Sign In


Algorithms, Sci-Fi and Data Tattoos: aaajiao At Leo Xu Projects

Raw data at this new exhibition by computer scientist turned new media artist aaajiao. Amorphous blobs, blue screen of death...
Jan 20, 2015 | 11:42 Tue

Xu Wenkai never studied art. Not formally, at least. And yet, the young computer scientist has become one of China’s best known new media artists. His work has been exhibited internationally, and if that weren’t impressive enough, he also co-founded the co-working start-up Xindanwei back in 2009, and before that, the website, amongst others.

If his name’s not familiar, you might know his alias: aaajiao. He’s the focus of a new solo over at Leo Xu Projects on Fuxing Lu near Yongfu Lu. It's a small exhibition for a compact space - just eight works across three floors. And at first look it’s mercilessly unyielding, lacking even the most basic blurbs, titles, or materials on display. But read up, chat to gallery staff, or in my case, ask aaajiao, and possibilities start to emerge from behind the screens. Indeed this is a show all about ways of seeing and perspectives.

By all accounts, aaajiao probably made a wise decision to not study art. Instead, the Xi'an-born talent opted for computer science – a discipline that’s clearly shaped not just his entrepreneurial endeavors, but also his art. That translates to screens for canvases, algorithms as the medium of choice, and data as his muse.

[Limited Landscape, Unlimited]

Those digital mediums are most evident on the second floor in his ongoing series, Limited Landscape, Unlimited. At its crux, that’s a virtual landscape in constant flux, its peaks and troughs created via algorithms and digital renderings. The onscreen component of that - undulating pixels of gray, like rocky outcrops or rugged mountains - is set against a blue that feels somehow familiar. The blue recalls the Microsoft Windows’ Blue Screen of Death, or the bluescreens used in film and weather forcasts. It also, pleasingly, suggests the rivers, pools and lakes of that virtual landscape.

[More Limited Landscape, Unlimited]

Limited Landscape, Unlimited's sister-works are similarly non-prescriptive: printed panels of those jagged grey pixels and a sculptural prototype spinning and suspended mid-air above an invisible magnet. Aaajioa explains, “The series is the most important thing, not the algorithm: it’s the whole process of implementation. The works present the relationship between the finite and the infinite.”

In keeping with the geology theme, Obj. 5, Obj.4 and Obj.3 are video portraits of stones. Except they’re not – they’re digital renderings, created entirely by algorithms to bring otherwise unseen perspectives of time and space to, well, virtual rocks. Presented on tiny iPads and framed in wood, 4 and 3 are especially mesmeric. Find those on the second floor.

[Obj. 5]

[Obj. 4]

[Obj. 3]

But aaajiao’s work isn’t exclusively virtual simulation and digital display. The first work to greet gallery-goers is Karesansui, an installation crafted from black sponges and based on a traditional Japanese rock garden. The work saw the original, classical arrangement put through an aaajiao algorithm, resulting in oddly featureless growths or stunted limbs. It’s a little bit like viewing stubble under a magnifying glass.

Says aaajiao of the work, “This work is about fusing an image, virtual and reality. When we are unable to distinguish between online and offline, these works become a clear mirror, presents the phenomenon.”

Obviously, we can distinguish – the work looks way more sinister than any Japanese rock garden I’ve ever seen. But suspend disbelief and those themes of representation kick in once again. In a reality where most of us see these creations or vistas onscreen more than we do in person, aaajiao’s art becomes an alternative representation - and a pretty intriguing one at that.

He uses that same, deceptively heavy-looking sponge in another work, Anomaly. Like meteors, nuggets or tumors of some weird biomaterial, they seem incongruous in the stark white interiors of Leo Xu Projects. These transplanted objects feel incongruously distanced from their original matter and context.

[Body Shadow]

It’s not until you reach the third floor that aaajiao proffers some sort of narrative for his process. The installation sees the artist realize the meridian system of traditional Chinese medicine, the channels of energy commonly used in acupuncture. He documented the process on film, from a practitioner’s consultation and lots of needles to a digital transcription and 3D rendering of his leg, culminating in a tattoo of those invisible, intangible paths on his real leg. Suffering for one’s art just took on a whole new meaning.

[Body Shadow]

More than anything else on show here, this work shines a light on aaajiao’s approach. Beyond multidisciplinary, it crosses borders of the invisible and disputed, the permanent and the transitory, science and tradition. That’s all visually described through wall-to-wall wires of meridians’ trajectory (watch out, tall people), painful-looking paraphernalia of tattoo artists and acupuncturists, and most interesting of all, a print of some kind of organic mass. That last one is actually an image "borrowed" from downstairs’ Limited Landscape, Unlimited series. Here, though, it’s distorted by a clouded, Perspex glaze to make the invisible visible.

So, lots going on at alias: aaajiao - just don’t expect any of it to be especially forthcoming. I asked Leo, the eponymous gallery owner, about the lack of titles on display alongside works. To encourage interaction, he explained. Accost a gallery assistant and ask, I say. Taking things from online to offline, vice versa, and back again – that’s what this little show is all about: ways of seeing, and possibilities of perspective.


Alias: Aaajiao, runs until March 8 at Leo Xu Projects. For a complete listing of exhibitions, check our Art Calendar.

All photographs courtesy of the gallery.