Art of Conversation
Tom Mouna and Chengan Xia
Chengan and Tom dial in from Shanghai and London to discuss invented cultural symbols and contemporary China.
Tom Mouna (Unica)
Chengan Xia (Times Now)
Hi Chengan, thank you for joining me for this conversation. Why don’t we start with Ch’iung Lien: A Forgotten Cultural Symbol, the project that we’ve been working on together for the last several months. Please can you tell us about it?
I started developing Ch’iung Lien: A Forgotten Cultural Symbol around 2018. Visiting Chinese stores in Chicago’s Chinatown, I was taken aback by how certain quintessential Chinese items felt like knockoff commodities. As I delved deeper, I discovered that many symbols, like fishes and dragons, aren't the ancient icons that we’re often led to believe. These symbols were reinvented or given new meanings in the 20th century. For instance, there was lots of debate about what the national symbol of China should be, with contenders ranging from lions to phoenixes, before the dragon was settled on.
My project aims to recreate this process of cultural reinvention. I chose an obscure, endangered insect from Northeast China that I had read about in a newspaper, the Ch’iung Lien or the Galloisiana Sinensis in English. It was a perfect blank slate to impute cultural meaning into. This is my attempt to reveal the processes of how cultural and social significance is imbued into ancient and contemporary symbols.
Many people looking at or reading about the project might have assumed that this insect had some existing cultural significance. But you’re highlighting how symbols can be given cultural meaning.
Exactly. And often, if an unfamiliar item appears exotic or oriental, people assume it has inherent meaning.
What other symbols or styles are present in Ch’iung Lien?
The colours, especially the red and yellow, have significance both historically and politically in China. But interestingly, in the West these colours are often associated with a kind of cheapness, like tacky lottery cards. I similarly wanted to evoke both luxury and cheapness – making the digital sculptures look gold but processed to have the sheen of plastic. Some of the digital statues are rendered using AI, while others are 3D scans of basic figurines I found on Taobao.
What’s the reason behind the titles of the works, single words like “和谐 Harmony” and “成功 Success”, that also appear as the dynamic backdrops?
These Chinese characters are often found in political slogans and are intended to convey positivity. However, they're surface-level and lack depth, so they become something I can play with. Actually, for non-Mandarin speaking audiences they do appear more decorative than anything else.
How does your graphic design background also relate here?
I’ve been really influenced by the “new ugly” trend introduced by the Japanese designer Yui Takada. It opposes the minimalist design still prevalent today. I came to the conclusions that this has deep cultural and commercial implications in China and beyond. I think you can trace some of these associations to specific historical and social moments, in this case China’s entry into the WTO in 2001. This catalysed China’s transformation into the factory of the world, in turn profoundly impacting all aspects of culture and also visuality. You can still see the impact in maximalist, in-your-face style Taobao commerce websites and in Douyin.
Let's discuss "Tuwei", a concept that defines Chinese rural aesthetics, something which might be unfamiliar to those outside of the country.
In the 2010s, "Tuwei" epitomised a DIY, amateur style of cultural production. It's about rural communities mimicking urban culture, drawing from genres like martial arts movies or Korean soap operas. These modes of expression allowed them to find emotional solace and escape from everyday hardships. But this vibrant culture was unfortunately censored quite heavily as it was seen as a bad influence on society. It’s another kind of “low” aesthetic that influences my work.
There is no one Chinese identity. Spread across such huge space, there are extreme regional differences. What specific local influences are present here?
There is a big Southern Chinese influence. Unlike some parts of China, in Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Hong Kong, many rely on small and family businesses, leading to a uniquely increased blend of commercialism and superstition. In these areas you will find more money statues (like the Jin Chan, a mythical frog creature that is said to bring auspiciousness and wealth). People look to these deities, not necessarily out of belief or spirituality, but to fulfil material desires. These are very distinct looking objects, which also influenced the look of my digital sculptures.
Each of the 66 works is unique due to the individual Chinese character backdrops, but there are also three distinct types of insect sculpture. Can you elaborate on this?
A big inspiration here were the antique shops I regularly visit, especially in Shanghai. They have a rich diversity of objects - from traditional vases to wooden statues to more modern everyday objects. In my digital work, I wanted to interpret this eclectic combination of form and type, bringing both antiquity and modernity into a cohesive blend.
This results in the thick layering of the sculptures, with various different elements superimposed to create a rich texture.
Take “慷慨 Generosity” as an example. You can see a bigger insect laying eggs. There’s also a central Buddha-like statue. Together they resemble the maximalist design of some Chinese votive statues, amalgamate the juxtapositions of objects I’ve seen, and reflect the way that new meaning is imbued into symbols through a process of layering and remixing. Like these newly selected symbols, my artefacts intertwine to create a synergy between ancient nuance and contemporary sentiment.
In “完美 Perfection”, as in the other works, within the sculpture there are various shapes with text moving across them. What’s happening here?
Some of these are related to traditional paintings of the Buddha, where he is surrounded by a radiant aura. The doughnut shape bits in this specific work are reminiscent of life rings, because I wanted to express the weirdness of the objects you can find together in antique shops. Others are flat shapes like advertising screens.
Collectors can redeem the digital NFTs for physical counterparts. What are these physical artworks?
The physical artwork comprises lenticular prints, combined with either acrylic frames or a gilded aluminium sculpture of an insect. I've frequently experimented with lenticular prints because I’ve found it allows me to bring moving digital images into the physical world. What I aimed for here was to bring the maximalist aesthetic of the digital into the physical works.
How was the process of completing Ch’iung Lien: A Forgotten Cultural Symbol?
It’s great to be able to experiment with creating and releasing artworks in new ways. Especially in this case as NFTs and physicals, because my fascination has always been the relationship between the tangible and digital realms. So this project was perfectly aligned with that interest, offering a bridge between my digital creations and their physical manifestations.
What’s coming next?
My dream, which is increasingly within reach, is to fill a truly vast physical space with my art experiments - a culmination of colours, textures, and the digital and physical.