Shanghai

Nam June Paik, The Rehabilitation of Genghis-Khan, 1993, mixed-media installation with television monitors, video player, neon lights, video (color, silent, 25 minutes 58 seconds), 102 3/8 × 39 3/8 × 86 5/8". From: “Liu Xiaodong, Carsten Nicolai, Nam June Paik.”

Nam June Paik, The Rehabilitation of Genghis-Khan, 1993, mixed-media installation with television monitors, video player, neon lights, video (color, silent, 25 minutes 58 seconds), 102 3/8 × 39 3/8 × 86 5/8". From: “Liu Xiaodong, Carsten Nicolai, Nam June Paik.”

Liu Xiaodong, Carsten Nicolai, and Nam June Paik

Chronus Art Center (CAC) 新时线媒体艺术中心

Nam June Paik, The Rehabilitation of Genghis-Khan, 1993, mixed-media installation with television monitors, video player, neon lights, video (color, silent, 25 minutes 58 seconds), 102 3/8 × 39 3/8 × 86 5/8". From: “Liu Xiaodong, Carsten Nicolai, Nam June Paik.”

Combining datum and sensoria, the neologism in the title “Datumsoria: An Exhibition of Liu Xiaodong, Carsten Nicolai, and Nam June Paik” simultaneously refers to a new sensory space and a creative apparatus opened up by the information age. The three artists might seem an odd combination at first, but the exhibition offered coherent narratives that told an enthralling, thought-provoking, and, in the end, frightening sci-fi story.

Paik’s 1993 video sculpture The Rehabilitation of Genghis-Khan welcomed visitors as they entered CAC’s exhibition space. Without the title, one would not recognize the figure as Genghis Khan at all. Equipped with a diving helmet, a Bohemian shawl, pipe sleeves, and a mechanized body that shares parts with the bike it rides, the cartoonish figure looks more like a funny delivery guy than the leader of the Mongol Empire. The neon tubes and screens inside his body and on a bunch of TV monitors that he’s delivering suggest that the Great Emperor is now fully robotized or even artificially intelligent.

Behind Genghis Khan hung Liu Xiaodong’s painting series “Weight of Insomnia,” 2015–16. Or should we call it “his,” given that it was being painted on site by robotic arms? The renowned oil painter’s first attempt at new media seemed to reflect on the spread of automation in society and now also in the arts, and easily became the focus of the show. Liu worked with technicians to develop a program involving streaming data and computer vision algorithms to continually paint three canvases for the entire duration of the three-month-long exhibition. The system traced traffic (both human and vehicular) across three public spaces in three cities and turned the real-time data into brushstrokes. At CAC, we saw three large monochromatic paintings (never finished) create themselves: one in black (a view of Shanghai’s Bund), one in blue (of Liu’s hometown of Jincheng, Liaoning), and one in red (depicting Sanlitun, Beijing). The perspectives and compositions of the pictures resembled those taken by surveillance cameras. There is a mesmerizing paradox here: Every stroke is both awkward—due to the mechanical movement and the formally unpredictable traces left by the brush—and accurate. The works are simultaneously painterly, performative, technological, and monumental.

If Paik’s work envisions the future in the past tense and Liu’s work constitutes an effort of the present, then Nicolai’s unitape, 2015, could represent the eventual realization of those visions and efforts: It looks fully automated, the artist’s hand completely invisible. The graphic patterns in this immersive, room-size digital projection follow the principles of programmed control through punch cards, and seamlessly interact with an electronic audio element. Watching it made you feel like you were inside a giant piece of machinery—perhaps even part of it. The exhibition ended in a techno-utopian hue. Compared to the whimsy and humor of Paik’s work and the implied struggle of Liu’s, Nicolai’s clear-cut mathematical minimalism seemed to be free from any humanity at all. It was not as much fun. It exposed the dilemma a lot of new-media works face: To use and exemplify technology is one thing; to explore the imagination of it is another. If “Datumsoria” claimed to envisage the potential roles art and technology play in relation to each other, in the end its representation of the beauty of the machine represented a rather obsolete point of view.

Hanlu Zhang