Only a couple of years ago, many Chinese people would simply stereotype an artist as a painter, a sculptor, a calligrapher, or a print-maker who creates good-looking images with conventional media.
After experiencing an unprecedented technological revolution since the 1980s, many Chinese artists are turning to video cameras, computer mice, and even the Internet in their artistic experiments, and are catching up with the new trends on the global art stage.
New media art works by Chinese artists -- ranging from video art, digital art and animation to flash art and sound art -- have emerged in contemporary art exhibitions both at home and abroad.
On the local front, a number of new media art exhibitions have taken place following China's first video art show in 1996 in Hangzhou, capital of east China's Zhejiang Province. The China Academy of Fine Arts, a leading base of Chinese new media art, is located in Hangzhou.
Very recently, the 11th Kassel Documenta exhibition in Germany, which opened earlier this month, included video art works by Beijing artist Feng Mengbo and Shanghai artist Yang Fudong.
"This is the second time that the world's 'Olympic Games' of contemporary art has accepted works by Chinese new media artists," said Zhu Qingsheng (LaoZhu), an art professor from Peking University. Five years ago, the 10th Kassel Documenta exhibited works by artists Wang Jianwei and Feng Mengbo.
"With the help of modern technology, Chinese artists are exposed to more opportunities to exhibit their artistic talents in entirely new territories," Zhu noted.
New media art emerged in the West as early as in the 1960s. In China, it first appeared in 1988 when Hangzhou-based artist Zhang Peili used a video camera to record a performance show he staged in the city, according to Zhu.
Regarded as a pioneer of video art in China, Zhang, now 45, graduated from the Hangzhou art school, then Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts.
But experts such as Wu Meichun argued that Zhang's video work "30 by 30" can hardly be called "video art" since it simply used video as a tool to record another art project. The visual images are "monotonous and boring," some experts stated.
"(At that time), artists lacked the editing equipment and they simply used their creativity and resourcefulness to remedy the poverty of visual images," remarked Wu Meichun, curator of the 1996 video art show and now director of New Media Art Center at the China Academy of Fine Arts, in a recent article.
This September, Wu's center, the first research institution of new media art in China established last year, will become the first department of new media art in a Chinese college to enroll new media art students.
According to Wu, Chinese new media art progressed in the 1990s when Chinese video artists became more skilled in video shooting and editing, had more access to good equipment, and had opportunities to exhibit their works in public.
Besides videos, artists such as Qiu Zhijie, Wang Gongxin and Zhu began to experiment with video installations, which can produce a better interactive effect when the works are placed in an exhibition space of contemporary art.
"As art becomes increasingly conceptual and people's feelings more insensitive, it is necessary for artists to make something exciting, both visually and sensually," said Qiu, who lives in Beijing.
"I choose new media art primarily because it's more interactive with the audience than traditional art," said Qiu, 33, who was formerly trained as a calligrapher and print maker at the Hangzhou school.
Around 1998, Chinese new media art experienced a major breakthrough when personal computers and DV cameras were widely used and CD ROM and the Internet entered our daily lives.
Video artists such as Yan Lei and Chen Xiaoxiong have begun to involve more complicated productions. A lot more graphic artists have found more freedom in their artistic expression with the aid of computer software such as "Painters."
Artists like Feng Mengbo, Jiao Yingqi and Qiu became the first group of Chinese artists to get involved in Internet art. New trends such as flash art have also become part of the equipment used by young Chinese artists. Their works are often available for free with just a click on the Internet.
Artists like Li Yong have gone even further to experiment cutting-edge new media art forms such as sound art. In his work "Happy Drum Beats," an interesting sound effect is produced when small pebbles drop repeatedly on the drums from some special cages that hang in the air.
Following the example of the China Academy of Fine Arts in Hangzhou, the Beijing-based Central Academy of Fine Arts has recently opened a digital art studio to provide service and training for new media artists, according to Ma Gang, professor and director of the studio.
A new media center named Loft (Cangku) New Media Art Space has also appeared in Beijing, which frequently hosts exhibitions and lectures on new media art.
Around the beginning of the new millennium, the words "new media art" became a popular and controversial topic among Chinese art specialists and ordinary people.
Art vs technology
While such pioneering work is often interesting, the question is whether novelty alone is a useful criterion for art or merely a great excuse for talking about technology.
"I am really suspicious of technology-driven projects that desperately seek to be called art. Art is about ideas, not just about technology and media," said Liu Ping, a Beijing ink painter in his 50s.
"It's true that new techs such as computer and the Internet are helpful in our daily lives. But I don't think they have that much to do with my painting practice. Actually I always try to keep away from the influence of technology."
Artist Qiu Zhijie agreed that new media does not necessary mean new art. But he noted that new media art is different from traditional art in that it allows more people to get involved in the work.
"For example, anyone can enjoy and even download a flash art work on the Internet for free anywhere and anytime. That's certainly a revolution to art," he said.
Qiu said that a critical question is how to incorporate the influence of traditional art and culture in the new media to make it more significant.
"Actually I find my former training in calligraphy and printmaking very helpful in my new media art practice. Traditional art and new media art are not enemies."
In Qiu's video installation work "Ten Poems of the Tang Dynasty," the artist writes with stylish traditional Chinese calligraphy on paper while a video camera records the whole process.
Viewers, however, are surprised to find the ink lines being pulled off as the artist moves the brush. The work stimulates a strong sense of loss and reflection on the meaning of traditional Chinese culture.
Many other Chinese artists are also trying to use new media as a vehicle to express their serious concern over social problems rather than just making something beautiful or entertaining.
In Zhou Xiaohu's 3-D animation work "Beautiful Cloud," which was shown in a new media art exhibition at Peking University earlier this month, the artist features the terror of war and nuclear weapons.
Zhu's video "Roll Away!" is another work in the exhibition. The artist puts a small camera in a ball and lets it roll everywhere to shoot people and events that take place in daily life. It intends to examine the critical relationship between people and mass media.
"Basically, there are three major possibilities for new media art to develop, or three criteria to judge good new media art: new technology, new angle and new concept," said Professor Zhu.
"But so far, Chinese new media artists primarily focus on developing the conceptual side in their work. How to grasp the new technology and find new view points are what concerns the future of their art," Zhu said.
Few artists can design software for their works, which is quite common in the West. The definition of new media art and its relations with mass media are also unclear.
Problems facing Chinese new media art are certainly far more than letting the art mature.
It's difficult to say how well it will eventually be accepted by the public and how long it will continue to be new as an art.
(China Daily June 21, 2002)