Oriental philosophy shapes the works of American artist

Nature is a constant theme in the works of American artist Barbara Edelstein, who credits ancient Chinese artists Huai Su and Badashanren for influencing her style and thinking.
Ti Gong

American artist Barbara Edelstein stands next to her work “Elemental Spring Harmony” at Jing'an Sculpture Park.

Like many public spaces in Shanghai, Jing’an Sculpture Park on Beijing Road W. is filled with elderly women dancing in the mornings or evenings, and the site around a landmark sculpture is a particularly popular spot.

Very few people who dance around it every evening know that the permanent sculpture, “Elemental Spring Harmony,” is by American artist Barbara Edelstein. Her poetic interpretation of nature has been reflected in many of her works, and her sculptures have been around in China since early 2000.

The one in Jing’an Sculpture Park was installed in 2010, and was inspired by the willow leaf, plants, seeds and roots that she found in the area. It was presented in an abstract bronze of a curvy leaf standing next to branches extending out from the bottom circle. 

Water drips down from each branch into the small pond beneath, fitting naturally amid the trees and flowers in the park.

Edelstein has now moved to Shanghai and is teaching both Chinese and foreign students at New York University Shanghai Campus (NYU Shanghai).

“I had no idea, but many people have told me that I have an Oriental perspective," she tells Shanghai Daily at her studio overlooking the Suzhou Creek. “That’s probably true, as I never really did the Western one-point or three-point perspective as an artist.”

The American says she was influenced by many ancient Chinese artists. Among them was Huai Su (AD 737-799), a Buddhist monk who earned fame for his cursive calligraphy, a style that mixes calligraphy and paintings. 

Another big influence was Badashanren (1626-1705), a royal prince who became a Taoist monk and found peace in traditional Chinese painting.

Edelstein’s Oriental influence is not only aesthetic, but also philosophical. A native of Los Angeles, Edelstein was born to a family of artists and philosophers. Her father was a graphic designer and her mother a painter. 

Several of her cousins are followers of Zen Buddhism. Her well-traveled parents brought back photographs of Japanese gardens from their Asian trips when she was very young. This early exposure to Asian designs intrigued her to learn more about it.

At the age of 13, she read “Zen in the Art of Archery” by German philosophy professor Eugen Herrigel. Published in 1948, the book recounts the professor’s experiences of learning traditional Japanese archery when he lived and taught in the country in the 1920s.

Ti Gong

Barbara Edelstein is particularly fascinated by the shape of trees, their branches and leaves.

The respect for nature and devotion to developing a harmonious relationship in both Chinese and Japanese art and philosophy is a constant theme in Edelstein’s works. Many of them, like the one in Jing’an Sculpture Park, try to bring industrial materials back to natural forms. And water is central to her pieces.

“Water is life to us,” she says. “We can’t live without water.”

In one of her early works, Edelstei managed to get the water to drip from a tree trunk at a lower position to a creek at a higher spot in a natural reserve. The mechanism was hidden so well that visitors often wouldn’t notice it was a man-made installation.

“Nature becomes part of the work, but you don’t see your ego in there,” she explains. “It looks like nature, but it can’t actually be purely natural. There is a kind of Zen Taoist quality to this.”

Site-specific is another trademark of her works. Edelstei is particularly fascinated by the shape of trees, their branches and leaves. In one of her works for an exhibition in Shanghai, she took videos of tree branches and leaves all over the city and used light and shadows to turn them into abstract shapes that almost resembled calligraphy strokes.

“I feel quite at home in Shanghai, probably even more than New York,” says Edelstein, who previously divided her time between the two cities.

“It is a very convenient metropolitan. I often get inspired here on the streets,” she says.

It may also have to do with her Jewish origin as over 20,000 Jews were given sanctuary in Shanghai during World War II, including one of her grandfathers who managed to escape the Nazis in Warsaw. Many of his siblings didn't make it.

In 2009, she held an exhibition called “Hongkou Stones” in the area where the Jewish community lived in Hongkou District. It was her way of expressing her gratitude to the city.

Edelstein now teaches art and emphasizes on traditional Chinese methodology in contemporary art. She encourages her students to express themselves as they feel fit.

Ti Gong

Barbara Edelstein's sculpture at the Guangdong Museum of Art

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