Dan Mills, left, and Ai Weiwei

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By Andrew Larson '07

LEWISBURG, Pa. — The path to interpreting a work of art doesn’t always lead directly to a destination.

That’s one of the messages of a cross-cultural art exhibit, “Misleading Trails,” that has traveled to China and around the U.S. the last two years.

The exhibit, co-organized by the China Art Archives and Warehouse in Beijing and the Samek Art Gallery at Bucknell, contains the work of seven artists, two of whom are from Bucknell. It will be on display at the Samek Art Gallery from Oct. 5 to Nov. 19.

Unlike most exhibits organized by Samek, “Misleading Trails” didn’t debut there. It opened at the China Art Archives and Warehouse in the summer of 2004 and since then has made stops in Illinois, Texas, North Carolina, Tennessee, Maryland, and New York.

Homecoming Weekend

The exhibit’s homecoming marks its final stop and coincides with Bucknell’s Homecoming Weekend, which runs from Oct. 6-8.

The 29 works comprising “Misleading Trails” come in a variety of mediums and have little in common except that each one’s message probably isn’t contained in the image that first meets the eye.

“Many of the artists’ works are multi-layered, and things may not be what they’re supposed to be,” said Dan Mills, director of the Samek Art Gallery.

Some of the works intentionally subvert expectations. Others just take a little time to figure out, said Mills, whose own work is featured in the exhibit.

No common themes

No common theme connects the works. Some appear to comment on imperialism and globalization, while others reveal a nostalgic longing for how things were in the past.

A painting by Mills shows a baby wearing a cowboy hat dropping a globe of the world.

A series of photographs shows artist Ai Weiwei holding, releasing, and then shattering an elegant vase dating to the Han Dynasty.
                                   
Originally, the show was going to be called “Obsolete Knowledge, False Systems and Misleading Trails.” Shortening the title makes it more palatable and more ambiguous.

“It’s kind of deliberately broad, an exhibition that’s not easily summarized or pigeonholed,” Mills said.

The works of art were created by four American artists and three Chinese artists. One of the American artists, Xiaoze Xie, is a realist painter born in China and an associate professor of art at Bucknell.

Of the American artists, two were not born in the U.S. Two of the Chinese artists speak almost no English.

Idea of collaborating
                                           
Mills and Xie hatched the idea of collaborating with Chinese artists during a curatorial visit to China. At 4 a.m., they were at their hotel in Beijing, jetlagged, when they realized that Chinese artists were working with similar concepts as their U.S. counterparts.

“We started to think to ourselves about how many issues and themes that we think about as artists were shared,” Mills said.

But the modes of conveying those concepts can be very different.

American art is more likely to contain overt political statements, Mills said. In China, politics and art tend to converge only in the form of subtle nuances. “Misleading Trails” exposes each side to the other’s style.

The exhibit “brings together contemporary artworks from opposite sides of the world in order to highlight their similarities and differences,” according to a review in The Winston-Salem (N.C.) Journal.

Interpretative 'trails'

Because its creators and its audience come from diverse backgrounds, “Misleading Trails” will invariably strike different chords in people based on their personal experiences. Mills said that it’s up to the artist to lay out interpretative “trails.” Viewers, based on their background, choose which ones to take.

“The viewer always brings their own experiences to understand work and it may be that trails are left open to the viewer,” Mills said.

Ironically, “Misleading Trails” took a rather circuitous path to its opening in China. Mills and his colleagues made elaborate plans to transport it from Lewisburg to Beijing. When it arrived at Beijing International Airport, just miles from its destination, airport officials said they required additional documentation.

The exhibit had to be shipped back to Lewisburg while the documentation was obtained.

“Sometimes when you think you know how everything works, it’s not that way,” Mills said with a wry grin.

Mills and Xie will talk about the exhibit on Oct. 5 at 5 p.m. in the Gallery Theatre. Also, Vernon Fisher, another American artist whose work is included in the exhibit and a professor at the University of North Texas, will lecture on Nov. 7 at 5 p.m. in the Gallery Theatre.

Posted Sept. 15, 2006

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