New “21@2021” Virtual Exhibit Elevates an Ancient Chinese Artform to a New Realm

21@2021 Virtual Exhibit

What do the ancient art of Chinese brush painting and virtual reality have in common? Hint: It’s not their age.

SJSU’s Martin Luther King, Jr. Library’s new “21@2021” virtual exhibit showcases the more than 6,000-year-old art of Chinese painting done on colorful lanterns — including a virtual reality (VR) experience that puts guests literally in touch with the artwork — in celebration of Asian Pacific Heritage Month.

As one of the oldest styles of painting in the world, Chinese brush painting is considered a living art. Its themes typically reflect serenity and peace and easily lend themselves to contemporary execution for modern day artists and enthusiasts.

The exhibition highlights the artwork of three generations of the Chan Lim family, who have been pioneering new media, styles and techniques that integrate Western art with the Chinese brush style in the United States and around the world for more than half a century.

Unlike Western brushes, the Chinese brush features a handle made of bamboo and topped with animal hair used for making meticulous strokes on rice paper — which is also very difficult to correct if mistakes are made. The finished works are then stretched and mounted on thicker paper to make them stronger and often attached to scrolls, or in this case lanterns, for hanging.

The driving force behind “21@2021” is Lucas College and Graduate School of Business faculty member Bobbi Makani-Lim, PhD, who contributed to and curated the exhibit along with her husband Felix Chan Lim, PhD, a faculty member of Stanford University’s Continuing Studies Program who works in the Silicon Valley semiconductor industry. The pair also co-teach a course about the tradition of Chinese brush painting at Stanford.

Art binds the family together

As Makani-Lim describes, it is a common language among them: “When you talk about Chinese brush painting, everyone understands this is what we do as a family.”

Pre-COVID-19, the family would put on exhibits of their work around the world, including Japan, Taiwan, Philippines and China; in shopping malls in Asia, thousands would attend to view the 300-400 works of art in a given show. The Chan Lim family currently has artworks on exhibit at the Norman Y. Mineta San Jose International Airport.

They held their first art exhibition at San José State in 2018. In addition to the Chinese brush, they displayed oil and acrylic paintings, Chinese fans as well as ceramics. The show was so well received, they decided to return for the 20th anniversary of the Chan Lim family’s artistic collaborations in 2020, but then the COVID-19 pandemic hit.

The family had already begun shipping lanterns from overseas to contribute to what had originally been planned as an in-person exhibit. They pivoted quickly and came up with a new gameplan: a digital experience that would include a virtual reality component.

“The digital format allows our guests to have a feeling of being in a natural exhibit, and if they have VR goggles, they can go in and actually play with some of the lanterns,” said Makani-Lim.

“VR isn’t just for gaming, it can be for art exhibits,” too, she added.

Taking art to the next level

For the King Library, “It is the first example of an interactive VR experience,” says Lesley Seacrist, the library’s ‎project and communications manager. “That means multiple users can be in the same room at the same time and can interact with each other. It’s like being in an actual museum.”

All visitors can enter seven different themed “rooms” and use their keyboard to navigate around and view the hanging lanterns and paintings on the virtual walls. There are also slide shows that play in the background that describe the themes and their popularity in Chinese painting.

More than 500 hours of human and computer time went into creating the virtual reality piece, including setting the scenes, rendering the lanterns, and developing digital galleries for the artwork, according to Jon Oakes, the library’s technology labs coordinator. They had to take photos and videos of the more than 70 lanterns to capture every angle, horizontal and vertical, over several weeks.

With VR goggles, guests can reach out and touch the lanterns, a feature that would not normally be possible in a physical environment because of their delicate nature.

Sharing culture and tradition

It’s been over a year since students, faculty, staff and community members have been able to freely wander the halls of the King Library’s fifth floor, where “21@2021” would have been held.

The fifth floor is also where the Africana, Asian American, Chicano, and Native American Studies Center’s (AAACNA) collections of art, artifacts, books, resources and other documents of cultural heritage are housed. Among the goals of the center is to provide a gathering space for SJSU and community members that promotes and supports programming that celebrates historically underrepresented groups.

“We are bringing a very traditional art into a very modern sort of space,” said Kathryn Blackmer Reyes, librarian and director of the AAACNA center and curator of its multifaceted collections. To her, it’s an exciting space — a gallery of art and culture — with a lot of room and potential for creativity and technology to come together.

“I think what’s so beautiful is that we are exhibiting this very traditional art with contemporary artists, and to bring it to students and communities who don’t necessarily know [Chinese brush painting], it’s exciting that we are incorporating people into the art in a very innovative format,” she added.

Ultimately, postponing the exhibit brought the opportunity to reimagine how visitors can experience the art into a new realm of virtual reality — one that allows them to experience art in a tangible way again, interacting with others while remaining in the comfort of their own spaces.

“We’re hoping we’re able to reach different generations and help them get that feeling that this art is thousands of years old,” said Makani-Lim. “We’ve got to keep it going, so it doesn’t end up like another one of those things that you just read about but no longer exists,” she added.

“Usually for younger generations, Chinese painting is not something that they like to do, but because you’re adding technology, now you’re doing something different, enticing them to look at the art another way,” said Lim.

Learn more and view the “21@2021″ virtual exhibit, including a recording of a recent special talk about Chinese culture and brush painting, and demonstrations from exhibition artists and of the virtual reality experience.