25 January - 2 March 2019
MAN, MACHINE, INSOMNIA
The arts and technology have always arguably shared an interesting, mostly symbiotic relationship. Chinese artist and filmmaker Liu Xiaodong’s second and latest exhibition, Weight of Insomnia, housed in the small gem that is the Lisson Gallery, explores this relationship creatively and innovatively. Xiaodong’s international following and modern ambitiousness come to the forefront in this space, whilst remaining faithful to the painter’s strong appreciation of East Asian history.
The central premise the exhibition lies in the amazing feat that nearly all the rich, vibrant canvases on display have been painted by a robot. While this achievement is not new to artistic practice, Xiaodong’s machine (the ‘New Media Project’ in full title) is unique in that it is able to follow algorithms that contain data from live video feeds of global locations, essentially meaning that little to no human invention has been involved in creating what is on display. Xiaodong (originating from Jincheng, studying in Beijing and later curating projects worldwide) teamed up with old friend Zhang Ka and Fito Segrera (Head of Research/Creation at the Chronus Art Center, Shanghai) in 2015 to devise the New Media Project. This involved setting up live feed cameras across locations that Xiaodong has himself visited, including Oberkasseler Bridge in Dusseldorf and a hillside in Karlsruhe, translated accurately onto canvases in streaks of green and blue acrylic respectively. These works dominate the walls of the first room. One canvas is actively in creation as we speak, also on display. The robotic paintbrush works tirelessly, moving around the white space effortlessly via four winches, further than the human hand could reach. Able to distinguish between cars, buildings and lights, it begins to paint what will later be Trafalgar Square, shown on a monitor alongside binary code. Not only does Xiaodong question the capabilities of robotics and artificial intelligence to come but creates a captivating experience beyond the simple admiration of a painted canvas on a wall - the art of painting in motion.
The second room explains, through various diary entries, the production of the mechanical project in more detail, including Xiaodong’s preference of using more "Chinese colours" (reds, yellow and greys) for the Asian locations on the live feeds. Relatively untouched upon however, is his choice of blood red for the machine-made depiction of the skyline in Gwangju, Korea, a very distinct tonal shift. One could explain this in relation to some of the photographs and notes displayed close by, detailing Xiaodong’s reflections upon the student uprisings in Gwangju across the 1980s, involving suppression by armed forces and a death toll of 155 people (70 missing, 4,000 wounded). This is also displayed in one of Xiandong’s most prominent exhibit, ‘Time’ (2015), several canvases joined together to create an oil painting of four disillusioned students sitting alongside a blood-stained corpse. Whilst being an impressive work, the shift in tone and subject could be considered jarring and bears little relation to Xiandong’s New Media Project; even the machine-curated Gwangju is a modern-day live feed and not a direct depiction of the events that occurred.
One can however, see Xiaodong’s intentions more clearly upon viewing both a behind-the-scenes video from the Chronus Art Center (2016) and Xiaodong’s interview with White Rabbit Collection (2018), screened downstairs. In the former, Xiaodong showcases some of the live feed and programming technology in action. The interview, however, proves to be the most insightful; Xiaodong explains the robot’s representation as an insomniac, its continual efforts and functions very much symbolic of Chinese exceptionalism and the factory work Xiandong encountered as a child. The machine also bears the gaze of an ‘elder’ watching over the landscapes, both historic and modern, that it paints. Painting and reality, in his words, are ‘parallel truths’, in that one is a representation of the other, although having a self-determined reason to produce art is why machines will never replace humans in the artistic world.
This very much cements the intellectually layered premise of Weight of Insomnia, both optimistic about technology’s relationship with art as well as being fully aware of its superiority to human capabilities. Alongside the robot’s ability to reflect upon the darker side of human (Korean) history, Xiaodong creates a viewing experience that spans past, present and future, that is well worth a look.
Edited by Dimitrina Dyakova