Dispatch: Networked China
By Jaime Chu
Contemporary art, at least that on the radar of the Chinese capital’s oligarchy, is in a marketing crisis. The art is rarely good; the optics are worse. In June, after public, mostly feminist, outrage on Chinese social media, OCAT Shanghai took down Song Ta’s Uglier and Uglier (2013) from a group show. The video comprises nearly eight hours of footage, recorded without consent, of female university students, ranked by their appearance. Song has made his name with parody and transgression in an art world that still makes space for enfants terribles despite emerging platforms for #MeToo accountability. But now the cultural climate is such that not only has irony gone out of fashion, it is no longer logically sound as a discursive tool. Critical distance is receding from view—if you have to ask your audience to read between the lines in the wall text, chances are they will look for typos. It’s better that they look at pretty pictures. This is the era of new sincerity. This is when visitors to Beijing’s 798 Art District choose between exhibitions like “Becoming Andy Warhol” and “Dancing with Xinjiang.”
This is also the age of “traffic”—an asymptotic translation of the Chinese term liuliang that originated from web traffic, but that now, in everyday usage, has slipped beyond a strict definition of visitor metrics to mean something unattainable and all-encompassing like perpetual good weather. An older, related buzz word is wanghong, which used to describe “internet-famous,” but can now refer to “people, places, cities, entire countries . . . depending on who’s using it, wanghong can be an aspiration, a warning, or a judgment,” as a friend and comic artist wrote recently. If the first phase of the digital era for cultural platforms was to figure out how to incorporate social media into arts programming, institutional operations, and brand presence, now that the influencer economy has involuted, social-media platforms are saturated, and having dedicated previews for Key Opinion Leaders are a norm rather than novelty, it is no longer enough for museums and institutions to optimize aesthetics for digital consumption, or to simply display interest in the “virtual” and “next generation.”
This is not to say that organizations in China feel secure in doing away with the photo ops and interactive baits built into shows, but rather, beyond these new basic amenities of exhibition design, the more fundamental questions of aesthetic value and contextual relevance have returned. The angry discussions Uglier and Uglier sparked online when it was first shown at Beijing’s UCCA Center for Contemporary Art in 2013 did not lead to institutional responses (disclaimer: I work at UCCA). But now transgressive works face new demands from a commons that has, ironically, received a progressive education mostly from the internet and social media that feed art venues the same traffic. A few programs in Beijing have attempted to engage with, or reflect, the diffused boundaries between virtual and physical discourse: in April, Luo Fuxing, founder of the working-class subculture Shamate, which first spread online in the mid-2000s, ran a pop-up salon at the hole-in-the-wall C5CNM art space at the invitation of artist Ye Funa; the privately founded X Museum put on a solo exhibition in June by multi-hyphenate artist and reality star Sida Jiang with a live performance that simulates online dating as a game; and on September 26, UCCA collaborated with the underground club night and label East Palace West Palace (東宮西宮) for a drag party in the exhibition galleries of “Becoming Andy Warhol.” After the performance that night, a group of performers and friends were refused entry at a spa where the manager said the facility does not allow “homosexuals, transgenders, and guests who lack male characteristics.” Considering recent government crackdowns on LGBTQ organizations and alternative gender norms in the media, and how the language of advocacy itself is a target of censorship online, inclusion is a worthy cause for any public event of scale. On the other hand, in this feudal order of things, the art world’s admittance of subcultures does more for art’s relevance than for the empowerment of the marginalized and disenfranchised.
The good news is “immersive” seems to have retired as a respectable exhibition concept, aside from in actual participatory events. “We are now living in the era of traffic,” museum directors and PR people quip, in slightly different registers on different occasions. Neither party is ironic; neither can afford to be. “Traffic” suggests a need for volume, movement, and a body of flow made visible by metrics that justify art’s existence. Art itself wants to be fluid, too. It partners, creates synergy, launches, opens, expands, generates, presents, explores, showcases, examines, tracks, questions, invites, releases, celebrates. I am not sure, however, whether it changes things.