Our art co-editor, Mike Sweeney, recently had this exchange with LiQin Tan, Issue #16’s featured artist. Here’s what he had to say about the cultural and political context for his work, his working process, and some of the technical challenges of his animation installations.
Your work has been noted by reviewers as being fascinating in its particular way of integrating commentary on Chinese culture and politics—not by necessarily integrating specific Chinese symbols but instead through concepts that offer more subtle cultural and political commentary. I’m very interested in this in the context of this Refractive Brain Therapy Series. Can you share what drew you to the concept of refractivity, particularly in pulling together the duality of meaning, and its connection to the Chinese cultural and political history?
The concept comes from my Chinese cultural roots, since I grew up in China and suffered through “the Great Leap Forward” and “the Cultural Revolution” movements. In Chinese philosophy, “Tao” (Dao) denotes everything in the world that is both the source of and the force of Yin Yang. It prescribes a system of thought balance between the ethics of human behaviors and the changes of natural and social worlds.
My goal was to show a new understanding of refractivity, looking at it as both a natural phenomenon, but also, and ultimately more importantly, a social one. In Chinese ideology, the phrase “refractivity” holds the dual meaning of initiating an illusion and leading towards social truth. For example, water therapy is a physical treatment, often embodied in the form of steam baths, but it also applies to psychological activities such as brainwashing. I aimed to relate these physical phenomenon to social issues in this exhibit.
Having not seen this series in the gallery, I’d love to get a better sense of what it’s like to be there interacting with the brains and how this adds to the understanding of these concepts. Can you take me through that experience a bit?
The installations consist of dozens of large digital prints on metal, along with numerous other animation installations. Some prints are showcased in large water-filled vats made of tempered glass. The audience can observe the morphing of the digital images, with changes in water-level and lighting, and their refractions through the glass.
When viewing the changes in water-level and lighting shifts in the vats, audiences in China will immediately recall the concept of “brainwashing” and the depth to which they or their parents suffered such brainwashing movements in the 1960s.
Having only ever read about the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution from an outside perspective, I can begin to connect to this, but I know there’s a lot I’m missing. Can you give our readers a perspective of where you’re coming from in your personal history?
When I was one-year-old, the Great Leap Forward began. It lasted until I was four (1961).
From the Chinese government’s perspective, it was an economic and social campaign aimed at using rapid industrialization and collectivization to quickly transform the country from an agricultural economy into a socialist society. It is now widely considered the cause of mass starvation and tens of millions of deaths.
The only thing I remember of that time is that there was nothing to eat, and my family had to survive on nothing but wild herbs and bran dumplings.
I did, however, participate directly in the Cultural Revolution, Mao Zedong’s social-political movement to purge all capitalist and traditional elements from our culture and ensure a ‘true’ Communist ideology, which lasted from 1966 to 1976. I joined the “Little Red Guards” in the beginning period of the revolution. I learned Chinese through writing “3-Character Classic” posters against teachers and school leaders.
But, like millions of others, my family was persecuted with tactics such as public humiliation and imprisonment. My father, a high school principal, was denounced day and night. I recall once seeing him surrounded by Red Guards students in the street. He was wearing a tall paper hat with “a capitalist roader” written on it and had a large wood board with the words “down down Tan” hanging from his neck. When I was nine, on behalf of my family, I was allowed to visit my “Capitalist-Roader” father via ferry and train. Once, with my money removed by Red Guards, I had no ticket to take the train back, walking home alone for 20 miles.
In 1969, my family was forced to move from the city to father’s old farmhouse in the countryside until I graduated from high school. This was part of Mao’s “Down to the Countryside Movement,” which transferred urban youths to rural regions. My siblings and I lived in the farmhouse independently, following a daily routine of cutting wood, planting vegetables, cooking and laundry, feeding pigs and chickens. We experienced the taste of deep hunger, hard labor and struggles of a farmer.
Our team was also quite moved by the Grindstone installation video, featured on your website (and now shown below). Would you be able to tell our readers a bit about that: where the concept came from and how it evolved into the installation that we see in the video?
The grindstone is an ancient Chinese agricultural implement. My idea behind this piece is a concept I call “Digital-Primitive,” where I use digital technology to reconsider ancient agricultural art. This large animation installation also emphasizes the Cultural Revolution and Great Leap Forward, and the conflict between industrialization and agriculture. It does so interactively by allowing people to move the handle of lager stone over the digital screens, which animate to show agricultural scenes that crack and morph into bleak, industrial images.
I’m very intrigued by the different names of the pieces in the Refractive Brain Therapy series: “Refractive Dizziness,” “Rusty Saltiness,” “Refractive Numbness,” “Refractive Drunk,” etc. Can you tell me how you came to these names?
Yes, the “Rusty” vs. the “Refractive” are different states of being. The “Rusty” came from my Rusty Faces series, which consists of three, large digital prints on copper, and four rust animations displayed on seven LCD TVs. This speaks to the fact that our work ethic and life attitude determine the degree to which we, as humans, rust. With digital animation technology, “Rusty-Faces” presents a contemporary artistic interpretation of the deterioration of mind, body, and spirit by harmful and self-destructive human behaviors.
Dizziness, Saltiness, Numbness, Drunk speak to each facial expression as affected by relative water-level and refractive conditions.
Your work is clearly very technically complex and intense, and I think our readers would be very interested in learning more about your process and the technical challenges that come with such complexity. Can you walk us through some of your process for this series?
Yes. For 3D and animation, I used Softimage|XSI, Maya, and ZBrush. Post production was done in Adobe AfterEffects, Combustion, Photoshop/CS, and Premiere/Pro. Through these programs, I was able to emulate the real world effect of decaying rust.
I used a special HP Scitex P2700 printer and calibrated specialized media sensors to print on the thick, rigid areas and uneven layers of the metal surfaces of the “brains” and “faces.” To do this, you must make sure that the timing of micro millimeter differences is perfect when layering the ink over the planar depth. Otherwise, the image will not develop and cohere correctly.
I often bring in other artists and craftspeople to help with these technically complex projects. For example, I engaged computer science students from Rutgers University, where I teach, to assist with the programming of the interactive elements of my work, which were essential to the overall process. I also hired a blacksmith, glass worker, carpenter, and stone mason to assist in the creation of the installation, which was equally intensive.
I read in a review in ArtWorld that you had to actually build a render farm to handle the resolutions you needed for the work. Can you speak to that challenge a bit?
Yes, we did build a render farm to handle the high resolutions for rendering. The computers we had were simply not fast enough to handle our high resolutions of 50000 x 33000 pixels animation and images rendering at the time. This was 2002 through 2008. We had to put 20 to 30 old computers together as a render farm to do the job. Of course, technical assistants, such as Dennis Maffett and Shaun Jennings, helped me a lot during that time.
Expanding on your process and technique, can you also tell me more about the Digital Native technique that you pioneered?
The Digital Native concept began with digital printing on rawhides, which had not been attempted at the time (2002). The concept revolves around using digital technologies to simulate and create a new nature in the digital world. I started by researching online and in many libraries, but found no references. I made a few rawhides by myself through a friend’s studio and most of them I bought from rawhide studio located in New York State.
The first few attempts were messy, and we broke the university’s printer a few times, as we didn’t know how much space we had to lift up the ink-roller. After many tries, and with help from HP technical support and the Ontario Coating Company in New York State, finally, we figured out the right coatings (before and after) and the right space to lift up the ink-roller for a high quality print.
I’ve since expanded this Digital Native concept to re-envision the five fundamental elements in Chinese Taoism—wood, water, metal, fire, and earth–by using three dimensional animation and computer-generated design. Through my work, I’ve realized that technology can be intensely cathartic, with cyberspace altering the way we seek out and appreciate natural beauty.
How have you been able to further your work as technology has changed and improved over the years since you’ve begun working in the digital medium?
The technology keeps changing every day, so I am always working to update my technology to create artwork that meets with the new standards of digital art.
Currently, I am writing a book called Singularity Art: How Technological Singularity Will Impact On Art that forces me to do a large amount of research of future technologies, such as artificial intelligence, bio-tech, Nona-tech, visual realty, 4D smart printing, smart fashion tech, smart material, and future architecture.
I also go to SIGGRAPH [an international community of researchers, artists, developers, filmmakers, scientists, and business professionals who share an interest in computer graphics and interactive techniques] most every year. This gives me an opportunity to explore new technologies through the lectures, exhibitions, and hands-on studios.
Can you tell me more about your research around how technological Singularity will impact art?
Yes. The majority of this research will examine the relationship between technological Singularity and art, and how this interface will change the creative force and provide a blueprint for future art expansion. The desired outcomes from the research include delivering insightful predictions about the interaction of technology and art (artists, art creation, art tools, art materials, art education, and art industries) in a Singularity era.
Singularity research has grown into a new trend, sweeping through the world and influencing futurology, anthropology, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, biology, medical, computer science, economics, culture, philosophy, linguistics, and so on and so forth. The Singularity University, the Singularity Institute for Artificial Intelligence, the Singularity Summit, and a variety of other organizations have been established. Many research books have also been published in the last few years, such as Our Molecular Future by Douglas Mulhall, The Singularity Is Near by Ray Kurzweil, Physics of the Future by Dr. Michio Kaku, and Singularity Rising by Dr. James Miller.
However, in the midst of all this research, there is missing an essential component: how art research can radically intersect with Singularity concepts. My research for Singularity Art may become a pioneer in contemporary art research, as I seek to explore the implications of a future art faced with the Singularity. I go so far as to say that my research may one day become a basic component of how we comprehend the Singularity. Since the Singularity will undoubtedly impact artists’ ability to learn skills and to create, the book could become a reference point for contemporary artists who will transform the field of art in order to meet the Singularity era.
Kurzweil states in his book The Singularity Is Near: “At the onset of the twenty-first century, humanity stands on the verge of the most transforming and thrilling period in its history. It will be an era in which the very nature of what it means to be human will be both enriched and challenged as our species breaks the shackles of its genetic legacy and achieves inconceivable heights of intelligence, material progress, and longevity.”
The creation of art in such an era invites new and surprising possibilities. Is culture is a human or a machine in the Singularity era? Singularity Art will make a multifaceted examination of this issue and will challenge artists with different ways of thinking to prepare them to face such cultural challenges in future art.
This research will require both technological expertise and contemporary art knowledge. I will collaborate with graduate students in the departments of anthropology, quantum physics, artificial intelligence, biology, computer science, nanotechnology, engineering, etc., in conducting experiments and learning about major advances in technology. I will also do more research to further the depth of my knowledge in digital art, interactive art, bio-art, AI-art, and any other new technological art forms.