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Club Seen: 3D Animator chillchill On Why “Everyone is an Online Artist”

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Club Seen shines a light on the artists, VJs, and designers providing a visual dimension to after-hours underground culture in urban China.

There’s something simultaneously esoteric and universal about the work of Shanghai-based animator and “internet artist” chillchill, at least if you’ve spent any time in a Chinese city over the last several years. One major, recurring theme in his work is the “share economy,” represented by motifs from omnipresent apps like Mobike and Alipay, the tip-of-the-spear services that have done the advance legwork of collapsing most elements of everyday life and behavior in contemporary urban China into a smartphone function.

Other recent works by chillchill are less app-specific, but no less evocative, edgy, transgressively humorous. 2017’s Lanzhou Lamian (named after the staple noodle dish in Lanzhou, capital of northwestern Gansu province), for example, mashes up “the Quran, Donald Trump’s interview, Chinese [and] Lanzhou hand-pulled noodles, trying to connect food culture with the world economy and politics through a sense of humor.” One of his most recent (and serious) works, a music video for producer Alex Wang, sheds the levity and explores the near-term ramifications of compressing every facet of life into the format of easily trackable and manipulable data. In an artist’s statement accompanying the music video for Wang’s “A Brave New World,” chillchill writes about “the emergence of new landscapes brought about by China’s rapid urbanization, such as ‘low-end population’ and ‘shared bicycles'”:

“These changes in the environment have led to a new round of potential changes in the production relations of society, and in the post-network art of China, some different aesthetic languages ​​have also been formed. Based on these contexts with different levels of text, this video attempts to mix them together with a sense of humor to create a new worldview from a certain gap, which may be the prototype of A BRAVE NEW WORLD.

chillchill has shared the stage (and booth) with Wang at prominent underground clubs across China this year, such as ALL in Shanghai and Loopy in Hangzhou, fitting into the same overall zeitgeist as other past Club Seen subjects. RADII caught up with the Beihai-born, Chongqing-trained artist for a talk about his online-mediated aesthetic, and the philosophical complexities underlying a superficially dystopian take on the future shape of things:

RADII: Where are you from originally? How did you first become interested in making art? Did your parents support you in this, and did you have access to resources to study art in your hometown?

chillchill: I was born in Beihai, a small coastal city in southern China. It was because I liked to paint when I was a kid. At that time I didn’t think it was art — I gradually got a concept about “art” when I went to college. My parents have supported me since I was a kid. I could do what I like, which is lucky. When I was young, I studied painting with a local master. He was an enlightened teacher, and had a great impact on me.

Shanghai artist chillchill

“Buddha & Mobike” by chillchill

Shanghai artist chillchill

“Dubai” by chillchill

Shanghai artist chillchill

“Jeffkoons’ Eggs” by chillchill

What were some important Chinese influences on your aesthetic when you were first starting out? How about foreign influences?

My early study was based on Impressionism and Soviet Realist painting. But I think that some specific artists have had more of an influence on my art, such as Andy Warhol, Matthew Barney, Ai Weiwei, and Xu Zhen. When I was studying art, they gave a new manner of looking at it.

You studied oil painting at the Sichuan Fine Arts Institute — when and why did you move into 3D art?

The 3D work started after I graduated. Actually, when I was studying oil painting at Sichuan Fine Arts Institute, I didn’t just paint — I tried everything related to image-making and installation, so it was natural to change to 3D later. I think 3D technology allows more freedom, which is more suitable for me.

Shanghai artist chillchill

“Guizhou on a Cloud” by chillchill

After university you moved to Shanghai, right? Why? How would you compare the arts scene in Chongqing versus Shanghai?

Correct. The reason for moving to Shanghai may be personal preference. The art scenes in Shanghai and Chongqing are very different, and they have a lot to do with the type of urban development in each city. There are so many foreigners in Shanghai, and there are more international, “advanced” cultural influences. There are many good exhibitions, and bad exhibitions. Chongqing has its own rhythm. Not urgent, not rash, everyone’s in the same kind of atmosphere.

You describe yourself as an “internet artist” and a significant portion of your exhibition history is in online-only exhibits, organized through Shanghai-based Slime Engine. How did you start working with Slime Engine? What is attractive to you about creating and exhibiting art online?

I think it may be like the concept of “internet singer” (网络歌手). The term “internet artist” is actually more self-deprecating. But on another level, I think that many “arts” today only need to happen on the internet. What happens offline is actually a way to “monetize” art, so that artists can live a better life, it’s the same as the “fan economy” for pop idols. If you like an artist, buy more of his works, support him, allow him to make more works.

There is also an offline element to your work: you’re active as a VJ doing live visuals (and a music video) for Alex Wang. How do you think your aesthetic, visual style, or philosophical interests overlap with artists like Alex or labels like Do Hits, Genome, FunctionLab etc?

I think music is a very important part of the work, but I don’t really care about my visual style. I think more about the integrity of the concept’s transmission. But I think in some underground cultural scenes, sometimes people will share a visual or sonic stylistic language. You can say that is the next wave of fashion, which is normal. I think this has a lot to do with the city — because Shanghai is a small and closely knit city that allows everyone’s ideas to collide with each other and learn. If I was in Beijing, the place is so large, it may not be so convenient.

How does making visuals for a live/club setting differ from making them for a purely online setting? What clubs in China are best suited to your visual style?

Visuals in a club setting will definitely be more intense, happier. If it’s an online work or a standalone video work, it’s more about the internal logic of the work itself. If we’re talking about China — the best club for me must be ALL!

Shanghai artist chillchill mobike

Stills from Asian Sharing Heaven II by chillchill

Much of your recent work — like the MV for “A Brave New World” by Alex, Mobike-Sisyphus, and Asian Sharing Heaven II — also straddle the online/offline, taking concepts like share economy or Virtual Assistants and viewing them through the lens of global network theory and the post-industrial, neoliberal world economic order. What is your interest in these topics? How do you attempt to address them through your art? How do you hope a viewer of your work will come away thinking differently about these subjects?

This is the creative method that I’ve been talking about. 3D is not a tool of expression for me. Unlike painting and photography, [3D animation] is more of a system of thought. Because of its immediacy and efficiency, it allows me to focus more on the problem itself.

I’m interested in these subjects because the sharing economy, neoliberalism, and the post-internet world are all our daily lives now. I throw these elements into my 3D world, and it lets you see some new connections, some places you might not have thought of, instead of staying at the level of your original thinking about these issues.

I think for me, the role of art is very personal, to help creators better understand the world itself. And what the audience sees is different from person to person. Each person’s knowledge and experience base may be different.

Myth is also an important component of your work. You seem to draw from both Western and Eastern references here. What role do you think myth plays in contemporary society? How does ancient myth influence your own, futuristic works?

The concepts of East and West, ancient times and the future are particularly powerful. But it really is like this, I think art is about creating a new connection, not creating a so-called “original” image.

Sometimes when you find that you can connect ancient myths and contemporary society in a certain way, or when you can connect Eastern and Western cultures, you will get particularly excited. You can feel kind of God-like, like there’s an electrical current flowing out of your body.

In your artist bio you say that you view 3D software not as a medium, but “a thinking system to produce new problems.” I guess this is related to the previous question: what new problems do you identify through your work and how do you attempt to solve, answer or address them?

It’s not about identifying a specific problem. I don’t think that artists need to solve problems, or are even necessarily able to. The task of the artist is actually to present a sense of the times more realistically, or the reality of the times from a very personal perspective.

In the description for “A Brave New World” you refer to the “post-network art of China”. What do you mean by this? What other Chinese artists (visual or audio) would you define as making “post-network art”?

I think the term “Post-Internet Art” does not correspond to a certain concept of time, but an ideology that coexists with the internet, a way of thinking about the internet. Of course, as opposed to in 2014, the artistic concept of “post-internet” is now a reality. To a certain extent, everyone is an online artist.

What are you working on now? Any future plans to collaborate with Alex Wang or other musicians/DJs? Anything else you want to add?

I am preparing some new solo works, and also a new live set with Alex that we’ll debut next year.

Follow @chillchillshit on Instagram.

More Club Seen:

Club Seen: Artist Fu Tong on Performance as “A Carefully Executed Scam”

Club Seen: The8Immortals Blends Classical Art with Radical Counterculture

Club Seen: Asian Dope Boys

Josh Feola
Josh Feola is a US-based writer and musician, and RADII's former Culture Editor. His coverage of Chinese music and art has appeared in The Wire, Dazed, MIT Technology Review, Artsy, Bandcamp Daily and more. He's been active in China's underground music scene since 2010 via his booking platform pangbianr.com, and is a former member of Beijing bands Chui Wan, SUBS, and Vagus Nerve.