By Michael Chenkin
Eugene Yuejin Wang is Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art at Harvard University. We recently spoke with Professor Wang about his interests in Chinese art and Chinese film, the areas of intersection between these two fields, and his interest in painter Liu Xiaodong, who is the subject of Jia Zhangke’s documentary Dong. Dong will screen Monday 9/26 as the opening film of the 11-film series on Chinese independent film at Doc Films in Chicago. In this conversation Professor Wang reflects at length on the way Liu and other artists work in relation to the idea of nationhood, especially in regards to national disasters such as the 2008 Beichuan earthquake in Sichuan. Wang pays particular attention to Liu’s 2010 work “Getting Out of Beichuan,” which Wang considers “marks a new stage and possibly a new turning point in the contemporary Chinese art scene.”
A native of Jiangsu, China, Wang studied at Fudan University in Shanghai (B.A. 1983; M.A. 1986), and subsequently at Harvard University (A.M. 1990; Ph.D. 1997). He was the Ittleson Fellow at the Center for Advanced Studies in Visual Art, National Gallery of Art, Washington, D.C. (1995-96) before joining the art history faculty at the University of Chicago in 1996. His teaching appointment at Harvard University began in 1997, and he became the Abby Aldrich Rockefeller Professor of Asian Art in 2005.
He has received the Guggenheim Fellowship, Charles A. Ryskamp Fellowship from the American Council of Learned Societies, and postdoctoral and research grants from the Getty Foundation.
His book, Shaping the Lotus Sutra: Buddhist Visual Culture in Medieval China (2005) has received the Academic Achievement Award in memory of the late Professor Nichijin Sakamoto, Rissho University, Japan. He is the art history associate editor of the Encyclopedia of Buddhism (New York, 2004).
dGF: I understand that a lot of your past research focused on Medieval Buddhist art and visual culture. Recently you have been researching Chinese film. Where did these interests arise? In addition, is there any synergy between inquiries into Buddhist art and Chinese film?
Eugene Wang: Before I started researching medieval art, I was deeply engaged in Chinese film. I actually wrote a script and published a few essays. Film has always been one of my side interests. I’m always intrigued by how people screen disparate images together. You have a set of images. They may or may not have a relationship with one another. Somehow you string them together and you have an image flow. In cinematic terms it would be called montage. If these images are on a wall, such as in Buddhist caves and wall paintings, then you have an iconographic program. There is something very interesting about the visual logic underlying this flow of images.