On Digital Mutations...

— in the Landscape of Chinese Contemporary Art

 On Digital Mutations in the Landscape of Chinese Contemporary Art

Maurice Benayoun, Professor, School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong.

Chief curator statement for “On The Road: Young Media Artists in China” exhibition, March 23, 2018
Initiated in 2014 by the Guan Shanyue Museum, Shenzhen, “On the Road, nomination exhibition” is a unique, annual project. First, a nomination committee is set up, with more than 15 curators, art critics, and scholars – representing major institutions, art schools, museums, from all over China; each nominator then submits a selection of the seven most promising young Chinese artists (in his or her opinion), and each of these artists is invited to propose a series of artworks for the exhibition. This collective curatorial process results, every year, in the creation of an impressive “nomination exhibition” with more than 100 artists reflecting the state of the Young Chinese art scene, with all the works published in an ambitious catalog. However, only a smaller sample of these 100+ works can actually be exhibited. So, a final selection is made, by all the nominators, to select the best 15 -20 works which are then exhibited in the Guan Shanyue Art Museum before touring to three or four major cities and venues across China. For the first time this year, the annual On the Road exhibition is dedicated to New Media Art. Under the title “Young Media Artists in China”, more than 30 artists were selected by the nominating committee for the exhibition, who together provide a significant overview of the diversity of the media art scene of young contemporary Chinese artists. In November 2017, “Young Media Artists in China” opened at the Guan Shanyue Art Museum, and in March 2018, it comes to City University of Hong Kong, the second city to exhibit the show, where it presents a slightly extended version, with about 50 art installations on display across three exhibition galleries. CityUniversity of Hong Kong and the School of Creative Media are official partners of the show, contributing their expertise in the field of New Media Art in Asia.
Appointed curator of the whole show, and of its Hong Kong avatar, I was again confronted with the very specific ecosystem of media art in China. As I had noticed in the past, it seems to me that one of the defining traits of Chinese media art shows is not the technology itself but rather the behaviour of the public. In 2005, when I had my first solo exhibitions in China, presenting large-scale, media art installations, I discovered for the first time the Chinese public and its reactions to the unknown. I was impressed by the quality of dialogue between art critics and artists, and by the openness of the public. Families came with babies and grandpas, they spent hours experiencing, sharing, and discussing the works. I was not used to this active and positive curiosity in Europe, where the contemporary art public comes full of certitudes and crystalized knowledge. This is one of the main reasons that I decided to do many other exhibitions in China and, eventually, to settle in Hong Kong. Since this time, the new media art scene has grown in size and quality in a country highly receptive to innovation, and also with a unique history of image-making, painting and calligraphy, where time and space, black and white, sound and silence are often used in a subtle dialogue made of contrast and complicity. Through their diversity and sensibility, Chinese young media artists are digging new paths that leave durable traces in the drowsy field of contemporary art. 
Medias (formerly known as “new”

In Chinese culture, the speed of adoption of emerging media occurs at a very high pace. Refusing the Western Google, Apple, Facebook, Amazon (GAFA) model, China started weaving a very specific fabric of digital reality, often going beyond theWestern referent, with its cultural domination well contained behind the GreatFirewall of China. Contrary to their Western counterparts, the challenge that Chinese Media artists have been facing is not that of defining or redefining the medium. Rather it seems to be how to integrate the media into their practice in a way that expresses its actuality, its contemporaneity. Their context is different from that of the early pioneers. Young media artists today were not born into a world reluctant to embrace technology. Even though some are not the so-called “digital natives”, they all have been immersed in new media early enough to feel in their element when using and working with it. It doesn’t appear anymore as a cause to fight for, but as a natural ecosystem for art making. Artists feel free to use or avoid such elements as computers, video, mobile technology, electronics or natural elements, plants or data. They can choose to explore the memory of local or regional cultures or that of an ancient technology, redefining time and space out of mechanical curiosities, where for example the phases of the moon merge after improbable acrobatics of moving gears.

Post-Internet/ App Art (between machinery and Machination)

The expression “Post-Internet” was coined to describe a period of time after the adoption of the technology. The Post-Internet generation doesn’t try to understand or to change the Network, but to make the best use of its potential. We could also talk about “App-Art” to highlight the idea of exploiting off-the-shelf software, commonly called “applications, and now applied to art. The term “application” should be discussed as well: is a painting an application of paint? Expressing the operability of the software, an application is for some artists the new modus operandi for activating their practice. Software, program, algorithm have become a set of automated tools, instruments played by the artist somewhere between “game” and“fame”, between “machinery” (active complex of executable functions) and“Machination” (playful interface for stealth data collection). At the end of the second decade of this century, the dark side of the ever-more-popular network sociality is establishing new ethical and aesthetical relations that, though often remaining unnoticed or unquestioned, apparently go far beyond original expectations.Post-NatureChinese Contemporary art practice reflects upon major concerns of modern society. Transhumanism, robotics, Virtual and Augmented Realities, Artificial Intelligence, surveillance and identities, these are all considered to be key topics, already contaminating our present and designing our future. Art has become an anticipated future and we should take note of the signs present in many of these works. 
Social Issues
Each period of history has its own codes and rules. Self-control, to comply with existing regulations, may lead some artists to increase the metaphoric dimensions of their work, leaving the spectator to decide on its final interpretation. This gives the viewer the feeling that socio-political issues are barely present in most of the works… while not totally absent.
There is a long tradition of delicately chiseled expression since, at least, the Tang and Song Dynasties. Political poets like Du Fu (杜甫), Qu Yuan (屈原) and Xin Qiji (辛棄疾) in those periods, for instance, had to find the appropriate words in order to be heard in an acceptable way. Using sophisticated or basic technologies, contemporary artists have become the poets of their generation.

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