bauhaus reinvented”. So the facts of the migrant Bauhaus history are interlinked with each other. This is why the curators of the “Bauhaus Imaginista: Moving Away” made all sections, standing structures link with each other spatially in the gallery.
The China Design Museum officially opens its doors with, among other shows, the bauhaus imaginista exhibition project – what kind of audience do you expect?
To be honest, most Chinese audience or mass medium don’t have a common sense of the modern design or western design. So we organized the permanent exhibition to tell a simple story about modern design. The audience will understand the Bauhauslers were some outstanding designers and experimenters among other pioneers of modern design all ove r the western world. So the Bauhaus Imaginista exhibition is more focusing on Bauhaus and its spreading and reinventing in other countries. The exhibition displayed many paper or video documents to show a complicated and interlinked history. Many professional visitors are appealed by the exhibition and its narrative. This is what I expected from the beginning.
And what do the visitors expect to see at the China Design Museum?
Before the opening of the China Design Museum, my colleagues carried out an audience survey on our upcoming exhibitions. Some visitors like to see international contemporary design. And professional visitors want to see serious exhibitions based on research. Several professors suggested that we make exhibitions on Chinese modern design. Many Chinese visitors even hope to see all works in the whole history of design. As you know, this is the first design museum with collections and its own curatorial team in China. It has so many possibilities and responsibilities.
The collection of Torsten Bröhan, which the China Academy of Art acquired in the autumn of 2012, today forms the basis of the China Design Museum’s holdings. At the time of sale, the collection was purported to be a Bauhaus collection, but it also contains objects that explicitly do not originate from the design school – have you re-examined and re-catalogued the collection in the meantime?
Your question about the collection is another example of mass media misunderstanding of the Bauhaus. If you come to see the permanent exhibition “Life World: the Collection of Western Modern Design” in the China Design Museum, you will see over 700 pieces of design works by over 130 designers from different countries covering a 150-year design history. It’s not only about Bauhaus but also other masterpieces. Most exhibits in the permanent exhibition are selected from the Bröhan collection. However, the name of “Bauhaus” has transformed into a brand produced by mass media and cultural industry in the present spectacle society. From a critical perspective, the Bauhaus has brought not only “Enlightenment” but also “Myth”. The Bauhaus myth also catalyses some prejudices in the public against modern design history. Many visitors only know Bauhaus from their knowledge about modern design; I think that’s why we organized the exhibition “Bauhaus Imaginista: Moving Away” to discuss the Bauhaus from a relatively objective perspective.
Thank you very much, Mrs. Zhang!