Found in Translation

New York-based music journalist Jaeki Cho interviews Beijing-based painter Bing Han on what it’s like being an artist in modern-day China and New York City.

By: Jaeki Cho, Music Journalist (@jaekicho)

Too often, as a music journalist, I’ve had to sugarcoat artists duller than a line at the DMV. So when TJ, the creative head of Pulp Studios, asked if I wanted to interview New York-based painter Bing Han, I asked, “What’s her deal?” I had never heard of Bing (even though I appreciate fine art, I cannot namedrop artists the way I can with Wu-Tang aliases). And when I checked out Bing’s expressionist oil paintings online, I found them structured, nostalgic, but feeling cozy yet cold, like a furry studio apartment in lower Manhattan that needs a space heater to warm up.

Bing, a graduate of Parsons School of Design, is a big deal. In 2012, Bing's work was selected by Diane von Furstenberg for its annual yearbook. In 2008, Bing was the youngest artist to be awarded the Research of Contemporary Oil Paintings Award by the China National Art Museum. Bing also graduated from the prestigious China Central Academy of Fine Arts, whose notable alumni include performance artist Zhang Huan, sculptor Zhan Wang, and printmaker Xu Bing.  

What makes Bing’s accomplishments even more impressive is that she was born and raised in the small city of Weifang in China’s Shandong province to non-professional artists, her father a former pilot in the Justice Department, and her mother the head of a school that trains delivery nurses.

Bing’s childhood in the quickly-changing China, however, was an important part of her development as an artist. The growth of capitalism, especially since the return of Hong Kong to Chinese rule from British rule in 1997, molded what is known as “modern-day China” – a sovereign state headed by children of revolutionaries obsessed with consumerism and Western pop culture. And like rest of the world, the floodgate of content made accessible by the Internet birthed its own generation of millennials. Bing, who grew up listening to Portishead, Nujabes, and the Smashing Pumpkins, and who mastered English by memorizing dialogues from novels like Gone with the Wind and films like “Forrest Gump,” is an embodiment of these cultural and economic shifts.

Thanks to TJ’s introduction, Bing and I met virtually via Google Hangouts. The two of us chatted about how she learned English, China’s emerging art market, and her fond memories of living in Rotterdam and New York City.    

Below are pieces of our conversation.

JAEKI: Did you always just like to draw? Is that what you always wanted to do?

BING: Yeah, that's what I've been doing since I was a little kid, because my mom has always been on a pretty artistic side in her family. And she always loved to read and write poetry, and she loves to draw. And she's really talented. But for a lot of reasons, she just didn't get to do that. She was never an artist, but she was always drawing, and she loved to write. And she's published articles and poetries in newspapers and magazines and stuff. My mom was very supportive. And my mom was also a big influence on me, because she's actually a really talented drawer. But she never did any of these seriously.

JAEKI: How did you get exposed to the Western cultural arts?

BING: My art journey really changed drastically after I got into college. Before college I was really just reading a lot. But the things I had access to, like the books and the kind of art I had access to, were really limited. For example, I was reading translated classic Chinese literature and a lot of translated Western classic literature. So I was always curious how it really was like before it was translated. And my English wasn't that good back then, and I didn't really have access to a lot of original English literature.

When I got into college, I started to get independent. I started to have a lot of access to different books, different exhibitions, and resources from the Internet. So that's when my perspective started to change, and the things I was doing started to change. I started to get suspicious of what I was taught before I got into college, because when you get into college, you can really revolutionize the way that you think and see the world.

That's how I got started.

JAEKI: What is art education like in China?

BING: I think art education in mainland China is still very reserved. My college, Central Academy of Fine Arts, adopted its whole system from the Soviet Union. Students are trained to make pencil and oil portraits. Instead of making something creative, we’re required to do this tedious practice over and over again. And I would say that’s how 90 percent of kids get into art schools.

JAEKI: How do artists make a living in China? How does the art system work?

BING: So, believe it or not, I would say the art market in China is actually really good right now. In some ways, it’s even better than the Western art market. Take New York as an example. It’s where all the major galleries are and art fairs happen annually, so it's very competitive with many superstars. But also, a lot of up-and-coming artists are struggling and don't make their living with art.

In China, however, it doesn't really happen that way. Beijing and Shanghai are considered centers of contemporary art, but many artists that live in those cities don't necessarily need side jobs. The real estate is cheaper, you can get a bigger studio, and so you can actually concentrate on your art. There are fewer concerns about paying your bills. This may sound harsh, but mediocre artists can make a living here, and they don't have to worry about money as much.

JAEKI: I definitely heard artists from New York and parts of Europe are moving to China because the living expenses are more affordable. But my question is: Are there a lot of patrons that are buying art?

BING: There are many galleries here [in China.] There’s a high demand in the art market. You might not be the best painter, or maybe your work is too commercial and cheesy [but] it doesn't change the fact that people still want art. But that’s not always a good thing. Many curators from galleries have told me that they’re still looking for artists that are really, really great.

JAEKI: Let's talk about your art. I noticed a portrait of Chet Baker [on your website]. Are you a big jazz fan?

BING: I'm a big Chet Baker fan. That painting was inspired by this documentary about him called, Let's Get Lost, which I saw on YouTube. So the texture of the video is degraded, and you can tell that it's from a very old film. It's digitized and pixilated. I was interested in putting those elements into my painting language. So that's how the portrait happened. And some of the other paintings from that era were inspired by this documentary about Glenn Gould. The references I took from the documentaries are random. My priority was to capture what I saw on screen: the YouTube videos, the computer, all of that. I love the music, but it wasn’t necessarily about the music.

JAEKI: When did you first leave China for the West?

BING: I went to Europe first in 2010 while I was in college in Beijing. I've been studying oil paintings, so I was always really eager to see the museums and the original paintings that we've been studying for many years. In the West, kids can always just go to museums, have classes in the museums in front of the paintings. In Beijing, we'd watch the slides in class, and we would look at the prints in libraries. But it was a very rare opportunity for us to have access to the original paintings.

And I remember when there was a show in the National Museum of China. It happened in 2003 or so, the Impressions Painting Show. That was a really big event of that year, because I think that was the first time people got to see all these paintings that they've only seen on prints before. So I've always had in mind, if I had an opportunity to go [to the West], I would just go.

So in 2010, I went to this school in Rotterdam in 2010, and I spent three months there. And then after that, I went back to Beijing. Later, I saw this other opportunity where I can do an exchange to Parsons, so that's what I did.

JAEKI: What was Rotterdam like?

BING: The whole art scene is very quiet yet they're actually very active. I was really inspired by a lot of kids at the school where I was doing the exchange. Rotterdam also has really amazing art museums. You can take a train for like three minutes, and you can go to a major art museum, in a small town. I think that's like a dream.

I think it can happen to China if you really make an effort. But it's not going to happen very soon. The attitude that people have toward art and the whole very commercial atmosphere that's happening here in Beijing right now -- even though it seems like people are really active and people are doing things, respect and love for art is really shown by the access that you have to art.

You can find more of Bing's work at binghanart.com or @bingggbong.