My "Fifteen Minutes of Fame"
Rodney E. J. Chang
(title bestowed by Shanghai University, College of Fine Arts, 1988)
Blog for AbsoluteArts.com, March 11-13, 2006
Sometimes fortune can still smile for one stuck in the wrong place - but the right time.
The year was 1985. I was the first local digital artist to show in a public exhibition space - the prestigious Honolulu Club. Imagine, the moment in a city when clubbers with drinks in their hands would be the first in that locale to witness framed-and-hung computer art. Way back at the start, in '85.
Pixels declared art! Over twenty years ago, before there was an Internet.
Now Honolulu ain't no New York, L.A., Chicago, Miami, or San Fran, so the party-goers at the artist's reception didn't know what to make or think of it. First looks didn't surface questions like "What is the artistic message?," similar to the search for the theme of a novel of fiction. No, instead the crowd's reaction to the images was "What is it?" or "What is it made of?" - curiosity that did not probe deep for aesthetic and philosophical substance.
My historic opening in this island state was basically shock and awe for a group of middle-age successful business types and socialites. That would have been enough satisfaction for me as the rebellious artist - tossing my brushes for a plastic mouse, and placing some pixels in everybody's face. But as fate would have it, this was nothing compared what this showing would net, for being "in the wrong place but the right time."
The newspaper review officially "published" the happening of this first digital art exhibition in Hawaii as not quite art. The reviewer wrote that the blocky tapestry appearance of the low resolution pictures, daring to call itself "art" and heaven forbid, made with a machine, was not ready for prime time.
Luckily, it garnered quite a different reaction from two other attendees at the reception!
Ji and Ida (she gave herself an English name) Jiang shook hands with the attending artist - me. They had recently come from China to study art here at the University of Hawaii. They were in their mid-twenties, traditionally schooled and accomplished in their painting craft, but unacquainted with postmodernism movements in America (Ida would come a long way; she is now an assistant professor in the art department of the local campus). They expressed to me that they had never seen anything like this in China. Imagine that, their eyes beamed, computer pictures as a new medium. As art! For Americans that's not much of an intellectual jump to make (but evidently not so for the elderly art columnist that reviewed the exhibit). There is a sense, and the resistance from conflicting interest groups within the art world, that everything is going digital. But for these two just out of communist China it was even more than that. They recognized the new medium imagery as a monumental leap that could forever change art as we know it. It was indeed new entities to their conceptual framework of just what is "art." Encountering their first digital art (even if it was in small town Honolulu -they were from the metropolis of Shanghai) made them interpret the new medium also as the moment's artistic symbol of Western intellectual (and creative) freedom. They were both anxious to share their new find with their fellow countrymen back home.
Luckily, they had the clout to do it. The two Chinese student artists turned out to be the young of families high up in the governing Communist Party. Members are networked. Ji (he later took the nickname "Lucky") and Ida felt the timing was right for the Chinese art world to be aware of the coming of digital fine art. There's nothing like the present when you feel behind. Any sample of the medium would do. Luckily, Lucky spotted and was charmed by my art at the Honolulu Club.
The timing was right, even if the artist knew himself to be born in the wrong place. I sold more when I had been painting, hand building ceramics, and casting bronze. But working (playing) on the computer back in 1984 was all that interested me at that moment in time. Computer graphics was seductive. It was a new medium in waiting to be developed by exploratory artists willing to take the career risks. It didn't (and still doesn't) sell well in the local tourist market.
Before I knew it the Jiangs had arranged a review of my work by the authorities, resulting in me receiving a formal invitation - no email back then - from the director of the Shanghai State Art Museum (no. 2 cultural institution after Beijing State Art Museum so they claimed). First floor, solo, space for 100 20x24 inch photographs at the museum (no good color printers yet; works shot off the monitor by a film camera and large prints developed at a custom photo lab), red carpet treatment. Wow! It was the artist's dream of getting discovered, to take one's work out of the 'hood and hold it up to the world!
There was the government's stipulation that I conduct a 1-week workshop on "computer art" for China's art students - the gifted and selected were bussed in from around the nation for the course. Rumors abounded among the students of how this American had milked new art from the computer. Like I had cracked the code to generate art. Others around the United States of course was also pioneering this effort. For example, Laurence Gartel (NYC), Joan Truckenbrod (IL), Roz Dimon (NYC), Emily Young (OR), James Dowlen (CA), John Dunn (MI), Claude Horan (HI) and Daria Barclay (OR). But luckily, for me, I was in the "right place at the right time" to catch the eye of the Asian dragon.
Rodney Chang, lst row at center,
Shanghai University art classroom
I also had to donate the computer I used to make the artwork to Shanghai University's College of Fine Art. A security guard was posted outside the room every night to protect this cheap personal computer. I thought it was a joke but they took it quite seriously back then. He wore a sidearm. The U.S. government also took it seriously. I had to clear the computer with the U.S. Department of Commerce. But there was no problem there; the Amiga 1000 made by Commodore had a measly 1 megabyte of operating ram(!) and a frugal 16-colors graphics card. It retailed for a grand. The creative challenge back then was attempting to make the blocky pixels look artsy. But the PC had enough firepower to catapult my work into a top museum of the most populous nation on the planet. The little computer-that-could landed me China's first digital art (solo) exhibition - also a first from the perspective of Chinese art history.
But maybe more importantly, five minutes of prime time evening news on the television.
I would watch that evening - back at the hotel (a soldier stationed at the elevator on each floor), flopped on the bed with a couple Chinese beers raging through my blood vessels - the TV news coverage of the museum exhibition opening. It included me cutting the red ribbon at the entryway with the city mayor at my side, moving my trusty mouse as I taught the class at the university on how to use "DigiPaint" (Electronic Arts, 1985 - their lst product, art software, before they became the leader for producing digital games), and panning of the crowd gawking at my art. The exhibition was on the first floor, utilizing every gallery room to accommodate 100 framed, monitor-shot, digital creations. It was the first computer art for a nation of eyes - virgin to digital art, all glued to the television news - edited, presented, and sanctioned by the Chinese Communist Party. I had to pinch myself to confirm this was really happening.
At that time there was still just ONE television channel in the People's Republic of China, at least in Shanghai. At night when I walked the city streets and looked up into apartment windows, it seemed just about every family had their set turned on. So, lying there, drunken, and seeing myself on national TV news, I realized this really was a big deal. The captured TV audience was viewing their first computer art pictures in their respected national museum, told this is new art from America. The media coverage, including national cultural magazines, brought throngs to the 2-week exhibition.
At the opening, people stared at me as of I was from another planet. They leaned in close to inspect the horizontal lines of the low-resolution prints; the school children looked up at me in awe. We remained separated by different languages - and philosophies of art. Both sides remained in cultural shock. That peak experience and then witnessing my own mouse (and hand) move on a desktop and the resultant drawn line (jaggy/crude by today's standards) in front of millions of people with eyes glued to the tube, made me realize, lying there, at 40, and savoring the moment, that-
"Spreading Liberty Abroad"
This is how it feels to be granted Andy Warhol's "everybody has fifteen minutes of fame."
I remember reflecting no matter what else I achieved in this life as an artist, nothing would beat this. Declaring and showing the new art form to a country with 1 billion eyeballs, scoring their top museum, receiving prime time 1-channel-only national TV, getting all the press (40 reporters), and then party and disco clubbing with a gorgeous opera singer that was assigned as my blind date by the state ... I mean, how much better could it get? I realized then and there that this was going to be my life's "fifteen minutes of fame." What more is there to prove or do? I remember thinking to myself.
I would never have guessed the answer to be later building a virtual museum Web site, declaring a manifesto for the "Webism" art movement, and mounting an international collection of fine arts to perpetually display in online cyberspace. The building of a new global art culture. First online, then offline secondary influences. On the personal side, develop my work over the first two decades of PC development, then saddle up, ride out of town, and head east to Santa Fe with my art concoctions. I'm looking into opening a gallery there, maybe sell some snake oil on the side until I can make ends meet.
By 2006 the Web has grown to include a global swarm of digital artists' works, gracing limitless personal Web sites and precipitating the flocking into art groups. The technological means (global telecommunicating & networking) begets its own indigenous culture. From that innocent moment in 1988 of viewing primitive digital art in the Shanghai museum, millions today can key up digital (including mine) art by going to Google (or AbsoluteArts.com and LastPlace.com for that matter). No institutional vested interests can stop this avalanche of new art.
So fellow artists, you never know when opportunity will come knocking. Be prepared and be on the look out for it. I did. I was a serious artist stuck in a tourist trap and sheer luck still got me into a world class international museum. Hey, it's great to be asked to give something back as an artist. Too bad not in my own back yard, so it may be time to hit the road. I travel to Santa Fe, New Mexico later this month for a personal appraisal of the "second largest art market in America." I'll give ya' all a report next month. Adiós, partners, and happy trails to you!