Rosa Barba, Stage Archive, 2011, 35-mm film, Perspex, guiding rollers, neon lamps, engine, 3' 3“ × 10' 6”. From “Thingworld.”

Rosa Barba, Stage Archive, 2011, 35-mm film, Perspex, guiding rollers, neon lamps, engine, 3' 3“ × 10' 6”. From “Thingworld.”


Rosa Barba, Stage Archive, 2011, 35-mm film, Perspex, guiding rollers, neon lamps, engine, 3' 3“ × 10' 6”. From “Thingworld.”

The “new” in new media––in some accounts––derives from the rupture created by an object’s materiality and its effect on human senses. “Thingworld: International Triennial of New Media Art,” however, focused on objects themselves. And yet curator Zhang Ga kept the premise of this third edition of the New Media Triennial closely tied to theory. Spread over eleven rooms, the ambitious exhibition was divided into three parts: “Monologue: Ding an Sich,” “Dialogue: Ding to Thing,” and “Ensemble: Parliament of Things,” referring to Kant’s unperceivable object and Bruno Latour’s actants that come into indirect contact through a system of translation. The influence of speculative realism—the work of anti-correlationist thinkers attempting to untie the knot between epistemology and ontology—was demonstrated by the presence of its core figure, Graham Harman, who spoke at the triennial’s symposium and contributed to the show’s catalogue. Dealing with imported theory and fifty-eight works from twenty-two countries, the curator pragmatically used Zhuangzi’s third-century BC theory of qiwu, the “equality of all things,” to reconcile with Chinese culture.

The absence of human figures was one method used to pay tribute to objects in the exhibition. In Adriana Salazar’s Machine That Tries to Tie Two Ends of a Shoelace Together, 2006, the device tying the laces of shoes worn by nobody thereby renders its own functionality vain. Similar to the Japanese practice of chindōgu (“weird gadget”), the use corresponds to no one’s need, like a broken hammer that gains a moment of freedom. Dialogue between objects was another thread of the exhibition, which was entwined with a suspicion of language and the systems of representation. Several artworks included in “Thingworld” call into question the laws and consistency of assumptions drawn from language. Christopher Baker’s Murmur Study, 2009, displays a waterfall of thermal paper in which gradually fading text echoes the short life of language on the Internet, where information appears with its disappearance. Noise is another weapon used against language. In Petra Gemeinboeck and Rob Saunders’s Accomplice, 2012, one wall in the museum was filled with holes through which one could periodically see a robot with a battering ram and a camera; noises are exchanged but fail to weave a pattern of communication. Zimoun built 80 prepared dc-motors, cotton balls, cardboard boxes, 70 x 70 x 70 cm, 2011, cardboard boxes with tiny balls continuously striking their surfaces, creating tides of noises.

Although “Thingworld” gestured toward speculative realism and the democracy of objects, whose connection with art is partly made manifest through Harman’s notion of “allure,” by which art objects intermittently separate from their sensory qualities, the exhibition’s conceptual matrix actually involved a renewed attempt to anthropomorphize objects. In the end, the works remain deeply embedded in humanism and the use of tropes like personification. The philosopher Levi Bryant points out that, in making objects a blank screen for projecting language and emotions, humans can see only their own likenesses, just as the protagonist in Being John Malkovich (1999) sees his own face projected on his face. Every work in the exhibition was accompanied by a detailed description, paradoxically emphasizing language’s function and guiding role. At the show’s entrance, Jacob Tonski’s Balance from Within, 2012, a sofa supporting its own weight on a single leg, perhaps served as a metaphor for the exhibition: a Bakhtinian carnival in which the hierarchy between the subjects and objects seems to be overturned, but the independence of the objects is overshadowed by the act of anthropomorphization, reflected by the the unstable couch that is waiting for a person to sit down and end its fragile, temporary independence.

Venus Lau

Translated from Chinese by Lee Ambrozy.