Where have all the Chinese net.artistes gone?

Jason Ragsdale, written for Interdisciplinary Media and Society, The New School

After exhaustive research of websites including www.rhizome.org, www.turbulence.org, www.vdb.org, and www.lumeneclipse.com and specific Chinese art gallery sites such as www.longmarchspace.com and www.798avantgallery.com, I was unable to source any substantial works of art either designed for the purpose of Internet exhibition or distribution, or created using web tools. This is not to say that there are no Chinese net.artists, rather that the net.artists calling China home are incredibly off the radar. More than one news article or book makes reference to less than a handful of Chinese artists working with computer-based art, chief among them Xu Bing and Du Zhenjun , but they are now living in Brooklyn and Paris respectively. A typical search engine result yields no actual art for viewing or interaction. Further, it is evident that the numbers of Chinese artists still living and working in China are far more occupied by other media for expression, namely painting, sculpture, photography, video and performance art. Of the artists working in video, none that I found made their works wholly available to the public on the Internet What parts were viewable tended to be thirty second clips or small files used as example by an artist’s gallerist.

Wang Guangyi, Materialist Art, 2006

Wang Guangyi, Materialist Art, 2006

For the sake of research, it must be stated that my interest was in finding “artists” in the formal sense of the word; people not making their livings by creating commercial works for the profit of a larger entity (i.e. advertising, corporate web design, or commercial video game designers), but rather aesthetic motivations. This definition is admittedly tenuous as clearly any artist in a gallery or museum is selling their work for commercial gain, but said artist is also concerned with such artistic merits as concept and process, as much as financial gain, and that is what separates her from her commercial counterparts. It should also be noted that many Chinese artists—like the previously noted Bing and Zhenjun—are living and producing art as transnationals in cities as distant as Tokyo, London, Paris and New York, and because of their expatriate status were excepted from this survey. My aim was to find artists living and producing net.art from within China’s national boundaries, preferably using the web as a means of display. That task proved near impossible.

Feng Zhengjie, China Series No.3, 2006

Feng Zhengjie, China Series No.3, 2006

But if Chinese artists aren’t using the Internet to create new works, what are they using it for? According to numerous sources, Chinese nationals will soon outpace the number of United States citizens with Internet access. Clearly computer ownership and access and cable wiring are not a hindrance for artists. In fact, it should be noted that the presence of Chinese art galleries on the Internet is a clear indication of conscientious efforts to create a web presence, particularly in the case of Beijing’s booming Dashanzi Art District, that many Chinese and western fine art consumers and critics now find to be a tourist ghetto rather than a destination for truly avant-garde works (Cotter 2008). Indeed, in the halls of these galleries, there is no shortage of engaging works, much of it even, from the eyes of a westerner, notably politically critical or eroticized, two well-documented justifications for censorship under China’s authority. From the face of things it would appear that government censorship is not inhibiting the current crop of Chinese contemporary artists working in other media, but would that be the case of artists using the web?

One thing is clear, professional Chinese artists and art students alike, are aware of the power of the Internet to communicate across national boundaries. Now more than ever, Chinese artists are aware of the value of their works internationally. There are countless articles calculating the dollars spent on emerging and established Chinese artists in the global marketplace. Charles Saatchi, the London gallerist famous for launching the careers of the “Young British Artists” in the 1990s including Damien Hirst, just relocated his eponymous gallery in London to the Chelsea district this fall, and it’s inaugural exhibition was titled “The Revolution Continues: New Art From China.” While the show itself woefully underrepresented new media works, it certainly drove the point home that the art market was looking to China for its latest indulgences (Sillito 2008). In fact, just one year and a half prior in January of 2007, Saatchi launched a Chinese version of a feature on his original gallery’s site called Stuart (for Student Art) in an aggressively savvy move to make access to new artists easier with the benefit allowing artists to interact with each other. The site is designed to be interactive, including a chat feature and “a forum encouraging artists to debate current issues” (Vogel 2007). The cumulative effect is that Chinese students and artists are using this site, and others, to display their work from other medias, and to communicate with each other and prospective dealers and buyers. Rather than looking to the computer and Internet as a means of creation, they are using it as a marketing tool to increase awareness of their works, to communicate with each other and with their audience, and to spur eventual sales.

Li Wei, Liwei falls to 2007.12.27, 2007

Li Wei, Liwei falls to 2007.12.27, 2007

The Beijing Olympics this past summer allowed for a precursory international cultural event at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC) that spoke directly to new media art and China, an exhibition titled “Synthetic Times—Media Art 2008.” The international roster of artists, unfortunately, leaned heavily toward the west. But it’s presence no doubt made an important impact on Chinese artists visiting the heavily trafficked show. It should have introduced them to a variety of media art being produced elsewhere, likely inspiring them to employ the new media they’d just witnessed. In a review of the show in China Today, Dan Edwards writes, “Curator Zhang Ga hopes the comprehensive survey of international media art practice will have an impact on local artists… ‘Everybody’s making so much money, without really reflecting on what they actually contribute to the language of art. And I think Synthetic Times will probably act as a wakeup call — to let people realize there are works that are very sincere, very serious, and require a lot of dedication and research and experimentation.’” Ga’s comment almost sounds like a rebuke to Chinese artists—like those on Saatchi’s website—who use the web for marketing, rather than creation. My research cannot decisively conclude whether commerce is the sole or even primary force motivating these artists in their web applications—my suspicion is contrary—but as if to mock the implication, I did come across a Chinese blog centered on contemporary art with a sizable number of posts on “art from china (sic)” aptly named “we need money not art (sic).” It is worth mentioning here that blog technology in general is proliferating in China. While it is not the lone instrument of artists (journalists and writers are also employing it, often to the chagrin of the government), artists are indeed using the technology as another means of communicating with each other, critiquing on other artist’s works, and showcasing their art (Liu 2004). Artists blogging are parallel to their other Internet usage.

Zhang Haiying, Anti-Vice Campaign Series 001, 2005

Zhang Haiying, Anti-Vice Campaign Series 001, 2005

When I began this research project, I was intent on revealing Chinese net.artists using the web to subvert or resist China’s autocracy. I was determined that the “democratic” characteristics of the Internet would appeal to Chinese artists to explore and display a kind of aesthetic revolution. That very western presumption was naïve; what I found was quite different. Indeed, there are plenty of Chinese artists creating works in opposition to China’s government, but they are not employing the web in their creative process. Rather, they are keen to use the traditional media that have already been made available to them. Instead, their usage of the web has been one of communication, for the greatest part concerned with sharing images of their work, critiquing and communicating with other artists, and promoting themselves to dealers and art buyers. As China continues growing as an art epicenter and these artists are exposed to more new.media art from across the globe—either via the Internet or from gallery and museum shows like “Synthetic Times”—it should be interesting to see whether greater exposure leads to an acquisition and co-optation of new media tools in their art making.


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