China’s Art World Looks to the Digital Age

Recent years have seen the outbreak of a new generation of technological trends such as NFTs, the “metaverse” and blockchain technology. Enthusiasts insist that this novel digital environment, sometimes referred to as Web3, is ushering in a new paradigm whereby the relationship between humans and technology is reshuffled, giving users more control over their data and digital experiences than Silicon Valley corporations.

Art represents a key nexus for these shifts. Whether by providing fodder to artists in search of fresh modes for personal expression, or by transforming the financial architecture of the industry, recent tech trends are upending the conventional operation of the art world.

China – a rapidly rising art hub where regulators have simultaneously sought to suppress cryptocurrencies domestically while also providing support for various metaverse-related initiatives – presents a unique case study. Having experienced breakneck economic and technological transformation in past decades, the country’s consumers and investors tend to be less timid in diving into the latest trends.

An ongoing show at Beijing’s M Woods 798 museum explores the enigmatic relationships between art, technology and the human experience. Austin Lee (b. 1983), an American artist whose work is known for pushing the boundaries of digital methods of creative expression, seeks in the exhibition to answer the following questions: “How do we translate human emotion through digital technology, and how has the advancement of technology helped us better understand the depth of human feelings?” according to an official introduction.

(Courtesy of Austin Lee and M Woods 798. Image: Pandaily)

The works on display showcase the artist’s attempt to render digital subjects in physical forms. “Part of a new genesis in painting, Lee’s creative practice involves producing artworks initially in virtual reality – within a computer program – before later materializing them as paintings, installations and sculptures,” the museum writes.

Victor Wang, the show’s curator, spoke about its central themes in a conversation with Pandaily.

“One of the main pillars of the exhibition was thinking about the digital experience of art,” said Wang. “And this might be a generational thing – both Austin and I are pre-digital natives. We were born in the eighties, so we kind of remember transitioning to a time when Wi-Fi, hand-helds and computers became widely accessible, but we also remember a time when those were not around. So we straddle this digital divide, as it were.”

Wang contends that this generational identity has given himself and Austin Lee an acute awareness of how art is mediated and understood within the realm of new technology and social media.

Young urbanites across the globe today have a wide range of social media platforms at their disposal when seeking to document and share their experiences with art, and China is no exception. Curators are beginning to understand this.

“We actually decided to do everything – from the architecture to the materials of the exhibition to the way that the galleries gradually change in gradient and color – in order to optimize its documentation through mobile devices,” Wang said. “There was a deep consideration of ‘how does one enrich a viewer experience knowing that a final endpoint and product for that experience will be a screen?’”

While some critics are dismissive of the marriage between art and internet technology, which they see as consumerist and shallow, others see engagement with new digital environments as a legitimate and necessary step in the industry’s development.

(Courtesy of Austin Lee and M Woods 798. Image: Pandaily)

A subsidiary debate taking place across the art world throughout the past year has been how to interpret the rise of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as a force to be reckoned with in the industry.

So far, Chinese authorities and investors seem to be fully on board. Last month, Shanghai’s municipal district of Xuhui announced that it would provide public support for local artists operating in the NFT space. In addition, a private auction house in the same city completed the sale of an NFT version of Shrimp, a 20th-century masterpiece by renowned Chinese artist Qi Baishi.

SEE ALSO: China NFT Weekly: The Neutrality of Crypto

Others argue either that NFTs are devoid of meaningful cultural value, or that the craze surrounding them is bringing about a doomed economic bubble.

Regardless of how the NFT issue plays out in coming years, the integration of new media within the artistic process itself seems to have already become entrenched. Victor Wang emphasizes that the universality of technology can open new avenues for cultural exchange, offering value particularly during a time of rising global economic and political tension.

“I think [the Austin Lee exhibition] says a lot about certain languages in art that don’t necessarily need to be culturally specific – they speak to a larger human condition,” said Wang. “We speak about the range of human emotions and experiences, and I think that’s the success of both art and of Austin Lee’s work: It hits on several layers and resonates with people despite geographies and nationalities.”

The Austin Lee exhibition is open to the public at M Woods 798 in Beijing until May 8, 2022.