On the incomparable abundance of images and visual stimuli in modern life and their influences on artistic expression, curator Ariadne Long examines the works by Trevor Yeung, Wang Tuo, and Miao Ying in the Sigg Prize 2023 exhibition to see how they have captured these visual materials and incorporated them into narratives and works that relate to the past, present, and future.
LED streetlights and billboards packed like fish scales, the countless universes in films, television, and smartphones, and the continuously updated virtual worlds of video games—these are all sources of artistic creation. As with the development of these elements, the ways in which artists understand and interpret our world have undergone seismic change. Much of Trevor Yeung’s practice draws from everyday life, from the large trees pulled down by typhoons to the brightly coloured fish in the aquariums along Mong Kok’s Goldfish Street, even a dim bedside lamp at a quarantine hotel that is always turned on.
In the exhibition, the title of the large poster Red Brighter (2019) is from an insurance company’s promotional slogan ‘For a brighter future,’ on a billboard towering over Star House next to the Star Ferry Pier in Tsim Sha Tsui. Owing to its placement in one of Hong Kong’s tourism hotspots, this eye-catching electronic advertisement once dominated Victoria Harbour’ skyline and was played on loop for a long period of time.
In the eyes of Yeung, this endless repetition of visual stimuli in everyday life can make the unfamiliar become natural and therefore no longer questioned. The defamiliarisation of the everyday is a prominent feature in his works. When the city was devastated by the pandemic in 2019, streets that were once bustling became deserted, but the looping ads continued to illuminate Victoria Harbour, and in those months, the slogan ‘For a brighter future’, seemingly full of positivity, became bitterly ironic.
When creating this work, Yeung referenced street posters that are ubiquitous in Hong Kong, pasting them untidily on the bare grey walls of the room to create a rough and makeshift visual effect. Composed of belt stanchions, The Queue (2023) allows visitors to line up and enter the room in single file under the ‘guiding light’ of the poster to relive the experience of going through immigration control. As we emerge from a global pandemic, these two works bring to mind our shared visual experience at the time.
If Yeung’s Red Brighter can be said to draw on visual experience to recall a past reality, Wang Tuo’s video work Northeast Tetralogy (2018–2021) uses history as a medium to comprehend the here and now. In 2018, the case of Zhang Koukou, a migrant worker who committed murder to avenge his mother’s death, sparked heated debate across society about judicial justice. Images of his arrest and trial, which also show his grieving friends and family, flooded mainstream news outlets and social media. Wang delves into these heartrending images and the complex individual narratives of the case in Smoke and Fire (2018) and Wailing Requiem (2021), the first and last parts of Northeast Tetralogy, before extending this exploration to historical events in East Asia in Distorting Words (2019) and Tungus (2021).
Altogether, the tetralogy spans an entire century, focusing on key historical events and figures over the course of several monumental periods of time. Other than the case of Zhang Kuokuo, the tetralogy also covers the unfortunate circumstances of Guo Qinguang, a young student who found himself unable to contribute to his country during the May Fourth Movement of 1919, and the rarely documented siege of Changchun in 1948. However, Wang does not simply reproduce history. Instead, he deftly interweaves folk mythology with historical allusions and shamanic ceremonial practices through time and space to enrich his work.
The four works of the tetralogy have been exhibited as standalone pieces in the past, but in this exhibition, Wang presents the tetralogy as a whole. Upon entering the space, viewers are greeted by seven screens mounted at varying heights, the installation looking like an encircling range of hills. The alternating rhythms of experimental music, all with a different tempo, resound with the multitude of videos, immersing visitors in Wang’s visual maze.
Here, the completion of the narratives seems less pertinent; viewers do not need to watch the films all the way through to grasp the grand and phantasmagorical historical atmosphere. Several protagonists bearing similar fates appear repeatedly in different storylines, pointing to the themes Wang wishes to discuss in his works: What does it mean to repeat history along a predetermined trajectory in non-linear narratives across space and time? Can we use historical perspectives to examine our present conflicts and challenges?
In contrast to Yeung and Wang’s works referencing the real world, Miao Ying’s Pilgrimage into Walden XII (2019–2023) focuses on the virtual space of the internet, where her creative concepts are formed and developed. In reviewing Miao’s works from different phases of her career, we can also witness the development of internet culture. From her early appropriation and ridicule of forms of online media such as GIFs, dan mu (real-time on-screen comments), parody videos, and livestreams to her newer works making use of video game animation to explore the relationship between technology and art, Miao highlights the intense, chaotic, and derivative aspects of internet language. Since 2019, Miao has been collaborating with computer science researchers from Cornell University to integrate machine learning technology into her works.
Pilgrimage into Walden XII is a recent work in three chapters. While set in the Middle Ages, the piece revolves around the cutting-edge development of AI technology. Pilgrimage into Walden XII draws inspiration from the novel Walden Two by the psychologist B. F. Skinner, a story that contemplates how an ideal nation could be established through the alteration and control of human behaviour. In Pilgrimage into Walden XII, rather than humans, the training and alterations are carried out on individual AI models.
In the first chapter, the AI models receive real-time training through data feeding, eventually becoming social shepherds that guide Walden XII and its cockroach villagers. By the second chapter, the AI models have become capable of writing movie scripts with the text generation model GPT-3. In the third chapter, Miao focuses on websites and mobile apps to showcase an uncontrolled AI world. The three chapters of the work illustrate the overall trajectory of the development of AI, from being trained and used by humans to their eventual state of unrestrained freedom, revealing the artist’s concerns about the growth of this technology.
In this AI world of chaos, Miao erases all the characters, and the story itself. Viewers are only able to see flashes of light, attacks and blocks, and other visual effects that appear on the screen, as if to imply that in the end, the world will just be reduced to machines running in the background and a sea of flickering lights. The work uses simple and direct video game visual language and presents a state of constant and explosive growth. Packaged in vivid colour with cute animated imagery, the narrative of Pilgrimage into Walden XII is one that points to an unknown future.