DIANE LANDRY, Knight of Infinite Resignation, 2009, Kinetic sound sculpture. Courtesy National Art Museum of China, Beijing.


National Art Museum of China
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The marriage of art and technology is gaining currency in China, a country eager to position itself at the forefront of development in every field. The 53 works by over 80 international artists and art collectives in “TransLife,” a massive exhibition at the National Art Museum of China (NAMOC), presented art made with the latest technology as a lens through which to reflect on the fragile state of our relationship with nature. Following NAMOC’s “Synthetic Times” exhibition during the Beijing Olympics, “TransLife,” curated by Zhang Ga, served a dual purpose. Beyond the intimations of change and flux familiar to discussion of the globe’s fraught environmental situation, the show also revealed China’s self-conscious attitude toward creative output and technological advancement as reflected through its institutions.

The exhibition’s content was arranged into three themes reminiscent of arcane public entertainment: “Sensorium of the Extraordinary,” “Sublime of the Liminal” and “Zone of the Impending.” Indeed, the first work encountered—a white, tent-like Weather Tunnel (2011) designed by Ma Yansong—set a tone of Victorian amusement. Once inside the structure, abstract plinking sounds and quirky installations encouraged viewers to experience environmental data as direct sensations. Spread throughout the main building was an immersive environment with interactive devices and fine-tuned technology.

In a typical setup in “Sensorium of the Extraordinary,” people awaited the illumination of Wang Yuyang’s Artificial Moon (2011), a giant orb of 10,000 energy-saving light bulbs. The most diverting work was Scale (2010), a collaboration between the artist-composer duo localStyle and bioengineer Malcolm MacIver: 12  water tanks, each containing an electric-field-emitting knifefish from the Amazon Basin, were arranged around a podium fitted with speakers. A touchscreen mixing desk allowed visitors to orchestrate tones created by converting the fishes’ navigation signals into sound. This “inter-species art project” aims to draw awareness of both the scientific importance of this species and the fragility of their habitat. Beyond that lesson, however, lay an unintended image that was far more germane to the exhibition’s call for environmental conscience: Scale resonates darkly with people’s power to play God with nature, literally orchestrating living things after forcibly transplanting them from their natural surroundings.

Upstairs in “Sublime of the Liminal” was Australian artist Mari Velonaki’s “Fish-Bird” series (2004–09), in which a pair of motorized, robotic wheelchairs (“Fish” and “Bird”) perpetually moved about and “wrote” intimate letters to each other that dropped from small internal printers; the floor on which they slowly, sporadically wheeled about became littered with pieces of paper. With the wheelchairs’ movements constituting an odd tale of unrequited love enacted by machines, the work is at once surreal and charming, making the best of this section. “Sublime of the Liminal” sought to accept artificial objects as natural and grant them a semblance of inner life, and the audience who lingered to watch the “relationship” unfold testified to the artist and curator’s success.

Knight of Infinite Resignation (2009), a large installation by Canadian artist Diane Landry displayed in “Zone of the Impending,” consists of 12 metal wheels. Signifying months and hours, each wheel is made from a ring of plastic water bottles that each contains sand and a single white bulb. As the wheels turn, the sand shifts inside the bottles like an hourglass. Landry’s elegant and ominous apparatus evokes death and emptiness amid mesmeric continual motion. The forlorn installation juxtaposed a dearth of resources and humankind’s easy distraction by technological objects, poetically summing up the resignation and apocalyptic undertone of this theme.

The works in “TransLife” carried a weight of responsibility for a new art triennial in Beijing that is as self-conscious about serious global ecological issues as it is keen to become a model of an era in which, according to the curator, “representational art is past.” As such they occupy tense, shifting territory—some of the installations seem too complex and rarefied, or dip into pure spectacle. Most memorable were those works that balance idea and form or, in short, the ones that can speak clearly in an unconventional language.