The genesis of the project

Ai Weiwei, Menshen 门神, ‘Door God,’ 2011, computer graphic. Image taken from Ai Weiwei’s blog

Ai Weiwei, Menshen 门神, ‘Door God,’ 2011, computer graphic. Image taken from Ai Weiwei’s blog

The aim of this website is to serve as a platform for research on China’s internet culture and the defining role that image making is coming to assume within this sphere. In this inaugural post I thought it was important to share my initial research proposal and provide some insight into the genesis of this project. As the project develops the parameters of this proposal will no doubt be revised and expand to accommodate new research avenues that reflect the often unpredictable and protean nature of the Chinese internet itself.

The mediated image: visual culture and digital dissent in contemporary China

The economic benefit of fostering communications technology has been clearly recognized by the Chinese State. Whilst blocking popular global social media sites such as Facebook, Youtube and Twitter, the Chinese government has encouraged domestic equivalents as a way to boost growth and innovation. Sina Weibo, China’s largest microblogging platform with over 503 million registered users, has already become a part of mainstream culture in China and constitutes one of the most dynamic spaces for public expression. In this role the Internet serves almost as a nascent Fourth Estate, the place where news about corruption, government malfeasance and abuses frequently breaks. As a result, and to a degree which is insufficiently appreciated, Sina Weibo and other Chinese multimedia platforms are particularly richly supplied with images, often but not exclusively photographic, as pictures are both difficult for censors to search for and also move too quickly to be ignored.

 

To date there has been limited attention paid to Chinese social media within Western scholarship, this is compounded by the belief that these media have been censored to the point of sterility. The majority of scholarly attention has tended to focus on what has been excluded rather that what is actually visually present. My proposed project will therefore mark a substantial and innovative step forward in redressing this problem, examining and highlighting the rich diversity of imagery and artistic production currently flourishing in Chinese cyberspace. This is of crucial importance given that these images constitute a rich field of political, socio-economic and artistic commentary that has the potential to shed light on China’s cultural sphere and its incipient civil society.

 

My research will be grounded in specific case studies, examining the work of artists including Ai Weiwei, Cao Fei, Jin Shan, Zhang Peili, Ou Ning, Jiao Yingqi, Lee Kit, Yan Lei, Hu Xiangqian and Liu Ding amongst others. Using previously unstudied material and images, including my own versions of hitherto untranslated Chinese documents, this study will provide an important avenue to explain the relationship between image making, and state control over the sphere of visual culture. In doing so the project will go beyond the predominantly binary framework of avant-garde artist versus the state, repression versus emancipation, a much exercised stereotype in writings on contemporary Chinese art. It will instead uncover the political and socio-cultural context of contemporary artistic production, bringing to the forefront the often competing agendas and incongruent voices of its practitioners.

 

Understanding the connections between political participation, social change and artistic production is one of the key challenges in studying 21st century China. Whilst recent studies by scholars such as Yang Guobin, Michel Hockx and Tai Zixue have made valuable contributions in understanding the literary and sociological aspects of the Internet, social change in China cannot be properly grasped without understanding the contested realm of image production. This research therefore has the power to shed light on the transformative role of visual art within the increasingly complex public sphere of contemporary China, findings which will be of benefit to academics in a range of disciplines, from social scientists to cultural historiographers, art historians to Sinologists. The project therefore has the potential to foster important links between the History of Art Department, the Chinese Studies Centre, the Oxford Internet Institute and The Oxford Centre for Research in the Humanities.

 

This project will follow on from two themes developed in my doctoral dissertation, which explores how the concept of wenming 文明 (civilisation/civility) has been visualised throughout twentieth century Chinese art. One chapter of my study examines how the government is increasingly monitoring and controlling sensitive images and artistic production in its bid to create a more ‘civilised society’ (wenming shehui 文明社会), in which it advocates that citizens use the internet in a ‘civilised manner’ (wenming shangwang文明上网) and how artists such as Ai Weiwei have successfully used digital media and microblogging platforms as a means to simultaneously subvert this narrative and disseminate their work to new audiences. The project is therefore a continuation of my theoretical interests which revolve around the critical distinctions between high and low, art and commodity, popular culture and public space, through focusing on objects and practices at the boundary of these categories.

 

Beyond sensationalised news reports, there is a definite need to engage more extensively with China’s emerging internet culture and the defining role that image making is coming to assume within this sphere. These mediated images demonstrate the complexity of political structures within contemporary China, showing the fluidity of the opposition between the ‘official’ and the ‘unofficial’ and questioning the notion of a self-censoring, often unitary state media. Placed within a broader context of contemporary debates on globalisation, my project will also illuminate the powerful role visual culture plays in forging national identity, historical memory and contemporary aesthetics. At the crossroads of several disciplines, it will reveal the existence of a creative, humorous, but also socially and politically critical “China online,” which frequently locates itself outside of the intellectual discourse surrounding state censorship and contemporary art. As such it will explore image-making practices at the heart of modern and contemporary encounters between China and the wider world.