Zheng Bo’s online artwork A Wall brings together a selection of works by some of China’s leading contemporary artists to tell the story of the last twenty years of socially engaged art in China. Here, Zheng talks to The Space‘s Eleanor Turney about studying computer science, finding a name for his art and making digital work that lasts. 

Socially-engaged work: a starting point

“I grew up in Beijing, and I liked drawing when I was a kid,” says artist Zheng Bo, who is now an Assistant Professor at the School of Creative Media, City University of Hong Kong. However, becoming an artist was not a certainty at all: “At the time, most people studied science, because China was developing. Science or engineering is considered more useful. When I went to university, I studied computer science in the US [but] I had the freedom to take other courses, so I started taking art courses. I ended up studying computer science and art as an undergraduate student.”

For Zheng, although the computer science was useful, by the time he want to graduate school, he was focused on his art – and beginning to think about what would eventually become his socially-engaged practice: “At that time, I was doing portraits, and realised that I was actually really enjoying the interactions between me and the people I was painting.”

“That was the starting point of socially engaged art, which gradually evolved into working with Philippino domestic helpers in Hong Kong – doing portraits, but hearing their stories. I also worked with gay and lesbian couples. I didn’t know what to call my art until I realised there’s a term for it; it’s called socially engaged art.”

'A Wall' by Zheng Bo, Contributing work Yin XIuzhen, Washing River 1995

‘A Wall’ by Zheng Bo, Contributing work Yin XIuzhen, Washing River 1995

Connecting with people through digital art

For Zheng, making work that deals with the social and political context in which it sits is really important, whether the work is digital or not: “We have to feel things in order to do things, and art is one way to really make us feel something.” How can you prompt people to have an emotional response to the work using digital technology, I wonder? Digital technology is wonderful for connecting with people, but it can also be inherently distancing.

“This work [A Wall] and other work I’ve been doing for the past two years is just the starting point of merging two things: media art and socially engaged art. A few years ago, no-one was thinking about these two things. In a way, I’m still experimenting. I can’t make a physical wall in China where I ask people to post things. That would be suicidal. But I can do it online. I can do it as a piece of digital art.”

In terms of connecting with people, Zheng is emphatic that “it’s important to have a sense of physicality. The very fact that you feel you’re looking at a very realistic wall is important; it gives you a heightened sense of reality. That’s important, online work that has a strong sense of physicality.”

He is also clear that digital tools can help with allowing audiences this sense of physicality despite being removed from the work. “I think that it’s not just in the art world, it’s in other fields as well. When something is new, we tend to think it’s outside the world… after a while we start to see it as part of the world. Media art, digital art, these become part of the world. They’re not something in a bubble, but rather connected to other parts of the world. I do think that’s why the works I’m making now are different from digital art 20 years ago, when you’d hardly see any connection to the physical world. I think that’s where we’re getting to now.”

'A Wall' by Zheng Bo, Contributing work Li Juchuan, Everyone’s East Lake 2010

‘A Wall’ by Zheng Bo, Contributing work Li Juchuan, Everyone’s East Lake 2010

Connection or alienation?

The internet, specifically, can be a source of both connection and alienation. Zheng ponders how to overcome those barriers: “The media itself is part of that, but we have to think about how we really connect to people. Regardless of whether we’re talking to people or connecting to people online, we really have to care about something. This mutual concern has to be there.”

“That’s why I think that for any digital art to really connect people, we have to deal with social issues – that creates the motivation for people to talk to each other, either physically or digitally. That’s why the social aspect is so important. How do we actually breach the online and offline world? This project, the art projects I’m showing on the site, they’re all about land and water. Even though you can’t touch the land, you can’t touch the water, it’s a very tangible project. I hope that this will make it feel less exclusively virtual.”

'A Wall' by Zheng Bo, Contributing work Wu Mali, Breakfast at the Plum Tree Creek

‘A Wall’ by Zheng Bo, Contributing work Wu Mali, Breakfast at the Plum Tree Creek

Online art for a media age

Does this, then, help audiences to have an emotional response, rather than seeing digital art as a curiosity? “Exactly! That’s why my focus is on media art and socially-engaged art at the same time. I don’t see the exclusion, the divide. In order to be socially engaged we need media because we live in a media age. How can you be socially engaged if you don’t have any media? And if you’re making interesting media art, how can you not address important social issues? Otherwise you’re missing a lot of interesting things. If you only focus on coding, or on the specificity of the media, then you’re missing a lot of interesting things.”

For Zheng, it is clear that the social aspect of his work comes first, and that the technological side is secondary – a means to an end. “The more we understand technology, the better we are able to work with it. I don’t want to sound arrogant, but it’s fortunate that I did computer science so I do understand both the strengths and the limits of current technology. Even though I have two programmers who actually did the coding, I understand what’s possible.”

'A Wall' by Zheng Bo, Contributing work Xiong Wenyun, Moving Rainbow 1998-2001

‘A Wall’ by Zheng Bo, Contributing work Xiong Wenyun, Moving Rainbow 1998-2001

A legacy for ‘A Wall’

On this note, then, I ask how he and his team ensure that this digital “wall” has a legacy – the project is designed to have new works added to it over a number of years, so it’s important that the technology doesn’t become redundant. “The first principle that we laid down is that we want this work to be relevant both socially and technologically. That’s why we’re using an interface that we believe will last for a long time. A lot of detailed decisions we made are to ensure that the work can be accessed over ten or twenty years.”

A Wall is designed to showcase the work of Chinese artists – and Zheng says to hopefully smash preconceptions that the West has about China, and vice versa. The digital platform allows Zheng to introduce his selection of artists to the world, and for international audiences to take a virtual walk along the wall and look at the artworks. “I hope that people will be inspired by the projects that A Wall shows, and that they will be fascinated but also not completely sure what’s going on,” says Zheng. Why not take a walk and see for yourself?

Visit A Wall