an archeology of shenzhen’s digital daze…

A ten-year retrospective of Sui Jianguo (隋建国)’s work, System is currently on display at the OCAT Art Terminal. Across the street, Hua Museum, has showcased Miao Xiaochun (缪晓春)’s work in the solo exhibition, Simulations. Both artists have played with scale and method, calling attention to the material practice of creating in an era of digitalized mass production. However, where Sui Jianguo has interrogated the relationship between the human body, clay and its digitalized transformations, Miao Xiaochun has turned his attention to the relationships between digital simulations, imagined futures, and the resulting landscapes.

In China, we speak of generations; those born in the fifties and came of age in the 60s, we say, are different from those who were born in the 60s and came of age in the 70s. This practice of categorizing people by cohort not only makes salient the extent to which history positions us with respect to each other, but also how these positions shape how we understand history and what it has made of us. Indeed, I raise the question of generations because not simply because a decade separates Sui Jianguo and Miao Xiaochun, but rather because these two exhibits suggest the material differences between generations ’50 and ’60.

Children of the 50s, for example, came of age during the Cultural Revolution, began working before Reform and Opening spread from the Special Economic Zones to the coastal cities (1985) and the Chinese hinterland (1992), and were swept up in the information technology wave somewhat after the fact; many did not purchase a personal computer until the early 1990s and did not use their first cell phone until the late 1990s or early 2000s, when their own children were already preparing for high school. In contrast, children of the 60s came of age in the during the chaos of the late Cultural Revolution and the open hopefulness of the early Reform era (roughly 1976 through 1984). This cohort were in college in the 1980s, when Chinese intellectuals were debating social and economic alternatives to socialisms and approached the internet and digital technologies as means for imagining post Mao utopian features.

Sui Jianguo’s work begins with a corporeal relationship to clay. He squeezes clay with his hands while blindfolded and his assistants drop clay from high above or kick it into submission. Plaster is then poured over the shapes to create molds, which in turn can be used to cast metal sculptures, usually bronze. However, Sui has also digitally scanned these lumpy objects to produce massive works that allow for manipulation of scale and the use of new materials. The result is powerful meditation on how new technologies have come to mediate our relationship with the earth. Yes, we think, those shapes, but not that size and not in…photosensitive resin and polyurethane?

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If Sui Jianguo’s practice illustrates how digital technologies have taken us beyond the limits of natural media, then Miao Xiaochun’s work speaks to the difficulties of returning from those brave new worlds. Miao Xiaochun’s uses computer programs to assemble dreamy landscapes, where scale and design, narrative structure and possibly are constrained by the coder’s skills and animated by futurism: where are we going? his narrators persistently ask as they drift off the screen. And yet it would seem they can only survive through digital imagining. Two-dimensional paintings and three-dimensional sculptures that have been produced from these virtual originals seem made to be photographed because it is only at the scale of a cellphone screen it is possible to “see” clearly what is before our eyes.

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These two exhibitions have uncanny resonance in contemporary Shenzhen, where digital technology not only shapes our lives, but is also the material substance through which we reproduce our lives. Most second generation Shenzheners–like children born after 2000 elsewhere in the world–have grown up with cellphones and playing video games online. However, they also grew up in a city where digital technology has been decidedly ordinary: who hasn’t bought a shanzhai phone in Huaqiangbei? Who doesn’t have relatives or friends who work (or have worked or want to work) at Huawei or Foxxconn or Tencent? Even Handshake 302 has received a creative grant from Tencent’s One Foundation…

Only recently has the rebranding of Shenzhen as a “maker city” repositioned the city’s residents with respect to the fabrication of virtual realities. Design has been pried apart from production and suddenly, abruptly we are already imagining the future instead of manufacturing cell phones and actual internet wires. In this particular context, the exhibitions of Sui Jianguo and Miao Xiaochun have uncanny resonance.

We live, if you will, in a state  of virtual estrangement. On the one hand, Sui Jianguo’s System reminds us that is no longer enough to work in clay; information technologies have forced us into the realm of unnatural scale, where virtual abilities magnify human desire and ambition. On the other hand, Miao Xiaochun’s Simulations suggest the extent to which our virtual sojourns transform our sense of self; even if we are not who we were, how would we know?

Together, these exhibitions reveal the extent to which a sense of the digital self as unmoored from the (literal) earth is a product of particular histories. We must ask: What kinds of conversation are possible across generations when even the nature of the ground beneath our feet has been called into question? Of course, we must also be prepared to live with doubt: what kind of misunderstanding can co-exist across and between our very different worlds?

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