A Ph.D. degree in art, which includes the submission of a practical component in addition to a theoretical thesis is great for artists who hope to gain further resources, to be professional critics, or to be professors of art at a university. Like other academic disciplines, an art doctorate thesis aims to contribute significant and original knowledge to the field. The difference is, a practical project must be addressed to substantiate or complement the thesis. This kind of doctorates has been offered in the UK graduate education for over 20 years. However, it is still a new education field for many art colleges.
I decide to pursue a doctorate degree with a practical element for two reasons. I am keen to further explore and experiment with my long-term seaweed houses project as well as to gain thorough academic knowledge on the relationship between of photography and cultural study. It follows that my art practice plays a role in covering my doctorate research. My art practice of creating seaweed houses, which is the practical component of my research, hopes to explore what has been forgotten behind the urbanization of rural fishing villages. Through the investigation of archives, oral stories and hand-colored photographs, I hope to gain a better understanding of this and to examine the methods and considerations of memory visualization. The history of seaweed houses could go as far back as the empire of Yuan, Ming and Qing that represent the value of the Shan Dong Peninsula in architecture, traditional beliefs, legends, festivals, and customs. However, these unique seaweed-roof houses were eroded due to urbanization, starting in the 1990s. Seaweed house are just one example of countryside landscapes in China and continue serve as a metaphor for a wider, open community.
The problems surrounding China’s countryside landscapes generate a mutual result, that is, the rural culture is gradually being lost and this inevitably influences cultural memory. Such situations exist almost everywhere in China and offer an interesting case study for contemporary photographers in China from the 1990s to the 2010s. Cultural memory mostly focuses on the analysis of documentary and archival photographs to debate the role of photography and identity, and describe holocaust histories. However, cultural memory has not been fully examined with contemporary photographic projects. The notion of cultural memory and its connections with landscape and photography are core focus points of my research. Founded in history, geography and critical visual methods, the thesis will take landscape as an entry point to re-examine examples of contemporary photo projects and address findings of my own work. The thesis investigates the experience, considerations, strategies, and meanings of cultural memory in the context and art form of photography, as well as the use of self-reflexive methods in the memory research.
This kind of research has been called practice-based research. In my experience, some art doctors or educators may be confused by the two-tiered role – as a researcher and as an artist. Therefore, effective graduate courses are necessary for the art doctorates program to cultivate rigorous and critical academic attitude and thought on the differences between graduate research interest and personal interest. Being a researcher needs to go beyond a pure personal experience and into to a broader community context. In my school, all PhD students have to complete a minimum of six graduate courses within an art school or across College of Humanities, Arts, and Social Sciences. The two components of the doctorate are not split 50:50 and must be clearly formalized by the school. My school, for example, is more interested in the theoretical thesis including systematical conceptual framework and methodology.
I have heard that “a photographer with a higher education makes worse photographs”. I understand that people expect distinctive works from higher-educated photographers. However, I am not convinced by the relationship between art making and education. Perhaps further light needs to be shed on the value of research and experiments in relation to photography. Rather than only seeing one side of the cycle, one must be clear about the criterion and intention of a doctor degree. A doctorate in art, does not aim to train artists or improve artistic skills, but to encourage critical, pedagogical and professional researchers and educators.
Written by Yajing Liu
Yajing Liu 刘雅菁 is a PhD candidate at the School of Art, Design and Media, Nanyang Technological University in Singapore. She is also a fine art and documentary photographer. Her research interests are in the areas of landscape photography, cultural memory, and photographic techniques, in particular, rural landscape under the urbanization in China. Her photographs have been published in several magazines and have been screened in solo and group exhibitions worldwide, such as London Brick Lane Gallery; Pingyao International Photography Festival; Dong Gang International Photo Festival, 25th National Photographic Art Exhibition, etc.