Artist Sun Liangang Wants to Cultivate the Next Generation of Geniuses

He says he's not motivated by the market.

Sun Liangang and the director of Columbia's art department XX

Sun Liangang with Dr. Carol Becker, dean of Columbia University School of Arts.
Photo: Courtesy of Sun Liangang.

Artist and entrepreneur Sun Liangang is partially responsible for the impressive expansion of the contemporary Chinese art world. After all, he helped develop Caochangdi, an arts district known as “Beijing’s Williamsburg,” where dissident artist Ai Weiwei famously built a studio over a decade ago.

More recently, the 46-year-old abstract painter has settled into a comfortable pad in Trump’s tower in midtown New York, where his sparsely furnished apartment overlooking the East River acts as his studio, eponymous foundation and home. Last September, he became an advisor at Columbia University’s Earth Institute, which is dedicated to the issues of public health, poverty, energy, ecosystems, climate, and urbanization through research, education, and now art.

Through his work at the university, he hopes to use his position to, as he states, “[change] the way people think through art.” In an interview with artnet News, he said this is to be done by cultivating smart people to become “geniuses,” as he refers to them.

However, Liangang said that genius cannot be cultivated through most methods of teaching. “Now the system creates idiots. I cultivate the genius by doing nothing. If you truly understood art history, you would understand what I’m saying,” he continued. His comment seemed to be simultaneously insulting, complimenting, and confusing. Perhaps he meant that he is there to free the artist’s mind. But neither my translator nor I seemed to fully grasp what Sun was hinting at during his extemporaneous speeches.

After Liangang agreed to be the Earth Institute’s unpaid advisor nine months ago, Steven Cohen, executive director of the Institute, told artnet News via email that the Institute had “no interaction with him since those early conversations,” but believes “[Liangang] raised an important item for our intellectual agenda, and we hope to continue to explore it in the future.”

During the interview, Liangang told artnet News that god’s message is transferred through artists, and then passed on to the rest of society. And yet, he claims, the artworks produced are not god’s message, they are his “dump.” In other words, artworks act as a medium for humanity to connect. He gave an example of the cell phone. If a person sends a message to another person and the other person receives it and understands it, the cell phone then becomes useless.

It seems Liangang wants to change the world using different mediums, and I was one of them. Through dialogue we were changing the world. “Today’s conversation, by being on the Internet will be read by people who will think what I’m saying is right.” He continued, “It’s all part of my plan to touch the world.”

But does he ever think about the art market? Vehemently shaking his head, Liangang said, “The market is not my concern, it’s for capitalists and businessmen.” He continued, “Art is about finding the truth. Contemporary art without a new way of thinking or disrupting would be dead. My art is not about technique, it’s about changing things. To me, art is religion.”

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