Friendship, peace, unity embodied in Towson professor's sculpture in China

June 11, 1995|By Ian Johnson | Ian Johnson,Beijing Bureau of The Sun

BEIJING -- At first glance it seemed like a sure ticket to a fat commission: a big sculpture to adorn the entrance of the Beijing Hilton.

But when Towson State University professor Jim Paulsen was offered the project, the promised reward was something other than cash: a paid trip to China, a lecture tour of five cities and the opportunity to be the first foreigner to design a public sculpture in Beijing in the 45-year history of the People's Republic of China.

"All my colleagues thought it was a chance to get rich. But it was really an opportunity to see China and experience a different culture," the 51-year-old Pikesville resident said.

The result of Dr. Paulsen's work is a 22-foot stainless-steel TC sculpture in a fountain that looks out onto one of Beijing's busiest highways. Due to be dedicated Friday, it is also a joint venture of sorts, with a Chinese sculptor helping Dr. Paulsen.

The project began in 1993 when Hilton contacted a local art company, Beijing Dunhuang Art Co. Ltd., about the possibility of putting up a statue on the hotel's parking lot.

Dunhuang had just sent an associate sculptor to Towson State as part of an exchange program and so was already familiar with the school and Professor Paulsen, according to Gao Cunjin, the company's chairwoman. After a few faxes, Dr. Paulsen agreed to take on the project in exchange for the trip.

Initially, the two sides had different ideas for the sculpture. Dr. Paulsen hoped to capture the flavor of Chinese calligraphy in an abstract sculpture; Dunhuang wanted something Western. Moreover, the idea of abstract art, which is still viewed suspiciously by Communist Party art mavens, was considered far too daring. After dozens of faxes, the two sides agreed on a semi-abstract sculpture formed out of the letters F, P and U -- for friendship, peace and unity.

"It's a bit hokey, I guess, but it shows the bridging of cultures. Also, they really wanted a specific meaning for each line in the sculpture. Abstract art isn't so acceptable," Dr. Paulsen said.

After settling on the basic form in December 1993, Dr. Paulsen and Dunhuang began negotiating the sculpture's form. Dr. Paulsen wanted the sculpture to have sharp angles and flat surfaces; Dunhuang pushed for a shape that was rounder.

Finally, about a year ago, a Chinese sculptor, Professor Zhao Chenmin, was brought in to smooth out the negotiations. He doubled the size of the sculpture to 22 feet and restored most of Dr. Paulsen's ideas.

"I was fearful that they weren't buying [the original concept], but they did and it turned out wonderful. It's really everything a collaboration should be," Dr. Paulsen said.

Inspired by his experience, Dr. Paulsen gave lectures called "Pluralism in Contemporary American Sculpture" in Beijing as well as at art academies in four other Chinese cities: Xi'an, Guizhou, Guangzhou and Shanghai. "I wanted to show the variety of sculpture in America, that not everything has to be realistic -- that there is a pluralism of materials, ideas, attitudes and expression," Dr. Paulsen said.

When he first saw his sculpture, he said he was amazed to find that all the forms in the stainless steel had been not cast but pounded out by hand -- a sort of craftsmanship which has almost died out in the West but can still be found in China.

"You go into the factory and see several people with hammers pounding away," he said.

Another difference is that Chinese sculptors rarely make their own work. Accustomed to cutting and welding his own metal and wood sculptures, Dr. Paulsen found that his work in China was made to order by a specialized art factory -- perhaps explaining why the artisans there are so highly skilled.

Now back in China for the dedication of the sculpture, Dr. Paulsen has decided to travel to other cities and lecture on British sculpture -- taking him by the end of his current trip to all but one of the major Chinese art academies.

Beijing cultural authorities said they believed the sculpture was the first foreign-designed piece in a public area of Beijing, but no records are kept of this. Certainly, no others are visible along major roads, hotels or public buildings in the capital of 9 million people.

Even though art, especially public art, is tightly controlled in China, Dr. Paulsen said he believes artists are experimenting with different forms. With private companies -- such as the Hilton -- willing to take chances on styles other than the approved socialist realism, diversity is bound to increase.

'They won't allow art that will debase their public policies, but they're not as heavy-handed as I thought," Dr. Paulsen said. "Let me put it this way: This piece is very close to my original idea."

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