Jaron Lanier does not look as you might expect a computer scientist to look. A photo portrait of him on his homepage shows his dreadlocks spreading away, tentacle-like, to become like tree roots, or perhaps wires connecting him to some unseen hardware. His recent book, “You Are Not A Gadget,” is a sobering critique of what the World Wide Web has become - its standardization, the harnessing of social life to the appetite of advertising, the atomizing of creativity and, in its place, the creation of an unstable “hive mind” in which individual voices are lost, dissolved by appropriation, reuse, translation and encoding. We have been reduced to faceless “users” clicking, downloading and tweeting our lives away in the realm Larnier was the first to describe, back in the 1980s, as ‘Virtual Reality.’
Pekin Fine Arts’ current exhibition copy and pastes Larnier’s title into the (relatively) tangible space of art. On view are works by seven young artists, none of whom, we can be sure, are strangers to electronic culture. In media ranging from performance to painting and video, they reflect on the nature of the internet, its many facets and effects. The pieces vary in strength, and might also vary in impact according to one’s personal attitude to the internet. “The Moon in my Room” is an ethereal photograph by Lu Zhengyuan. It takes a few moments to realize that this image of an illuminated side of the moon is floating not in the night sky but on a screen; the surrounding stars end abruptly with the edges of a monitor, followed by the vague appearance of a pen and paper lying on a desk in the artist’s darkened bedroom. The light from the ‘moon’ seeps out onto the room, blurring the boundary between virtual/reality. It is a strangely beautiful photograph, before which a degree of disappointment at the realization of a hoax melts into contemplation of that age-old symbol and anchor of childhood stories: there seems a residual romanticism here. A useful juxtaposition, perhaps, is Jin Shan’s pair of photographs; one records an ‘action’ wherein he planted a harmless smoke machine on a Shanghai street and photographed the reaction – or not – of passing people. Next to this is a photo of troubles in Beirut – people running from a cloud of smoke emitting from some kind of real threat. Here are two human conditions with their own set of influences and situational factors: reality beyond the screen.
Leng Wen’s “Desktop” series proffers what might be described as portraits for the internet age. Here are Leng’s friends’ faces mirrored in computer desktops, given virtual backgrounds and overlaid with a flock of open and active internet windows for chat, searching, email etc.; icons hover near their faces, which it is not too far a leap to imagine as giant folders into which files could be moved. One could say that Leng has created a metaphor for the influence of the internet as Larnier sees it: something collective that simultaneously camouflages and submerges the individual beneath layers of information and transfer; at the same time, these frames also hold the particular identity of each person, revealed through their online visual ‘profile.’ Utterly a-personal are Zhuang Hui & Dan’er’s “My Spam” pieces – mixed media ‘tapestries’ or banners emblazoned with printed Viagra ads gleaned from Spam emails that have been decorated with rhinestones and framed in silk. This pop-art-ish reincarnation of junk mail no doubt permits deeper readings about contemporary culture, but the works themselves are somewhat repetitive. Across the room, oil paintings by Chen Shaoxiong use similarly pastel colour tones. “Upload Download” depicts big art world places like MoMA and the Centre Pompidou with commentary and descriptions lifted from the internet spray painted on top. Via a somewhat involved path through Karl Popper’s ‘Three Worlds of Knowledge,’ curator Carol Lu explains, these paintings address the internet as a projection of our minds and human organization; without her text, however, this reference remains remote, leaving the audience simply with paintings of buildings veiled with text.
Better than a painting, it is arguably the performance by Yan Xing that works best as an articulation of the web as a refracting force, a hall of mirrors and channels from which information, values, experience and perhaps even the self are irretrievable once sent outward. In “Daddy Project,” the artist stood facing the wall of the gallery with his back to the audience, recounting the time when he posted a blog entry about his father, setting off a public debate about his personal life which deeply affected him. As he spoke, he was simultaneously recorded and shown on a monitor nearby, duplicating and splicing his own presence and actions even as they unfolded. Thus, Yan was able physically to mimic the processes at work through contemporary technology, and to highlight the original, emotional person at the centre of such maelstroms of connection and exchange. After the performance ended, it was Huang Ran’s video’s turn to steal the show. “The Next Round is True Life” watches a succession of expressionless, dispassionate-looking men in similar shirts and trousers coming into view and chewing on a piece of gum. Each forlorn-looking man tries in succession to blow bubbles in an attempt that becomes more and more difficult as the same gum is passed from one figure to the next. Their faces barely conceal a hopeless disgust, and the dreariness of this repetitive drama verges on the comic. Looped like life’s own cycle, in which each new round - whatever it might be - promises to outdo the next, every frame confirms the truism that it will not. Speaking about “The Next Round,” Ran describes the idea of endless communications between people from which the content is fading away, just like the first sweet flavour of bubble gum; left behind is merely a dull movement that expends energy and pushes nothing forward. There is irony here that extends beyond the theme of the internet. More than the other works, Huang has touched perhaps on an overarching symptom in contemporary culture, a fatigue born of constant contact through too many modes and the endless updating of the new in an age in which technology has assumed near messianic status.
In a country where the internet seems especially popular but is also subject to the Great Firewall of China, an exhibition that examines its influence is timely. In the midst of technological infiltration where the boundaries between public and private are constantly altered and the concept of “open culture” – as Larnier refers to it – is an ambivalent one, the standpoint of artists is important. Both individually and as a group, the emotional tenor of the works on display in “You Are Not A Gadget” remains unresolved. It begs the question: if we are not gadgets, then where do our subjectivities lie now?
-- Iona Whittaker
(All images courtesy of Pekin Fine Arts and the artists.)