Shanghai Swing – A Funhouse of Digital Art at M50

When you’ve spent the morning having your senses assaulted (albeit in the best possible way) at the behemoth show that is the Shanghai Biennale and followed that up with a massive, delicious, but food-coma-inducing lunch, it’s not easy to summon up the energy or enthusiasm for more art. Even for crazy art enthusiasts like us. Even at an exciting art space like the M50 Shanghai. It didn’t help that we arrived at the complex of industrial buildings that were formerly home to the Xinhe Cotton Mill on a particularly cold and drizzly winter evening,  a couple of hours before closing time, when the place had the gloomy, deserted feel of a dystopian movie set.

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(Image credit: Eunice Ramos Lacaste)
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(Image credit: Eunice Ramos Lacaste)

It didn’t take us long to get over our initial fatigue, though, as we wandered from one building to another, peering into various galleries and popping in for a closer look whenever something interesting caught our eye.  Still, we were really no longer in any fit state to properly engage with the art, or so we thought, until we climbed a staircase to the second floor of Building 6 at M50 and encountered … this guy!

I Carved a Space (掘穴为居) by Liu Dao 六岛 (video used with permission of island6)

Embedded with motion sensors, the work is activated when an unsuspecting visitor approaches and gets close enough to it. Placed, as it was, on the landing of the staircase leading up to island6 or Liu Dao 六岛‘s gallery, it gave us quite a start as we were heading up to the space! This work, together with a couple of others mounted on the wall along the stairs, served as teasers for the fabulous funhouse of digital and interactive art that is island6 Galleries.

First, a bit about I Carved a Space. Like all of the works by island6, or Liu Dao 六岛, it is a collaborative work, conceived and created by a team comprising artists, actors, writers, sound engineers and new media and digital technology experts. If you read the artists’ blurb (click on the artwork title, above) the work appears to be a response to the claustrophobia that denizens of crowded urban cities like Singapore and Shanghai typically feel. (We certainly got a taste of it when we took the subway during the morning rush hour to get our xiaolongbao fix, as U describes in her Shanghai Travelog.)

“I don’t know if this can really be considered living – spending my days wedged between sad strangers. So I’ve gone and done what so many of my storybook heroes used to do: I went and carved a space out for myself. It’s not much but it’s mine, and I’d rather be thought a brute then spend another minute feeling the heartbeat of someone I don’t know on the subway.”

Sacred Fragility (神圣的脆弱) by Liu Dao 六岛 (video used with permission of island6)

Although we found I Carved a Space slightly … disturbing, not all the works we saw at island6 were  infused with such dark humour. Many were delightfully whimsical and charming, at least at first glance – like this work, Sacred Fragility, which combines the traditional Chinese craft of paper-cutting with modern digital technology. The accompanying artist’s blurb, however, expresses some cynicism about the reverence with which traditional Chinese pottery, like the Ming vase in the artwork, is regarded, questioning how such works have become so “sacred and meaningful” and how museums “preserve an illusion of our past”.

To be honest, by that point in the day, we weren’t too concerned about the deeper meaning or underlying message of the artworks (yes, I know, we are art history students and are supposed to be …). Taking them at face value, the works we saw at island6 were witty, engaging and fun. Many of them were interactive and we were like kids at a carnival  – laughing and playing with the works on display. Case in point, here’s U dancing with a laser artwork!

The thing is, though, when you encounter an artwork that is created using the tools of digital technology, so many of the manual and cognitive tasks that are involved in the more traditional or classical media of artistic expression (painting, sculpture, printmaking, for example) are, in the case of digital art, accomplished by computers and technology. This, coupled with the apparent ease with which digital imagery can be replicated, lends itself to the typical response – “I could do that!” – which then hampers the ability of a viewer to fully appreciate the artistic merits of the work.

While digital art is not new, articles like Beyond Pong: Why Digital Art Matterswhich ask questions such as why digital art is “still a sideshow” and argue that “it’s high time we took it seriously”, continue to be written as recently as a couple of years ago in publications as esteemed as The Guardian. When it comes to appreciating art – should medium, whether analog or digital, matter?

Rather than dismissing all digital art as too easily achieved to be interesting  – why not consider the medium on its own terms and allow for the possibility that, while technology allows the artist to accomplish with ease certain tasks that previously had to be carried out manually and laboriously, it also opens up new creative possibilities and risks inherent in the medium itself. Let’s approach digital art on its own terms and consider how an artist  recognises and utilises the capacities of the medium to create and convey meaning in new, exciting and boundary-changing ways.

For example, a unique quality of digital technology is its potential for interactivity and transmissibility. Networking allows an artist to interact with viewers and to create works of digital art that can be modified or built collaboratively by participants around the world, changing the ways in which meaning is created. In the video below, Iraqi-American artist Wafaa Bilal  discusses his powerful 2007 work, Domestic Tension where he provided live video feed of his month-long stay in a cell-like space in a gallery and viewers could, via the internet and in real time, control a paintball gun and fire at the him. While not a work of art that primarily involves digital display (like the ones we saw at island6) it, too, utilises the interactive properties of the digital medium, allowing remote, instantaneous and wide-ranging participation and interaction in a powerful way, provoking thought and inviting discussion about the US-Iraq war and the wider issue of the use of remote-controlled drone missiles in modern-day warfare.

This post’s focus on digital art and island6 Galleries should not be taken to imply that there were no other galleries worth visiting at M50 Shanghai. Indeed, the opposite is true. There were too many galleries to visit, too many artists to meet and talk to and too many artworks to enjoy in a short couple of hours. An attempt to cover them all in this short post would not do them justice. Go visit the art space yourself – no visit to Shanghai to see art is complete without a stopover at M50.

Written by: P

M50 Shanghai is located at: 50 Moganshan Road (莫干山路50号), Jingan District, Shanghai.

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