Miao Ying, Flowers all fallen, birds far gone (detail), 2015, GIF animation, 39 frames.

Miao Ying, Flowers all fallen, birds far gone (detail), 2015, GIF animation, 39 frames.

Miao Ying

Miao Ying, Flowers all fallen, birds far gone (detail), 2015, GIF animation, 39 frames.

For Miao Ying’s “Holding a Kitchen Knife to Cut the Internet Cable,” a monthlong online exhibition organized by the Chronus Art Center and the Chinese pavilion at the Fifty-Sixth Venice Biennale, the artist revisited a collection of ten GIFs and browser works she produced in 2014 and 2015 that engage the aesthetics of censorship. Arranged here in a set sequence, the flashy, congested pieces could be scrolled through by a visitor such that an ambiguous narrative unfolded. The composition of each page typically consisted of a background image, a browser window, and found slangy musings about love, appearing in the visual style of animated texts produced by Taobao, a major Chinese online-shopping site. These texts streamed across the page or turned slowly as though on a rotisserie. In the exhibition’s first works, domain names blocked in China—including Google, Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram—have been entered into the browser search fields or navigation bars of otherwise blank windows that reveal the results of these searches; phrases such as “This webpage is not available” directly convey the reality of the Web behind the “firewall.” More suggestively, the vulgar animated text serves as wry commentary on the relationship between Chinese Internet users and the forbidden web pages. In one piece, for example, floating above a window reporting denied access to Facebook is a midnight-blue GIF that reads: TO BE MISSED IS ANOTHER KIND OF BEAUTY.

Miao’s interest in the “wall” has been ongoing since 2007, when she produced Blind Spot, a glossary of keywords censored by (which hadn’t yet been blocked in China), compiled by using the site to search for every entry in the Contemporary Chinese Dictionary. This hugely laborious work echoes the tireless resistance of Chinese netizens and those who are invested in promoting freedom of expression on the Internet. Today, the blockages of the wall are in China a default online experience, and young users know only of Baidu (the largest Chinese search engine) and Weibo (the Chinese version of Twitter). Of course, in this climate, merely hinting at the existence of the wall is far from sufficient.

Among the GIFs, images, and YouTube videos featured in Miao’s browser works are materials sourced from Danmu, a sharing website wherein people can live-comment directly on videos, their responses becoming an aggregated textual overlay. Yet here, her selection of found videos and GIFs seems random; some shared themes are obvious, but others are obscure. What becomes clear in these efforts is that the artist’s own online participation rarely gets showcased. Indeed, the Chinese online ecosystem is dynamic, fraught with tensions and conflicts that materialize in both subtle and confrontational ways. And it seems Miao has chosen to remain distanced from her subject, functioning more as a collator than as an author, because any attempt to summarize or make claims about the Chinese Internet, or even about the medium itself, would be inherently flawed. Ironically, though no doubt intentionally, the most vivid aspect of the work is a moment in which the same embedded ad begins to play before a series of featured videos—an indelible assertion of the formal and ideological omnipotence made possible by the Internet.

Hanlu Zhang

Translated from Chinese by Chelsea Liu.