The increasing complexity and speed of contemporary technology is the cause of both euphoria and anxiety. In the world of contemporary art, a term was coined, new media art, that was used to describe the sophisticated new technologies that had become available to artists since the late 1980s, and which enabled the digital production and distribution of art.
The title new media art is an umbrella term for artwork produced using a diverse set of categories such as digital art, computer graphics, computer animation, virtual art, internet art, and interactive art technologies. The social and cultural transformations made possible by these technologies are immense. Nowadays most forms of mass media, television, recorded music and film are produced and even distributed digitally; these media are beginning to converge with digital forms to produce a seamless digital mediascape.
New media art (including digital art) is slowly starting to creep into gallery programs everywhere, however, there are still surprisingly few galleries that specialise in new media art in China. island6 is one such gallery. I spoke to a few members of the art collective to find out more about this twenty-first-century art form.
Thomas Charveriat, the founder and director of island6 (Liu Dao 六岛 in Chinese), is the driving force behind the art collective. A self-declared Sinophile, the Frenchman has been at the forefront of the Chinese contemporary art scene since 2006. During that time, Liu Dao’s artwork has travelled to more than 55 of the world’s leading art fairs, such as Art Paris, Scope Miami, Contemporary Istanbul, Swab Barcelona, and Art Basel Hong Kong. Besides art fairs, how many shows have the collective done in their 12 years? “More than 50 group shows and participated in 86 solo exhibitions. The upcoming (87th) solo show might be the last one in history… Just kidding!” Thomas exclaims with a wry grin.
This humour is symptomatic of the collective in general and of the art they make. Each island6 show they produce is around a particular theme. The next solo show, ‘Disaster Diaries’, will be about natural disasters and the toll they could take. “We are not talking about global warming or a third (nuclear) world war, those are too real of a threat to be pondered upon,” Andras Gal, one of island6’s in-house curators, muses. “The artists are much more interested in exploring new ideas and expressing scenarios that are completely unexpected, difficult to comprehend, but lucid and astonishing at the same time.” Since humour is one of the essential elements behind island6’s expression, they parody scenarios that are sufficiently terrifying but also unimaginably hilarious and funny.
Having been in the art world for so long, Thomas has seen the development of new media art in general. “In the early years of new media or electronic art Nam June Paik, Jenny Holzer or Bruce Neuman used new technology to incorporate it in their own artistic language as part of contemporary reality, just like the pop artists did with mass culture,” he explains. So, what’s changed, particularly in China? “Nowadays, it feels natural to be surrounded by technology. The question is: what is the most essential thing in art that technology changes?” The answer is that art invokes collaboration on different levels. Its multidisciplinary nature makes artists work together, while sensorial technologies engage the audience in interaction.
The number of collective members has ranged from six to 26 people in the past 12 years. Irmantas Bortnikas, another of island6’s in-house curators, explains that the main group fluctuates quite often, and they frequently have guest curators and collaborators, and also volunteers from places such as Singapore, Berlin, Budapest, Vilnius, Vienna, Barcelona, Taipei, Philadelphia, Paris, and Hong Kong. For practical purposes, however, most members of the collective are and have been Chinese.
All the work exhibited is handmade and everything is created in their M50 workshop in Shanghai by the collective of artists and technicians, and specifically for the theme of their trimestral shows. The collective works on a flexible open platform process, ensuring all artworks are the result of synergetic thought between multiple collaborators. “Our creative method is similar to film production where everybody has a special role – director, actor, cameraman, scriptwriter, costume designer, lights technician, editor, etc,” explains Irmantas. “Similarly, collaboratively producing artworks involves many individuals with various disciplinary skills and abilities, creating a multifaceted result.”
The artworks usually consist of paintings, Chinese papercut (Jian Zhi 剪纸) images, paper collages, electric circuits of LED/TFT screens, sound/motion sensors, speakers, controllers, and media players. It takes six to eight weeks to make an artwork from concept to finish. If it gets accepted by the creative director and the curator, it will be included as part of the exhibition; otherwise, it goes back to the workshop to be revised, updated, altered or recycled. The paintings and papercut images are based on photographic research on the given themes, while the animations are video performances shot in a life-sized Chroma-key stage at the M50 studio.
Through this close collaborative process, there is an ongoing dialogue between curator, art director and artist. At island6, the curators and the art directors are mainly Sinophile born outside of China, while the artists are mostly from the mainland. This provides a unique perspective of an outsider that brings together different Chinese artists with versatile techniques. At island6, everybody does what he/she does the best, and even though each artist only makes a fragment of each artwork, the art directors and the curators are able to organise all the pieces of the puzzle together. “It’s like in Montesquieu’s ‘Persian Letters’ in which Montesquieu can describe the extremely diverse society of 18th century Europe from the perspective of a Persian traveller,” Thomas elaborates.
Collectors of Liu Dao’s works come from all over the world. Their artworks are included in major collections such as the Louis Vuitton House, Taipei; K11 Collection, Shanghai; Antoine Arnault Collection (LVMH owner), Paris; Wemhöner Collection, Germany; White Rabbit Collection, Sydney; Katz Collection (Neiman Marcus owner), NYC; H.R.H. Prince Adelah Collection, Saudi Arabia; Patrizio Bertelli Collection (CEO of Prada), Milano; Countess d’Ornano Collection (owner of Sisley), Paris; Swire Collection (Temple House Chengdu, Middle House Shanghai).
In 2014, two of island6’s laser artworks were revealed at the Adidas Shanghai Flagship grand opening party. In order to make the laser artworks, the collective collaborated with local street dance artists. Performances were filmed using a life-size chroma-key stage at the island6 art centre and then re-rendered into 12fps silhouette drawings which are projected by the laser machines onto a wall as animation. “Fortunately, people find Liu Dao’s laser art very amusing as well as inspiring,” Andras tells me. “The crowd at the event was mesmerized and we were lucky to capture it on video.”
The penetration of new media into contemporary art practices is an ongoing process. This new electronic space, the hypertext age, has profoundly altered the economies of the self, the home, the workplace, and now contemporary art. Where does island6 go from here? “To make more art and expand our international exposure, more specifically in the Chinatowns of Southeast Asia,” divulges Thomas. “We are currently in the process of opening a new gallery in Phuket town that has the oldest and second largest Chinatown in Thailand. If that works out well, we’d love to open a third gallery in Penang Georgetown (the largest Chinatown in Malaysia).”
What is clear is that this past 12 years is just the end of the beginning for island6. Much as we have seen new media art become established in the art world during this period, so we will see island6 become a forbearer of this genre, not just in China but certainly throughout Asia and also globally.