Bringing Chinese Ink Paintings To Interactive Life

Hong Kong-based new media artist Hung Keung’s installation allows viewers to interact with the concepts of Chinese philosophy.

May 30 2013, 1:05pm

Dao x Microcosmic Play and Appreciation

Chinese literati painting is a traditional style which uses a scroll as a canvas and combines the expressions of Chinese poetry, water and ink painting, and calligraphy. What's special about it is the creative process happens at the same time as the viewer beholds the painting—often in a social gathering or in the privacy of a literati’s study, the exchange of ideas and emotions between multiple artists/intellectuals are recorded on the painting scroll, which is rolled out gradually. The painting thus becomes an on-going evolution that adds meaning and narrative over time.

This almost-obsolete mode of art appreciation differs widely with the way Western viewers behold art in the "white box", which often takes on a spectatorial and no-touching stance towards its subject. Yet despite being old, the concept and delivery of Chinese literati painting actually strikes a very similar chord with the modern approach to interactive media that's being practised by artists today.

Chinese new media artist Hung Keung is an artist who uses his work to create a modern context for historical Chinese art. His latest installation entitled Dao x Microcosmic Play and Appreciation recently debuted at Art Basel Hong Kong. It's an artwork that explores the concept of the “yellow box”, where an activity that was only enjoyed by the elite Chinese echelon half a millennium ago, is transformed into a digital interactive experience shared by everyday people from all over the world.

We caught up with Hung Keung to learn more about his creative process and the concept behind the piece.

Dao x Microcosmic Play and Appreciation

The Creators Project: Can you explain a bit about the physical set up of Dao x Microcosmic Play and Appreciation? How does the viewer interact with the installation?
Hung Keung: 
The large installation consists of three sculptures at different heights, for each a microscopic camera is installed to rotate around the sculpture. When a viewer walks into the space of the work the image of the spectator is integrated, recorded, and transmitted in real time onto two semi-transparent rounded plastic screens hanging from the ceiling and three vertical television screens that are situated next to each other on the opposite wall. Strokes, parts, or the whole of many Chinese characters swarm around on the screens and follow the movements of the viewer, who is now a subject of the work.

There are six screens that vertically line up next to each other as part of this installation. Half of which display how the spectators interact with each of the three sculptures, the other three screens show a sequence of digital images that explore the physical and temporal properties of Chinese ink. This animation is a record of my own performance, in which I applied a dot of black ink on a piece of rice paper and documented how that dot of ink evolved over time. The highly absorbable property of rice paper has allowed the ink dot to spread out and become larger in size through the passage of time. This performance is also in effect an experimentation on the idea of transition, space, and time.

Dao x Microcosmic Play and Appreciation

What is concept behind this installation?
My digital media artwork series Dao Gives Birth to One (2009-2012) and Dao x Microcosmic Play and Appreciation serve as a case study and practical experimentation project, furthering the analysis of how the traditional Chinese concepts of time and space can be applied through digital moving images in a long scroll format. In these works I attempted to demonstrate (1) The concept of Dao, (2) the function of the scroll as a form, and (3) that four-dimensional construction of Chinese characters can create temporal and spatial experiences similar to those found in traditional Chinese painting and calligraphy. I am interested in integrating these traditional concepts via digital media technology so as to transform the role of the viewer away from the concept of the "yellow box" into an interactive video installation platform.

Dao Gives Birth to One

Hung Keung discusses his approach to digital art

In the video above, you said you founded imhk lab with the aim to create software catered to the Chinese and Hong Kong community. What do you think are the differences between Western and Eastern creative software?
I don’t consider my custom made interactive software to represent the so called "Eastern creative software", but I can say my software has always been developed based on my thoughts in relation to Chinese philosophy (i.e. Dao & Buddhism) or a specific Hong Kong situation (i.e. multiple identities)—which might make my software have local and Chinese elements. I can say, the intention of creating my interactive software is not technology driven but context driven, which I think is the key value of my digital media artwork.

Dao x Microcosmic Play and Appreciation

You've mentioned before that you felt a 20-30 year gap between the Eastern and Western creative media art approach when you first came back from studying new media art in Germany. Do you still feel that way? Are there currently any local Chinese artists that you find particularly inspiring and boundary-pushing? 
Not any more! There are so many great artists and professors who keep visiting Hong Kong and Asia. The gap might be shortened to 15 years now. Local Chinese artists... woah! There are a lot of them who are up and coming and they're going to be important over the next 5-8 years in the development of digital media art in China.

Images courtesy of Hung Keung

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