Whitehot Magazine

August 2011, Translife: The International Triennial of New Media Art at the National Art Museum of China, Beijing

Wang Yuyang,
Artificial Moon, 2011

 Edwin van der Heide, Evolving Spark Network, 2010


Maximum Conceptual Overdrive

Translife: The International Triennial of New Media Art at the National Art Museum of China, Beijing

Following the much-buzzed Synthetic Times: Media Art China, which coincided with the 2008 Olympics, Beijing’s National Museum of Art has decided to turn the event into a triennial. The current edition, curated by Zhang Ga, has been dubbed Translife, and is sectioned off into three conceptual themes: “Sensorium of the Extraordinary,” “Sublime of the Liminal,” and “Zone of the Impending.” The three “zones,” admittedly, blend into one another and can be difficult to decipher when going through the exhibition, as nearly all of the works share a similar futuristic bent and position themselves pointedly at the intersection of art and science, with the vast majority leaning in the latter direction. Indeed, a better subtitle would be “International Triennial of Art and Technology,” or perhaps “Art and Science,” or even “Scientific Art,” as in most cases, a viable aesthetic is absent, and “New Media” art seems to imply that there is at least some aesthetic aim. This, on the other hand, feels more like an interactive science exhibit.

Where there is any aesthetic present, then it is inevitably one of maximum conceptual overdrive. Virtually nothing can be understood without reading the accompanying wall text. At times, the apparent lack of criticality within many of the works can be disturbing, as in Marnix de Nijs’s 15 Minutes of Biometric Fame, which, to the joy of the huge crowd gathered in the exhibition hall, features a roaming camera on a dolly that automatically scans the faces of visitors, then links them up with celebrities they resemble by doing a biometric search of images on the Internet, projecting the results on a screen above; or Brain Station, a project by Wu Juehui proposing the manipulation of one’s mood by submitting the brain to artificial sound waves. Given that these works are being shown in a country with a not-so-discreet history of torturing and spying on its own citizens, I have to wonder how many others recognize the sinister possibilities suggested by such technologies.

Wu Juehui, Brain Station
, 2011

 Guto Bobrega, Breathing, 2008

Such works are inherently evasive, as they focus on the utopian qualities of their projects. Should artists play the role of mad scientist? I would venture to suggest that creativity in scientific speculation doth not good art make.

If anything, such work emphasizes the temporary in “contemporary art.” We live in a world in which technology is evolving at a rate we can no longer keep up with, so any work that dabbles with science or technology seals its fate of obsolescence at the hour of its completion. The type of gimmickry it promotes is much loved by institutions, which are the only venue for this kind of work. This points to a further truth of our era, that institutional critique has morphed into institutional fetishization. This is “art” for the masses, which fulfills its task by offering a superficial educational component, one that nevertheless comes stamped with an expiration date.

I guess there’s not much left to say, at this point. After all, criticism stops as soon as the only question left to be asked is whether art is fulfilling its social responsibilities. You can’t proclaim, “Long live the temporary!”, without appearing foolish. In the end, all we’re left with is the diversion and the wall text that explains it. The thinking has been done for us, the experience lived, and we can go on with our lives without dwelling too much on it.

Travis Jeppesen

Travis Jeppesen's novels include The Suiciders, Wolf at the Door, and Victims. He is the recipient of a 2013 Arts Writers grant from Creative Capital/the Warhol Foundation. In 2014, his object-oriented writing was featured in the 2014 Whitney Biennial and in a solo exhibition at Wilkinson Gallery in London. A collection of novellas, All Fall, is forthcoming from Publication Studio. 

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