The rise of a distinctive e-commerce culture is among the most striking changes the internet has wrought in China. Over $30 billion in merchandise traded hands on Alibaba platforms alone last November 11, a consumer holiday known as Singles’ Day, which dwarfs the US’s Black Friday. Most of those sales took place on Taobao, Alibaba’s principal consumer-facing website and app. Running on Taobao, a series by Hong Kong artist Mak Ying Tung 2, comprises photographs of oversized treadmills that Mak found on Taobao. She enlarged the stock photographs and embedded stills from movies like Iron Man and Star Wars on the treadmills’ screens to present an absurd and unsettling vision of humanity enslaved to in-app purchases and streaming entertainment. If Taobao has given rise to a new consumerist creed, artists like Mak are articulating a speculative iconography to match.
Mak uses Marxist theory to analyze the depersonalized, ubiquitous nature of relationships between buyers and sellers on Taobao, which has its own slang lexicon. She says, “Class and the relations of production are hidden behind the rhetoric of the internet.”
In Mak’s Relics series, turn-of-the-millennium consumer electronic devices such as the CD Walkman and original Nintendo Game Boy are rendered in the grandiose style of religious icons. In Mak’s view, these once-cherished objects have been transformed into quaint artifacts of a pre-smartphone past—relegated to history’s trash heap.
One can glimpse the diverse needs that Taobao’s 620 million users sate online by flipping through the inaugural issue of the Beijing magazine Open Sesame, which made a compendium of oddball items sold on Taobao. The goods range from the merely bizarre (a portable, one-person sauna) to the perversely intimate (miniature sex dolls).
Anxieties about economic advantage, national security, and censorship tend to dominate the West’s conversation about technology in China. But Chinese artists have a different set of concerns about technology’s ramifications. Shanghai-based artist Miao Ying references censorship in some of her works. But she is less interested in taking a stand against the Chinese government’s regulation of the internet than in highlighting the unique cultural tics that take shape under those strictures. Much of her work deals with her concept of the “Chinternet”—a break with Western norms that supplies fertile ground for new ideas and identities to grow. Fellow Shanghai artist Lu Yang likewise plays with the intersection between technology and identity: her outlandish digital avatars evade categorization along national, racial, or gender lines, and thus afford glimpses of a digital, post-human future.
In this work, Miao pokes fun at the hallowed status that Alibaba founder Jack Ma has attained among Chinese netizens. Entrepreneurs like Ma who have amassed godlike fortunes in the last decade have become cultural icons on Chinese social media, kick-starting new cults of personality and identity.
Lu relies on Western streaming services like Vimeo to distribute her work, and she is fond of saying that she lives on the internet. Delusional Mandala is a series in which Lu inserts a 3D-scanned avatar of herself into scenarios that oscillate between sacred and profane, raising compelling questions about the nature of selfhood.
Lu does not see technology as an end in itself, but as a tool of exploration. “If art comes from life, then there is no way to distinguish current technology and art,” she says. Many of her videos, like 2017’s Electromagnetic Brainology, weave neurology, religion, and pop culture into a hybrid, personalized aesthetic identity.
A computer scientist by background, Xu Wenkai, who also goes by aaajiao, recently moved from Shanghai to Berlin. He admits to a pessimistic view of how technologies shaped by nationalism in turn affect culture. However, his criticisms are not aimed at China alone. Despite the differences between the ways China and the West absorb new technology, Xu says, we’re all headed the same way: “[China and the West] are at different points on the same time line, but it’s hard to find a reference point to compare these differences. They are each other’s past, as well as each other’s future.” The creative, complex responses to censorship seen in work by Xu and Miao Ying give an early idea of the strange form this future might assume.
Miao Ying’s Problematic GIFs comments on tools of censorship as they’re applied to the Chinese social messaging platform WeChat. The error screen that displays when an image fails to load is ironically presented front and center as a non-portrait, obscured by censorship and surrounded by freeze-frames of GIFs popularly used on WeChat.
In this installation, aaajiao hints at what might be the physical length of China’s “Great Firewall”—a sophisticated infrastructure for blocking websites and search terms—by printing out the URLs it restricts. The monotonous, serial repetition echoes the manual labor required to constantly monitor and block sensitive material, the never-ending work of the government’s internet watchdogs.