A Wall: art and the online public sphere in China

'A Wall' is a web-based platform curated by Zheng Bo for The Space.

‘A Wall’ is a web-based platform curated by Zheng Bo for The Space.

On the 30th January I attended the launch of A Wall, a web based platform which aims to exhibit and archive a selection of socially engaged art produced within mainland China, Hong Kong and Taiwan over the last twenty years. The project is curated by Zheng Bo 郑波, a practicing artist and assistant professor at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong, and will be hosted by The Space, an online gallery for contemporary digital arts.

Artworks featured in A Wall include:

Keepers of the Waters, organised by Betsy Damon, with works by Yin Xiuzhen, Dai Guangyu and others, Sichuan and Tibet, 1995-96

Moving Rainbow, Xiong Wenyun, Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet Highways, 1998-2001

Everyone’s East Lake, Li Juchuan, Li Yu and others, Wuhan, 2010

Breakfast at the Plum Tree Creek, Wu Mali, Taiwan, 2010-11

Style of the Northeastern New Territories, Tai Ngai Lung and others, Hong Kong, since 2009

Two Square Metres, Xu Tan, Guangzhou, 2014

Xiong Wenyun, Moving Rainbow, Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet Highways, 1998-2001

Xiong Wenyun, Moving Rainbow, Sichuan-Tibet and Qinghai-Tibet Highways, 1998-2001

As the press release states: “The issues explored in A Wall are diverse. Each project is an individual investigation into one aspect of China’s social fabric,  from Li Juchuan’s consideration of the rise of the individual and decline of the collective subconscious, to Xiong Wenyun, Wu Mali and Tai Ngai Lung’s investigations into the impact of globalisation, over-development and urbanisation.”

The project features several unique and innovative features, which I think are worth commenting in on more depth:

The first is that Zheng Bo has envisaged the project as a digital reconfiguration of a much earlier socially-engaged forum: that of Beijing’s Democracy Wall 西单民主墙, which first appeared in Xicheng district, Beijing in 1978 and quickly became a focus of artistic expression and political dissent during the Chinese democracy movement. The 1978 Wall provided a platform where artists and activists could record opinions, news and ideas frequently written in the form of big character posters or dazibao 大字报. While the lifespan of the Democracy Wall was short-lived, appearing during a period of political liberalisation known as the ‘Beijing Spring’, it was unique in providing the public in China a forum to exercise greater freedoms than had previously been allowed, with many activists using the wall to criticise the government – most notably Wei Jingsheng 魏京生, who called for China to adopt democracy as the “fifth modernisation”, implicitly criticising Deng Xiaoping who had said China only required four.

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Photographs of Beijing's Democracy Wall, 1978.

Photographs of Beijing’s Democracy Wall, 1978.

Rather than merely functioning as a digital exhibition and archive,  members of the public will also be encouraged to contribute their thoughts on the themes and artworks on A Wall, via a digital dazibao poster. Most interestingly, Zheng has recognised that the content of these posters and comments may contain sensitive keywords which could automatically cause them to be flagged by censors, all the comments will therefore appear on the Wall as image files, or dazibao posters for the digital age.  A Wall thus makes online public expression an integral part of the project,  examining the extent to which the Internet has fostered political participation and artistic activism in China in spite of the country’s extensive censorship.

Mock-ups of A Wall, showing the digital dazibao posters on the top image, to the right.

Mock-ups of A Wall, showing the digital dazibao posters to the right.

A_Wallcrop2During Zheng’s talk, which was organised by Wenny Teo and hosted at the Courtauld, he also drew parallels with another contemporary ‘Democracy Wall’ namely the wall of sticky notes which were pasted outside Hong Kong’s government buildings during the Umbrella Democracy Movement which began last September. The Wall, like the student protests which at their height drew more than one hundred thousand people onto the streets, reflected Hong Kong citizens’ desire to force the government to heed demands for broader representation in elections for Hong Kong’s chief executive. As an assistant professor at the City University of Hong Kong, Zheng believes that the protests have in many ways inspired Hong Kong students to engage with and create socially engaged art on a previously unprecedented scale.

Protestors affix post-it notes to the walls outside Hong Kong's government buildings.

Protestors affix post-it notes to the walls outside Hong Kong’s government buildings.

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A Wall features over 100 images, consisting not just of high resolution photographs of each art work but also articles, newspaper clippings, documentary footage of some of the projects and recent video interviews with many of the participating artists. It took Zheng and his team over 3 years to assemble all these materials and digitally archive them and one of the most interesting results of the project is that in bringing  previously unseen footage and materials to light, the importance of certain projects, many of which have received relatively little scholarly attention, including Xiong Wenyun’s 熊文韵 fascinating ‘Moving Rainbow‘ 流动彩虹 1998-2001 (in which the artist covered trucks with plastic tarpaulins painted in the seven colours of the rainbow and documented their voyage along the route that connects Bejing with the Tibetan plateau), can be historically reevaluated.

Other works, such as Song Dong’s 宋冬 well documented ‘Stamping the Water’ 印水 (1996) is featured in a video shot by Betsy Damon, transforming our knowledge of a work which is predominantly known via reproductions of individual stills into a document of a live performance. In 1995, Damon travelled to China to curate and organise the public art project ‘Keepers of the Waters‘, a 2-month long event which featured the work of three US, and 25 Chinese and Tibetan artists (amongst them Yin Xiuzhen 尹秀珍, Dai Guangyu 戴光郁 and others). Together they developed thirty public art pieces and events, and were featured on national Chinese television for two weeks, yet the highly collaborative nature of these socially-engaged works has frequently been expunged from the majority of art historical accounts.

Xiong Wenyun Xuejila Mountain - Motorcade No.1 1999 and Sichuan-Tibet, Road Bangda, no 58, 1998

Xiong Wenyun Xuejila Mountain – Motorcade No.1 1999 and Sichuan-Tibet, Road Bangda, no 58, 1998

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Yin Xiuzhen, Living Water, 1996 Color photograph 120 × 180 cm

Yin Xiuzhen, Living Water, 1996
Colour photograph
120 × 180 cm

Song Dong, Stamping The Water, photograph of a performance piece, 1996.

Song Dong, Stamping The Water, photograph of a performance piece, 1996.

At this stage it has to be noted that all of the works featured in A Wall are socially engaged works which are overwhelmingly ecological in nature, dealing with topics as diverse as water pollution, land rights, environmental exploitation and degradation to the effects of globalisation and urbanisation within China, Hong Kong and Taiwan. Whether this merely reflects the individual bias and research interests of Zheng himself, there is no doubt that linking these works thematically does provide a rare opportunity to consider the evolution and development of ecologically engaged art during a twenty year period that has witnessed unprecedented environmental transformations.

Another unique feature of the project, which merits further comment in this context is the format of A Wall. Zheng has chosen to present each of the works and their documentary materials in a rolling scroll format which requires users to virtually ‘unfurl’ the wall of the exhibition itself. This practice is of course more commonly used in the viewing of handscrolls or other large format works and ensures that the viewer cannot ‘skip ahead’ to a later section in the painting or artwork but must focus their attention on each individual scene as it is unveiled. By forcing the viewer to progress slowly from one section or ‘frame’ to the next, this mode of viewing maintains a recognisable association with handscroll formats whilst providing Zheng with an inbuilt mechanism designed to arrest the usual process of distracted scanning common to digital viewing. Encouraging instead a mode of attentive looking usually reserved for museum exhibitions, Zheng ensures that the 600m of artworks and documentary materials (were it transposed to a real exhibition space), is given the digital respect and contemplation that it deserves.

Zheng Bo, launching A Wall at the Courtauld Institute of Art, 30th January, 2015.

Zheng Bo, launching A Wall at the Courtauld Institute of Art, 30th January, 2015.

 

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Zheng Bo with Guy Armitage and Ruth Mackenzie (Interim Chief Executive and Creative Director of The Space).

Zheng Bo with Guy Armitage and Ruth Mackenzie (Interim Chief Executive and Creative Director of The Space).

The project has yet to be formally launched on The Space but hopefully should be accessible within the next week or so. Whether it does herald a new digitally engaged mode of thinking about and displaying works of art, the project does provide a thought-provoking platform for linking socially engaged artists, activists and critical thinkers in Greater China with the rest of the world. The fact that the project has been commissioned by Cass Sculpture Foundation and the Space (BBC/ Arts Council) in partnership with the British Council China, already highlights the importance that is being placed on digital arts as a tool for cross-cultural dialogue, a point acknowledged by Ruth Mackenzie in her introduction to the project when she called digital arts “the dominant art of the 21st century.” While that may strike many as a bold claim, A Wall certainly doesn’t fail to examine “the extent to which the Internet has fostered political participation and artistic activism in spite of commercialisation and the digital divide.” Hopefully it will also serve as an important resource for future research on art and the online public sphere, both within China and the wider digital world.