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U.S. Embassy in Beijing Honors American and Chinese Art

Collection reveals cross-cultural influences in art inspired by nature

By Yvette Ridenour | Special Correspondent | 26 August 2008
Stainless steel sculpture of giant tulips (Courtesy Jeff Koons)

Artist Jeff Koons’ stainless steel sculpture Tulips is a boldly colorful display that celebrates the glories of nature.

Washington -- The new, permanent collection of art on display at the U.S. Embassy in Beijing contains 48 paintings, photographs, sculptures and mixed-media works by 28 prominent American and Chinese artists; all of the artwork is inspired by the natural world, focused through the lenses of two distinct cultures.

The exhibition -- Landscapes of the Mind -- is a result of the ART in Embassies Program, which was created to foster a deeper cultural understanding through the sharing of art. According to chief curator Virginia Shore, “These new embassy permanent collections are part of the [U.S.] State Department’s cultural diplomacy mission -- a way of connecting our country and the host country, drawing parallels and connections through subject, style, culture, technique or methodology.”

In the Beijing collection, she said, all the artists “demonstrate some reference to China or Chinese culture.” The title, Landscapes of the Mind, evokes the ancient Buddhist or Taoist concept of communion with nature as the basis of man’s inner peace. Centuries later, artists still are finding enlightenment through their connections with the physical world.

The ribbon-cutting ceremony for the new embassy in Beijing took place August 8, and the embassy officially was opened by President Bush and his father, former President George H.W. Bush.

Not all of the buildings are complete, so a second installation of more artwork will be in place by mid-October. At that time, expatriate Chinese artist Xu Bing’s 96-foot (29.26-meter) sculpture Monkeys Grasping the Moon and American mixed-media artist Betty Woodman’s 24-foot (7.32-meter) ceramic installation Chinese Pleasure will be on display.

Landscapes of the Mind includes works from well-known U.S. artists such as Laura Owens, Jeff Koons, Maya Lin (who designed the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington) and the late Robert Rauschenberg, as well as many from well-known Chinese artists, including Cai Guo-Qiang, who created the fireworks display for the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics.


One of the most eye-catching works in the collection is Tulips, a seven-ton stainless steel sculpture by Koons. Tulip blossoms first appeared between northern China and southern Europe thousands of years ago, and Koons’ sculpture brings the flowers to monumental, neon life. The flowers rise out of the embassy’s lotus pond, a bright reminder of the joys that nature brings.

In an interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art, Koons said: “Art to me is a humanitarian act, and I believe that there is a responsibility that art should somehow be able to affect mankind, to make the world a better place.”

A smaller, though no less powerful, work is Chinese artist Huang Zhiyang’s ink-on-silk painting Zoon #11. In this piece, Huang creates a parallel world, capturing the constant motion and change of the Beijing landscape. “I attempt to create new hybrids of living creatures as they coexist within the same space, resulting in strange and new combinations,” said Huang.

China is the third-largest art market in the world, after the United States and Great Britain. “The new contemporary art of China and the United States approaches, modifies and revitalizes existing, long-standing traditions,” says curator Shore. “Like so many of their predecessors, the American artists in this collection look to China’s philosophy, ceramics, ornamentation, architecture, religion and culture. In the past few decades, beginning with the Cultural Revolution, China has similarly been stimulated by the art in the West. A contentious past argues for a provocative future.”

Cai (pronounced “sigh”), a Chinese-born New Yorker known for using gunpowder as an artistic medium, typically fuses Eastern and Western culture. His exploded-gunpowder-on-paper work Eagle Landing on Pine Branch suggests “energetic and explosive actions that express the style of traditional Chinese Literati paintings,” he said. (Literati paintings are executed in plain ink, often with minimal color.) “The motifs of eagle and pine tree were chosen for their symbolic value in both China and America,” added Cai.

Pin River-Yangtze, by Maya Lin, is an installation of 30,000 straight pins illustrating the topography of Asia’s longest river. Lin’s installation emphasizes the linear and horizontal flow of the Yangtze. “My interest in landscape has led to works influenced and inspired by natural topographies and geologic phenomena,” said Lin. “I find inspiration in rock formations, water patterns, solar eclipses and aerial and satellite views of the Earth.”


As it celebrates the power of nature to inform all types of art, Landscapes of the Mind recalls both the dangers and the healing effects of the natural world.

“Times have changed. Nature has changed. [But] as environmental issues abound and awareness heightens, nature continues to serve as fodder and muse, just as it did in ancient China,” Shore said.

The combination of “universality, classical Asian and Western forms, and conceptual modes of painting produces hybrids that are often, in the nature of alloys, stronger and even more beautiful than their individual parts,” she explained. “Transcending time, place, culture and philosophy, each of these artists successfully achieves communion with nature.”

The permanent art collection at the new U.S. Embassy in Beijing highlights the fusion of East and West “in extraordinary and breathtaking ways,” Shore concluded.

For more information on the U.S. State Department’s ARTS in Embassies program, visit the program’s Web site.

Abstract painting with swirling design in mauve, white, black, blue, yellow and green (Courtesy Huang Zhiyang and Pekin Fine Arts)

Huang Zhiyang’s painting Zoon #11 represents a parallel world that captures the motion and change in Beijing’s landscape.

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