Written by Hou Hanru
Digital Video (DV) has almost certainly become the most popular new technology in contemporary art today. Responding to the progress of digital technology and the imaging industry, it provides contemporary art an unprecedented space for experimenting with new ways of observing, recording and criticising the world, as well as the means with which to construct diverse narratives that are flexible, open and liberated from the constraints of linear time and space. On the other hand, the medium’s facility for almost immediate reproduction and distribution via global networks is also changing the nature of artistic creation, allowing it to become increasingly open to communication, sharing and collaboration. Perhaps for the first time in history, artistic creation can be explored as a shared, worldwide dream – a dream that follows the logic production of globalisation. At the same time, it’s an incredibly efficient tool for critiquing and proposing alternative visions vis-à-vis the dominant, late-capitalist culture of the image itself.
Along with China’s active participation in the global economic and cultural scene, Chinese contemporary art has become an exciting focus for many. Indeed, it has perhaps reached boiling point at the moment. One of the most amazing aspects of this dynamic scene is video art. Born in the late 1980s, video art has become one of the main reasons why the Chinese art scene has received so much international attention. Its experimental nature and immateriality help it to escape from the current wave of commercialisation of art, notably the frenzy for Chinese painting, leaving artists to enjoy the freedom of imagination and expression this offers. The introduction of digital cameras, computer editing and duplication has dramatically increased this freedom and provoked a fundamental change in the working processes of many artists. Today, almost every artist has a DV Cam and uses it in some way in their work.
Chinese contemporary art has been ‘inventing’ itself in the face of a reality that has been constantly and radically mutating since the early 1980s, when China started opening itself up to the world. It has been culturally, socially and politically engaged with the struggle for freedom. Artworks are often inspired by real life and everyday situations, and this remains a significant motivation in China’s art scene in spite of the increasing opportunities to participate in more established or financially-rewarding institutional events such as museum exhibitions, biennials and art fairs. The very flexibility of the medium of DV provides an effective weapon for artists who choose to engage with reality like urban guerrillas. On the other hand, many artists are increasingly interested in the possibility of constructing personal, alternative and original narratives of the real, with the current obsession for individual fantasies and dreams leading to much innovative work. Simultaneously, an experimental film movement has also been developing alongside contemporary visual art. It has had an impact on video artists who are searching for a more profound restructuring of narrative. Other fields such as experimental music and theatre are also being increasingly incorporated into video artworks. As such, digital video has become a veritable playground for multidisciplinary collaboration and innovation, serving as an authentic pioneer in the search for new definitions of artistic endeavour.
For the last decade, a whole generation of video artists in China have been opening up a space for negotiation between the individual and society, between artistic imagination and social engagement, between witnessing the real and searching for Utopia. A significant number of video works pay direct testimony to China’s contradictory but exciting social mutation, dealing with issues such as urbanisation, modernisation, globalisation and migration, with the cultural, moral, economic and political restructuring, and to the impact they are having on people’s daily lives. Such works are forming a powerful movement of social documentaries, and counterbalance those artists exploring personal fantasy. Uncertainty about the outside world and the impossibility of comprehending reality provide opportunities for artists to generate imagery that oscillates between curiosity and desperation, between exaltation and frustration, between pleasure and irony, between humour and helplessness. Social responsibility and individual desire are working hand in hand to create an extraordinary creative scene. For these reasons, video art in China today is proving to be one of the most pertinent forms of artistic expression, and out of it are emerging some of the most significant artists of the global art scene. Chinese contemporary art is going global, and before the artists step out of the front door, you just might hear them remind themselves: “Never go out without my DV Cam!”