Jian-Jun Zhang and Barbara Edelstein: “Absorbing the World”

Barbara Edelstein and Jian-Jun Zhang recently talked about their respective work and collaborations as part of the Faculty Luncheon Speaker Series. Almost as an after thought, they revealed just how must creative energy they bring to their students: this week, Barbara’s artworks just opened in a NY gallery and her solo show will open in Los Angeles in January, Jian-Jun is showing at 2 galleries in the Art021 art fair in Shanghai, will show in Amsterdam next week, and November 28th at the Long Museum, and both their artworks will open Saturday in the “30 Years of Shanghai Contemporary Art” exhibition at the SheShan Contemporary Art Center in Shanghai, and more exhibitions and projects are coming.


What’s it like to be so collaborative?

Jian-Jun: People think artists are independent, some people think artists are self-absorbed, independent individuals who put on airs. Actually, confident artists are normal people. Art is life. Barbara and I have known each other for a long time, and we appreciate each other as persons and as artists. 

Barbara: When we first met, esthetically we shared similarities.

Jian-Jun: We shared water. Barbara used it as an element of nature, in “Nectar for Neptune” where she made water rain from a living tree. I use it in a philosophical way, in a Taoism sense. Barbara is interested in water in a physical sense. She has shown us something you don’t necessarily think about, that water is part of the tree and of life.


How have you been bridging the cultural divide for all these years?

Barbara: this is how the world is. At my parent’s table, there were always people from all around the world.

Jian-Jun: it is our lifestyle. It is normal. It is even in our food. We combine different foods... 

Barbara: I had studied about Zen starting when I was in high school, I have cousins who are zen monks. Growing up on the Pacific Rim, I was constantly exposed to eastern philosophy, from zen, the beat generation to Laozi.  I loved Zen gardens and one of my favorite books was “Zen and the Art of Archery” by Eugen Herrigel. For me, I was attracted to the idea of working over time in a certain way that comes from within oneself. Ultimately, you must express yourself.

Jian-Jun: Barbara is from America, I am from here and I moved to America before coming back while Barbara came to China. There is a cultural attraction between us.


How do you work together?

Barbara: We influence each other, and there is real growth in that.

Jian-Jun: In art and culture there is always a flow back and forth. Look at Chinese history...tradition is moving along the Silk Road, Middle East and now from America. The culture is always moving and changing.

Barbara: We use cross-cultural materials. JJ uses oil paintings. I use Chinese ink...so there is a new synthesis. It is no longer just Chinese or just Western.

Jian-Jun: the life experience of artists who are combining ideas and methods are catching the attention of museums and critics alike.

Barbara.  Look at Isamu Noguchi. He was Eastern with mixed parents. He was also western and his sculptures are both eastern and western.

Jian-Jun: look at my own experience. New York exposed me to new ways, new tools, oil painting and other influences. It exposed me to the global society, which then combined with my Chinese culture. 


What do you teach your students?

Barbara. We teach Chinese methodology and contemporary art. We are using traditional methodologies in very contemporary ways. We help them see that you can use the tools the culture has given you and then combine them in different ways to reflect yourself in ways that are relevant today.

Jian-Jun: because we are here, we use tools connected to China. Half way through the semester, however, we shift to contemporary methods, including western figure drawing. We push our students to work from their very different backgrounds and interests to bring their own experiences into their artwork. Throughout, we emphasize tradition, contemporary ways and finally the connection to their personal experience.

Jian-Jun: a semester is a very short time. So, if we can give the student a new way to look at the world, a new way to express themselves...

Barbara: to think conceptually about visual ideas. That is success. 

Jian-Jun: one my student wrote to us last year to tell us that he now looks at the world differently now... "When I see a tree, I now see the shape, the color and the emotion.

Barbara: that's success. As a math major, he started in our photo class where we teach photography as a conceptual art media. Then, he decided to take the beginning studio art class. Now, he takes an art class every semester. It completely opened up his world. How he saw it and understood it.

Jian-Jun: everyone has artistic talent...but most people repress it. After one semester, everyone does beautifully.


How do you help people who are unsure of themselves and their ability to create?

Barbara: I, myself, have had to figure out how to make things happen that I did not know how to do before hand. I get on the phone or web and I figure out how it is done. And you learn from that process of discovery each time.

Jian-Jun:. Sometimes, I have had to learn how to use ancient techniques. Sometimes, it is challenging, but I know I can find someone who can help me learn. That’s what I tell them.

Barbara: We also want our students to know that if you can imagine it, you can figure out a way to do it. 

Jian-Jun: I follow my heart…and dare to imagine it.


We live in a highly visual world, yet it seems that we do not always give it the importance it deserves. Why the disconnect?

Barbara: Western society does not place as much value on art as in eastern societies.

Jian-Jun: Yet, I worry about Chinese tradition…In the last couple of decades, Chinese colleges have focused on business and finance, at the expense of Art. When NYU Shanghai started...we suggested that we should combined them because art creativity is…

Barbara:…is about thinking creatively.


Creativity and innovation are important themes at NYU Shanghai. How do you teach it?

Barbara: one student asked my how do you find ideas. I told her to look into herself, find your passion and tell it to the world. This passion for me is about looking at nature and helping people to see that we are not taking good care of it. I want to help people look at our world again and treasure it.

Jian-Jun: It’ about using your own way to look at the world because that is how you will find your direction and choose the tools and techniques to express it. How do I get my ideas…sometimes I observe, analyze and think about what is important. And other times, I will wake up with fresh ideas. 


Are your students producing a new synthesis?

Barbara: artists always absorb the world around them. So synthesis is a part of what an artist does as a matter of course.

Jian-Jun: It is about getting young people to mix and synthesize among themselves...with the professors…in this respect, there are no boundaries?

Barbara: that is the fun part!

Jian-Jun: Together, we teach them about our perspectives 

Barbara: art has many opinions.

Jian-Jun: a semester is a short time, so we work hard to encourage them to come up their own direction because as an artist you express what you feel about the world.