An art exhibition of mixed-media works at Shanghai’s Island 6 gallery made us think about the aesthetics of paper and LED in a cultural circle of meaning.
Artistic signification is where culture and semiotics meet at their most ceremonial. Unlike branding, where semiotic mechanisms aim to be as clear as possible, art often relies in signifying contrasting meanings. Such is the case here with the playful juxtapositions of old and new through their form: paper and LED.
Paper, invented in China, stood as symbol of progress and cultural prosperity. Embraced much later by Western nations, it came to play a vital role in their rise. Literature, science and education would not have spread to the extent they did if it wasn’t for the book. Then, another of its ‘by-products’ arrived – the banknote: the smallest piece of paper ever glorified – to stand for the West’s final transformation into a financial empire. It took over from the book and created different values and belief systems. And now we might see it bring the empire to its knees. At the same time and in complete contrast, paper has also moved from ancient wisdom to signify – through the banknote – China’s current financial boom and personal affluence. In this part of the world it signifies China’s comeback to prosperity and the glory days of the ancient past, justifiably representing here Shanghai’s skyscrapers as monuments of power and success.
The light-emitting diode representing digital technology is also a symbol of progress and greatness. Whereas in the West, where it was born, it is now seen as the premonition of a dystopian future, here it is used to portray humanity. Adopted and glorified by the East, it stands at its mightiest and brightest filling Chinese days with the practicality and efficiency of the digital and Chinese nights with the vibrancy and playfulness of the neon. The people in the canvases are the protagonists, foregrounded and in advantageous disproportionate scale, playful and full of vitality, in constant motion and total control. They display a romantic innocence through their interaction with the buildings. LED here signifies blood pumping energy and glorified humanity. In a place where digital technology is welcomed with no questioning, it is viewed as an inextricable part of life with liberating characteristics. China embraces LED, receiving a reciprocating gift from the West, one that took a long time to arrive. The roles are reversed. The digital is viewed in China as paper would have been viewed during its early popularity in Europe.
The juxtaposition of the two techniques creates a dialogue of meanings, a debate for and against their associated grand inventions and their cultural paths. But it also comes to a conclusion through the contradictory but prevailing symbiosis of human (subject matter) and digital (form). The Chinese context offers a new way of seeing paper and digital and, through them, the state of contemporary human condition.