Miao Xiaochun pushes limits of digital art – an Art Radar interview


Chinese digital artist and photographerMiao Xiaochun held his first solo-show at the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz, Germany from 15 August to 3 October this year. The show was entitled “Macromania” and showcased a selection of his work from the past ten years.Art Radarhad a chance to catch up with him in his studio in Beijing to discuss his latest works, his artistic process and his views on the art market.

Click here to view Miao Xiaochun’s biography and here to read about “Macromania” at the Ludwig Museum.

Miao Xiaochun has a special relationship with Germany. Not only did he receive part of his art education at the Kunsthochschule in Kassel, he has also exhibited his work in the country on numerous occasions over the past twenty years.

Miao Xiaochun, 'Beijing Index', 2007-2009, installation view. Image courtesy of the artist.
Miao Xiaochun, ‘Beijing Index’, 2007-2009, installation view. Image courtesy of the artist.

Miao Xiaochun maps Beijing

One of the works on display at the recent “Macromania” exhibition at the Ludwig Museum in Koblenz was his documentary photo-installation Beijing Index (2007-2009). For this piece, the artist took a map of Beijing and drew horizontal and vertical lines on it. Wherever those lines intersected he took photographs with a 360 degree camera lens. For Miao Xiaochun this work represents a point of departure from his previous work in photography. He explains,

“Before this project, I chose everything. I chose the viewpoint, I chose when to take the photo. But in this project I chose nothing. I chose only the point or whether to use a 360 degree camera [lens], this means that you will take everything. And when you make so many points on this map it means you must take photos of the whole of Beijing.”

The resulting images were most surprising to the artist:

“After I finished this project, it was very strange. I thought, Beijing looks like this? Normally when you think of Beijing, you think of the Bird’s Nest [Olympic Stadium], Tian’anmen Square or the CCTV Tower…. Some of the images of Beijing are very normal, not so beautiful. If I had not done this project, I would have never taken photos of such places. I realised that this is the real Beijing.”

Miao Xiaochun, 'Beijing Index B-15', 2009. Image courtesy of the artist.

Miao Xiaochun, 'Beijing Index B-15', 2009. Image courtesy of the artist.

Miao Xiaochun depicts own version of paradise

Another of the works that was part of the recent exhibition at the Ludwig was Microcosm (2008) which uses digital media to create alternate visions. It is based on the 15th century altarpiece by the Dutch artist Hieronymus Bosch entitled The Garden of Earthly Delights (Prado Museum, Madrid). The triptych is comprised of scenes of paradise, mankind pursuing earthly pleasures and hell.

Microcosm comprises nine wings of computer-generated images and a video. Xiaochun has taken Bosch’s images and given them a new spin both visually and metaphorically. He replaced all figures with a computer-generated abstracted nude figure of himself and replaced objects with ones the viewer would recognise from daily life.

Miao Xiaochun, 'Microcosm, Independent Motives-Save', 2008, C-print. Image courtesy of the artist.

Miao Xiaochun, 'Microcosm, Independent Motives-Save', 2008, C-print. Image courtesy of the artist.

The video that accompanies this work, like his previous two, The Last Judgment in Cyperspace and H2O, uses the latest technology and computer animation programs available. We asked some questions about the Microcosm video.

The figures often seem to work in groups and live and die together. What are you trying to signify?

“We all live in the same world. We cannot say, ‘I have nothing to do with such a thing.’ If we have a war, if an atomic bomb is used, nobody will be safe, nobody can escape it.”

The viewer has the feeling that the video is being created as they are watching it. Continuous clicks from a mouse or sounds from a keyboard accompany the video and heighten the sense of anticipation. What was your thinking behind including these sounds?

“This sound is very important for me. Why? We work every day with computers. We created this [digital] world with a computer. We begin our work daily with this computer so I use the keyboard sound from beginning to end. It shows that it is being created by a computer.”

Miao Xiaochun has kindly provided us with a small section of video from Microcosm. Watch it below or on our new Art Radar YouTube channel:

Miao Xiaochun on photography vs. digital art

Your early work was solely focused on photography. What inspired you to add computer-generated design and animation to your work? How has this changed the creative process?

“Actually, [during] university I studied German literature and for post-graduate studies I studied art history and after that I painted for ten years. It was in Germany that I moved to photography. I was working at that time on a project called A visitor from the past. I thought the best medium for that project would be photography. And in 2005 I moved to computer… to digital art, because at that time I found many possibilities in this medium. I think the reason I choose one medium over another medium is because it fits my idea better.”

Miao Xiaochun, 'A visitor from the past-As a guest of a German family', 2002-2004. Image courtesy of the artist.

Miao Xiaochun, 'A visitor from the past-As a guest of a German family', 2002-2004. In this work Miao Xiaochun uses a life-size figure clothed in ancient Chinese costume and places it in unusual places. For example, as seen above, sitting down to dinner in the home of a German family. Image courtesy of the artist.

What are the challenges that you face when you work with photography as opposed to digital work? How do you deal with these challenges?

“When I deal with photography I am facing reality. I don’t want to change many things in the picture. But in the digital works, I can do everything. I am facing my dream, facing my imagination. So for me these are two different worlds. One is the real world, the other is a virtual word. They are like day and night. During the day everything is real and during the night I dream, it is not real.”

A recurring theme in your oeuvre seems to be the use of divergent elements: past vs. present, east vs. west, humans vs. machines, primitive vs. state of the art. For example, you have re-worked several old masters from the canon of Western art history with the use of the latest technology. In Beijing Hand Scroll (2009), you mounted state of the art digital ink paintings of present-day street scenes in Beijing on traditional Chinese silk scrolls. Tell us the story behind these works and what you were trying to achieve?

“I think that there is not such a big contrast between the ancient and modern times. If we look at the history of the world a hundred years or thousand years is not that much. The modern times and the classic times are not so far away. It is almost the same time. … So I want to make a bridge between East and West, between past and present. I like traditional Chinese hand scrolls, but I could not find a way to make these hand scrolls. One day, suddenly, I found a method and I thought OK, through this method I can make traditional hand scrolls.”

So you found a factory to make these hand scrolls for you?

“No, we did all this in our studio. We first took a photo with a 360 degree camera, which creates very long photos. Then we scanned them in and reworked them on the computer with software. The final product looks like a traditional painting but in fact everything was created on the computer. I think in ancient times they used brushes and ink to do their painting, but today we use a mouse and a computer. These are the brush and ink of our time. We should find out what the possibilities of these new materials are.”

Miao Xiaochun, 'Beijing Hand Scroll', 2009, digital ink painting. Image courtesy of the artist.

Miao Xiaochun, 'Beijing Hand Scroll', 2009, digital ink painting. Image courtesy of the artist.

Miao Xiaochun on his working process

Miao Xiaochun is comfortable working in a variety of media ranging from photography to digital art including 3D animation and painting. Art Radar asked him a few questions about his working process.

How long does it usually take from the initial conception of an idea to its final execution?

“For every project I approximately need between one and one-and-a-half years. I have an idea, I think about it for a while and I know that I want to somehow use it in my art. I prepare to work on a project for some time and then I start work with a team of assistants. We work on it on a daily basis in a computer lab until it is finished.”

How many assistants do you have at any given time?

“At first I had one, then five, then seven, then ten, then fifteen. Now I have ten. That is enough for the projects that I am working on at the moment.”

How many projects do you work on concurrently?

“I always work on different projects concurrently, sometimes two or sometimes even three. … It takes time to realise projects. I come up with the ideas much more quickly than I have time to realise them. Perhaps sometimes I am not so patient, I want to do it quickly. But in reality you cannot realise a project so fast, so I start working on another project at the same time.”

Miao Xiaochun, 'Microcosm', wing 8. Image courtesy of the artist.

Miao Xiaochun, 'Microcosm', wing 8, 2008. Image courtesy of the artist.

Miao Xiaochun on the art market

“I think what is interesting is that twenty years ago there was no art market in China but we still made art. Several years ago the art market came to China…. I think we should not always think about the art market. If you always think about the art market you won’t do any art. So for me, if the market is good that is fine and if the market is not good then it is not. For me this is not so important. If everything goes well you can have more money for new projects. I think that is good. Otherwise I have to do everything by myself, without help from assistants.”

When we asked Miao Xiaochun to comment on the future of media arts and to tell us about any new trends that he saw emerging, this is what he had to say:

“I think we can find many possibilities through the media arts. You see, I found the possibility to make sculpture, I found the possibility to do painting, to do etching. I think this is a totally new age. We should find every possibility that this new medium can offer. … What we can do is quickly adopt new technologies.”

More on Miao Xiaochun

When not working on his photography or digital art projects, Miao Xiaochun teaches at the well-known Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing, where he has been since 2000. Miao was born in 1964 in Wuxi in the south eastern province of Jiangsu. He studied first at Nanjing University, later at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and finally at the Kunsthochschule in Kassel, Germany.

His works can be found in numerous public and private collections such as The Museum of Modern Art (New York) and the SIGG Collection (Switzerland).


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Miao Xiaochun pushes limits of digital art – an Art Radar interview — 3 Comments

  1. Pingback: Beijing Artists – Miao Xiaochun and Wang Qingsong | Contemporary Photomedia in China

  2. Hello Joern,

    Thank you for your comment. Yes, you are right, in that particular image it is difficult to see that the “visitor” is wearing a Chinese costume. You need to look very closely at the image to see this. Miao Xiochun created an alter ego out of fiberglass and dressed the figure in the garb of a Confucian scholar. He wanted this figure to represent Chinese culture when it was in its prime such as during the Song and Tang dynasties, which are perhaps less known in the West. He wanted to represent Chinese people as cultured and intellectual. You can read more about this and other works in the recently published book Uta Grosenick, Alexander Ochs eds., Miao Xiaochun 2009-1999, Dumont, Koeln, 2010.

    — Nooshfar Afnan

  3. A well-written article about a many-faceted artist. I especially liked the idea of Beijing Index as it indeed shows in some ways a more genuine picture of Beijing. And as a German, I found the idea of a figure clothed in ancient Chinese costume sitting at an ordinary German family’s dinner table quite intriguing (though unfortunately on the photo shown the costume does not look particularly Chinese).

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