Installation view of MIAO YING’s “Stones from Other Hills” at MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai, 2018. All images courtesy the artist and MadeIn Gallery.

Stones from Other Hills

Miao Ying

MadeIn Gallery

One of the most striking aspects about the practices of post-Internet artists is how analog they tend to be. Upon entering the exhibition “Stones from Other Hills” by Miao Ying–widely recognized for her works tackling Chinternet (Chinese Internet) culture—at Shanghai’s MadeIn Gallery, one was confronted by what looked like a garden feature comprising standing rock arrangements and a series of human-height plinths bearing an assortment of print-outs, manifestos and paintings. Nothing immediately spoke of the digital age so much as the dystopian imaginings of pre-Internet filmmakers—including George Lucas in his 1971 film THX 1138 and Brett Leonard’s early-Internet-era thriller The Lawnmower Man (1992)—that picture the technological future in analog terms like white infinity rooms, nylon bodysuits and a plethora of neon. The simulacrum at “Stones from Other Hills” was of the Disney variety, composed of cheap timber and polystyrene.

Installation view of MIAO YING’s Analog Art-stones from Other Hills – D, 2018, fiberglass, mineral pigment, 150 × 67 × 35 cm, at “Stones from Other Hills,” MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai, 2018.

In this sense, Miao’s works echo those of a generation of artists who are observers rather than natives of the digital realm. Among them, Simon Denny makes silk-screen images of text messages and prosaic sculptures incorporating game characters and the brands that have come to represent Internet culture; Cao Fei crafts sumptuous narratives that hint at modern technological isolation; and Lin Ke presents looped images of desktop activity. None are engaging extensively with the medium through the medium.

MIAO YING, Analog Art – Who’s Hardcore? Unicorn, 2018, oil on canvas, 125 × 90 cm.
MIAO YING, Analog Art – Who’s Hardcore? Unicorn, 2018, oil on canvas, 125 × 90 cm.

“Stones from Other Hills” evidenced this perhaps antagonistic relationship to the digital. The exhibition was an extension of Miao’s new lifestyle brand, www.hardcoredigitaldetox.com, which was conceived as a data detoxification program and commissioned by Hong Kong’s M+ museum in 2018. The project follows on from Miao’s “Chinternet Plus” series, commissioned by New York’s New Museum in 2016. “Chinternet Plus” takes the form of a conceptual website utilizing the strategies of marketing companies, influencers and business blogs (think text-heavy PowerPoint presentations) to build a new corporate, art “unicorn” empire, referencing the term Unicorn Club, coined by venture capitalist Aileen Lee in 2013 and denoting a privately held start-up worth over USD 1 billion dollars. Accordingly, Miao’s “Stones from Other Hills” featured several iterations of unicorn paintings and graphics, as well as sharknado-unicorn hybrids, flying (browser) cookies, and the relaxed visages of Unicorn Club icons Mark Zuckerberg and Jack Ma atop oiled muscular bodies.

As well as analog works, Miao included a VR installation, Happily Contained (2018), and her magnificent three-channel video work, The Formalized Abridgement of the Supposed Sub-Stratum of the Rational Truth (2018). Both juxtapose digital renderings of spaces populated by social media logos with aspirational images, catchphrases and quotes commonly rehashed by life coaches. Motivational monologues, delivered atonally, encapsulate Miao’s concept of “fighting fire with fire”—the vacuous core of the Hardcore Digital Detox program, which encourages the download of a VPN program that masks users with a Chinese IP address, thus crippling access to a whole host of web platforms. Miao’s work alludes to the emptiness of contemporary wellness programs while endeavoring to also appear empty itself. The result is a delicate tightrope walk of humor and earnestness, posing as a brand experience.

MIAO YING, Happily Contained, 2018, still from VR video installation: 7 min.
MIAO YING, Happily Contained, 2018, still from VR video installation: 7 min.

The exhibition title, “Stones from Other Hills” originates from an old saying from the Book of Songs, known in Chinese as Shijing—the oldest collection of Chinese poetry, dating from between the 11th and 7th Century BC. The full adage is “stones from other hills are good for working jade,” and refers to the notion that foreign methods can be adapted to local problems, while maintaining local traditions, methods and values. In her exhibition, Miao has reinterpreted this philosophy based on her observations of the symbiosis between modern China and the international realm of politics and technologies, such as the marriage of Western branding with the favored Chinese style of ideological keynotes delivered in text-laden PowerPoints. The title is not only a metaphor then for understanding the regional impacts of technology and capital, but also serves as an approach to making meaning of localized adaptations. With this, Miao establishes herself as one of the most insightful post-Internet Chinese artists, connecting the relevance of a pre-modern China with a fast-developing globalized future.

Miao Ying’s “Stones from Other Hills” is on view at MadeIn Gallery, Shanghai, until December 29, 2018. 

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