Unparalleled “NEW AGE: NEW MEDIA” exhibition shows 12 Australian and Chinese video works – 7 month China tour

NEW MEDIA ART EXHIBITION CROSS-CULTURAL COLLABORATION

One of the largest new media exhibitions ever shown in China, “NEW AGE: NEW MEDIA – Australia-China connections”, is touring from Beijing to Lhasa. Intrigued, we spoke with Australian-born art curator Reg Newitt of China Art Projects to find out more.

Connecting China and Australia through art

NEW AGE: NEW MEDIA“, which started in June 2011 and will run through to December, is organised by China Art Projects and China Digital Art Association and showcases the work of twelve top artists from China and Australia as part of the Imagine Australia programme, which is celebrating 2011 as the Year of Australian Culture in China. One of the curators of this ambitious and innovative exhibition is Reg Newitt, art advisor and curator at China Art Projects.

Born and bred in Australia, Newitt became involved in contemporary Chinese art through Brian Wallace, who founded the Beijing-based Red Gate Gallery in 1991. Over the past thirty months he has been fully engaged by his work in China, curating and managing exhibitions in Beijing. Highlight exhibitions include “Leaving the garden of dreams” (2008); “Trading Meaning”; “Capturing Light”(2009) and “postEDEN” (2010).

 

Zhang Xiaotao, 'Scar' (video still), 2009. Image courtesy China Art Projects.

(Related to the image above, click here to watch Zhang Xiatao’s Scar on Vimeo.)

He has also curated exhibitions in Australia that involve Chinese artists, including “Tempting God”, “Beautiful Worlds” and “Two Voices”, so he is in a perfect position to explain how Chinese art is being received in Australia.

Chinese art in Australia has been a bit trendy … over the last couple of years and, in part, you can understand why: China has been such a big player in Australia’s … economic development and, I suppose, Asian political-cultural connections. So the contemporary art scene [in Australia] has involved Chinese artists for quite a while because many of the Chinese artists in the Nineties and early 2000s who exhibited in Australia actually lived there and have become Australian citizens.

Australian art in China, on the other hand, has been viewed as a part of the larger genre of Western contemporary art. While recently there have been a few exhibitions of indigenous Aboriginal art that have generated more response from the gallery-going Chinese public than expected, interest in contemporary art remains an elite preoccupation throughout the country.

To reach out to the wider population, “NEW AGE: NEW MEDIA” has made two unconventional choices. They decided to tour the less frequented provincial centers including Hangzhou, Chongqing, Jinan and even venturing as far west as Lhasa in Tibet, while avoiding popular destinations such as Shanghai and Guangzhou. Says Newitt, “We didn’t want Shanghai, we didn’t want Hong Kong and not necessarily even Beijing. The focus was on provincial centers.”

Art education a focus

An exception was made for the exhibition launch event, which took place at the Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing. The exhibition organisers wanted to show their dedication to expanding their target audience: bringing the event to students was important and academic forums were held to encourage young people’s participation and to set up dialogue. Aside from the opening at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute in Chongqing, the second largest art academy in China, the exhibition also went to a cultural development centre in Jinan, an area in which eleven universities are located with 200,000 students and staff between them.

I think the academic focus [in Chinese art] in the past was on technique above all else. It probably was in the West up until about the Sixties. Now what we are doing is introducing something which says, ‘Okay, technical expertise is of itself necessary to effectively communicate ideas. But it is the communication of ideas which is the primary focus.’


What we have been talking about with the works [that we’re showing in “NEW AGE: NEW MEDIA”] is what the artist is [concerned with conceptually]. And this, interestingly, has generated not only an interest from the audience but also from … Chinese artists and curators. … I noticed down in Chongqing that they were much more responsive to this idea than were those at, for example, CAFA (Central Academy of Fine Arts).

 

Miao Xiaochun, 'Restart' (video still), 2008-2010. Image courtesy China Art Projects.

Growing animation industry in China

Newitt and the team chose a focus on moving image as the medium for exhibition in “NEW AGE: NEW MEDIA”. Compared to paintings, sculptures and installations, new media works are more portable and can be easily manipulated to fit into different exhibition spaces. They also thought the medium would be more attractive to young audiences. That three of the twelve artists on show were animation artists, all from China, reflects, Newitt feels, the current popularity of locally-produced animation.

According to an article published in The Times in 2010, “Chinese cartoon addicts [individually] spend, on average, about USD70 a year feeding their hunger for Japanese cartoons.” Until recently, China’s participation in the animation industry in Asia has been as a cheap labour outsourcing resource. Countries like Japan and Taiwan, whose populations are huge consumers of animation and cartoon products, would pay Chinese technicians to perform the arduous technical work involved in developing an animation piece. This is beginning to change with a number of locally-produced animation and cartoon products being created specifically for the Chinese market.

“NEW AGE” themes: urbanisation and economic progress

How would Chinese audiences understand, interpret, and relate to the themes presented in Australian art? The works shown in the exhibition provide, perhaps, the perfect example of how, in today’s rapidly globalising world, people from different cultural backgrounds are faced with very similar challenges in their daily lives: consumerism, corporate takeover and alienation of the individual.

Bu Hua, 'LV Forest' (video still), animation, duration: 3m:00s. Image courtesy China Art Projects.

Han Bing, 'Diary of a Chinese Cabbage Walker' (video still), 2000-2008, video, duration: 60m:00s. Image courtesy China Art Projects.

Bu Hua on “climbing the ladder”

These themes are addressed in Chinese animation artist Bu Hua’s piece LV Forest. Deliberately provocative in its explicit sexual content, LV Forest is a sharp commentary on the extravagant consumption practices of the nouveaux riches. “It is critical of corporate takeovers and people doing anything and everything to step up the social ladder, to acquire more, to buy brand products, and so on,” Newitt observes.

Han Bing on walking cabbages

Han Bing’s Diary of a Chinese Cabbage Walker explores similar issues but in a more discrete and abstract manner. Taking the cabbage as a symbol of rural life and walking it through the streets of cities big and small, the artist initiates a silent yet powerful critique of the widening rural-urban divide in China, a result of rapid economic development. Newitt tells the story behind the work:

[Han Bing] comes from a small village. The livelihood of the village is dependent upon the crops, the cabbages, the basic food [produced]. [If] the crops fail, the village fails. If the crops sell then it’s a matter of negotiating prices with people in the bigger cities. How much are they willing to pay? Everything revolves around the simple cabbage for the people [living] in the village. But of course [the cabbage] is nothing for the people in the cities.


[The work looks at] the difference between the rich and the poor,… the sort of values and standards that are becoming increasingly … divided.  [Bing] has walked this [cabbage] everywhere, from Shanghai to Beijing to small villages in between, and I think he has also walked it in other cities around the world.

The Kingpins, 'Welcome to the Jingle' (video still), 2003, two-channel synchronised video installation. Image courtesy China Art Projects.

TseKal/YakTseTen, 'Arak Stupa' (video still). Image courtesy China Art Projects.

The Kingpins as corporate bulldogs

The impact of consumerism and corporate takeover was no less present in work by Australian artist group The Kingpins. The Kingpins is made up of four female performance artists creating work as a group and sometimes individually. In Welcome to the Jingle they dressed up as corporate bulldogs, marching their way through six different Starbucks Coffee stores in the city, to highlight the ubiquity of global brands and their invasion of the daily lives of people everywhere.

TseKal and YakTseTen on alcoholism in Tibet

The loss of traditional culture and values as a result of cultural imperialism is a theme picked up by Tibetan artists and brothers TseKal and YakTseTen in their piece Arak Stupa. The piece features a Tibetan stupa (temple) built with beer bottles attached to a frame. The import of beer and alcohol has led to drinking problems among the Tibetan population, a new social issue for the traditionally Buddhist state and one it must now learn to deal with.

Shen Shaoming, 'I'm Chinese' (video still), 2006-2008, digital video, colour, duration: 75m:00s. Image courtesy China Art Projects.

“NEW AGE” themes: cultural identity

Shen Shaomin on Russian immigrants to China

Another common theme that unites some of the works is the identity of self and other. One of the most provocative works in the exhibition, according to Newitt, is the piece by Shen Shaomin, I’m Chinese. The work focuses on Russian immigrants to China during the first World War and the difficulties they encountered in becoming Chinese. Says Newitt,

They were sort of caught in a no man’s land. They weren’t wanted [in China] and they weren’t wanted back [in Russia]. So they had to try to become Chinese, by marrying Chinese [citizens], [learning to] speak Chinese and so on.

Richard Bell on racist Australians

The theme of cultural belonging is also vividly explored in Richard Bell’s Scratch an Aussie. Bell is an Australian indigenous artist and the essence of the title of his work is the premise that if you “scratch an Aussie,… just under the skin you will find a racist.” The video consists mostly of dialogue and uses dark humour and crude jokes to bring the racial tension that exists between the majority Australian population and Indigenous Australians to the fore, a tension that, to Bell, lies just beneath the surface of everyday interaction.

James Newitt on lost islands

The notion of the displaced and the isolated is approached from another angle in James Newitt’s Suspended in Place, a video set on an island between the Australian mainland and Tasmania. The island saw a mass de-population when its mine closed, but those who could not migrate stayed behind and became, as the title suggests, “suspended in place.”

Richard Bell, 'Scratch an Aussie' (video still), 2008. Image courtesy Josh Milani Gallery (Brisbane) and China Art Projects.

James Newitt, 'Suspended in Place' (video still), . Image courtesy China Art Projects.

Future directions for “NEW AGE: NEW MEDIA”

One of the major achievements of this exhibition tour was the strengthening of relations between Chinese and Australian tertiary institutions and local governments, which according to Newitt have already begun to initiate outreach programmes by inviting Australian artists to work within local communities in China. In Shanxi, for example, an artist residency programme has been keen to recruit international artists to work in a village in the area; two young emerging Australian artists have already indicated interest. Likewise, Chinese artists have been invited to take part in residency programmes in Australia.

These cross-cultural exchanges certainly have the potential to gain wider social impact:

[The artists] are expected to be working within the community…. They can’t just sit in a studio … for three weeks and do a painting and say, I’ve been there. You have got to get out there and somehow interact with the community, and that interaction should feed back into the work that you produce.

“NEW AGE: NEW MEDIA” will tour to Lhasa, Tibet, through the 2011 summer before moving on to Australia, where exhibitions will be held at various cities including Brisbane (Queensland University of Technology), Melbourne (Federation Square), Sydney (ChinaLink Gallery) and Hobart (146 ArtSpace, Arts Tasmania). The project is supported by the Australian Government through the Australian International Cultural Council.

KK/KN/HH

Related Topics: Australian art in Asia, new media art, interviews

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