Sunday, June 05, 2011

Contemporary Art & New Media in China

Taylor Williams


Professor Ayas, Professor Tarocco

Contemporary Art & New Media in China

We live in the age of the internet. There was no more important
technological innovation in the 20th century than the internet and
virtually all of modern society is connected to it in some form. Any
part of culture that wishes to be relevant in 2011 must take advantage
of all that the internet offers. In China, a country with internet
users than any other nation in the world, this statement is no less
true. Chinese citizens are flocking to the internet in record numbers
and the number of users will only increase in coming years. Thus it is
crucial to examine how and if different aspects of Chinese society are
embracing the internet. By all accounts the contemporary art scene in
China has whole-heartedly embraced the new medium of communication.
The use of the internet by the Chinese art community is especially
interesting when considered with China's long history of cultural
censorship. The artistic use of internet in China has important roots
in the 1990s while today it is utilized to create, critique, sell,
communicate about, and promote art.

Before examining the contemporary use of the internet it is best
to look back to the roots of the connection. In China, contemporary,
cutting edge art has never has an easy time surviving never mind
thriving. Since 1949 and the founding of the Chinese Communist Party
artwork and Chinese culture in general has been closely monitored. For
decades and particularly post 1989 creative artwork has been censored.
This constant battle and game of cat and mouse with Government
censorship has created a unique creative culture in China. Certainly
there are the obvious negative side-effects, lack of free-speech and
ability to express oneself to name but a few. However, one can find
unexpected positives as a result of the tight control of the
government. In the 1990s, curators and artists in China could not
depend on the traditional form of public exhibitions to completely
satisfy their creative needs. There was more that they wanted and
needed to express but could not because of the government censorship.
Artists and curators were in search of new mediums to connect with an
audience they knew was there. For that reason, during the 1990s
Chinese artists were extremely open and willing to experiment with
both New Media and alternative exhibition display techniques(335,
Hung, Wu). Chinese artists and curators where desperately looking to
create new and versatile exhibition spaces and, once it became
available, the use of the internet was a natural expansion of the
non-traditional methods of exhibition display that developed in the

The 1999 Supermarket exhibition typified the experimental nature
of Chinese artists and curators in the 1990s. Curators Xu Zhen,
Alexander Brandt and Yang Zhengzhong decided against renting out the
traditional space for the exhibition but instead used the actual
public space of a Shanghai supermarket. Wu Hung, a Chinese curator and
critic explained the significance of such public exhibitions and their
connection to New Media and thus the internet, "The fact that a
majority of these shows used commercial spaces reflected the curators'
interest in a "mass commercial culture", which in their view had
become a major force in contemporary Chinese society....Related to
such experiments in expanding public exhibitions spaces was the effort
to adapt popular forms of mass media to create new types of
experimental art"(334,Hung, Wu). Artists and their Curators wanted to
comment on the "major forces" of contemporary Chinese society while
expanding beyond the natural boundaries of public galleries while
making use of New Media devices. When talking about his 1998
exhibition Trace of Existence and the abandoned private factory he
selected for the exhibition Feng Boyi, a Chinese artist, unwittingly
explained the motivations early and eager adaptation of web based
artwork,"Because experimental art does not have a proper place within
the framework of official Chinese art exhibition establishment, it is
difficult to exhibit this art openly and freely... We hope to
transform this informal and closed private space into an open space
for creating and exhibiting experimental art."(338, Boyi, Feng) While
he was talking about the use of the abandoned factory, the quote is
equally as telling in the context of the internet. As Boyi described
contemporary, experimental artwork was not accepted by mainstream,
Government controlled art exhibitions and thus was forced to move
elsewhere. Yet obstacles or not, artists innately feel a need to
display their work and Boyi chose to subvert the system by "creating
and exhibiting experimental art" in an abandoned factory to. For many
artists today the internet serves as their abandoned factory.

Today every relevant artist, utilizes the internet in some way,
although the manner in which the internet is used varies greatly. The
most talked about Chinese artist, Ai Weiwei, uses the internet
primarily to communicate with his fans. In recent years Ai Weiwei has
expanded his relevancy beyond the art world. This would not have been
possible without his use of the internet. Weiwei, before his
detention, was constantly connected to the web, communicating and
sometimes mobilizing his supporters. He is a strong opponent of
government corruption and in 2008 when he discovered the Chinese
Government was not releasing the names of those children who perished
in the 2008 Sichuan Earthquake, he used the internet to call upon his
supporters. He informed them of his outrage over the cover up and
gathered a group to travel to Sichuan to discover the children's

One of the earliest to identify the potential of the internet
was Shi Yong, a Shainghinese artist born in 1963. Yong's work often
focuses on modernization and capitalism and the powerful, often
subconscious, effects, it has on people. In 1999 Yong utilized the
communicative tools of the internet in his "Made in China-Welcome to
China" exhibition. Yong created an image of the ideal Shainghinese man
by conducting an online survey that asked for the desired qualities
for the ideal man. The social commentary of the project was impressive
but the most lasting impression from this project will be Yong's early
incorporation of the web-community.

Other contemporary Chinese artists, such as Wu Junyong
understand the ubiquity of the internet and use their websites as
permanent art galleries. Junyong's website, is a
clean well maintained site that encourages visitors to explore the
many areas of Wu Junyong's work. His website features a short
biography, updates on upcoming public exhibitions and Junyong's
"Works" and "Projects". Junyong does normal paintings with brush and
paper but he also embraces the freedom of the internet by creating
animations and interactive game-art. The viewer is turned into a user
with with Junyong's interactive work as the user becomes apart of the
experience with a say in the outcome of work. There is no way to
passively watch this work, one is forced to interact. This is the type
of cutting edge work that cannot be supported without the use of the
internet. Yet Junyong is better known for his animation,such as his
well-known 2005 "Wait us Rich". His animations are short, at under 5
minutes, easily accessible and often vulgar making them perfect for
internet users. His website allows Junyong to explore and display both
his cutting edge avant-garde interactive art and more traditional art
forms such as painting.

Perhaps the most innovative use of the internet comes from
thirty one year old Cao Fei. Fei's most famous work, RMB City, is
entirely reliant on the internet and in fact is not based in reality
whatsoever. The project takes place completely within the online
virtual reality game, Second Life. Fei describes her Second Life
project as, "A city that is a condensed incarnation of contemporary
Chinese cities with most of their characteristics; a series of new
Chinese fantasy realms that are highly self-contradictory,
inter-permeative, pan-political, extremely entertaining, and laden
with irony and suspicion"(Fei, Cao). Fei is embracing the internet's
ability to create a new world and temporarily get lost in an
alternative reality. She uses the online game Second Life to create
an entire storyline between two avatars. RMB City gives Fei an
opportunity to control a "condensed incarnation of contemporary"
Shanghai and comment on it as she sees fit. She has created a world
where she can cause an effect on something that in reality she could
only passively critique or comment on. Fei also uses this city to make
documentaries that among other things explore the increasingly hazier
line between physical reality and virtual reality. What truly makes
this an innovative project is that viewers are free to explore Cao
Fei's RMB City. Anyone is able to create a free Second Life avatar and
visit RMB City. The ability for users to interact with RMB City leads
to another important aspect of Chines Art and its relationship with
the internet. The non-artist side of the art community.

All of the innovative uses of the internet detailed above would
be utterly useless( despite what many artists may tell you) if the art
community did not follow them online. However, there is much evidence
that the Chinese online art community is actually thriving. The
contemporary art scene in Shanghai and China as a whole is still
developing but much of this development is taking place on online
communities, where passionate Chinese art fans come together to
critique artwork, discuss up and coming artists and talk about recent
shows. Adam Schokora, founder of recently described the
Chinese creative community as "digitally native". While there are
relevant artists who grew up without the internet, more and more the
internet was apart of these peoples lives from childhood. Thus, the
internet is naturally the first place they turn to for information.
The internet served as the first link to the international and in many
cases the national art scene for millions of Chinese. With an
underlying understanding of the importance of the communicative powers
of the internet it was a natural progression for the art community to
use the internet to its advantage. Similarly the fans and non-artist
contingent of the art community also quickly realized the power of the
internet. Prime examples of these vibrant online communities are a bilingual site devoted to "Celebrating Chinese
Creativity", a social network for art lovers and also a social network with approximately 50,000
that also compiles tracks contemporary art news and events. David
Shokora founder of, described his motivation for
launching his site,"The site was borne out of the need to connect
China's growing communities of "creatives" who are largely
under-represented by mainstream Chinese media and lack effective
distribution platforms on and offline", he continued that his desire
was to create a "discovery portal" for China's creative types. This
attempt, not to say Neocha has successfully achieved the goal, is the
exact kind of thinking that can help utilize the internet to its
fullest potential for the Chinese art community.

After living in Shanghai for three months and experiencing a
great deal of Chinese art, it seems Mr. Sokora has accurately
identified the communities biggest problem. He understands that
China's reputation of having a massive deficit of creativity is
somewhat exaggerated and inaccurate. Creativity, especially in regards
to contemporary art, is present in China, but it is more hidden than
in many other cultures. Thus the vital importance of the internet and
web based art communities as an outlet for much of this hidden or even
suppressed creativity. Mr. Sokora, has identified that it is not only
a problem of lack of creativity as so many people focus on, but a
problem of needing a coherent, strong community. Experimental, cutting
edge Chinese art has been forced underground for so long that the
community is extremely fragmented and not easily identifiable to an
outsiders eye. The internet provides the perfect opportunity for the
community to finally come together as a collective. From the early
adapters such as Shi Yong to Cao Fei with her cutting edge RMB City
and the prospering online fan communities such as,the process has clearly already began. The
community on all sides has shown complete willingness to utilize the
web, but the innovation must continue and creative thinkers such as
Cao Fei and promoters such as David Sokora must continue to push the
envelope to ensure continued progress and relevancy.

Works Cited

1) Berghuis, Thomas J. "Chapter 5: Performance Art in New Media."
Performance Art in China. Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2006. 123-50. Print.

2) Boyi, Feng. "The Path to Trace of Existence (Shengcun Henji): A
Private Showing of Contemporary Chinese Art." Contemporary Chinese
Art: Primary Documents. By Hung Wu and Peggy Wang. New York: Museum of
Modern Art, 2010. 338-43. Print.
3) "China's Creative Community and Youth Culture: Interview with Adam
Schokora." Interview by Zhu Jenny. 25 May 2009. Web.
30 May 2011. <>.

4) Du, Huang. "My View of Art and Criticism." Contemporary Chinese
Art: Primary Documents. By Hung Wu and Peggy Wang. New York: Museum of
Modern Art, 2010. 325-26. Print.

5) Fei, Cao. "RMB City - Online Urbanization." RMB City Blogs. 11 Aug.
2008. Web. 30 May 2011. <>.

6) Hung, Wu. ""Experimental Exhibitions" of the 1990s." Contemporary
Chinese Art: Primary Documents. By Hung Wu and Peggy Wang. New York:
Museum of Modern Art, 2010. 327-37. Print.

7) NeochaEDGE /// Celebrating Chinese Creativity. Web. 01 June 2011.

8) Storz, Reinhard. "Internet-Based Art in Museums, Private Art
Collections and Galleries." Owning Online Art: Selling and Collecting
Netbased Art. UAS Northwestern Switzerland, Apr. 2010. Web. 01 June
2011. <>.

1 comment:

Nguyen Duc said...

nice blog