Step into Tian Xiaolei’s (田曉磊) artistic world and you will see a man having sex with a table. As he thrusts, you are tasked with whacking strange objects that pop up from the tabletop with a uterus-shaped club. In other parts of his world, you might shoot roses at deformed statues of the god Venus or encircle two people who have CCTV cameras for heads.
For his latest exhibition at the Goethe Institut in Shanghai, the 34-year-old digital artist has chosen virtual reality (VR) to be his canvas. Wearing a headset and holding a joystick, the viewer is given complete and unmatched immersion in Tian’s creations, an exciting new frontier in the development of contemporary art in China.
But the Beijing artist is tempering his excitement.
With China playing an ever-increasing role in the development and promotion of advanced technologies, Tian’s work in recent years has become increasingly focused on the relationship between humanity and technology. He is one of a number of young artists in China who are expressing themselves using advanced technology, but unlike the celebratory tone of some of his contemporaries, his work recognizes the ethical implications of new technology like VR and AI, and humanity’s insatiable appetite for it. With the dawning of the age of AI, Tian is looking on with morbid fascination.
Tian spoke to Sixth Tone about new media art with Chinese characteristics, the impending ubiquity of VR, and how our lust for all things technological will eventually destroy us. This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Question: Some regard VR as a gimmick. Do you worry that the novelty of VR obscures the message of your art?
Tian Xiaolei: This era is all about art chasing technology, because technology is developing at a quicker and quicker rate. VR technology is a product of this age, and its development is similar to when video was just becoming popular: At that time, people were questioning video works and asking whether or not they could be considered art, or whether people were just following trends by using the materials.
I think that in the future, VR technology will be a very important art medium because it can bring to life a vast array of ideas. My VR game art and other, more commercial VR games are different, and I think the viewer will be able to recognize this.
A game increases the interactivity. When people watch video, they are passively absorbing the information, but when you’re inside a game, you’re in control, and it’s a very active experience. Video art can be a bit serious, so I wanted to use gamification to make this fun and interesting, and then get people thinking about why my work has certain symbols and what my intentions are.
Question: What implications does VR technology have for society?
Tian: I think that in the future, the equipment will be like a very light pair of glasses, or just like contact lenses. Every person will be able to enter into their own world, and VR will be like a second world; it will contain your social media, the games you like, and the films you like. Then in this world you will be able to tailor everything to your taste — you will be able to realize your dreams.
All of humanity is now focused on the development of AI. This evolution will gradually increase its consciousness, increase its intelligence, help it express itself, help it learn to repair itself. AI will go from being a basic organism and evolve to become a high-level one, in the same way that humans were the result of gradual mutation. I think this state of affairs, where people are helping this organism to evolve, is incredibly interesting.
Question: You sound positive about technology, but there is something dystopic about your work. Where does that come from?
Tian: The relationship between humans and technology has both a positive and a negative side. It’s complicated, but I personally believe that if you’re looking at the long-term trend, then it’s probably a pessimistic state of affairs. The continual accumulation of technology brings with it desire and lust; as tech expands people’s capabilities, it makes people lust for more. It’s probable that through this desire, people will be destroyed at the hands of technology; that through war or weaponry or some other kind of technology, humanity will meet its end.
One of the biggest problems we face is that if a form of technology brings us some difficulty, we won’t get rid of it. Instead, we will use new technology to try and solve the old technology’s problems. This creates a relationship of tier upon tier: One covers the other, which covers the other, which covers the next. There are more and more folds, and today we’re only at the beginning. Furthermore, the relationship between technology and humans will probably create a new form of life, like a new organism, that’s neither technology nor human, but both.
My work is based on these possible problems, and some of the probable changes the species will experience. It touches on the relationship between humans and technology, as well as lust. In my work there are some forms and symbols related to sex, and what these represent is a kind of creation and innovation, or the hybrid nature of a new species, and the continuous eruption of our desire for more.
Question: Does Chinese society’s relationship with technology have its own character?
Tian: Yes. Technology is only a tool, but the background cultures in which it exists are different. Works by Chinese and Western artists have differences in character and culture. But one problem is that places like Beijing and Shanghai — all the large cities — are very international now. New media art from the start has followed an international path, so it’s not like traditional forms of art that have a very strong cultural element.
In my [animated video] work “The Relationship,” I explored themes related to Chinese Buddhist thoughts, and considered [ancient philosophical text] “The Book of Changes,” among other things. In the works that came later, like this VR work or my video “The Creation,” I focus on themes of the future, as well as the hybrid relationship between technology and human culture. I didn’t want to give traditional Chinese culture a pronounced position in the work, so I mixed in elements from all around the world — for example, Eastern architecture, Buddhist elements, then Venice, astronauts, and Western religion.
Question: And why make the viewer witness a man having sex with a table and slap at objects that fly toward them?
Tian: This symbolizes the motivation to continuously create new technology, or to give birth to new things. The objects that are produced are all organisms that have been combined with technology, and in the game, you take a club that is shaped like a uterus, and you’re using it to hit these objects. You’re trying to exterminate them, but because the game becomes quicker over time, you always lose, and become more manic as the game gets faster. It’s a metaphor for how we can’t reverse or hold back this hybrid combination of technology and humans. It’s an unstoppable force.