Huaren Design Should Take a Humanistic Approach to Modern Chinese Culture and Thought — Frankie Fan

Classifying this multidisciplinary artist/designer/curator as a “slashie” doesn’t do him justice compared to the self-introduction he gave as curator of the 2017 Design M/m Taiwan Exhibition. Frankie Fan and his multidisciplinary design team dabble in everything from Eastern and Western art to architecture, spatial design, digital media, and interactive design.

In 2014, he collaborated with calligraphy master Dong Yang-Zi to produce Silent Movement – an immersive experience that initiates conversation between the viewer, the work, and the exhibition space. It captures the spirit of Eastern aesthetics inherent in each brush stroke and blot of ink, translating them into a spatial representation of light, shadow, smoke, and sound.

Fan’s 2016 collaboration with the National Palace Museum and HTC, The Spirit of Autobiography resulted in Taiwan’s first virtual reality calligraphy installation. It integrates art, space, and interactive technology, leading us into the literary world of Tang dynasty calligrapher Huai Su; helping us to understand and connect with the artistic conception and creative essence of Huai’s calligraphy.

Through both of these innovative works, we see Fan’s skill in making multidisciplinary connections, while seeking mutual reflection.

The Spirit of Autobiography, Fan’s collaboration with the National Palace Museum and HTC.

Creating Different Perspectives on the Issue of Experience

Fan discusses his journey in multidisciplinary design, carefully untangling the complex web of sociocultural context that led to where he is now. Having learnt how to paint as a child, he pursued an art major, seeking beauty on a higher plane. He talks about the training he received and how it was not merely the study of theory, or the practice of technique, but also an influence on his way of thinking. Given his background in both Western painting and Eastern art forms, such as ink wash painting and calligraphy, he developed a tendency to observe objects and phenomena, noticing chronological changes in the cultural and historical perspectives of the era, as well as regional differences between the East and the West.

He later shifted away from art, into the field of architecture and spatial design, trying his hand at digital media, which is completely different from traditional art. This multidisciplinary experience  opened his eyes to a new understanding of media, and he began trying to project and reflect the two fields upon one another.

The first work that really pushed this concept from the level of thought into practice was the Formation of Consciousness installation that Fan and his team at XXtralab DESIGN created for the 2010 exhibition, Time Unfrozen: From Liu Kuo-Sung to New Media Art. Using water as a medium for digital projection, together with interactive multi-touch technology and sophisticated computing, the team designed an installation that allows viewers to explore changes in the water and calligraphy ink through a dynamic display.

In contrast with the ‘viewer’ of traditional art, Fan thinks the contemporary word ‘user’ is a more accurate term to describe the relationship between the subject and object in this instance; one which emphasizes the perspective of a particular role in the space. In discussing his conception and design of the Formation of Consciousness installation, he points out that as opposed to the art viewers of the past, all sense of distance between the work and its user is now eliminated, and the resulting direct contact creates a perceptual experience. From the moment when a user’s fingertip touches the water, multicolored light shines through the submerged rice paper to form colorful ink blooms. The rice paper scroll is drawn through and then out of the water trough, together with the ink and water, producing an intimate perceptual experience of participatory creation for the user. What makes this work so special is that the colorful ink blooms simply disappear when reaching the end of the scroll. There is no way to capture or preserve its existence because “the behavior and process of participation are intrinsic to the expression of contemporary art.”

Formation of Consciousness, the installation created for the exhibition, Time Unfrozen: From Liu Kuo-Sung to New Media Art.

He goes on to mention the innovative breakthroughs of famed Taiwanese painter Liu Kuo-Sung, “As a man who lived during the Space Age, Liu spearheaded the avant-garde movement in Chinese ink wash painting through his use of automatic techniques, and his revolt against the reliance on traditional brush work. In today’s Digital Age, we are faced with a clash of principles, which is just as impactful. We have long needed to create more room for discussion on the relationship between our era and the people, artists, and creators who live in it.”

Fan believes that the historical underpinnings of Chinese culture deserve to be given a new interpretation through digital media; allowing users to perceptually experience the physical and spiritual beauty of traditional Chinese art. His works, Silent Movement and The Spirit of Autobiography are of special significance. “I actually experienced a lot of impacts on my point of view in the process of creating these works. They made me look at media and even art in a new light, compared to my superficial understanding of their form in the past.”

Despite his inexperience, Fan found answers to many long-standing questions during the design process. He mentions that during the creation of his other works related to Chinese culture, such as Silent Movement and The Spirit of Autobiography, he constantly looked back on the Formation of Consciousness as his symbolic starting point.

As someone who works across a range of media, he feels that the multidisciplinary approach is not just about the utilization of medium or variations in the art form. He notes that traditional Chinese graphic artists often portray the subject from multiple perspectives, meaning that all elements are presented in a panoramic manner. This very distinctive method of composition has great potential for creating a rich and varied spatial experience, and is much inline with his own way of thinking. When designing for a topic, he often looks at the relationships between objects in a panoramic manner, disassembling the background of his subject and its underlying web of context in the process. And more importantly, investigating new perspectives on creative issues through multidisciplinary design thinking.

The Core Issue of Design Eventually Returns to a Response to Human Needs

Despite being skilled at using digital media and interactive technologies in his creative work, Fan is by no means an evangelist of technology. On the contrary, he finds himself pondering the effect  that technology is having on society and culture. During the interview, as he discussed his ideas and observations accumulated over the years, he consistently warned against the negative impacts of rapid technological development in contemporary society, illustrating his points with examples that occur in our daily lives.

With globalization, our modern information society is facing increasingly complicated problems and undercurrents that could lead to a paradigm shift. Fan believes that finding solutions through the values of humanism has never been more necessary, and there is much room for the involvement of design. He also points out that the design community of today is gradually moving away from the exploration of form and style and moving towards people-oriented, problem-solving methodologies, or so-called design thinking.

No matter how media, technology, and social institutions develop, the core issue of design eventually returns to form as a response to human needs. In other words, the proposal of practical, innovative design solutions should start from the user’s perspective, and be achieved through the development of empathy in the design process. This was the central idea in Fan’s Design M/m Taiwan Exhibition at the Presidential Office Building in 2017; to start a discourse on the value and meaning of design. It featured six Taiwanese designers and examined how they created user-centric designs that maximized user happiness through the design process.

Design M/m Taiwan Exhibition at the Presidential Office Building in 2017.

Fan says that his mindset for the curation of the Design M/m Taiwan Exhibition was that, “In most cases, design is no longer the concern of a single discipline, nor is it purely the discussion of fashion and aesthetic trends.” Instead, it has become a kind of explicit learning process, whose goal is to find the key to problem solving, or even changing people’s thinking and influencing communities, through  the utilization of knowledge and perspectives from multiple disciplines. It has also become an important issue of competitiveness; modern countries or regions are learning how design can translate a culture’s accumulated heritage by connecting past to present and evoking future possibilities.

A Humanistic Exploration of Modern Chinese Culture and Thought

Continuing with this line of thought, Fan goes on to talk about Huaren design. He believes that since the Chinese diaspora in Asia ensures the mainstay of the regional economy, we should focus of our attention on the search for a more spiritual civilization. “The world is experiencing a massive social and economic impact, caused by interconnectedness and globalization. We are constantly being flipped around in the mechanism of these two rotating gears. When viewing our modern world from a historical and cultural context, we find that a substantial leap in productivity has elicited new ideas on culture and humanism, which are finally settling into a new people-oriented perspective. It is one that respects the cultural heritage of all regions and communities within.”

Therefore, to communicate in this age of globalization, the Chinese diaspora would do well to explore its historical and cultural contexts, and base its design on universal values such as democracy and humanism.

He further points out that the inherently inward-looking thought practice of Chinese creatives often expresses itself through abstraction and minimalism. This is particularly true in the expression of Buddhist and Taoist philosophies, whose profound cultural and aesthetic heritage has greatly influenced the aesthetics of East Asia, “Particularly the aesthetics of the Song and Ming dynasties, whose philosophically-derived minimalism continues to be studied by students of cultural aesthetics, both in the East and the West. In terms of artistic conception, the paintings by literati from that time possess modern spatial qualities. Especially in the blurred boundary and the inherent spirit created by the unique medium of brush and ink, we can decipher the Chinese pursuit of integration with the environment, along with its emphasis on human kindness and aesthetics. This works in harmony with contemporary aesthetics.”

However, Fan also points out, “The excessive worship of the ancient sages, and the lack of consideration for human equality and rational reform in Chinese culture, are issues we have to face in the modern world.” To him, it is of utmost importance that design should take a humanistic approach to modern Chinese culture and thought. That is how he approaches Huaren design. The way he sees it, “Social care is the barometer of a civilization.”

“As we return to a humanistic approach in the problem-solving process, we find that there is always a corresponding cultural context to the era we live in. When this context is explored further, it becomes a valuable cultural foundation from which cultural confidence is born.” He also notes that it is worth considering whether or not, under the influence of commercialization, Huaren design can be incorporated into a distinctly regional way of thinking and point of view, which could respond to the problems faced by the current generation.

Fan considers himself lucky to have been exposed to a range of opinions through conversations with key players in a number of fields. He frequently observes uncertainty and contradictions in the creatives’ approach to building cultural confidence, such as the pressure of cultural codes currently faced by Taiwan in its dialogue with others. He thinks of himself as a positivist, for he observes, reads, and writes, while expressing his imagination through art and design. At the same time, he continues to ponder the major issues surrounding design, society, and culture, hoping to generate dialogue, and to impact the status quo. As he puts it, “The solution to all problems faced by modern designers is actually very simple. Only through the common good can we create more good.”


About Frankie Fan

Frankie Fan graduated from National Chiao Tung University’s Graduate Institute of Architecture. He is currently the Design Supervisor at Moxie Design and the Founder/CEO of XXtralab Design. His works have received accolades both at home and abroad, and he is a multiple winner of the Taiwan Interior Design (TID) Awards, an important interior design award among the Huaren design community. Fan was chosen as a top ten designer at the 2011 TID Awards, and has served two terms as the CEO of the TID Awards.

Fan studied art from an early age, later dabbling in architecture, spatial design, digital design, new media, and interactive design. He now leads an experimental team of multidisciplinary designers —rare in Taiwan — devoted to the exploration of innovative thinking and possibilities in the integration of multidisciplinary design. In 2014, Fan collaborated with calligraphy master Dong Yang-Zi in her piece Silent Movement, and in 2016 joined forces with the National Palace Museum and HTC to build The Spirit of Autobiography, the first virtual reality calligraphy installation in Taiwan, and winner of four awards at the 2017 Boston Film Festival. A master of reinterpreting traditional Chinese art, Fan continues to guide viewers in opening their eyes and their imaginations.

In recent years, Fan has introduced the concept of multidisciplinary design to the curation of exhibitions, hoping to initiate continued dialogue using exhibitions as a communication medium for exploring contemporary Huaren design ideas. For instance, the 2017 Design M/m Taiwan Exhibition, the first design exhibition ever held in the Presidential Office Building, connected local experience with global vision in an attempt to inspire the attention and thinking of the general public on the power of design.

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