Speaking of art exhibitions, you often think about canvas paintings in an almost empty room, or statues made of all kinds of materials. That is certainly one kind of exhibition. But in an age where automobiles can drive themselves and mobile payments are spreading like wildfire, art exhibitions can take multiple forms too, such as having a touch of digitalization.
When TeamLab swept across China two years ago with dancing petals projected on walls and mirrors, I was among the hundreds of thousands standing in boiling heat for a ticket. I was also one of those who couldn’t wait to post dreamlike pictures on social media.
All I knew was that the exhibition was instagram-friendly. What I didn’t know was that it was a modern way to introduce culture in a more interactive way using technology.
Zhao Dongbo came back to China after studying modern art in Paris for 7 years. There are more opportunities here, he thought. Now he is running SAMAS, a collaborative art team of about 40 people. Unlike traditional art organizations, new media art groups like SAMAS have not only artists and curators, but also programmers, engineers, CG animators, mathematicians, architects, graphic designers, and editors.
“SAMAS is a virtual artistic organism, where talents from all areas can gather together to create new forms of new media artworks,” Zhao said.
Their recent piece of artwork Fantasy City is on a national tour in 14 cities. By curating an immersive experience, they want their audience to understand more about the Mandala culture originating from Tibet. “We used many new media art elements in this exhibition, including projection mapping, interactive projection, tangible interaction with lighting, AR, VR and mechanical interaction,” Zhao explained.
In Fantasy City, visitors can walk through snow mountains with falling stones, interact with thousands of bricks on a wall, and dance with spiritual symbols on the sands. After walking through a rainbow tunnel, they end up on a virtual cyberpunk street.
“Very stimulating and intriguing,” said David Lee, a Canadian working in Beijing. “The installations created a mystic atmosphere with the projections and repetitive digital noises. The exhibit felt like a bridge connecting Tibetan culture with the urban societies, adding a contemporary and digitalized touch to the ancient Tibetan culture.”
His favorite was the Spider Lily, a mechanical installation with metal arms and red lighting. The rhythmic movements of the metal petals, coupled with the red lighting cast over the mechanical arms that make up the flower and the spiritual Tibetan music, provides an alluring yet eerie scene at the same time for the viewer. “It was all in all a captivating installation and one of my personal favourites,” Lee said.
The pre-programmed movements is a way of representing everlasting life, or a never-ending journey, according to its designer Chen Yutong, who got the inspiration from spider lilies that symbolize rebirth in Tibetan culture.
“Sound, lighting, and electronics are no different from brushes and canvases. All I did was express my ideas in a more advanced and acceptable way,” Chen said.
SAMAS was established in 2017, about 30 years after China’s art industry entered a new media era. By then, the arts have already evolved from canvases to include screens in video formats. When computers joined the game in late 1990s, changes started to blow people’s minds.
Gabriel Li, who loves religions and cultures, said she would buy tickets if there is more new media art exhibits. “It is true that photos taken there would be awesome, but it’s more about combining traditional religious ideas with new media. It is a brand new experience,” Li said.
It may resemble performance art like the installation of faces on Crown Fountain in Chicago. However, to attract visitors and convey messages, immersive and interactive experiences are the way to go for modern exhibitions.
“A lot of things that we do might be unrealistic for many people. But for us, it is a cutting-edge way of expressing our beliefs,” Zhao said.