Wu Hung honored for helping create field of contemporary Chinese art history

In recognition of a career spent helping to create the field of contemporary Chinese art history in higher education, Prof. Wu Hung will receive one of the highest academic honors from the world’s largest professional society for art historians and artists.

Wu, the Harrie A. Vanderstappen Distinguished Service Professor of Art History and East Asian Languages & Civilizations, will receive the College Art Association’s distinguished scholar award at its annual conference in February 2018.

“Wu Hung is joining an impressive group of individuals,” said Hunter O’Hanian, the association’s executive director. “The committee looks for someone who has a depth of scholarly accomplishment, and if you look at the depth of his work, especially under difficult circumstances at the time, it’s amazing.”

Wu is considered a giant in the field. While he began his career working on early Chinese architecture, he also in many ways became the father of modern and contemporary Chinese art history. His work began with a series of exhibitions staged at Harvard University in the mid-1980s, before arriving at UChicago as a faculty member. As a consulting curator at the Smart Museum of Art, he has curated a series of exhibitions and he is currently at work on a large-scale exhibition of contemporary experimental art in China, “The Allure of Matter.”

“Wu Hung has long worked, in the very best UChicago ways, across entrenched disciplinary divides, looking at ancient art as much as contemporary practices,” said Prof. Christine Mehring, chair of the Department of Art History. “His scholarship and teaching have propelled our department’s, and the discipline of art history’s, turn to a global art history.”

Opening up Chinese art history

Despite his accomplishments, Wu is quick to recognize the contributions of all scholars in the field working to expand the cultures studied in art history, including China.

“Art history as a field was very compartmentalized by regions and nations, especially so-called Western art and non-Western art,” Wu said. “I feel like a lot of people have made efforts to open up art history.”

In his decades of study, Wu has witnessed firsthand that opening up of contemporary art in China, moving from underground and experimental works in the 1980s and 1990s to the establishment of major museums spaces today, but he still sees plenty of areas for work.

“Art is opening up, but you have to deal with a lot of challenges like censorship, and you have to negotiate with the different traditions and local sentiments of different areas,” Wu said. “And people in China still think of art as something ‘extra,’ but I feel it is essential to modern education. That’s something we have to make people see.” 

In addition to his scholarship in contemporary Chinese art, Wu also works to preserve early Chinese art. He is the founder and director of the Center for the Art of East Asia at UChicago, which was established in 2003 to support groundbreaking scholarship and create related digital technologies to advance access to and preserve art, artifacts, and sites.

Wu is particularly proud of a project that uses digital imaging and 3-D technology to map ancient Buddhist caves pillaged in the early 20th century by foreign collectors. Wu and his colleagues spent years locating the scattered pieces around the world, making 3-D scans. They then worked with local archaeologists to scan and reconstruct the historical caves, offering images to scholars through an online database.

“In a way, it’s a healing process,” Wu said about the project. “There was a historical tragedy, and now we’re using new technology to heal in some ways. We’re also creating a model, because we can’t scan all these caves, so scholars in other countries can think about how to do similar projects.”

That openness extends beyond just sharing data. Jeehee Hong, PhD’08, one of his many former students, said that despite his stature in the field, Wu has always made time for his students, and his model of scholarship has shaped a new generation of art historians.

“His work and his manner of engaging with scholars is open, and it’s all about inclusiveness,” said Hong, now an associate professor in East Asian Art History at McGill University. “Given how busy he is, he still sees his students as people. I’ve been teaching for years, and now I see his influence.”