Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art
8 February – 12 May 2019.
On 9 February 2019, the Wall Street Journal’s Josh Chin proclaimed that ‘[t]he global internet is splitting in two’, with China on one side and the rest of the world on the other. In China, the government’s carefully controlled encouragement of developments in information technology has resulted in what sociologist Guobin Yang calls an internet with ‘distinctly Chinese characteristics’, home to the world’s largest online community since 2008. Though the so-called ‘Great Firewall’ blocks access to sites such as Facebook, Chinese netizens have a range of unique and interlinked domestic digital services at their disposal, from e-commerce and online gaming, to news portals and social media apps. Thus, while Chin is correct to say that there are differences between the topography of the internet in China and elsewhere, his Wall Street Journal article nevertheless perpetuates several prevailing myths about China and its online environment. Just one day before Chin’s article was published, Chinternet Ugly opened at Manchester’s Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art (CFCCA). Curated by Dr Ros Holmes and Marianna Tsionki, the exhibition was comprised almost entirely of video installation works by six Chinese contemporary artists born between 1984 and 1991. As Holmes’s curatorial essay outlined, the exhibition sought to debunk several Western myths about the internet in China, including those perpetuated by Chin’s article (though Holmes does not refer to this article explicitly). Among these myths are, in Holmes’s words, the notion that the internet in China is ‘a barren wasteland’, ‘a place censored to the point of sterility’, corralled by an impenetrable ‘Great Firewall’. Another myth is that the internet in China is wholly exceptional, a world away from the ‘global internet’ to which readers of the Wall Street Journal are accustomed. Chinternet Ugly succeeded in challenging these myths. It highlighted the creativity and variety of critique within China’s online spaces, showing exhibition visitors that these spaces, while under close surveillance, are neither so different nor remote from elsewhere.
Indeed, with its emphasis on video works and its overwhelming, multisensory aesthetic, Chinternet Ugly felt similar to many other exhibitions of art about the internet. From the street outside the gallery, lightboxes displaying two video works by Lu Yang beckoned to passers-by. Entering the exhibition space, visitors were immediately bombarded with the garish colours of Ye Funa’s installation Beauty Plus Save the Real World (2018, Fig. 1), while a confusion of robotic voices and electronic music could be heard emanating from another room. Lin Ke’s video I’m Here (2018) depicted gallery-goers hovering in front of a video installation, as if ready to move onto the next work as soon as their attention drifted. Such works both evoked the frenetic experience of being online and highlighted the elements of spectacle and distraction that have become so standard in art of the digital age.
Some works did point more directly towards the specific topography of the internet in China. Miao Ying’s Love’s Labour’s Lost (2019), for instance, addressed the ‘Great Firewall’ and the ingenuity of those who scale it. Miao’s video wryly chronicles the artist’s nocturnal jaunts to Paris’s Pont Des Arts, where she furtively picks and steals love locks, mimicking the resourcefulness of the internet users who ‘unlock’ the Great Firewall using VPN servers. The work thus poses a light-hearted challenge to Western assumptions about the helplessness of Chinese netizens in the face of online censorship. Overall, however, the focus of the exhibition lay more in unstitching the other myths that Holmes mentions, including assumptions about the exceptionalism of China’s online spaces, as well as the notion that these spaces are lacking in creative and critical expression. The majority of works in the exhibition, while presenting the perspective of the Chinese artists who made them, addressed issues that are as pertinent to users of the supposedly free, ‘global’ internet as to Chinese netizens: from exposing the invisible, cheap labour behind internet-based systems that is disproportionately undertaken by those in the Global South, to exploring the peculiar kinds of intimacy and authenticity afforded by online spaces.
For example, Ye’s sprawling Beauty Plus, which included a screen with in-built selfie-taking capabilities, replete with filters and stickers, spoke to the ways in which photo-editing social media applications are programming and commodifying ideals of feminine beauty. Though it explicitly referenced the Chinese application Meitu Xiuxiu, it was also reminiscent of Instagram. Moreover, the images of security cameras and chain links on the walls and mirrors surrounding the screen served as a barbed and unsettling reference not just to state surveillance but also to the concept of ‘surveillance capitalism’, wherein software collects and sells data on users to predict and influence their behaviour. Indeed (and perhaps not wanting to be outdone), the Chinese government recently castigated Meitu for gathering an excessive amount of data on its users for commercial purposes, comparing the application’s activities to Facebook and Cambridge Analytica.
However, Holmes’s account of the aesthetics of Chinternet Ugly in her curatorial essay felt underdeveloped. The exhibition’s name playfully and knowingly echoed the term ‘Internet Ugly’ coined by Nick Douglas in his description of the deliberately amateurish aesthetic running through meme culture. Holmes identified a similar aesthetic in the works exhibited in Chinternet Ugly and set this aesthetic against the high-tech ‘machine vision’ associated with ‘Sino-futurism’. But while several of the works in the exhibition indeed drew on the slapdash, low-fi visual vocabulary of the online environment, others also employed the advanced 3D renderings more typical of Sino-futurism. It was unclear, therefore, why Holmes characterised the works included in Chinternet Ugly as aesthetically distinct from Sino-futurism.
A Post-it Note stuck to a comment board near the exhibition’s exit asked, ‘but is it art?’, a challenge often posed to works that incorporate elements from ‘low’ visual culture, including online spaces. Yet Chinternet Ugly indubitably affirmed the creativity and resourcefulness of netizens and artists navigating China online. The image of the internet that it sketched indeed appeared to have ‘Chinese characteristics’, distinguished by applications that are markedly more integrated with each other than many of those available outside of China, and of course by the powers of surveillance that its netizens navigate and circumnavigate. But the works included here raised questions pertinent to any visitor, implicated as we all are in a web of interlinked digital services parsing an ever-increasing sea of data.
Andrew Cummings is a PhD candidate at The Courtauld Institute of Art in collaboration with Tate. His thesis explores fantasy, sci-fi, and horror in contemporary art from East and Southeast Asia.
 Guobin Yang, ‘A Chinese Internet? History, Practice, and Globalization’, Chinese Journal of Communication 5.1 (March 2012), 49-54, 49.
 Ros Holmes, ‘Internet Art with “Chinese Characteristics”?’, in Marianna Tsionki (ed), Chinternet Ugly (Manchester: Centre for Chinese Contemporary Art, 2019).
 Shoshana Zuboff, The Age of Surveillance Capitalism: The Fight For a Human Future at the New Frontier of Power (London: Profile Books, 2018).
 Tim Culpan, ‘Beijing Won’t Brook Corporate Competition in Spying’, Bloomberg (Published: 30 November 2018, Last accessed: 30 June 2019, www.bloomberg.com/opinion/articles/2018-11-30/beijing-won-t-brook-corporate-competition-in-spying).
 Nick Douglas, ‘It’s Supposed to Look Like Shit: The Internet Ugly Aesthetic’, Journal of Visual Culture 13.3 (December 2014), 314-339.