The spirit of an elderly man in Hong Kong rests in a digital grave, but his children have forgotten the log-in information. An inflatable octopus writhes its orange tentacles as it comes to life on the floor of an automated packaging plant. A synthetic trumpet blares a near-impossible note.
Technocratic utopia, dystopia, or neither? Newly commissioned works from five Chinese artists in the Guggenheim’s group exhibition “One Hand Clapping,” on view until Oct. 21, do not propose answers, but instead cast a mesmerizing spell — whimsical, at times darkly humorous, and saturated with cautionary tales of the coming world order.
The show’s titular Zen Buddhist riddle asks, “We know the sound of two hands clapping. But what is the sound of one hand clapping?” Originally asked by the Buddhists as a challenge to rational thinking, the Guggenheim’s exhibition follows in honoring the art of speculative imagination.
The mid-career artists featured in the show — Cao Fei (b. 1978), Duan Jianyu (b. 1970), Lin Yilin (b. 1964), Wong Ping (b. 1984) and Samson Young (b. 1979) — all came of age amid rapid transformation in China. While Cao’s father necessarily made sculptures of the nation’s socialist leaders in order to work as an artist, she and younger generations of artists draw inspiration from Tang literature alongside German philosophy and Internet culture. Working in media ranging from oil painting to sonic installation to virtual reality, the artists explore the shifting demarcations between local and global, man and machine, decency and debauchery, digital embodiment and spiritual isolation.
With tousled hair gracefully defying gravity, the Guangzhou-based artist Duan Jianyu’s appearance is reminiscent of the “sha ma te” subculture popular among rural Chinese youths. In an interview at the Guggenheim, Duan explained that much of her family still resides in the Chinese countryside. Drawing from the cherished stories of her youth, Duan’s series of oil paintings “Spring River in the Flower Moon Night,” 2017, are surrealist dreamscapes populated by women with three eyes, coils of hair that turn into snakes, and other traditional literary motifs. Crippled men, typically symbols for how difficult life can be in rural areas, glide gleefully on DIY wooden boards toward the horizon. Duan said she sees art as a self-liberating practice: “The more I paint, the freer I feel.”
Hou Hanru, a co-curator of the show along with Xiaoyu Weng, likens Duan’s series to Paul Gauguin’s “Where Do We Come From? What Are We? Where Are We Going?” — a spiritual inquiry into cultural origins and orientations. As cars and factories transform China’s countryside, Duan’s paintings embody an alternative kind of consciousness: man is not distinct from nature, and reality is not distinct from folklore. The rural is not a place for the poor and uncultured, but a rich repository for the cultural imagination. Boundaries between nature, man and animal blur in a palette of lush greens and midnight purples.
Wandering into the Beijing-based multimedia artist Cao Fei’s installation “Asia One,” 2018, the viewer is greeted with a real motorized delivery tricycle, hand warmers still hanging from the handlebars. Cao’s newest work blends reality and fiction to explore the contradicting values rural workers face as they migrate to cities. On the wall are corporate banners goading workers to think about when they last sent their parents money, but also about the loved ones they’ve left behind. A wall calendar sponsored by the prolific Chinese e-commerce company Jingdong promises “joy,” but Cao leaves the question unanswered of where and how to find it.
The centerpiece of Cao’s installation is the 63-minute video shot in Jingdong’s real world-class automated package-sorting warehouse, a loosely narrative smattering of scenes in which humans alternatively fall in love with robots, are chased by them, and abuse them. In one scene, a worker with a VR headset sees a graphical model of conveyor belts suspended in air in a self-contained universe of Escherian stairwells and loop-de-loops. Cao maintains that her work offers no moral verdict on labor or technology, but is merely a prism of contradictions: “We love it, we hate it, ultimately we can’t live without it.”
The Hong Kong-based animator Wong Ping’s parable for living and dying in modern times is ironically and sweetly titled: “Dear, can I give you a hand?” 2018. Wong’s visual style belongs unabashedly to the age of video games and the Internet, featuring neon, pixelated forms. An elderly man narrates the end of his life before it essentially fades into digital static; plot points involve eavesdropping on his son having sex, stealing his daughter-in-law’s panties, and deciding whether or not to part with his prized porn collection. The salacious details are narrated in a deadpan voice, eliciting laughter from a potent cocktail of pity and schadenfreude.
Wong Ping said in a sit-down interview that he originally started making animations to make his friends laugh. He hints that some of the details are drawn from his own life, but declines to elaborate on which. The story emerged when Wong Ping saw an elderly man in his native Hong Kong drop a bag into a recycling bin. Wong opened the bag to find a well-kept collection of pornographic tapes. Intrigued, he began fabricating the backstory to the man’s life, combining it with his own observations — for example, of his own family’s experience with nursing homes.
The Beijing and New York-based artist Lin Yilin is an avid reader of philosophy. Captivated by Leibniz’s “monadology,” a metaphysical treatise on the basic units of reality, Lin attempts to split reality into three parts in “Monad,” 2018. First the viewer sees a video of a basketball being dropped from the center of the Guggenheim’s spiraling white staircase. Then, with a VR headset strapped on, he or she looks up to see the NBA star Jeremy Lin walking toward the viewer in slow motion. Spiraling freely in 360-degree video, the viewer then embarks on a graceful arc toward the basketball hoop.
“You have a different understanding when you experience something, rather than just conceptualize it,” Lin said in an interview at the Guggenheim. The aim of the piece is to explore embodiment itself, and whether it can be extended not only from subject to subject, but from subject to object. The question is not what technology will allow us to do, but who and what technology will allow us to be.
The Hong Kong-based artist Samson Young similarly pushes the boundary of what becomes possible, engaging with questions of authenticity. In the 11-channel sound installation “Possible Music #1” (2018), Young engineered tracks from an array of computerized “impossible trumpets” — one mimics a trumpet that is 20 feet long, another mimics breath that is 300 degrees Celsius. The result is a symphony of epic temporal and spatial proportions blaring from 10 speakers across the room.
Young collaborated with the Next Generation Sound Synthesis (NESS) group at the University of Edinburgh, working at the frontier of computerized sound. Academically trained in music composition, Young has spent much of his career exploring the cultural politics of music, tracing music’s “unsung role in shaping the birth and progress of civilizations,” according to the wall text.
Ultimately, “One Hand Clapping” explores what it is to live, work, dream and die in an increasingly globalized and technocratic sphere — a world in which factories replace farmlands, automation replaces warehouse workers, computer software soothingly serenades us, virtual reality is able to project consciousness into inhuman spheres, and those who die are memorialized in digital graves.