Art works and designs created by 2019 graduates of Nanjing Institute of the Arts are currently on display at the school’s museum. The works are in all kinds of media, including paintings, printings, digital media, videos, video games, furniture, and architectural designs. One theme on display in many of the works was the interaction between China’s increasing modernization and nostalgia (or false nostalgia) for a simpler time. Two graduating artists who hit on this theme were Jia Wenda (贾闻达) and Zhu Tongtong (朱同同).
I interviewed them and share their works here.
Jia Wenda: Childhood Pleasure
First, Jia Wenda combined the iconic yellow duckie with the image of a playful young boy in his work Chongya. “Chongya” is a homophone that means both marching forward and water duck.
When Dutch artist Florentijn Hofman’s giant Rubber Duck was displayed in Hong Kong’s Victoria Harbor in 2013, the duck quickly became one of China’s biggest celebrities. It went viral on social media and made newspapers and television broadcasts. The project would make official appearances in Beijing, Hangzjhou, Shanghai, and Macau over the next few years, and unofficial versions of giant rubber ducks are currently on display in lakes in Nanjing and elsewhere around China.
According to Jia, the duck represents the innocent feelings of childhood. Even though few Chinese people have memories of playing with a rubber duckie, which was not widely available, as a child, the duckie is iconic, cute, and a stand-in for a host of feelings.
Q: In your view, what does the rubber duckie represent? The meaning?
“If you ask me, because the rubber duckie is a toy that everyone can play with as a child, this represents a kind of romantic or cute feeling,” Jia said.
Q: Why did you choose to have the boy holding a clothes-hanging fork (for lifting clothes to and from the drying line)?
“All of the materials represent childhood pleasure, so I thought, what things can reflect that kind of playful meaning. So the fork reflects how young boys like to play and fight, and they could have a little fight with clothes forks.”
Q: Your work has been very popular. Everyone is taking photos of it…
“In my point of view, making art is not exclusively for individual self-expression. Of course self-expression is important. But I also hope my work can be enjoyed by others and that it is not a ‘lone flower admiring itself.’”
After graduation, Jia is preparing to take the graduate school test and then go study conceptual art.
Zhu Tongtong: Entertaining Ourselves to Death
Zhu Tongtong’s mat, Hot It Is, Love It Is (多么热，多么爱), displays fun and interesting items of the internet and pop culture in striking color. If it looks overwhelming, that’s just what she was going for. She wants to explore the themes of “entertaining ourselves to death” and “excessive entertainment-ization,” she said.
Q: Why did you decide to make a rug?
“I am a photography major, but early on when we were selecting topics, I wanted to do one related to installations. I made a total of two rugs. One is on display on the third floor of the institute of broadcast media.”
Q: Where did you get the inspiration for the objects you chose to portray?
“My work used that kind of childish, cartoonish depictions, and combined a lot of contemporary Weibo trending topics with keywords the media frequently uses and symbols, in order to reflect the phenomenons of ‘entertaining ourselves to death’ and ‘excessive entertainment-ization.’ I also hope sympathy and a heightened state of awareness can be generated in the viewer who experiences the resulting familiar and unexpected feelings.
The inspiration for this work came from conversations between my advisor and myself. I personally enjoy elements of relaxation, gaming, and entertainment fields. For a previous version, I used the style of a collage. After continuous searching for a solution, I determined to use this style.”
Fans of Chinese pop culture might notice some of the names of Chinese celebrities behind the “@“ signs. There is Angelababy, the actress who has starred in the TV show Keep Running and films like Mojin and Young Detective Dee; Fan Bingbing, the highest-paid actress in China who played the empress Wu Zetian before she was accused of tax evasion; and Jack Ma, the founder of Alibaba, China’s (and the world’s) largest online shopping group.
Besides the trending celebrities, some of the imagery is also clearly identifiable from memes and the retro style that is popular in the internet genre of vaporwave, an art and music movement that evokes “nostalgia for a time you’ve never known.” The flamingo, for example, is popularly associated with vaporwave, as are old fashioned entertainment technologies, like tapes and Game Boys.
“The friends surrounding me, including myself, understand that many youths today love retro style,” Zhu said. “For example, today’s vaporwave is already a popular element. Some photo editing apps can also synthesize vaporwave style and other popular style elements.”
Zhu will work in a commercial media production house after graduation. She hopes that she will also be able to continue to work to perfect this work, whether that means expanding on it or finding another medium by which to represent the theme.
Chinese Vocabulary Study
童趣 tong2qu4 – childhood pleasure, qualities that delight children and evoke childhood memories to adults, bold colors, cute characters, etc
孤芳自赏 gu1fang1zi4shang3 – a Chinese chengyu for narcissism, literally “lone flower admiring itself”
衣叉 yi1cha1 – a fork used to lift clothes to and from drying lines or drying poles
蒸汽波 zheng1qi4bo1 – vaporwave
Mitchell Blatt is a travel writer, editor, and columnist who has lived and worked in China for six years. He is an author of two guidebooks, Panda Guides Hong Kong and Panda Guides China. He has been published in National Interest.org, The Korea Times, The Shanghai Daily, Roads & Kingdoms, Vagabond Journey, City Weekend, Silkwinds and The World of Chinese, among other outlets. See examples of his published articles.