According to the giant tech companies, the future has already been ordained. It will consist of artificial intelligence, robotics, internet of things, fintech, and a sprinkling of virtual reality and augmented reality. But Guggenheim curator Xiaoyu Weng challenges this widely held viewpoint with her new exhibition “One Hand Clapping”.
“The exhibition aims to question this singular vision of the future of technology,” says Weng, the associate curator of Chinese art with the Robert H.N. Ho Family Foundation.
“I want to consider the possibility of different technological futures. The artwork is about challenging some of the set values and beliefs that we hold about what kind of future we will have.”
The group show that runs until October 21 at the Guggenheim in New York, features specially commissioned works by five Chinese artists, including Hongkongers Wong Ping and Samson Young Kar-fai.
Young’s work focuses on sound and music, and his Possible Music #1 (feat. Ness & Shane Aspegren) comments on the anodyne, overly processed sounds that currently populate the digital realm. Working with the University of Edinburgh’s Next Generation Sound Synthesis (Ness), Young designed the sounds of impossible instruments, such as a 20-foot trumpet that would need a dragon’s breath to play and a huge tuba. The strange synthetic instruments can be heard in a 10-speaker gallery installation.
“Young had the idea of creating instruments that didn’t exist in the real world, and then composing with them,” says Weng, who organised the exhibition with consulting curator Hou Hanru.
Chinese painter and sculptor Duan Jianyu’s Spring River in the Flower Moon Night attacks the idea of a globalised culture and emphasises the importance of the local and the individual – “There is always something that binds an artist to a place,” says Weng.
Everyone is exposed to the same images. The ability for us to use our imagination is winding down as a result. Information technology is always swirling around us, and we have developed very short attention spans
Xiaoyu Weng, curator
The artist draws attention to the marginalised and the unique, to challenge the idea of a fully homogenised future society. Her paintings often feature contradictions like ghosts and humans inhabiting the same space.
“She is querying the ‘global aesthetic’, the synchronised view that has been adopted. Her work focuses on uniqueness,” says Weng.
Duan also took the images of some carrots that were circulating on the internet as a meme, and made sculptures of them, bringing them out of the digital realm to exist as individual physical objects. “The carrots actually look a bit like human beings,” Weng notes.
Robots and the automation of the workforce are also addressed. For her commissioned film installation Asia One, Chinese artist Cao Fei visited the world’s first fully automated sorting centre in Kunshan, Jiangsu province, to examine the effects of automation and robotics on human relationships.
“It’s a kind of love story,” says Weng. “There are only two beings in this strange facility and they are both robots. Have we finally been emancipated by machines, or are we ensnared in a new confinement – trapped into ‘buying the world while staying at home’?” Weng asks.
Wong Ping’s animated film installation Dear, Can I Give You A Hand? focuses on “a seeming paradox: how are we to reconcile the contradiction of eagerly approaching the future while simultaneously approaching death?” Weng says.
The LED installation, which is surrounded by a mound of chattering false teeth toys, highlights the plight of the aged in Hong Kong, noting how they must bid for burial plots online. A large, organic looking model at the rear of the screen introduces the possibility of an unknown controlling force in the background.
“Wong is very good at observing everyday details and turning thatinto a narrative. His imagination goes wild,” says Weng.
Weng says she feels that technology is limiting our imagination rather than expanding it, and that observation gave her the idea for the show. The idea of a ubiquitous global aesthetic is leading to a kind of universal sameness, she feels.
“Everyone is exposed to the same images,” Weng says. “The ability for us to use our imagination is winding down as a result. Information technology is always swirling around us, and we have developed very short attention spans.
“We need to absorb information so quickly that there is no room to be romantic, or poetic, or imaginative. Slow processes, like using our imagination, are not appreciated any more.”
Everyone is avoiding new experiences that may challenge the way they think, she says: “People prefer to stay inside their own comfort zones.”
So can art help to rectify the situation – or is it a spent force in the age of technology?
“There is a now very populist approach to art – it has been turned into entertainment,” Weng says. “Somehow we have forgotten how to be patient – we need everything to have an immediate result. Nowadays, we need to see things being quantified, we need to have everything evaluated. So we need to free art from the need to have an immediate pragmatic and functional purpose. We should try to reintroduce romanticism, poetry, and imagination as a way to resist.”
The exhibition, Weng points out, is forward looking rather than nostalgic – it’s not a show that rails against science or scientific progress. Science itself is not at fault, she notes, it’s the big tech companies, who have appropriated scientific advances for their own ends.
“Technology and science are two different things. Technology is a corporate idea for taking control. The problem is not science, but where we take our scientific advances,” Weng says.
“There is no bad science – the negative side comes from how corporations manipulate it. It’s not about what you invent, it’s not about what you discover, it’s about how you apply those inventions and discoveries.”