Chinese Artist Bridges Sino-US Cultural Divide

Painter-filmmaker Ann Yen uses a unique global vision, melding East with West, to create a fresh new genre.

When artist-filmmaker Ann Yen was growing up in Shanghai, China worked at a battle pitch to tunnel air-raid shelters beneath cities and through mountains to prepare for a hypothetical American nuclear strike.

When she joined the People's Liberation Army as a teenager, the United States was China's top enemy, contact with foreigners was grounds for arrest, and the only way ordinary Chinese could go abroad was by swimming through shark-infested waters to then-British Hong Kong.

Today, as Ms. Yen freely shuttles between Beijing and New York to join art exhibits or film-production teams and calls both cities home, it seems surprising that such a radical transformation of Sino-American ties could have taken place in one lifetime.

Both her life and her art - a curious hybrid of Western techniques and Eastern themes - are symbols of how Chinese and American cultures sometimes mesh, despite ongoing political skirmishes.

Skyrocketing contacts between China and the US over the past two decades, and the growing class of artists, scholars, traders, and travelers who now have roots in both countries, seem to belie the theory the two civilizations are destined to clash.

Anti-American protests were common here during Yen's youth, when Chairman Mao Zedong launched the radical, xenophobic Cultural Revolution of 1966-76.

Yen joined the revolution by painting propaganda posters, as Mao enlisted millions of young Red Guards to wipe out Confucian beliefs and Western culture with attacks on scholars, artists, and teachers.

To escape the chaos, Yen joined a People's Liberation Army drama troupe that, as Mao's minstrels, reenacted "communist morality plays" across China, and was later cast in a Shanghai film about the Cultural Revolution. Mao's passing in 1976 halted the movement and the movie, and China began scripting a new future. As cracks appeared in China's great wall of isolation, Yen seized the opportunity to study abroad.

She was in the first wave of students to travel to the US after it forged diplomatic ties with China in 1979 and landed at New York University's film school.

Yen says despite her initial culture shock, "I didn't feel like I was a foreigner - everyone in New York seemed to be from somewhere else ... which created a tolerance for different peoples and cultures."

She studied film by day and painting at the Art Students League by night. Yen's first film behind the camera, "American Life Through Chinese Eyes," was a documentary made with renowned Taiwanese director Ang Lee ("Ice Storm," "Sense and Sensibility"). "We drove across America with a small camera, interviewing the rich, the poor, the famous, and anonymous workers and farmers," says Yen.

The project exposed Yen to the diversity of the US and paved the way for a film career that still zigzags between Asia and America. Yen has since worked on films and documentaries that reflect a growing American fascination with China, including Steven Spielberg's "Empire of the Sun" and NBC's Lost Civilization series.

Despite the excitement of filmmaking, Yen says, "painting is still my passion."

While skipping across continents, she has juggled her portraits for the big screen and the canvas and is now planning an exhibit in Beijing.

She says a strange culture shock awaited her the first time she returned to China.

The American invasion long feared by Mao had finally hit China's shores, but in the form of pop music, fashion and the sprouts of Western individualism.

"When I left China, people only wore three colors - Mao suits in blue or gray or camouflage green uniforms," she says. "Now you can see every color of the spectrum."

Leaving behind a nation still recovering from the Cultural Revolution, Yen discovered a new China racked by "a commercial revolution."

"Western ideas have rushed into China with international trade," Yen says, and "American cultural imperialism is everywhere. Before, anyone who had contacts with the West was doomed - now we can even surf the Internet."

Instead of making revolution, "everyone is rushing to make money, and China now seems like a wild jungle of capitalism," she says. That trend is also beginning to affect Chinese art.

"In the past, Chinese artists learned by endlessly copying the traditional masters" of ink painting, she says.

During the Cultural Revolution, when the past had been wiped out, Mao was China's sole model, and his portraits and sculptures were cloned across the country.

As in education and society in general, Chinese art through the ages has been about "copying the leaders and following orders," says Yen. The process turns out "skilled artisans, but limited creativity."

"Now, when an original artist appears in China, everyone copies him in the hope of commercial success on the international market," she adds.

In contrast, Yen says, "I want my art to be an expression of some new idea or vision." While "political pop art" dominates contemporary Chinese painting, Yen uses expressionist brush strokes to depict figures from traditional Chinese opera or nudes surrounding a Taoist pool of goldfish.

She predicts if the American spirit of individualism and creativity begins to gain ground here, "Chinese artists are going to take off on the global market."

Asked whether she feels more American or Chinese after spending much of her life in each place, Yen says: "I don't think I'm part of this country or that country - I'm more of a global citizen."

* One of several profiles this week.

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