Miao Ying: .gif Island

10 October – 10 December 2014, V Art Centre, Shanghai

By Iona Whittaker

Miao Ying, Is it me you are looking for?!, 2014. Courtesy the artist

Internet art is, by its very nature, concerned with the most populous, unrelenting, expansive and diverse aspect of contemporary culture. .gif Island presents a measured reflection – and not without humour.

As one approaches the gallery, Lionel Richie’s Hello (1983) can be heard blaring from the first videowork, Is it me you are looking for?! (2014). In it, a loop of the song’s 1984 music video showing Lionel falling for a blind girl who fashions a sculpture of his face plays via a YouTube link. Its schmaltzy scenes are followed – or preceded – by three LAN Love Poem .gifs (all 2014), which variously pair screenshots of ‘website unavailable’ notices (from censored sites) with floating or revolving texts in kitsch, colourful fonts that act like abstract slogans haunting the broken links. ‘To be missed is another kind of beauty’, reads one; another, ‘When cigarettes fall in love with matches the cigarette gets burned’; or (this time the text appears in a Google Search box), ‘Holding a kitchen knife cut internet cable, a road with lightning sparks’. The blocked web pages are a fact – they have been barred by the government in an overt bid to curb viewers’ use of the web. The overlaid gif text that caresses the unavailable-site pages is whimsical and tacky, yet with a certain poetic reach; a sense of futility against the firewall seems emphasised here via these incongruities of unembellished censorship and kitschy visuals. There is a strong note of the absurd here, which could be a remark on the strange nature of human attachment, and its denial.

APP-nosis (2013–14) consists of three open metal pyramids with real turf and large cushions (printed with extracts from Apple ads) laid at the base. From the top of each metal frame is suspended an iPhone inviting one to recline below, gazing up at it. On the wall beyond, one of the pyramids projects the blank background hue of an app, minus the app itself (a surprisingly satisfying, minimal image with graduated tones). A soothing, oceanside soundtrack plays. This deconstructive gesture muses, one feels, on forms of attention and detachment that the handheld screen has raised to new heights.

The minimal overall aesthetic is punctured by a small space in which a case of brightly lit glittering devices encrusted with diamante stand or revolve (#mememe, 2014). Fake Apple accessories – cigarette lighters, for example – flank iPads and phones whose cases are photographic ‘selfie’ images harvested from the web and further enhanced by the artist. Selfie prints, sticks and printed towels complete this installation, pointing to the desiring culture of ownership and self-image. The advertising upon which such dreams are built finds artistic form in a series of digital prints on canvas (Tech Abstractionism, 2014). Scaled up from the perfect reflections on black products in Apple advertising, these are the most direct works in the show.

But perhaps the greatest draw in this exhibition is a pair of reclining chairs draped with emoji-printed towels (Landscape.gif, 2013). Encroaching on them in angled holders are a number of touch-screen devices on which different trembling, animated gifs repeat delirious imagery featuring whirling sandwiches, pink cloudlike cats, seals and rainbows. A mass of wires and crumpled paper bearing the Chinese Internet meme Zan (close to the ‘like’ of Western social media) litter the floor.

Thus does .gif Island explore the contemporary relationship with devices in ways both insightful and visually apt. A certain low-key sublimity underlies these works, which, as much as they represent forms of desire, kitsch and ephemerality attached to net culture, notice also its slight poetry and potential absurdity. No man is an island, as the saying goes; in turn, digital technology – far from remaining a separate, nonemotive realm – absorbs and emits human sensibility through these works.

This article was first published in the January & February 2015 issue.