Campus Artist Gains Insight into Chinese Art Culture

Professional artist Philip Ringler’s work in conceptual photography was recognized in three of China’s art galleries.

CSU East Bay Art Curator, Philip Ringler experienced China’s conceptual art movement firsthand after landing in Guangzhou, where he was invited for a month to participate in three exhibitions.

Ringler showed his work at the Guangzhou College of Science and Technology in their fine art department as well as the Wen Ying Art Highlands Gallery, a four-story museum that contains both traditional and contemporary art. He also networked at the Three Shadows Photography Art Center in Beijing.

He has worked as a professional photographer for over 15 years, working and curating at CSUEB’s art gallery since 2002. Beginning as a photojournalist for San Diego State’s Daily Aztec, the Oakland native holds a Master of Fine Arts Degree from John F. Kennedy University Arts and Consciousness program along with a Bachelor of Fine Arts Degree from CSUEB.

At CSUEB, Ringler worked on various projects involving conceptual photography, including Relaxing Realism, a project he did in collaboration with James Saxon.

“The way many people view photography is as a tool to document reality, it’s seen as a way to present something that exists in the observable world,” he said enthusiastically. He describes conceptual photography as “the medium to express things that are beyond the document; they are beyond the basic observable reality of the photograph as a tool for representation.”

The idea of using photography to communicate ideas based on how you compose the image is increasing in popularity in China, Ringler said, and he is excited to be a part of the vast movement the country is experiencing.

The art in China is a response to the country’s economic and social growth, especially with the increase of China’s middle class, Ringler said. He added more people can buy art, and are becoming interested in the “language” or message it portrays. China’s rapid change “has lifted more than 600 million people out of poverty,” over the past 40 years, and has become the second largest economy, according to the World Bank website.

“Artists in China are looking at the growth that is happening and are saying ‘how is this affecting us, how is this affecting our culture and how do we get this information out to the general public?’” Ringler said. “It’s really about the ideas as well as the interpersonal and emotional response to the growth that is happening in China.”

Americans are not in the same state of massive political and economic growth, and U.S. galleries are more concerned about what sells and what the general public wants, according to Ringler.

“The galleries in China are not really all that concerned about if people are going to understand it or not, because they realize that the art is meant to be complicated and it’s meant to be thought provoking,” he said.

“It was the most mind blowing experience in my entire life,” Ringler said. “Really, China exceeded every expectation and it was nothing like I had expected, though I had read guidebook after guidebook, watched documentaries and studied Chinese art and philosophies my entire life. I was not prepared for how vast, complicated, beautiful and how completely confounding the experience was.”

Having been to other countries and art exhibits, Ringler happened to find his visit to China a bit overwhelming at first. As he exited the plane, he was escorted to his solo exhibition in the Guangzhou College of Science and Technology.

The president of the university and art department officials greeted Ringler, and after a tour of their campus, a press conference with the local media welcomed him as the representative from America. Following the conference he presented a lecture on conceptual photography where he describes his rock star moment of people surrounding him wanting his autograph.

“When I got there, I was treated like a total rock star,” he said. “My name was up in neon lights, there were posters of my work everywhere. I was blown away that people had first heard of me, and second had taken the time to understand my work, think about it and that they were interested in what I had to say.”

When he arrived at his exhibition, all his photos were readily displayed.

“Normally I have to do everything myself, I have to print and frame, but I just walked in and was like ‘Oh my god, this looks great!’” he said. “I was sort of embarrassed that I hadn’t done any work myself, but it was more like I just needed to accept what was happening.”

While meeting many Chinese artists and art students, Ringler noticed a different mentality in Chinese art galleries, compared to the United States.

“The attitude in America is that there is so many artists, you have to prove yourself to have a show, you have to sort of give us what we need,” he said. “And in China they were like ‘this is interesting, we want to know more about this because it’s going to help us in our creative sector.’”

Ringler also said that although there are not as many galleries in China as the U.S., the galleries in China were far more approachable for young and growing artists.

“Galleries in the U.S. show the same things over and over again,” he said. “In China, they are more open to giving people a chance who are working right now to have exhibitions and to talk about current things, not things that happened in the 1960s, as a lot of art galleries here are still showing. The work may be collectible, but the art has passed and the artist has already had their time to shine.”

Ringler hopes to bring back a different perspective to CSUEB art students about what the art scene is like in China, as well as sharing the motivation Chinese art students have learning about art.

“I really think Cal State art students could really learn a lot from talking with Chinese art students and to get a sense of their urgency to communicate ideas, and to get a sense of their dedication to craft,” he said.

He hopes to encourage an open communication between China and U.S. art students that will influence and encourage each other to do well in all aspects of education.

“I’m all about momentum,” he explained. “I’m all about getting out there and seeing what else is going on, because if we can live in our little bubble here, we’re going to miss one of the greatest changes in human history.”

Ringler’s last showing ended Wednesday, and he is now working on a new series of conceptual photography called Element; which is due to be finished in 2014.