School of Peace and Conflict Studies Faculty Fellowship Creates 'Unexpected' Connections

Photo of Koon-Hwee Kan and Pinyan Zhu

On a table in Koon-Hwee Kan’s office sits a metal lantern, inspired by traditional Chinese revolving lanterns in which hot air from a candle pushes cutouts, casting an image.

Lanterns like these typically use the image of a horse, but there are no galloping horses here. Instead, she’s replaced them with silhouettes of soldiers, civilians and tulips.

Like many people, the recent outbreak of war between Israel and Gaza has been at the forefront of Kan’s mind. She wanted to create something that would help students in the Midwest understand the conflict better – the pain of war.

“For me, this is eye opening,” she said. “At this point in my career, I'm more cognizant that some issues really cannot be solved as a scholar, or even as an activist, even though I'm not, but we can do our little part to create, express it in a way that can send a message.”

An associate professor in the School of Art, Kan admitted she previously struggled to understand war. However, this year Kan and Pinyan Zhu, an assistant professor in the School of Art, have opened themselves to new modes of thinking through a co-fellowship with the School of Peace and Conflict Studies and Design Innovation.

Initially, the two struggled to see where they might fit in with the fellowship. But Zhu has long had an interest in how the environment shapes art. That, they quickly realized, fit perfectly into the school’s focus on addressing the current environmental crisis.

“Our development is very much centered around humans and in this process, we ignored the elements,” Zhu said. “(Art historians), very much like industrialists, we have been centered upon the genius of our artistic capacity. And yet, I think the environmental crisis right now has humbled artists into seeing that land and water have power and material has power to exert an influence.”

Through their fellowship, Zhu said she wants to apply an eco-critical perspective to how Asian art is taught. By understanding the environmental influences that have shaped Asian art, she hopes students in Ohio will find connections between the art and their daily experiences.

“A European artist's relationship with nature is very different from a Chinese artist in the seventh century, how he perceived his relationship with nature, the kind of perceptions are very different,” Zhu said. “The reason eco-critical approach can be effective in Asian art is that it gives you an overarching theme that is general enough people can relate to, but also it highlights cultural differences.”

For example, an ancient Greek artist has a different relationship with nature than a Chinese artist in the seventh century.

In the classroom, students will get to explore this hands-on. A longstanding debate in art history is why Chinese bronze vessels look the way they do – symmetrical with a protruding ridge on each side known as a flange. The assumption is that when the melted bronze was placed in clay molds, the liquid seeped through the opening between the molds.

It’s a sign of imperfection in technology, but rather than hide the imperfection the artists chose to highlight the flanges in the design. Using the tools available in the DI Hub’s Reactor, students will get to make their own molds for vessels and experience the process first hand.

Models of Chinese bronze vessels

“With eco-criticism, we’re encouraged to see the power – that a human is not in the center of the universe — that there are natural elements also exerting power around our creation,” Zhu said.

Prior to their fellowship, Kan and Zhu rarely crossed paths in their work. As the two work together now, there’s a kinetic energy released from their collaboration that might lead one to believe their careers had always been intertwined.

Bringing faculty members together to work on projects they might not have before is central to the ethos of a DI Faculty Fellowship, said J.R. Campbell, the Executive Director of the Design Innovation Initiative.

“Design Innovation as a concept connects people from across the university in ways that are sometimes unexpected,” Campbell said. “Collisions at the intersections between our disciplines create new outcomes.”

An exhibit showcasing students' projects titled "Learning Art in Contemporary Crises: Environmentalism and Cultural Appropriation" will run from April 25-30 in the DI Hub. 

POSTED: Monday, March 4, 2024 10:52 AM
Updated: Monday, March 11, 2024 01:14 PM
Alton Northup