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Art & DesignCulture

Digital Artist Fei Yining On Finding Disconcerting Beauty in the Grotesque and the Dystopian

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Born in Heilongjiang in the far northeast of China, Fei Yining came to art late. As she tells us, “It’s been a long road for me.”

While the digital artist and sculptor is currently appearing alongside the likes of Lu Yang, behavioral artist Lin Ke and internet artist aaajiao at UCCA’s group exhibition Immaterial/Re-material in Beijing, she was initially forbidden from pursuing art. She tells us a story of how her father, a professor of physics in Harbin, found out that she had been learning to paint in secret. Wanting her to focus on getting into Fudan University in Shanghai, he forbade her from going to the classes again.

While she succeeded in going to the college that her father had in mind, she used her new sense of freedom in the city to engage with art again, attempting to discover her nous and the material that she wanted to work with. Her uncertainty led her to art history, which she studied in London for two years, before moving on to Parsons School of Design in New York.

While discussing her work over a coffee back in Shanghai, the soft-spoken artist is immediately a cerebral force, referencing old Greek movies, academic articles and 3D creation software to explain her video piece “Breakfast Ritual: Art Must Be Artificial,” created with New York-based artist, designer and publisher Chuck Kuan.

In the video piece, we hear a virtual character, whose gender is left unspecified, say, “Art should be artificial.” “Art and technology have the same root in Latin, but, during the development of culture and science, they separated,” explains Fei. “There’s an idea that we are artificial and we are technology; the externalization of the memory is what distinguishes us from other species.”

Fei Yining Chuck Kuan Breakfast Ritual Radii China

Fei Yining and Chuck Kuan, “Breakfast Ritual: Art Must Be Artificial” (2019)

Speaking on her approach to creating virtual characters and the worlds that they exist in, she continues, “You can understand art must be artificial from this perspective, that it has always been like this, but you can understand from another perspective, it’s a dystopia setting in which art is also dominated by our own creation as well.” The statement, “art is artificial” is an arrogant assertion that in some ways mirrors many of the arrogant statements that humans are prone to making. While a seemingly simple statement, it’s unendingly thought-provoking. 

The character in the video is apparently trapped inside a room, a bubble so-to-speak. The windows of the room are fogged up, allowing for infinite interpretations of the time and place within which the character is based. This fog is, in part, a reference to the Oscar-nominated Greek movie Landscapes in the Mist by Theo Angelopoulos, which depicts a pair of kids searching for their father.

More simply, the fog outside of the window is a representation of confusion, something that Fei professes to feel deeply. When asked about her thoughts on the advancement of virtual and AI technology, she says, “It makes me feel confused […] it can be a remedy, but it could also be a poison. The problem is whether you can dig out the qualities of technology’s remedies, not just the poison parts.”

Fei Yining and Chuck Kuan Breakfast Ritual Radii China

Fei Yining and Chuck Kuan, Breakfast Ritual: Art Must Be Artificial (2019)

This idea of extracting sense from technology is bound up in her ideas regarding the “Black Box Theory,” a concept that humans are becoming more accustomed to simple results than they are to understanding how technology works. This lack of knowing can cause anxiety, even fear, or a sensation of confusion, but it is clearly an idea that drives her creatively.

“Breakfast Ritual: Art Must Be Artificial” is one of a number of pieces that the artist is currently working on that uses VRoid, a 3D character generation tool. Other works by the artists using this program include a character called Miss Wild Strawberry and another “Breakfast Ritual” piece. When asked about virtual characters and idols, Fei says they all remind her of Hatsune Miku, the Japanese virtual idol that debuted in 2007 and a character that, for her, represents the idea of the eternal feminine, that “will lead us somewhere.” 

Fei Yining Installation View Spurs gallery Radii China

Installation view of “From New York to Brussels Los Angeles to Shanghai”

While ideas concerning technology and dystopia have a clear through-line in her work, there is also a sense of optimism at play as well. It’s a refreshing approach, such as in an as yet unnamed series of sculptures, part of which appeared at Beijing’s Spurs Gallery in a group exhibition entitled “From New York to Brussels; Los Angeles to Shanghai.”

The sculptures are at times monstrous, inspired by the likes of Edgar Allen Poe and The Scarlett House writer Angela Carter, with their grotesque nature juxtaposed with utility, as the pieces are made into furniture. There’s a furry figure with what look like claws for arms, sat in the shape of an armchair; a lamp in the shape of an eye dripping green, gooey tears; and a mirror surrounded by a circlet of effervescent pink mass.

The story of this series is a fascinating summation of the artist’s approach to her work. In the process of dissecting ideas that cause confusion, consternation, and sometimes fear, Fei Yining mines and extracts kernels of beauty in everything that she creates.

Bryan Grogan
Bryan is RADII's former culture editor. He is a Shanghai-based writer and editor with an interest in culture stories with a social bent. He once correctly guessed all 151 original Pokemon in seven minutes for an online quiz. He also correctly guessed all 100 second generation Pokemon in eight minutes for an online quiz.