Multimedia artist Liu Jiayu examines our relationship with nature and technology in the age of the Anthropocene, drawing inspiration from philosophical concepts and scientific knowledge. Here, she shares insights into her creative process.
What inspired your focus on environmental themes?
Liu Jiayu: I began searching and researching the natural world in 2012 with my project “Define Wilderness – A Real Tent.” This pivotal moment sparked a curiosity to delve deeper into the wonders of nature. As I immersed myself in defining “wilderness,” I realized it extended beyond physical landscapes.
In which way?
Liu Jiayu: Wilderness revealed itself as an emotional and psychological state of mind. It symbolized freedom, adventure, and self-discovery—an inner landscape waiting to be explored.
Wilderness also takes on symbolic and metaphorical dimensions. It represents the untamed aspects of human nature, the unexplored territories of the mind, and the resilience found in nature. Through my art, I aimed to capture and convey these more profound layers of meaning, encouraging viewers to reflect on their inner wilderness and the interconnectedness of all life.
Tell us more about “A Real Tent: Rediscovering the True Wilderness”
Liu Jiayu: The artwork explores the tension between genuine wilderness and urbanization from a contemporary art perspective. In today’s world, rapid urbanization has transformed pristine wilderness into modern residential areas, raising questions about our understanding of natural environments within cities.
As civilization advances, there is a growing desire among people to seek and experience true wilderness, prompting a reevaluation of the concept of wilderness in contemporary urban settings. Are parks the epitome of nature? Can an aquarium filled with various fish, seaweed, small stones, and microorganisms be considered an authentic representation of a natural habitat? In reality, the notion of wilderness has been shaped by artificial and stylized versions. This programmed concept of nature lies at the heart of this work.
The tent is a significant visual element and metaphor. When one enters the tent, it evokes the sensation of camping on the outskirts of a city, temporarily breaking free from the confines of urban environments. I combined nature and everyday sounds to bring this project to life, incorporating the tent’s movement and swaying to create an immersive camping experience. The aspiration is for tents to populate every corner of the city, urging individuals to contemplate the distance between themselves and true wilderness.
One of your recent artworks is “Waves of Code,” which you generated after discussing with ChatGPT. What topic did you debate?
Liu Jiayu: I talked to ChatGPT about my past projects, and I gave a brief introduction of my works and asked ChatGPT to come up with a name. It gave me a lot of answers, and finally, I chose the title from the list it gave me. Since I used the software when it was just released in March, it was a straightforward method, but it greatly surprised me. Later, in an interview with other Chinese magazines, I also said, “We don’t have to judge whether the answer is right or wrong, the most important thing is that it brings us surprises.”
As a source of inspiration for Wave of Code, you also draw from the philosophical theories of Walter Benjamin. How?
Liu Jiayu: Benjamin’s exploration of the mass production of art focuses on how mechanical reproduction affects the authenticity and “aura” of artworks. For Benjamin, the aura of an artwork is its one-of-a-kind presence in a specific time and place.
In the case of “Waves of Code,” where identical acrylic and LED elements represent the ocean, we witness this phenomenon in action. Using standardized materials, the artwork reproduces the visual appearance of waves without presenting the natural phenomenon.
This repetition challenges traditional notions of authenticity and aura associated with actual artifacts. Consequently, viewers are prompted to question how reproductions and simulations influence our perception of nature and what implications this holds for our understanding of authenticity in the digital age. Additionally, Benjamin’s concept of technology’s transformative power becomes particularly relevant when considering the incorporation of LEDs in the artwork.
Technology can reshape our perception and aesthetic experience, altering our relationship with the world. In the context of “Waves of Code,” the fusion of LEDs with the representation of the natural world emphasizes this transformative aspect. The artwork blurs the boundaries between reality and the virtual realm, highlighting how technology can mediate our experiences and reshape our understanding of nature. This raises profound questions about the increasing influence of the digital realm on our perceptions and interactions with the natural environment.
Moreover, Benjamin’s examination of the impact of mass media and reproduction on aesthetic experience offers more insight into the artwork. He explored how the reproducibility of artworks through mechanical means can lead to a loss of their traditional cultural and historical value. In the case of “Waves of Code,” the repetitive use of acrylic and LEDs reflects this reproducibility, drawing attention to the commodification and standardization of nature in the digital age of reproduction. By doing so, the artwork compels viewers to contemplate the implications of mass production and its effects on our relationship with the natural world.
And how is the natural world reflected in the artwork?
Liu Jiayu: Regarding the reflection of the natural world in “Waves of Code,” the installation incorporates the behavior of the ocean’s surface, capturing the fluctuation and random distribution of the sea surface slope influenced by wind speed. This aspect reflects the dynamic and organic nature of waves found in the natural world. Additionally, the extraction and representation of sunlight data and the use of LED lights in wave sculptures can be seen as an attempt to evoke the luminosity and energy of natural light.
Please describe your creative process in as much detail as possible and how it evolved due to some valuable learnings along the way.
Liu Jiayu: In my creative process, I start with an inspiration-seeking journey to do local research. During this process, I immerse myself in the environment and context, which provides me with intuitive physical and mental perceptions. These perceptions can inspire creative ideas or generate vivid images I want to share in my mind.
For example, take the artwork “In the Flow” from 2020. When the COVID-19 situation improved in 2020, I stayed at TangShe in Yangshuo, Guilin. While drinking tea on the balcony one evening, I observed the weathered surface of the karst landform mountain nearby.
In that moment, the wondrous workings of the universe deeply moved me. I thought about how this mountain might have emerged billions of years ago, perhaps with flowing water. It was merely a mental image then, but I strongly desired to bring it to life in the real world, hoping to witness a surreal overlap of time, space, and nature.
The creation of this artwork was completed across different time zones—I was in Beijing, and the team was in London. I call it a “Skype production.” The creative process for all artworks is similar: inspiration, research, production, testing, confirmation testing, optimization testing, and confirmation rendering of the final image mapping presentation.
Testing plays a crucial role in the production process of media art, especially site-specific works. Simulating a site’s environmental factors—surrounding lighting, spatial characteristics, foot traffic, etc.— rendering in software or testing in a studio is impossible. Interestingly, when “In the Flow” was finally presented, it was two months later than when we initially scanned the mountain using a drone. As a result, the masks we prepared in advance were no longer applicable because many plants had already grown around the area.
What are your art practice’s most significant challenges and advantages regarding cross-disciplinary collaboration with scientists, technologists, etc.?
Liu Jiayu: Cross-disciplinary collaboration comes with challenges and advantages. Artists and scientists have different perspectives, with artists focusing on creativity and interpretation while scientists emphasize data and practicality. Bridging these viewpoints requires effort and compromise.
However, there are numerous benefits. It allows for knowledge exchange and innovative problem-solving by combining expertise from different fields. Scientists provide access to advanced technologies and research data, expanding artistic exploration. Meanwhile, artists bring fresh perspectives and creativity to scientific projects, inspiring new directions.
For example, at the beginning of 2021, I had the opportunity to collaborate with Invisible Dust on a conceptual artwork related to climate change and rising sea levels. We focused on seaweed because it produces significant oxygen for humans but is often overlooked. Through this piece, we aimed to raise public awareness and engagement. Soon after, we invited professors and scientists from different universities to join us in exploring relevant knowledge. I was very interested in the visualizations and information they had researched and distributed. One of our most fascinating discussions was about how seaweed moves underwater, and the scientists showed us intriguing microscopic images.
You emphasize that technology is a medium, not a subject. The narrative and artistic concept come first, followed by applying suitable technology. What does the selection process of these tools look like within your practice? Please name an example.
Liu Jiayu: In my artistic process, concepts lead with technology emerging in my mind only when necessary. Through my exploration of various new media art practices involving light, such as lighting installations, 3D projection mapping, and site-specific setups, I have observed that people have grown accustomed to receiving information primarily through screens and projected images. I intend to delve into the self-reflectivity of the media I engage with and foster a deeper and more diverse understanding of these mediums from different perspectives.
In my ongoing investigation into the principles of real-time rendering in the universe, my approach involves utilizing only light-emitting diodes and acrylic materials. Instead of focusing on physical elements, I employ the language of infographics to construct a natural space illuminated by industrial light. This shift allows me to emphasize the interplay between the installation, the surrounding environment, and the perception and flow created by simulated sunlight.
Finally, I selected “ocean” as the critical landscape collage because many internet cables worldwide are laid under the sea, and these undersea cables carry a significant portion of international internet communication data. Therefore, underwater information can indeed be regarded as one of the mediums connecting us in this world.