In art as in life, computers are transforming the way we see the world as artists explore cutting-edge digital techniques and technologies to create fresh works. An exhibition in Shanghai presented by the K11 Art Foundation goes beyond a glimpse of the possibilities of the digital art form, and shows that Chinese digital artists are today on par with their Western peers.
Curated by David Rosenberg, "Metamorphosis of the Virtual" presents five French and five Chinese artists whose works demonstrate more similarities than differences. "Digital art may have started a little bit later in China, but the artists have taken this new medium and used it to create a multisensory physical, spiritual and emotional experience for viewers," he says.
The exhibition's title was borrowed from an essay by the philosopher and writer Christine Buci-Glucksmann, reflecting on the work of Norwegian multimedia artist Pia Myrvold whose digital architecture and landscapes often feature primitive cell-like forms combined with music.
K11's Hong Kong-based chairman and founder Adrian Cheng Chi-kong says Myrvold's distinctive work on show at the 2011 Venice Biennale inspired him to mark the 50th anniversary of Franco-Sino diplomatic relations with an exhibition of works by pioneering French and Chinese digital artists.
"The digital art world may currently be a very small, almost niche community but I think it will become a bigger part of contemporary art, especially in China," says Cheng, who was recently invited to sit on the Tate Modern's Asia-Pacific acquisitions committee.
The show presents a diverse range of digital media such as video, photography, 3-D technology and sculpture divided into five sections: flux, life forms, cityscape, morphogenetic and avatar. Standout pieces include interactive new media and independent game producer Zheng Da's Virtual Portrait - Invasion Project, featuring an electric video installation.
Viewers interact with the artwork by standing in a particular spot to trigger an explosion of digital houses, creating a stunning movement of scattered fragments captured in slow motion.
The artist explains that he wants to emphasise the interactive element of his dynamic and unpredictable works. "I am looking forward to a future in which artists break through the art museum 'white box' space limit, and work in a more comprehensive circumstance … I want to change the way artists present and express by changing the medium," says Zheng, a professor at the China Central Normal University Academy of Fine Arts.
Miguel Chevalier's The Origin of the World 2014, part of the morphogenetic section, offers an other-worldly interactive experience with a virtual reality installation and music that responds to the presence of a participant. The wraparound screen immerses viewers in a colourful, psychedelic universe inspired by the world of biology, microorganisms and cells.
Chevalier says technological advances, starting with micro computing during the late 1980s, allowed him to experiment with the seemingly limitless possibilities of working with images in a constant state of flux.
"In this work, for instance, the body of the viewer moving in front of the work becomes like a digital brush, allowing a trail of colour to appear alongside them. That is impossible to create on a canvas."
Rosenberg cites avant-garde French artist Orlan as someone who uses digital technology as a means of expanding the boundaries of her work.
The artist's powerful Skinned Liberty video artwork features a 3-D skinless Madonna-esque avatar based on Orlan's own body that operates with two other figures in an otherwise completely empty virtual space. "The main body uses slow movements to take the position of the Statue of Liberty. It has no skin because that is just an interface," says the artist, whose earliest works explored the body, skin and flesh using different technologies. In the 1990s, for instance, Orlan reflected on the idea of beauty by implanting a silicon bump on each side of her forehead.
Curating a show with such distinct works called for careful consideration of the exhibition's architecture. K11 Art Mall's 2,500 square metre basement has been transformed into a darkened labyrinth which presents each artist's works in its own individual space.
"It is like a multiplex where you can edit your own movie or visual experience," says Rosenberg. "It is multisensory, emotional and spiritual at the same time. Some pieces are very narrative and others dreamy, so you go from pure image and conceptuality to extreme narration reflecting the polarities explored by the artists. Each calls for its own space."
Rosenberg says he took the deliberate decision to avoid trying to cover the whole field of digital art in the exhibition. Instead he selected individuals who "are relevant and strong enough to come across with their singularity to show what is happening in this world today".
The show is also intended to introduce a much-needed platform for discussion about digital art, which is still considered a more obscure genre in the context of mainstream art, but nonetheless a critical component of the Chinese contemporary art movement, explains the exhibition's co-producer, Joanne Kim.
Hong Kong artist Tsang Kin-wah's The Seven Seals presents a video installation using texts and computer technology to reflect the artist's thoughts on daily issues, and articulate the complex dilemmas people face. Short sentences appear and float about in a hypnotic swirling movement without a clear beginning or end, using light, motion and sound to envelop the viewer.
"You would think that in a global digital world these forms of art would have expanded very quickly, but in fact it is not the case, so the exhibition is a very good moment to think about this paradox," says Cheng, whose previous Monet exhibition at the same location drew a record crowd of 340,000.
"With art it is always the same; quality speaks for itself and at a point people will open their eyes and know there is something special there. In the end we are talking about art, not digital things."
"Metamorphosis of the Virtual" runs until Aug 31. K11, New World Tower, 300 Middle Huai Hai Rd, Shanghai