Experimenta Mesh 17: New Media Art in Australia and Asia contact
intro
profiles
keynote
 

‘Transcending Media’ and the Role of Contemporary Art Practices in China

: : Thomas J. Berghuis

During the autumn and winter of 2003 a group of artists, art critics, curators and scholars from the Chinese art scene came to meet every Saturday in “Trainspotting”, an underground Digital Video club in Beijing. The participants, including myself, began to use the term ‘transcending media’ (kua meiti) to describe the wide range of practices that have been used in experimental art in China in recent years. Twenty-five years of economic and institutional reforms have helped produce an ‘alternative’ art scene in China that is capable of promoting itself in the international market. However, official national cultural production, especially in educational institutions and promotional channels, continues to be based upon strict separations between disciplines. For the participants in last year’s discussions, the term ‘transcending media’ was an important concept for describing how contemporary art practices often involve dense and complex exchanges between these hitherto distinct fields of visual art, film, music, literature, poetry, music, and performance.

The discussions in Beijing followed significant historical predecessors in challenging complacencies of set styles, techniques and attitudes. In China, recent history has seen a range of experiments in setting up new artistic structures to promote a more diverse discourse on modern Chinese culture. Contemporary practitioners have to overcome a complex range of social and political challenges, and as they have entered the international art scene have come under increased pressure, especially when both local and overseas critics project Euro-American models onto the complex experimental scene in China.

Rather than concentrating exclusively on new technologies, which in China generally means video art, the present discussion will provide a brief survey of the increasingly diverse and complex use of media in contemporary art in China. In terms of video art in China, recent high-profile events have already produced significant discussions. One can, for example, point to the exhibition Compound Eyes (2001), curated by Huangfu Binghui, which involved the publication of a catalogue profiling some of China’s leading video artists, as well as the exhibition Synthetic Reality held in Beijing in 2002, which can now be viewed in an elaborate online presentation hosted by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

In order to pose some alternative views to these events and presentations, I have chosen to focus more on performance-based art that incorporates a mixture of technologies, and moves beyond the established realm of video art in China. First, however, I discuss a few important precursors and pioneers.

In any general discussion of new media arts in China, reference must be made to artists such as Yang Fudong and Feng Mengbo, especially following their participation in high-profile international events such as Documenta XI. Yang Fudong’s 35-mm black-and-white films often bear witness to the changing social and physical landscape in China’s southeast, as seen through the eyes of the modern Chinese intellectual. Films such as Liulan (2003), with their bittersweet storylines, often have a more seductive appeal to local and international curators than the wittier and more challenging examinations of cultural and social change in the work of some of his contemporary female colleagues, such as Cui Xiuwen and Cao Fei.

Beijing-based Feng Mengbo produces much more boisterous representations of a society infatuated with violence, power and the heroic, through his modifications of interactive computer games which invite players to blast away ‘alien’ opponents. In works such as Q3 (1999), additional features in the game incorporate the artist himself reporting on events from a handheld DV camera, engaging in CNN-style ‘on-the-spot’ interviews with aliens wounded in the battle.

Together, Yang Fudong and Feng Mengbo represent an important generation of artists who grew up during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976), and their works become useful in distinguishing two different approaches to new media art in China over the past decade.

Their careers follow in the footsteps of artists such as Zhang Peili and Wang Jianwei, who are recognized as the first artists to experiment with video art in China during the late 1980s and early 1990s. Both trained in oil painting at the Zhejiang Fine Arts Academy in Hangzhou. However, during the 1980s Zhang Peili became interested in exploring different media in his art practice, recording experimental performance works first using photography, and later video, as in his piece 30x30 (1988). Zhang Peili’s influential series of video works from the 1990s focus on the relation between politics and society as it becomes increasingly dominated by television. A good example is Water, Standard Version from the Cihai Dictionary (1993), which features a famous CCTV newsreader reading out weather reports on the eve of the military crackdown against student protesters in Tiananmen Square. During the late 1990s Zhang became further interested in provoking direct physical reactions in audiences by confronting them with video surveillance, as in Uncertain Pleasures (1996) and Eating (1997).

Wang Jianwei was an acclaimed academic oil painter through the 1980s, until in 1990 his discovery of newly-translated texts by Joseph Beuys led to a decision to abandon painting and focus on installations and performances that incorporate new media and focus on everyday public and private behavior. Wang’s works offer insights into Chinese sensibilities that challenge stereotypes of submission to ideological control, instead pointing at people’s intricate relations to cultural and historical notions of time, space, and social embodiment. For instance, Wang’s four-hour-long video piece Living Elsewhere (1998) follows the lives of a group of farmers who have settled themselves in uncompleted villas on the outskirts of Chengdu, waiting to be compensated for giving up their land by the new developer who has run into financial problems.

Zhang Peili and Wang Jianwei have become influential figures on the new generation of media art practitioners in China which emerged during the second half of the 1990s, artists such as Zhu Jia, Li Yongbin, and Wang Gongxin. Their works involve an increasingly complex use of video that incorporates sculpture and installation practices and is often characterized by an interest in documenting the changes brought by more than two decades of economic reform.

To take one example, Wang Gongxin’s light-hearted works aim to integrate the audience in a direct way. His video installation Karaoke (2000) invites the audience to sing together with a group of characters projected on a row of teeth. During a period in New York, Wang Gongxin was able to acquire extensive access to the work of leading international video artists such as Gary Hill and Bill Viola, and later brought these experiences back to China. He played an important role in introducing more complex ways of integrating video with installation and sculpture practices.

In recent years Chinese video art has become more prominent in leading international exhibitions and at specialized international video art festivals. This international exposure has helped generate local interest in video and new media arts in China. As a result, the new media departments at the Central Academy of Fine Arts and at the China Fine Arts Academy are attracting large numbers of students. Other academies across China are gradually responding to the recent interest in new media arts, and in May 2004 the Millennium Art Museum in Beijing hosted the First International New Media Arts Exhibition. This state-run event was supported by the Chinese Ministry of Culture and the Mondriaan Foundation and involved the participation of 17 international and 11 national research institutes.

Despite this increase in interest, new media arts in China continues to face many problems. In a report on the First International New Media Arts Exhibition, Professor Zhu Qingsheng of Beijing University noted how the event drew criticism for the way Chinese artists focussed too much on ‘conceptual issues’ and were less involved in exploring the ‘use of new technologies’ (China Daily, 11 June 2004). Given that in China ‘new media art’ (xin meiti yishu) is often synonymous with video art (luxiang yishu), and the use of more recent technologies is scarce, it is possible to agree with Zhu’s comments. Given that the category of ‘new media art’ usually covers web-based art, virtual reality, kinetic art, digital animation, and so on, there is certainly less diversity in China than in other parts of the world. That said, however, and given the influence of ‘transcending media’ and in particular the strong role for performance, it is still the case that new media arts practice in China is highly diverse, but in ways different to the West.

While a growing number of artists have become very strategic in creating saleable works for the international art market, there are many other artists who concentrate on augmenting and invigorating contemporary arts discourse within China, especially through non-commercial local and international exchanges. Broadly speaking, these practices can be categorized as ‘live art’ (xianchang yishu). Despite having received less attention from art critics and curators, ‘live art’ events have played a significant role in the development of experimental art in China. They incorporate a broad range of media and disciplines and, despite some emphasis on conceptual concerns, also involve artists experimenting with new technologies that broaden the discourse on time-based and site-specific visual art practices. Key artists in this area are Qiu Zhijie, Wu Wenguang and Song Dong, among others.

Qiu Zhijie trained in printmaking at the Zhejiang Fine Arts Academy, but soon turned to developing his conceptual and technical skills, moving beyond the conventional curriculum taught at the academy. An early example of his composite installation works can be seen in his graduation work About a New Life (1992). This installation, shown in a small warehouse in Hangzhou, featured 16 glass panels of different sizes on which texts, slogans and figures were printed. The installation created a translucent labyrinth where people’s bodies filled the clear sections of the glass panels, allowing the audience to take immediate part in the work’s structure. This installation formed an important basis for his later works, including early video pieces such as Bathroom (1997). Some of Qiu’s work falls within the accepted Western categories of new media art, such as The West (2001) which utilised digital video, digital sound and a wide range of animation software in its production. However, as Qiu Zhijie commented in an interview in 2001, the most significant turning point in his work came whilst producing the small installation Public Life/ Glass Toilet (1994), which led to an ongoing interest in revealing the concealed practices in art production. His comments show how artists in China tend to approach new media art (xin meiti) in ways that allow them to create direct interactions with the public, often through live art, rather than being primarily technology-focussed.

Qiu Zhijie
Qiu Zhijie, “About a New Life”, 1992

Qiu Zhijie
Qiu Zhijie, “Bathroom”, 1997

Qiu Zhijie
Qiu Zhijie, “The West”, 2001

Living Dance Theatre
Living Dance Theatre, “Report on Giving Birth”, 1999


Living Dance Theatre, “Report on Giving Birth”, 1999

Living Dance Theatre
Living Dance Theatre, “Report on Giving Birth”, 1999

Living Dance Theatre
Living Dance Theatre, “Report on Giving Birth”, 1999

Living Dance Theatre
Living Dance Theatre, “Report on Giving Birth”, 1999

Living Dance Theatre
Living Dance Theatre, “Dancing with Farm Workers”, 2001

Living Dance Theatre
Living Dance Theatre, “Dancing with Farm Workers”, 2001

Song Dong
Song Dong, “Floating”, 2004

Song Dong
Song Dong, “Writing Diary with Water”, 1995-present




Public experience of new media art often comes in the form of perceiving finished products at exhibitions; one rarely witnesses the process that produces the works. Such an emphasis informed two major events that Qiu Zhijie organised (with Wu Meichun) in 1999 and 2001: Post-Sense Sensibility: Alien Bodies and Delusion and Post-Sense Sensibility: Spree. The first will be remembered as a major turning point in ‘underground exhibitions’ in China; the second event introduced time-based and site-specific works that opened up the stage for more radical live art practices and direct confrontations between artists and audiences. Held at a theatre in Beijing, Post-Sense Sensibility: Spree aimed to work against the ‘pre-eminence of conceptualism’, its relationship to ‘idea art’ (sixiang yishu) and the notion of the ‘completion of artworks’. Qiu asked visitors to arrive at 3pm sharp, after which the doors were closed and no one was allowed to enter or leave for the entire duration of the show. The audience was confronted by performances involving food, spirits and pigs’ blood, while live chickens and rats ran around the theatre causing mayhem amongst the audience. All events were filmed and broadcast onto a small television outside the entrance door.

Aside from these more radical examples, there are also more serene ‘live art’ events that have attracted attention from local audiences in recent years. The Living Dance Studio is led by independent documentary filmmaker Wu Wenguang (Bumming in Beijing, 1989 and Jianghu 1999) and his wife Wen Hui, one of the leading contemporary dancers in China. Their productions combine theatre, modern dance and performance, accompanied by arrangements of sound, video and computer-based projections. For example, the locally- and internationally-acclaimed Report on Giving Birth (2002) produces an intricate synthesis between interview-based narration, choreographed dance movements and projected images, some of which were produced in collaboration with Wang Jianwei.

In 2001 the Living Dance Studio, in collaboration with well-known Beijing artist couple Song Dong and Yin Xiuzhen, produced Dancing with Farm Workers (2001). This was a performance event involving the participation of 30 migrant workers from Sichuan who work on construction sites in the major cities, often under very harsh conditions. These workers learned to execute a range of dance and theatrical movements representing their daily lives and actions. The performances led to the production of a documentary film by Wu Wenguang, who recorded the entire 9-day event on digital video, and the production was highly influential on all participants, including Song Dong, an artist recognized outside China for his video and performance works.

In a recent conversation in Beijing, Song Dong insisted that performance is the basis of all his art, including his video installations. Perhaps it is therefore important to conclude with a discussion of Song’s work, because it clearly embodies the concept of ‘transcending media’ (kua meiti) that has played such an important role in contemporary art practice in China.

The performative function of Song’s video works is evident in Floating (2004), which featured at the 5th phase of Asian Traffic at 4A Gallery in Sydney. Song Dong’s video works are concerned with the mediated subject of the acting body in art, the notion that the body is always present in art practices and their subsequent secondary representations. This insight links video works such as Floating and performances such as Writing Diary with Water (1995-present).

Following in the footsteps of these artist practitioners, it is therefore important for critics and curators, both independent and institutionally-based, to respond imaginatively to the new challenges posed by contemporary art practices in China. What we don’t need is yet more ‘black booth/velvet curtains’ video art exhibitions promoted as a showcase of new media art, purely on the basis of their ingenious use of digital technology. Part of ‘transcending media’ is the challenge of organising events that use new media to open up a range of interactions between artists, audiences and public spaces.

Thomas J. Berghuis is completing his PhD disseration on Experimental Art in China at the University of Sydney. He has frequently travelled to China for his studies and from 2003 to 2004 he was a visiting researcher at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. Next to his studies he has also been involved in several curatorial projects, including Associate Curator for the 6th Sharjah International Biennale, U.A.E (2003), Curator for the 1st Dashanzi International Arts Festival in Beijing (2004), and Co-organiser for the 2nd Dada Live Art Festival in Beijing (2004).