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STIRring Dreams: Zhang Zikang curates the Chinese Pavilion at the Venice Art Biennale

Meta-space by Zhang Zikang looks at the continuities between virtual reality and spirituality, with the use of AI generated art, a conversation between nature and culture.

by Sukanya DebPublished on : Jul 11, 2022

China is presenting an exhibition as part of the 59th Venice Art Biennale, titled Meta-space, curated by Zhang Zikang, and showcasing the artists Liu Jiayu, Wang Yuyang, Xu Lei, and AT Group. As the name of the exhibition suggests, there is an exploration of digital reality in interaction with spatial conditions, through various art installation projects that take the route of technology in order to explore.

Meta-space takes its name from the Chinese concept of Yuanjing that is further taken from lingjing, which was the concept proposed by the scientist and cyberneticist Qian Xuesen, who led the development of the Chinese space programme, aside from pioneering the nuclear and spaceproject ‘Two Bombs, One Satellite’ in the 1960s. While Lingjing is a term used for virtual reality, it translates on a more literal basis to ‘spiritual scape’, where scape is a reference to the Chinese conception of an endless expanse or a space without bounds, whether that is an external or physical space, or even a spiritual realm. Meanwhile, Yuanjing translates to ‘vision (of the future)’, where this union of concepts helps us to envision the proposition of space within the exhibition. It is the interaction between philosophy and new, futuristic generative technology that allows us to experience the exhibition space as a Meta-space.

Streaming Stillness, 2022, 3-D mapped projection on mixed media installation, Jiayu Liu Video: Courtesy of Jiayu Liu

Liu Jiayu’s 3D mapping installation Streaming Stillness is a digitally rendered and AI-generated mixed media work. With the study of over 10,000 Chinese ink wash paintings along with geographical and cartographical data of the Chinese terrain, an AI program has created a 3D mapping of the country, against the backdrop of a 21-metre-long mountainous sculpture, representative of new geographical forms that unite under the gaze of the country. The Yujito or the Map of the Tracks of Yu, the earliest mapping of China, through its river systems, finds its way into the pavilion as inspiration for the digital installative work.

As described in Jiayu’s text accompanying the work, “Referring to the concept of Yu Gong, the earliest geological imagination and thinking in China, [the artwork] reshapes the terrain of China through AI-drawn maps, aiming to create a new geological origin for the Chinese civilisation in the new era.”

Wang Yuyang presents two works at the pavilion, Snowman (from the Untitled 1 Series) and Quarterly (from the Wang Yuyang Series), both of which are digitally generative works that have an interactive form through installation art. As an extension of the Untitled 1 Series, Snowman is created on the basis of a selected piece of literature into binary code, and software is used to convert this code into a three-dimensional model. The material and colour, as well as the overall structure, are chosen based on the output of the code. In a way of disassembling and challenging the veracity and permanence of text through its conversion into a physical, artistic, interactive output, the artist uses the text as an interface. It is in interaction with the audience, while remaining an eclectic rendition. How does one experience text as matter, and can language be an object?

Installation view of Untitled 1 series - Snowman, 2020, The Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel (Chinese Original), Shangqing danjing daojing yindi bashu jing Eastern Jin (317-420) 1359 (fasc. 1039) ‘The First Method from The Scripture of the Tao Essence of Cinnabar Effulgence [Containing] the Eight Methods for Hiding in the Earth.’ copper, brass, concrete, stainless steel, iron, Wang Yuyang | Milk of Dreams | Wang Yuyang | Venice Art Biennale| STIRworld
Installation view of Untitled 1 series - Snowman, 2020, The Seven Bamboo Tablets of the Cloudy Satchel (Chinese Original), Shangqing danjing daojing yindi bashu jing Eastern Jin (317-420) 1359 (fasc. 1039) "The First Method from The Scripture of the Tao Essence of Cinnabar Effulgence [Containing] the Eight Methods for Hiding in the Earth." copper, brass, concrete, stainless steel, iron, Wang Yuyang Image: Courtesy of Wang Yuyang Studio

Yuyang speaks to STIR about the installation Snowman, “At first glance we are affected by (the artwork’s) title and form. Various meanings are created from each of our own experiences. We try to understand this sometimes-self-contradictory paradox and make it our new recognition.” Speaking further about the installation, Yuyang says, “The work Snowman is placed outside in the yard, touching the grass and presented as a part of nature. The work seems to form a new relationship with the environment, with edges and branches “growing” outwards, just like trees surrounding it.”

There is an interactive base that is created between technology, nature and culture, none of which appear to be in opposition to the other, as one might think with societal conceptions of the dichotomy between both nature and technology, as well as nature and culture. Resonances between technology and nature, along with culture that lies underneath the framing of the artwork, find themselves in a congruous setting through this installation work.

The second work Quarterly that takes its residence inside the halls of the pavilion, finds itself suspended, in a dramatised moment. In conversation with STIR, Yuyang speaks about the process of producing the work, one that has taken 15 years to come to life. Through an AI programme, there is a generation of randomness that takes place in the sculptural form of the installation, one that includes various metals like stainless steel and copper, as well as a tree form. The artist talks about how the artificial intelligence programme being in dialogue with him, where he takes the role of a facilitator or compiler. He also speaks about the challenges of putting together these different metals that have different temperatures as their boiling point, that would need to be coordinated in order to create a production interface.

Speaking further to the connection between the curatorial premise as proposed by Zhang Zikang, and the selection of his works presented, Yuyang tells STIR, “My works are an interpretation of the virtuality from our current physical space, and a projection from the virtuality towards us.”

The connection between spirituality and digitality or perhaps more accurately, virtuality, is one that is sensual as well as philosophically closest to the point of infinity as we can arrive at as a human civilisation. In the mid-1990s, the term ‘cyber-religion’ emerged as a way to describe the interface between virtual reality, cybernetic technologies and religion, and is now applied to religious streaming applications. For example, the Dalai Lama has taken to the online world to provide e-blessings, aside from programs and teachings. The term cyber spirituality is also available to us, as an interstice that describes the lustre of cyberspace as a kind of spiritualism, envisioning a process of submersion.

Wang Yuyang # - Quarterly, 2015-20,  Silicon, bronze, copper, brass, stainless steel, tree, Wang Yuyang| Milk of Dreams | Wang Yuyang | Venice Art Biennale| STIRworld
Wang Yuyang # - Quarterly, 2015-20, Silicon, bronze, copper, brass, stainless steel, tree Image: Courtesy of Wang Yuyang Studio

It is also important to note that technology has an indelible link with surveillance, as employed by the state. It is also pertinent to think of the harvesting and manipulation of technologies in order to create uniformities that are controllable, and made easier to do, within the purview of the digital. However, AI-powered tools and artworks do find their ground in being sophisticated displays of thought, philosophy and materiality. As in Wang Yuyang’s work Quarterly, we can see a sort of divination potential in this association that is created between the artist and the machine, that asks us to question the nature of the artist themselves along with the role of the very machine that creates.

As formulated by the UK-based artist and member of the Cybernetic Cultural Research Unit (CCRU), Lawrence Lek, Sino futurism is a context that haunts the present still, that drives us towards technological progress alongside human ruin. As a speculative proposition, the idea of techno futurism is naive and kitsch but suits the purpose of aesthetic and perfunctory enquiry. What is it that science fiction and technological determinism have to tell us? Within the scope of the Biennale, the People’s Republic of China pavilion focuses on the melding between technological aestheticism and an aesthetic and philosophical past that can inform the present, a tentative hybridity that seeks to discover itself and perhaps redefine what can be made, from the artwork to the nation-state.

View of 59th Venice Art Biennale venue | Zhang Zhikang | STIRworld
The view of the 59th Venice Art Biennale venue Image: Courtesy of Wang Yuyang Studio
Portrait of Wang Yuyang | STIRworld
Portrait of Wang Yuyang Image: Courtesy of Wang Yuyang Studio

The 59th International Art Exhibition of La Biennale di Venezia, titled The Milk of Dreams is open to the public from April 23-November 27, 2022, at the Giardini and the Arsenale, Venice.

Click here to read more about STIRring Dreams, a series of articles by STIR that explore some of the best presentations at this year's edition of the art biennale.

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