Shadow Play: Tales of Urbanization of China is a project by a collective entity known as Lily & Honglei (in fact three artists – Xiying Yang, Honglei Li and He Li, based in Beijing and New York). It spans three distinct mediums – the physical world, the virtual world and augmented reality – and combines modern technology with the ancient art of shadow puppetry to present a unique perspective on the changes people in China have, and are, facing.
“Over the past few decades, China has been undergoing urbanization at an astounding pace. In 2013, the newly inaugurated national leadership raised the process to a new gear when it unveiled its plan of converting 70 percent of the population to a city-oriented lifestyle by 2025,” the Artists note in their introduction to the work.
“Such a significant change would undoubtedly transform the character of a country that has been largely agrarian throughout its millennia of history. One may wonder how, and to what extent, the landscape, culture, and daily being of the nation’s people may be altered. As artists, we are compelled to explore and reflect upon the various phases of this historic undertaking.”
Commissioned by New Radio and Performing Arts, Inc., and sponsored by funding from the Jerome Foundation, the virtual reality element of Shadow Play: Tales of Urbanization of China take the form of a 4-chapter story located on land provided by the University of Massachusetts, Boston.
The four chapters, The Land: Death of the Village Head, The Ruins: Lost Children, The City: Into the Void and The Maze: No Exit, unfold across a series of ornate panels designed to evoke the nature and characteristics of shadow play, and mix traditional Chinese artistry with modern photography and drawings to tell an unfolding story. Each chapter is intended illuminate genuine situation that have arisen in China as a result of China’s shifting (and often enforced) face from those of an agrarian society to a highly urbanised society: clashes during land evictions, child abductions, the rise in suicides among migrant workers, and the impact of cultural and environmental degradation.
To best understand the story, I’m recommend a visit to the Shadow Play website, and in particular to the cast of characters. (this page also provides an overview of the augmented reality element of the work, which can be experienced on iPhones, iPads and Android devices under defined circumstances and using the Layar application).
Once you’ve got a handle on the characters involved, the individual elements of the story are easy to trace. Each of the panels is quite extraordinary in execution, with some powerful motifs – most noticeably with the faceless forces of the police (who I suspect are representative of the large faceless and remorseless bureaucratic machine).
The final chapter of the story is in two parts, one on the ground, and the other in the air. The former includes a model of the Great Wall of China in flames. Originally a part of a 2010 installation by the artists called Celebrate, the burning wall stood in that pieces as a statement against the Chinese government’s rigorous enforcement of Internet censorship and filtering. While that message still fits with the narrative presented here, it also further reinforces the narrative of cultural upheaval and separation from past ways of living for so many of China’s population.
The airborne element of the chapter is equally striking: a single lit candle surrounded by faceless police, high-rise buildings and with blood-red tanks printed on the ground around it, offer a very clear symbolism of its own.
Shadow Play: Tales of Urbanization of China in SL is a quite striking work; although I can’t help but feel one that is not presented here to its best advantage, and would benefit greatly were it to be displayed within its own dedicated skybox. Also, I cannot help but feel that it doesn’t fully utilise the uniqueness of a 3D environment such as Second Life, and that more interactive elements would greatly enhance its power and appeal. However, these asides don’t detract for the artistry evidence in the pieces, particularly the panels representing the first two chapters. which are beautifully striking.
- Shadow Play: Tales of Urbanization of China SLurl (Rated: General)
- Shadow Play: Tales of Urbanization of China website
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