So what happens when the “cult of newness replaces the cult of history” as it has in China? What happens when “new” becomes the mainstream industry – new buildings, new technology, new fashion, new you (plastic surgery, apparently, is also growing)? What happens when change is so visible, so predominant, and so accelerated, that what is different today is different tomorrow is different the next day… Progress on a speed dial defies reflection and definition and both, on the most basic level, are what allow us to form a sense of reliable reality and identity. A world of nonstop newness can’t help but bear traces of Huxley’s “Negative Utopia” where everything is surface-perfect. In a culture that has traditionally and historically paid homage to the past and treated its older generation with reverence, China’s obsession with the new hinders any deep connection to anything, be it identity, history, reality.
In fact, China’s “Pursuit of New” can be dubbed China’s New Reality. Nowhere is this new reality more accessible than in the virtual world where a few clicks inside the right video game can create a perfect world. The virtual world – and its effect on the human psyche – is explored in the art of Cao Fei.
Drawing upon the obscure line separating reality from virtual fantasy, Fei’s RMB City: A Second Life City Planning by Cao Fei, explores China’s relationship to communism and consumerism. Through machinima (creating videos by using video games as the medium, in this case the “video game”, Second Life) Fei’s futuristic city is set to music that sounds eerily reminiscent to that of a carousel. Fei’s world spins – both literally and figuratively – in constant motion. Technology – represented by smoke stacks, military boats, cars, trucks, and a bike wheel representing the world’s biggest observation wheel in Beijing – rules the city. Any references to China’s history, such as Chinese architecture, is glossed over. Ditto for Chinese iconic symbols like the panda that floats in the air like a carnival balloon (Pink Floyd’s pink pig?) and China’s flag that is spread like a carnival tent, its dismantled stars acting as little more than accessories, rather than symbolic representations of China’s Communist regime and its citizens. In i.Mirror, another machinima, Fei’s SL avatar (her Second Life persona), China Tracy, is both participant and observer of a world in which she simultaneously longs to be a part of and apart from.
Beautiful and desirable – this is what you think when you look at the women portrayed in He Sen’s large scale photo realistic paintings. Scantily dressed, his women lounge languidly on couches and in beds, offering us little more than their beauty. Their depth is no greater than that of the piggy banks and teddy bears they hold. Yeah I’m beautiful, they seem to say, and who are you? Their vacuous gaze travels beyond the viewer in their narcissistic inability to consider anything other than their own frivolous wants, desires, and addictions symbolized by teddy bears, piggy banks, and smoking. Not unintentionally, Sen’s use of faux ink drawing, reminiscent of Chinese landscape painting, incorporates a forgotten past into a present reality. His plastic pink pig is another deviation of an ancient Chinese symbol signifying fertility and virility. Ironically, children born in the Year of the Pig, are happy and honest yet there is nothing of either in Sen’s women. We are drawn to their beauty much in the same way we might be drawn to a glossy magazine page featuring a car. In effect, Sen’s art mirrors not only China’s fixation with consumerism, but our own as well.
There is so much to the ongoing “newness” of China, it is what has always historically intrigued the West. There is more to come.