Aug 30 2019

Simulation and Preservation: How the Invented Worlds of Post-Internet Artists Are Bringing Us Back to Earth

by Rosanna Lee

Installation view of SHIH CHIEH HUANG’s exhibition “Incubate,” at Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York, 2019. Photo by Vince Ruvolo. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery.

*This essay by Rosanna Lee won second place in ArtAsiaPacific’s second annual Young Writers Contest. Read Nathan Geyer’s third-place entry here and Harry C. H. Choi’s first-place entry in Issue 115.

Weaving through the expanding and exhaling creatures of Shih Chieh Huang’s exhibition “Incubate” (2019) at New York’s Ronald Feldman Gallery, I found myself lulled into a meditative state. Huang’s motorized sculptures, composed of everyday objects such as plastic bags and tubes, pens and drinks bottles—the kind of detritus one might find discarded in a park or bobbing in a river—perform a balletic display of bending and unfurling. Suspended throughout the darkened space, Huang’s works emit a fluorescent glow. Whirring motors inflate and deflate imposing plastic appendages that stretch out like limbs. Although fabricated from familiar materials, Huang’s sculptures are alien, so that encountering the work can be as frightening as it is mesmerizing.  As I circled the work, tuning in to the ambient drone of the motors, one pointed plastic tendril reached up, brushing my face and causing me to jump back, my own body suddenly rushing with adrenaline. By eliciting such feelings of curiosity and nervousness, Huang draws the viewer into the work’s delicate performance of passivity and activity. In “Incubate,” Huang simulates an encounter with unknown species whereby a rational understanding of the sculptures’ component parts is overtaken by a primal alertness, posing questions about what it means to be threatened and threatening. Yet the “creatures” are composed of the same disposable materials that pollute our natural world, highlighting how the real danger stems not from other species but from the continual conflict between humans and the environments they impact. In this way, it is the iridescent artificiality of the art that calls upon the viewer to consider their role in the construction and destruction of their actual surroundings.

Installation view of SHIH CHIEH HUANG’s VT-34-BTB (Red Angel Eye), 2017–18, mixed media, 426.9 × 396.4 × 91.4 cm, at “Incubate,” Ronald Feldman Gallery, New York, 2019. Photo by Vince Ruvolo. Courtesy the artist and Ronald Feldman Gallery.

Artistic imaginings of alternative worlds thus offer possibilities for (re)connecting viewers to the real one. As artist Olafur Eliasson has stated, culture can play a uniquely powerful role in tackling environmental crises because it provides “the opportunity for somatic or embodied experience,” rendering the problems encountered through the work more personal and immediate. Rather than escaping or eschewing reality, artistic practices that explore artificial environments serve to actively interrogate it.

Likewise, in Ian Cheng’s BOB (Bag of Beliefs) (2018–19), viewers encounter BOB, an artificial life-form resembling a chimeric branching serpent as it perambulates across a set of floor-to-ceiling screens. Cheng describes BOB as a “congress of motivating demons,” a complex set of programmed pathways in a decision-making model. Changes in the simulated habitat force BOB to constantly reassess and reprogram in order to survive. Viewers can influence BOB’s life via an iOS app, presenting BOB with offerings (rocks, plants, animals) to be rejected or accepted based on its calculi. Cheng places the fate of this creature in the hands of the audience as they determine how the landscape evolves and how BOB might survive within it—some offerings seem to help BOB grow while others blow parts of it up, only for BOB to regrow in new shapes. Cheng’s work incites both nurturing and destructive urges and causes the viewer to question what responsibility they feel to this creature and its environment. The interactive medium creates a feeling of intimacy, allowing Cheng to demonstrate how such simulations are “vital for compressing the experience of how things change, grow, or stay steadfast in their behavior, how parts affect wholes, how systemic causation unfolds [. . .] to timescales that are legible to human perception.” 

Installation view of IAN CHENG’s BOB, 2018, artificial life-form, dimensions variable, at “BOB,” Gladstone Gallery, New York, 2019. Photo by David Regen. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York / Brussels.
Installation view of IAN CHENG’s BOB, 2018, artificial life-form, dimensions variable, at “BOB,” Gladstone Gallery, New York, 2019. Photo by David Regen. Courtesy the artist and Gladstone Gallery, New York / Brussels.

For some post-internet artists, the nature of the digital realm itself and its contribution to real-world power dynamics deserves interrogation. Although often seen as purely virtual, activities happening in the digital world have very real effects, with every Google search and online transaction leaving a carbon footprint, for example, or misinformation campaigns influencing electoral outcomes in ways that drastically transform the political landscape. Miao Ying—who claims she “lives on the ‘Chinternet’” (the artist’s portmanteau denoting the heavily regulated Chinese internet)—plays with the iconography of social media, digital marketing, and the wellness industry, creating hyperreal environments that comment on the networks of power that underpin digital spaces. Miao’s solo exhibition “Stones from Other Hills” at Shanghai’s MadeIn Gallery presented absurd posters and paintings portraying unicorns—alluding to the list of private start-up companies valued at more than USD 1 billion known as the Unicorn Club—and body-builders with the heads of Facebook CEO Mark Zuckerberg, and Jack Ma, cofounder of e-commerce giant Alibaba. Meanwhile, in Miao’s three-channel video installation The formalized abridgement of the supposed sub-stratum of the rational truth (2018), rendered landscapes are juxtaposed with motivational PowerPoint slides while desperate animals charge aimlessly as logos and cliché quotes fly across the screens. Miao builds a discombobulating simulation of a world where the vernacular iconography of the digital space is made real, manifested as physical or projected paraphernalia, while directly pointing to the powerful commercial interests that lie behind these facades of frivolous online imagery. Artificial rock sculptures are scattered throughout the gallery space, acting as physical manifestations of the Chinese adage “stones from other hills are good for working jade,” meaning foreign methods can be applied to local problems—an approach that not only speaks to the hybrid state capitalist Chinese context in which Miao works, but also more broadly the transnational reach of the digital world and, by extension, of the forces that seek to profit through it. 

Installation view of MIAO YING’s The formalized abridgment of the supposed sub-stratum of the rational truth, 2018, three-channel video: 10 min 46 sec. Courtesy MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai.

Miao creates an experience that, like the work of Huang and Cheng, delivers the audience back to reality in a state of heightened sensitivity to the underlying dynamics that tangibly affect our world. These artists’ works may not resemble art forms that are traditionally associated with environmental art, yet in building new, alien forms and spaces using ubiquitous manmade materials—be it plastic, apps, or PowerPoint presentations—they succeed in moving the viewer to a position of awareness about their surroundings. Importantly, their art asks us to question the forces that shape and generate the landscapes we inhabit—a core tenet of environmental art.

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