RISD, Asia and Creativity
Inspired by the recent recognition of RISD’s 2012 honorary degree recipients – Wang Shu, the Pritzker Prize-winning Chinese architect, and Studio Ghibli, the internationally acclaimed Japanese animation house – along with a visit from President Xu Jiang of China Academy of Art (CAA), President John Maeda shared some thoughts about his own experiences as an artist and designer of Asian descent.
What comes to mind when you think of Asia and creativity?
I grew up in what was formerly called “Chinatown” in Seattle (later renamed the “International District”) because people resettling from all over Asia set up shop there. When you are surrounded by something as a child, it never registers as anything out of the ordinary – it’s just your reality. So I never really noticed “Asian culture” until there was a major exhibition touring the country after President Nixon’s momentous trip to China in 1972. It showed the Four Great Inventions of China’s past: gunpowder, the printing press, papermaking and the compass. It was remarkable to me to see how many seminal inventions are credited to the Chinese, especially when the dominant political rhetoric at the time dismissed Asia for its non-innovative, “copy-cat” culture. The facts and the stereotype seemed at odds.
On a personal level, I felt how, because I was Asian-American, the assumption by the mass media – and even by my teachers – was that I was most suited to non-creative subjects. My parents reinforced this as well. Though supportive, they bragged that I was good at math, but didn’t pay attention to the fact that I was also good at art. Looking back, I realize that I was forced to overcome these stereotypes in order to pursue a creative life.
After fulfilling my parents’ dreams and earning both bachelor’s and master’s degrees in Electrical Engineering and Computer Science at MIT, I went on to study art and design in Japan at a Bauhaus-influenced school outside of Tokyo – the University of Tsukuba. Though located in Asia, its European methods made it a truly cross-cultural experience. The contemporary Chinese artist Cai Guo Qiang, a RISD parent, recently spoke on campus, and when he was touring our studios, he shared with me that he’s also a Tsukuba alum, though he left the year before I arrived.
In Japan I worked as a graphic designer for print and digital media in the era when the computer had recently emerged as a design tool and the Internet was just beginning to take off. My mentor there was the great master designer Ikko Tanaka, who operates fluidly across cultures, and across commercial and non-commercial work. So I was able to take what I had learned about computing in the US and situate it within traditional notions of art and design in Japanese contemporary culture.
Why was it significant that RISD honored Wang Shu and Studio Ghibli this year?
To me the honorary degrees awarded at Commencement this year – selected by a faculty committee headed by Interim Associate Provost Patricia Phillips – made a statement about Asia as a global center of creativity. For millennia cultures throughout this continent have seen art and design as “need to have” not just “nice to have” components of human existence. And now the entire world is waking up to the need to incorporate art and design back into our education system and our lives – a notion that we have been reinforcing here at RISD through our manySTEM to STEAM initiatives.
RISD itself is an international hub of creativity, with students from more than 52 countries represented on campus and alumni spread out in 86 countries around the world. In recent years we have seen a flourishing new alumni club in Hong Kong and continued activity in Korea and Japan. Alumni around the world – including Tokyo-based apparel designer Tae Ashida 87 AP and Martin Lo BID 84 in Hong Kong – continue to show us just where and how art and design are making a huge impact, and every time I travel, I am proud to help share this good news.
What do you think the US can learn from creativity in Asia?
In the fall of 2010, I spoke at an event at the Japan Society in New York along with Naoto Fukasawa and Kenya Hara, at which we introduced the Japanese retailer MUJI to the US. To me MUJI represents the unique wonder of Japanese design – the combination of simplicity, sophistication and functionality. MUJI doesn’t design for a quick “wow” reaction, but for a “delayed-wow” instead. After owning a MUJI-designed object for a while you think, “Wow!” because it has become so indispensible to your life.
Japanese design has always been about the pursuit of perfection and celebrating the sacred in the everyday. During his visit to campus, Mr. Suzuki of Studio Ghibli explained that it’s their everyday surroundings that influence the Ghibli animators the most. At our Commencement, when CAA President Xu Jiang accepted RISD’s Presidential Honor for Distinguished Leadership and Vision in the Arts, he quoted DreamWorks’ venerableKung Fu Panda to make the same point: “The past is history, the future is a mystery, and today is a gift. That is why we call it the present.”
I also think a lot about Japanese pop culture – from the self-sacrificing spirit of Tora-san to the “existential warrior” ethos of Gundam – and how that forms the rich cultural context in which Japanese design exists. Historically, the Japanese had always been about winning the battle, performing super-human feats, dying for the cause. After World War II, though, Japan had to rewrite this national narrative to dampen the glory of war and transition to a culture of peace and prosperity. Yet it still held on to this notion of going to the edge – of extreme dedication and perfection. I think that is the foundation beneath the beauty of modern Japanese design.