Barbara Edelstein has been proudly dubbed a “daughter-in-law” of Shanghai for her contributions to the city’s flourishing art scene. Now, the NYU Shanghai art professor’s story has been featured in a new volume of Americans in Shanghai, a series celebrating the stories of US citizens who have made their lives in the city.
The book explores Edelstein’s life and work, starting with her upbringing in Los Angeles, where Asian culture strongly influenced her development as a young artist in love with water and the medium of ink. After graduating with a Master of Fine Arts from Claremont Graduate University, Edelstein moved to New York, where she met her future husband—Zhang Jian-Jun, then a visiting artist from China. Now both professors at NYU Shanghai, Edelstein and Zhang continue to connect China and the world through the language of art. Combining East and West influences, their works encompass various forms, including sculpture, photography, video, installation, and ink painting.
Below is an excerpt from a chapter in Americans in Shanghai that explores Edelstein’s inspirations and work in the city:
Barbara used her first trip to China [in 1997] to see more than just Shanghai. With her husband she traveled to Hangzhou, Suzhou, to Luoyang by train, and finally to Xi’an before returning to Shanghai. She was anxious to see even more, but realized there would be other trips and more time to explore this new destination and absorb inspiration from everywhere.
As she did on all of her traveling, during that first trip in China Barbara took lots of photographs and carried a drawing pad to make notes and sketches of everything she saw. In particular, the gardens in Suzhou and the ancient trees around Hangzhou’s West Lake inspired her greatly. She ended up making very detailed 7-foot-high ink drawings of the trees.
“I always used ink when I was drawing, since I was young. It was my favorite material. Also when making these drawings of the trees in Hangzhou, I didn’t know then, but they actually were very much like gongbi baimiao, the traditional Chinese line drawings.”
After returning to New York Barbara’s work got picked up in China. Her first solo show was during the time of the third Shanghai Biennale in 2000. Back then, there were only 15 art galleries in the city. She was also invited to the “2nd Xihu International Sculpture Exhibition” in 2001 in Hangzhou’s West Lake.
Her sculpture was actually the first artwork that was allowed in the lake since the Song Dynasty. The shape of the ancient trees and the willows around the lake inspired Barbara to make a large structure of copper tubing, which used water from the lake to rain down like willow branches.
“My work is always site-specific, as they call it. Whenever I’m invited to do a large outdoor sculpture, I visit the site, look around, find what stands out, what makes an impression on me. And then I develop a work for that place. I often use water in my sculptures. Not like a traditional fountain, but water as an integral part of it. Water can really activate an artwork.”
Water and trees were also a big inspiration for Barbara’s work in the Jing’an Sculpture Park, at the northeast comer of Beijing Road and Shimen Road.
“It was during the World Expo time, in 2010. A special curatorial committee, partly government and partly art critics and curators, selected the works. I designed a five-meter high sculpture in bronze and copper that rains water into a round pool. It’s again based on what I saw there. The bronze part is an abstracted willow leaf that I found when I visited the site. The copper is like a vine ball of the wisteria that was there. It’s a beautiful park.”
Some of the works were temporary, but Barbara’s was permanent. It’s still there. Whenever Barbara is in the park, the guard there will point out to visitors that she is the artist who made the sculpture.
When the work was installed and the fence and the frame around the sculpture were removed, neighbors of the park gathered round. “This is China: there are always people out and about,” Barbara said. “They use the park for dancing and walking their dogs. When we were there to get the water working, there was a crowd of people. They were really excited and cheered. They came up to me and told me they liked my work. They were very pleased it got established in ‘their’ park. As an artist, you want to make the world more beautiful. That was so nice for me to hear that they appreciated and enjoyed it.”
Barbara is concerned with how city dwellers lose track of nature, in large metropolises especially: “By using natural imagery, such as vines, trees, leaves, water—whatever is there—and abstracting it into a sculptural form; and by using man-made materials such as copper tubing, and adding the element of water, I try to bridge the industrial world we live in with the essence of nature.”