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Exposing a Dirty Dragon
Exposing a Dirty Dragon

Taiyuan, the northeastern Chinese city that once produced enough kings that it was dubbed the Dragon City for the mystical creature's symbol of power, by 2002 was crowned the city with the filthiest air in the country. That year The Economist reported that out of China's 47 biggest cities, for air quality Taiyuan ranked dead last.

Since then, the city has taken measures to curb pollution, but black and yellow smoke continues to billow from the city's smoke stacks, observed Scott Groeniger, assistant professor of art, who traveled there for the first time in 2004 and again in 2005.

"I wanted to go to the worst city I could to see what it was like," he said.

It was his first trip out of the United States, and it would profoundly shape his art and teaching goals for the future. Those ceaseless black puffs inspired Groeniger to turn others' attention, through his art and classes, to the environmental crises in places like Taiyuan. He started an art space online called Envirochina.net as a repository for the work that his Chinese students and a class of students at FSU would create together. Ultimately, the Chinese and American students would build on each other's works and juxtapose disturbing images, and contrasting symbols of Buddhism and pollution to tell a dramatic story about the situation in Taiyuan.

To Groeniger's knowledge, it's the first such design collective between Chinese and American artists online.

"Plenty of Chinese artists exhibit in the States. American artists exhibit in China," Groeniger said. "And there are lots of global design collectives-but not with China."

It started with the help of Weihong Yan, associate professor of Chinese at Shanxi University and currently serving as a sort of cultural ambassador in Charlotte, N.C. In 2004, Yan connected Groeniger with Taiyuan Normal University to start a collaborative art project with a focus on the environment. In 2005 with Yan as translator, Groeniger taught a four-week graphic design class at TNU with 18 Chinese students. At first reluctant to discuss their thoughts on the environmental situation, by the end of the course the students were expressing their frustration freely, Groeniger said.

Working in cyberspace, the Chinese students and students on FSU's campus together created artwork to condemn China's environmental record and to promote greater stewardship. Each piece was started by one individual but passed around, added to and modified by others. By the end of the class, no one student "owned" a single piece, Groeniger said.

The following summer, FSU graduate student Andrew Ross took Groeniger's place as visiting instructor at TNU. To keep the project's momentum going, Groeniger will return to China within the next two years, he said.

Though permanently housed in cyberspace, the students' artwork takes tangible, physical form as well. In 2005, Groeniger's students hosted an exhibition at TNU. That entailed dumping a hundred coal briquettes on the floor in the middle of a large, open room and replacing giant images of past Chinese leaders and the communist flag with the artists' own "propaganda" and filling hallways with their designs, Groeniger said. More recently on this side of the world, the students' artwork from 2006 was exhibited this January and February on the Tallahassee campus. —C.S.