A Conversation with Jinhui Wang II

In the second chapter of our conversation with Jinhui Wang 汪锦卉, a recent Royal College of Art graduate, our discussions evolved around digital art, we talked about Jin’s artistic inspirations, the main ethos of her artistic practices and the current hot topics like the pandemic and NFT.

For the introduction, as well as the first chapter of the interview on Jin’s past and background, please follow the link.

What’s Real

Axel Wang: What would you call yourself on a business card?

Jinhui Wang: If I would have a business card? I guess the point of having a business card is so that people can easily understand what you do.

AW: Exactly.

JW: I would just say artist. Definitely not a photographer — that’s very misleading. If the person wants to know more I’m always here.

“This has always been my interest, in exploring what is real or what do believe is real versus what is not real. Like, how do we define this boundary.”

AW: Here comes a very stupid question, what are your artistic inspirations? I somewhat sensed a bit of Kubrick in your work.

JW: 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) is one of my all-time favourites. I like the fact that, there’re so many different layers to it, and the fact that nothing is explained overtly. It’s a timeless masterpiece that tells a story about the cycle, about us, the human beings. It reflects on our very existence — we exist, we rise, we fall, and then we start all over again — a cycle that we can never break out of, from the micro to the macro. To me that’s also what’s amazing about us, human beings, this cycle is beyond time and space, it’s the cause and the result of everything, and we never give up.

I’m inspired by different aspects of different people really, I love the works of Nam June Paik, for the playfulness and how he used the so-called technology as one element in his sculptures. Jean Baudrillard probably speaks to me the most, the author of Simulacra & Simulation (1981), which in turn inspired the Matrix movie series. What Baudrillard talked about in the book was basically, OK, I’m going to try to summarise it… To conceal is to pretend not having what we have, and to simulate is to pretend to have what we do not have, Baudrillard believed a simulation questions the difference between the real and the unreal, whereas a simulacrum is something, that doesn’t need to be justified by anything else other than itself, like God. There is always a manipulator in a simulation, but what if the manipulator itself is a simulacrum? We then enter the loop of questioning what is real and what is not real, and it might just be easier to stop this binary logic, and admit the fact that we actually live in a hybrid state. The Matrix referenced a lot of Baudrillard from what I got out of.

AW: Are you excited about the 4th Matrix film?

JW: I don’t know, I didn’t like the last one. The first one (The Matrix 1999) is the best for me personally, because it corresponded with Baudrillard’s theories, however the second (The Matrix Reloaded 2003) and the third (The Matrix Revolutions 2003) felt more like a continuation without introducing anything new, it turned into a warfare of who wins and who loses.

AW: Human vs. machine.

JW: Yes, then it became binary. Anyways, coming back to artists, there’s one piece created by Claes Oldenburg the sculptor in 1963 called, Bedroom Ensemble. It’s being shown in the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. It’s practically a set of beds like its name suggests, the whole piece looks like a motel or a hotel room and you would find a variety of objects physically sitting here and there too. I remember when I saw it for the first time, I had absolutely zero clue to what’s special about this bedroom-lookalike thing. But then if you really open your eyes wide and look closely, you see that the corners of the bed frame are not 90-degree, everything else was constructed geometrically and optically false on purpose. Without going into too many details, for me the piece created this illusion as if you are looking through the lens of a camera, it felt real due to the presence of the objects but weirdly unreal at the same time because everything was distorted and warped in the space. This has always been my interest, in exploring what is real or what we believe is real versus what is not real. Like, how do we define this boundary.

AW: You started to experiment with the digital medium since the pandemic, when I spoke with you for the first time I was telling you that I felt this medium is still very much beyond me, how would you explain to me, about what digital art is, and why should I care about it?

JW: Maybe I could ask you the same question of what art is. It really is a question that would spark different responses from different people I guess. In fact I really enjoy the work of Arthur Danto’s recently, he’s a philosopher and a professor at the Columbia University and he published a book called What Art Is (2013), where he wrote about this whole debate, especially after the modern art movement, of people arguing whether art was dead, or art became something else or if it’s remaining unchanged, what’s art and what’s not, there were simply different points of views. The same goes for digital art, it’s like old-fashioned journalism versus digital journalism, old-school accounting versus digital accounting, the whole technology/digital revolution has taken place in all fields.

My generation, we practically grew up holding a mouse in our hand, obviously pens too, we still write, but when you start using computers from a young age, it becomes second nature. Learning the movement of a mouse for us is somewhat like people learning to write with a pen in the past. Sure, the computer language is a whole different system, a binary one with a different logic behind it and it took a while for humans to adapt. We’ve now reached a phase where, all these movements, this (gesturing taking photos with a phone), and this (gesturing taking a selfie holding a phone in one hand), all these hand movements — they are so widely adopted, so common, engrained even, they already became second nature for us, just like people with pens in the past. The digital medium has become a part of our lives and a part of our reality, digital artwork for me is merely another medium that arises with the progression of technology. Every medium has its limitation too of course, just like painting using brushes on a certain-sized canvas, digital art for me right now it’s extremely confined to the way of a display or a screen, good resolution is also a must so they are more likely to be on the pricey side.

AW: What do you make of the digital frenzy these days?

JW: I would like to refer back to Baudrillard once more, he’s not a man of our time but he talked about consumerism, pop culture, television and all. What he proposed was, and I agree that, in a way, it’s all simulations, it’s a loop. Like, we believe that we buy avocados because we actually want to eat them, not because of a healthy-food commercial that we once saw. Likewise for selfies, where we subconsciously pose for the photo instead of using it as genuine documentation of life, it manipulates you into your everyday action and it changes the way you behave in real life. If we should even call that the real life because, if everyone starts doing things online, that instead becomes the real life right — a simulation of another reality. I suppose most of us live in contradictions because we are being influenced all the time. We humans are such fascinating animals, like we are so fascinating, so contradictory, cynical but nice, all in one. Jean-Paul Sartre the French philosopher said that in order to prove that we exist, we make decisions and we take 100% responsibility for our decisions, that’s how we are able to exist as our own God independently. That in itself is a little bit contradictory for me because, how you dress, how you talk, the way you do things, the things you eat, even down to the tiniest detail in an intimate relationship, you sometimes mimic each other, or you imitate a character in a movie etc., the influences are all very subconscious. It’s neither good nor bad, I think, it’s just there.

The digital medium is not necessarily evil either, it’s not that binary at all. I honestly feel that it’s overly simplifying to just say, that one thing is absolutely bad and we should never have it in our lives. Like, for example, in The Matrix, eventually it became this big battle between the good guys who are trying to save the real world, versus the bad ones, the agents, the big manipulator behind it, which is one of the main reasons why I wasn’t too big a fan because it’s all too binary, even though according to Baudrillard’s theory, that we do live in a matrix sort of simulation, people fantasise about the fact that there’s someone manipulating us from above. At the end of the day we are probably just our own manipulators and we create our own simulations then we live in them. Once again it’s all an endless loop and the circle doesn’t end. This was what inspired me to create Space Travel (2021) actually. I am still learning more about this digital language by day, and I am trying to make sense of what it is myself too. My works are digital because, for the questions I wanted to raise and what I wanted to express, it was a more suitable medium, at the same time I also felt like it’s an area that hasn’t been discussed enough, for a lot of people it’s still relatively new and bizarre. But then it is our new reality, I personally don’t think technology or digital is as evil as some make it out to be, it’s just another canvas.

AW: And NFT, do you reckon it’s turning digital art into something else?

JW: NFT is good in a way that it draws a more diverse crowd of audiences to the art, and in which, yes it sort of gave birth to a different form of art. This is not strictly NFT-related but probably relevant given the context, a creator’s creation reflects oneself, there’s a substantial purpose and meaning behind one’s creation, however in a particular moment when the intention behind the creation is driven by money and creators put price tags on their works, not that I’m against creators living off their art but then in the NFT world, when prices go crazily high, not necessarily due to the value of the work but the opportunistic financial motivations, individual investors trying to get into this quick money grab — and again I would prefer not getting into an argument of what constitutes to the value of artwork — this phenomenon becomes a problem because, for me the reality is, when I said NFT draws more audiences, a lot of the audiences however— speaking from my own experience — these audiences, they don’t really care. When things are shifting so fast no one is able to sit down and think, along with the whole crypto hype, they are only in it for the quick money and nothing else. When the prices go so absurdly high, understandably people go high. The reason why there’re so many talks among NFT now is probably because of the amount of money in it, ostensibly making it relevant and important, it’s not really about the art anymore.

AW: Like a stock.

JW: Finance in a form of art.

“I’m used to people seeing me differently and asking me questions…”

AW: It’s hard not to bring up the pandemic, especially since you are from Wuhan. For the past couple of years the city has been getting a lot of stigmas, how are you handling everything?

JW: I was already in London when the whole thing went down. There were some racially-related incidents, only some, like, they were saying things about Chinese eating pangolins or whatnot. It’s not really the first time that I’ve been asked these sorts of stereotypical questions bordering on being offensive. The few times that it did happen, I guess people were not actually intending to be offensive, they asked those questions perhaps because they may have never been out of their comfort zones. Most of the time they’re not really expecting any answers from you since they already have one for themselves, I tend to just completely ignore this group because there’s no point in keep talking about it.

I guess I’m not that sensitive anymore towards this, as I’ve been to a lot of places and I’m used to people seeing me differently and asking me questions, I usually deal with it pretty well I would say. For the past year ‘Wuhan’ has been getting a lot of attention just like you said, eyebrows were raised whenever I mentioned the fact that it’s where I’m from — ‘Have you ever been to the lab?’, ‘Is the lab real?’, ‘Do you really eat bats?” — there are all sorts really, maybe people thought they were being interesting and funny, I would throw a half-witty comeback from time to time and be like, put the joke on them, you know sometimes, it’s better not to take it so seriously I guess.

AW: Let’s explore some alternatives or future possibilities here. In a way the pandemic has pushed people out of cities and back to nature, though for someone like yourself who just started piecing together a life, you can’t simply abandon everything in London and move up to some mountains in Scotland, but would it be something that you would perhaps do one day, practice your art somewhere else outside of a city?

JW: Oh, definitely. Probably nothing long term though, I wouldn’t be able to just completely give up city life. I love people and frankly I’m concerned about problems, which is a big part of what keeps me going every day. And a lot of these problems, you probably won’t even register the fact that they are there without talking with people. For thousands of years, humans have been building cities and inventing all these tools, everything that we do nowadays comes down to a tool and it’s quite amazing. So I definitely don’t see myself going primitive in a cave living without any of these tools, that’s backwards really. I’ve just realised how much we’ve all missed nature thanks to the pandemic, especially after I moved away from Canada. In cities like New York, London or Shanghai, things are moving so fast, too fast, not to mention with the pandemic, it’s been one thing right after another, you can’t afford to slow down and reflect, people rush into decisions and we all end up in conundrums. When it becomes a monster that big, it’s hard to tame, but nature calms it down, and in turn triggers you to actually start using your brain a little and think about things, instead of just doing things or being a slave. At least pause and think about why you are being a slave right? But yes, to answer your question, I would love to one day, just to move away, for a few years, maybe, have my own studio and just take it easy.

The original interview was conducted in English by Axel Wang on 28 October 2021. The title of the chapter is in reference to the song by the Gang Starr featuring Group Home & Royce Da 5”9” from their 2019 album One Of The Best Yet .

Editor & Design: Axel Wang

Photography: Courtesy of Jinhui Wang

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