Category Archives: Final Projects

Bring It Home–How Participatory Art Connects Audiences to Social Justice Issues

Fred Ji


Art has been playing a growingly significant role in introducing political and social issues to the public sphere. Encompassing a wide range of means and elements, this category of art practices aims to raise critical consciousness and to promote social transformation, and artists have been searching for innovative means to fulfill this purpose. In this research, I will identify how the participatory and interactive installations have changed the landscape of socially engaged art. By examining a few examples, we can look more closely at how some artists took advantage of the participatory approach to augment their message and how these works could make a convincing case for the pragmatic view of artistic value.

What is socially engaged art?

It is never revealed who coined this term at first, and there is never a clear definition of what constitutes socially engaged art—historically, many artists have worked at the intersection of art and social injustice throughout their professional lives, blurring the line between artists and activists, art and activism. 

The most significant attribute that delineates a group as diverse as such is that, for socially engaged art, the subject matter usually intends to address the very economic, political, and social issues that the artists would like to focus upon in their works. There may be multiple intentions for a single project, but it is critical that there is a match between project goals and design. Sometimes the goal is to only generate the awareness, sometimes it means to start a conversation, and sometimes it would be to engage community members to take real actions around certain issue to change the circumstances; regardlessly, socially engaged artists usually spend much of their time on connecting with and integrating into the community they wish to help, educate, and simply share their message with.[1] Like Artist Rick Lowe explains: “You have to spend years developing relationships… It’d be an arrogant disregard of a community to come in and think you can grasp all the complexities of a place in a short time.”[2] While socially engaged artists may be following the footsteps of the historical avant-gardes, like the Dadaists who attempted to “merge” art and life, they do not do so through anti-rational, experimental performances.[3] Instead, socially engaged artists dedicate themselves pragmatically to measurable impact, aligning their art with social work, activism, or technology development at its core.[4] 

For researchers, it is important for us to understand where to draw the boundary around socially engaged art: there are non-art exhibitions created solely for the purpose of educating the public—though they were also curated around a specific social issue, they simply present the historical facts to the audience and expand their knowledge base without overtly propagating the curator’s political ideology. We typically see such practice outside of the art realm: for instance, we see exhibitions as such in places like the African American Museum or Holocaust Museum instead of a proper art museum. Meanwhile, there are also forms of studio art that resemble socially engaged art aesthetically but do not have a social intention.[5]Projects as such are often subject to the public’s interpretation regardless of the absence of artists’ intention. We will not be discussing these two in this essay, though sometimes the lines between them and the more refined category of socially engaged art can get quite blurry. 

Now the question I would like to focus on is: why is socially engaged art can be such a powerful instrument in raising the awareness and even fueling a social movement at large? First of all, like all art, many artists trace their lineage to a very personal and idiosyncratic set of experiences, places of origin, spiritual traditions, mentors and art movements.[6] This diversity of influences and experiences is part of what makes their work authentic, vibrant and engaging; therefore, the message behind such artworks is more likely to resonate with those communities that the artists are trying to establish a dialogue with.  

Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project documents eight asylum seekers’ quest for safety.

Second, comparing to other social or political movements, art, and in this case, socially engaged art, is less selective to its audience. Unlike political or social campaigns, art does not discriminate against you based on your pre-conception. Bouchra Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project (2008–11) that took place 3 years ago in MoMA was a perfect example of how could socially engaged art embrace audience from different ends of the political spectrum.  In this exhibition, a series of videos that details the stories of eight individuals, who have been forced by political and economic circumstances to travel illegally. The videos featured their own narrations of the journeys they have endured and visually traced them in thick permanent marker on a geopolitical map of the region.[7] Viewers can listen to subjects’ stories and see their hands sketching the trajectories across the map, while their faces remain unseen.[8] According to Khalili, the idea came from philosopher Michel Foucault’s The Life of Infamous Men, as the artist collected an anthology of existences, of “singular lives…which have become, though I know not what accidents, strange poems.”[9] While the topic of refugee/immigration has become such a politically charged issue across the world, the artist simply showed us the power of plain storytelling and how documenting and narrating each asylum seeker journey to search for safety can be universally appealing to the mass audience. Without introducing partisan bias to the viewers, Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project nonetheless illustrated how art could be more effective than traditional political campaigns in terms of getting the message across to various demographic groups.

What is participatory art?

The term of participatory art emerged more recently. In the old times, artworks used to be perceived as some noble object to be appreciated and admired on a pedestal or within a frame; it was to be viewed from a distance. However, as we have walked into the era of modern art, many artists have learned to reject this notion; they decided to physically and intellectually invite the audience into the art itself. Participatory art has its origins in the Futurist and Dadaist performances of the early twentieth century, which were designed to provoke, scandalize and agitate the public.[10] After the 1990s, as more and more artist started to detach themselves from the materiality of the art object, participatory art emphasizes on (or necessitates) the visitor’s physical action, manipulates their sensory encounters, and/or showcases their creative expression.[11] In that sense, the interactive or participatory experience of the audience has become the true object or subject of their works. 

Through directly engaging the spectators’ actions, participatory artists can more effectively connect with the audience’s emotions, easily making their message more relatable. For Khalili’s The Mapping through Journey Project, viewers are no longer sitting at the receiving end; they need to walk towards the big screens and put on the headphone to actively absorb the information. Another example is Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Death by Gun), part of his interactive series. This project was seen as a powerful statement to address the issue of widespread gun violence in the United States. Also hosted by MoMA, this project comprised of a stack of posters, and each poster lists with the name of individuals killed by guns in the United States in one week in May 1989. The poster also gives away the additional details, including images of the victims as well as a few lines about their death—whether they committed suicide or died of violent crimes—all taken from the Time magazine. The design of the posters is certainly unique—drama of these violent deaths is contrasted with the simple, matter-of-fact manner in which they are reported, reducing the dead to a few statistics,[12] symbolizing how people have grown increasingly desensitized to the systemic gun violence in the States and how human lives have been reduced to plain numbers in news reporting. 

Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Death by Gun) inherits the artist’s iconic approach in eliciting viewers’ participation—the stack of posters, on which the victims of gun violence were printed, was designed to be continually depleted and replenished, as each viewer was invited to take one from the stack.

However, what I would like to highlight about this exercise is, Gonzalez-Torres allows each viewer to take away a poster. Those who did are obliged to having the image reprinted so that the stack displayed in the gallery is always a specified optimum height.[13] Therefore, while the installation was on display, the stack was constantly depleted and subsequently replenished, creating an endless cycle that suggests what the deep problem that gun violence has become in American society.

Moreover, to the point where it pertains to this research, the installation itself was constantly evolving as the audience participated in the distribution process and its life-cycle.[14] The focus is now shifted to the audience’s actions and interactions with the object, as the artist is merely a facilitator of the situation. While no opinion about gun control is directly added by the artist himself, he engages the audience by asking them to be a part of the participatory experience and reflect on their role in this problem. 

Gonzalez-Torres has long been using participation as a means to directly engage the audience to the discussions revolving around AIDS, gay rights, and a variety of government abuses. In this series, he explored the symbolizing aspect of “take a piece away from the pile”, as the installation is essentially removable by the audience. “Untitled” (Placebo), in one installation, consisted of a six-by-twelve-foot carpet of shiny silver wrapped candies.[15] Similar to “Untitled” (Deaths by gun), the viewers’ action contributed to the slow disappearance of the sculpture. Relating to the particular context of Gonzalez-Torres creating “Untitled” (Placebo), this process of depletion symbolized the AIDS epidemic and the loss of his partner, Ross.[16] With no doubt, by asking the audience to personally and actively participate in the process of diminishing the weight of his “partner”, Gonzalez-Torres astutely enhanced the emotional impact by projecting the sense of “loss” onto the viewers themselves.

Where does the participation take place?

The environment where participatory art is set up often matters a great deal on maximizing its impact on viewers. Since participatory art relies on the viewer’s own action to connect with what the artist is trying to communicate, the context can provide key clues for the viewers on how to interpret on their own actions. Ai Weiwei, the famous politically committed artist has demonstrated over and over again how participation can take a significant part in the audience’s art experience. Situated in Alcatraz’s Dining Hall, this interactive artwork, Yours Truly invites visitors to write messages of hope and support on postcards destined for prisoners around the globe who are being unjustly detained for their beliefs.[17] Comparing to Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Death by Gun), Ai’s Yours Truly directly demands viewers to compose their own messages to send to those who were imprisoned for fighting for human rights around the world. 

Located on the island of Alcatraz, Ai Weiwei’s Yours Truly invites visitors to write messages of hope and support on postcards destined for prisoners around the globe who are being unjustly detained for their beliefs. The recipients were selected with the help of the FOR-SITE Foundation’s partner in this project, Amnesty International.

Like Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge, Yours Truly would not have had the same impact if it was situated in a regular exhibition space—not only it would be difficult to facilitate the desired interaction with the participants in a regular gallery space, but the prison-like setting also enhances, if not determines, the viewers’ experience. According to Ai, who was previously detained by the Chinese government for his activism, the reason why the setting of Alcatraz means so much to this project is that Alcatraz resembles the actual detention facilities where the prisoners of conscience are forcefully incarcerated, and the deep feeling of isolation often makes them fear that they, along with the causes they fought for, have been forgotten by the outside world.[18] Ai Weiwei would like to capture this feeling, and immerse his audience in it—that is where the environment of Alcatraz comes into play. While the viewers are asked to sit on the benches inside the old dining hall and write postcards to these political prisoners, the space that surrounds them not only sparks their empathy but also serves as a chilling reminder on what those prisoners had to give up to fight for social justice. While the audience has the total autonomy to decide what they would like to write down on the postcards, the art space where the installation is positioned sets a very clear message from the artist to the viewers.

Postcards collected through the project cycle will be sent to the political prisoners across the world.

The case of relational aesthetics

Examples like Gonzalez-Torres’ and Ai’s widely popular and critically acclaimed projects, have been the subjects of much discussion in recent art theory and have been theorized under several designations. Relation aesthetics, a term created by the famous curator Nicolas Bourriaud, could become one of the theories that perfectly demonstrate how artists can prompt their audience to care more about certain social justice issues through a participatory approach. 

Relational aesthetics refers to the installations and interactive events designed to facilitate community among participants (both artists and viewers). Rather than producing objects for individual aesthetic contemplation, relational artists attempt to produce new human relationships through collective experiences.[19]

For participatory art, artists are indeed focusing on highlighting the human relationships rather than the independent and private space. By doing so, participatory artists can position themselves as facilitators rather than the creators, in which sense they give audiences access to power and means to make a difference. On the other hand, since the efficacy of socially engaged art solely depends on whether the viewers are empowered enough to take actions, adequate on-site participation will provide the positive reinforcement to the audiences that their actions can undeniably effect a real change. It helps the target audience realize that they can take the initiative to either get involved or confront the challenges. From this perspective, integrating the participatory approach into socially engaged art would make it more aesthetically engaging and pragmatically effective.

The opportunities and challenges to maximize the value of socially engaged art

Now we have discovered why participatory approaches are getting progressively popular in the realm of socially engaged art. Entering the digital age, technology sure opens another door for participatory artists as well: audience can now access art in different places through different means, which suggests the way they get to participate in the art are getting more creative and dynamic. One interesting example would be Greg Allen’s digitized work, “Better Read #008: Death By Gun,” which elaborates on Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Death by Gun).[20] According to Allen, the idea was conceived based on the notion that the names of victims tend to get forgotten and therefore reading them aloud is a better way to memorize the people who were killed by gun violence.[21] Allen transcribed all the names from the poster, had a computer read through the list, then uploaded the audio clip to his website. This digital rendition of Gonzalez-Torres’ artwork made sure that people who did not have the opportunity to visit the gallery can still get to participate in the project through listening to the names, even though the action they need to take is now reduced to a single click.

Same for Khalili’s The Mapping Journey Project and Ai’s Yours Truly, multimedia content that documented how these projects came to their fruition can now be widely shared across the world. By watching online videos, we can also get a glimpse at what the exhibition feels like and what the artist is trying to achieve through their work. However, we also have to acknowledge the challenges in the face of overflowing information communicated through digital media, and many artists, though possess great artistic talent and skills to work independently, are not fully equipped to assess the artistic values of their works from a more pragmatic point of view. “Our society needs great artists working uncompromisingly toward their singular vision, but these may not be the same artists that are great at achieving social outcomes or working in a community.”[22] We should absolutely try our best to help artists to grow their cultural competency, knowledge on policymaking, and human relational skills at large; at the same time, a more practical approach would be to adopt a rather collaborative method when developing an art project. That means the artists who expect to conduct socially engaged practices should be able to consult with the targeted community along the way, and the community members should be able to provide feedback to the artists in return. This is exceptionally important when it comes to designing a project that anticipates or even relies on the participation of the audiences, which we know now can be the key to amplify the social impact of the given project.


[1] Tate. n.d. “Socially Engaged Practice – Art Term.” Tate. Accessed May 7, 2019b.

[2] “Interview with Carolina A. Miranda.” LA Times, 2014. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[3] Simoniti, Vid. 2018. “Assessing Socially Engaged Art: Assessing Socially Engaged Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 76 (1): 71–82.

[4] ibid.

[5] Frasz, Alexis, and Holly Sidford. n.d. “Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Artistic Practice,” 48.

[6] ibid.

[7] “Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project.” n.d. The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[8] ibid.

[9] “The Mapping Journey Project.” n.d. MIT – Docubase. Accessed May 7, 2019. 

[10] Tate. n.d. “Participatory Art – Art Term.” Tate. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[11] “Interactive and Participatory Art.” n.d. Art21 Magazine. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[12] “Untitled (Death by Gun) | Gonzalez-Torres, Felix | V&A Search the Collections.” 2019. V and A Collections. May 7, 2019.

[13] ibid.

[14] ibid.

[15] “Felix Gonzalez-Torres ‘Untitled’ (Placebo), 1991.” n.d. Williams College Museum of Art. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[16] ibid.

[17] “Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz and the Power of the Postcard.” 2015. Chronicle Books Blog (blog). April 7, 2015.

[18] “Yours Truly.” n.d. FOR-SITE Foundation. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[19] “What Is Relational Aesthetics? Here’s How Hanging Out, Eating Dinner, and Feeling Awkward Became Art.” n.d. Artspace. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[20] “WTF Is… Relational Aesthetics?” 2011. Hyperallergic. February 8, 2011.

[21]  “Better Read #008: Death By Gun – Greg.Org.” n.d. Accessed May 7, 2019.

[22] Frasz, Alexis, and Holly Sidford. n.d. “Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Artistic Practice,” 48.


“A Digital Reboot of Félix González-Torres’s Memorial to Victims of Gun Violence.” 2016. Hyperallergic. June 23, 2016.

“Ai Weiwei at Alcatraz and the Power of the Postcard.” 2015. Chronicle Books Blog (blog). April 7, 2015.

“Ai Weiwei Project on Alcatraz Creates Dialogue about Prison System | KQED Arts.” n.d. PBS LearningMedia. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“Better Read #008: Death By Gun – Greg.Org.” n.d. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“Bouchra Khalili: The Mapping Journey Project.” n.d. The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres. ‘Untitled’ (Death by Gun). 1990 | MoMA.” n.d. The Museum of Modern Art. Accessed May 7, 2019a.

“Felix Gonzalez-Torres ‘Untitled’ (Placebo), 1991.” n.d. Williams College Museum of Art. Accessed May 7, 2019.

Frasz, Alexis, and Holly Sidford. n.d. “Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Artistic Practice,” 48.

“Frasz and Sidford – Mapping the Landscape of Socially Engaged Artistic.Pdf.” n.d.

“Interactive and Participatory Art.” n.d. Art21 Magazine. Accessed May 7, 2019.

Pedrosa, Curated Adriano, and Jens Hoffmann. n.d. “HOW 179 POUNDS OF CANDY CAN CHANGE THE WORLD,” 5.

Simoniti, Vid. 2018. “Assessing Socially Engaged Art: Assessing Socially Engaged Art.” The Journal of Aesthetics and Art Criticism 76 (1): 71–82.

Tate. n.d. “Participatory Art – Art Term.” Tate. Accessed May 7, 2019.

Tate. n.d. “Relational Aesthetics – Art Term.” Tate. Accessed May 7, 2019a.

Tate. n.d. “Socially Engaged Practice – Art Term.” Tate. Accessed May 7, 2019b.

“The Mapping Journey Project.” n.d. MIT – Docubase. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“The Mapping Journey Project. Video Installation. 2008-2011 – BOUCHRA KHALILI.” n.d. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“Untitled (Death by Gun) | Gonzalez-Torres, Felix | V&A Search the Collections.” 2019. V and A Collections. May 7, 2019.

“What Is Relational Aesthetics? Here’s How Hanging Out, Eating Dinner, and Feeling Awkward Became Art.” n.d. Artspace. Accessed May 7, 2019.

“WTF Is… Relational Aesthetics?” 2011. Hyperallergic. February 8, 2011.

“Yours Truly.” n.d. FOR-SITE Foundation. Accessed May 7, 2019.

Photography: An Advancement and Misrepresentation


Photography is integral to today’s society, though the medium does not replicate reality. As a mere simulation of the real world, the mediation of photography, and its development across multiple interfaces, such as the physical and digital image, have shaped and evolved our system of meaning. Through photography and the replication of those images, the dialogic contexts across those interfaces help shape and interpret the world. When examining the role of photography in physical reproductions like the Mnemosyne Atlas, the Hockney Falco thesis, and exhibition catalogs, compared to digital platforms such as online collections, Google Arts and Culture, and photo manipulation, its clear that the public should be aware of both the pros and cons related to interpreting photographs.

Photography: An Advancement and Misrepresentation

The medium of photography has evolved exponentially since the 1820s to become a platform that creates a universal system of meaning that has revolutionized how we understand the world. Though photographs are merely a simulation of what has been viewed by the photographer, this interface is necessary to perceive and share reality (Irvine, “Conclusions”). Photography is a mediation of actuality and has completely changed the dialogic context of how we interpret art history through physical mediums or digital interfaces. As an interface, it would be nearly impossible to replicate the dialogic contexts photography provides (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”). Though our system of meanings has mirrored the advancement of photography, people should be aware of photography’s misrepresentations in the perception of depth and dimension related to works of art, and ultimately, the limitations when experiencing the art.

The vehicle of photography is both a support and limitation when used to further the field of art history. Without this mediation, viewers wouldn’t necessarily perceive or recognize the connections between certain works of art that were completed at the same time, but in different locations (Mansfield 249). However, as a simulation of the real world, a photograph distorts the artwork’s composition including color, scale, and texture. With this mediation, care has to be taken to ensure that an artwork is never “reduced to reproductions” (Irvine, “Malraux” 3). Though with its limitations, reproductions of photographed artworks are necessary to research history.

Art history, as we recognize it today, developed in the early twentieth century. After the end of World War I, people were looking ahead to the future and seeking out modern, technological advances related to the art field. Photography, and its ability to be reproduced, was a natural fit for this desire (Kreinik). The reproducibility of photography enabled the artist, historian, or intellect to compare and contrast images from different times and places (Benjamin 252-253). This new ability in photography expedited the art history field, especially by Aby Warburg and David Hockney.

The Mnemosyne Atlas, was developed by Aby Warburg in 1924, but was unfinished before he died in 1929 (Johnson). This “Memory Atlas” was a collage of documents, images, and photographs that were all conceptually linked to one another (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”). Warburg believed that creating dozens of panels filled with these images would bring about new ways of interpreting and mediating Western antiquity (Johnson). Ironically, the only surviving documentation of his Mnemosyne Atlas are photographs of his panels. Without photography, Warburg’s primitive web of information that connected his ideas would have been lost to history (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”).

Photograph of Aby Warburg’s “Mnemosyne Atlas”

David Hockney, an art historian, used a similar method to Aby Warburg to illustrate his ideas and connections. Along with the knowledge provided from physicist Charles Falco, the two determined that painters, from as early as the Renaissance, had used optics to create their uncharacteristically accurate paintings. Hockney noted that painters like Caravaggio, van Eyck, and Vermeer didn’t suddenly learn how to portray realistic proportions; there had to be a tool (Boxer).

David Hockney’s panel comparing artwork from the 1300s-1600s

Hockney and Falco developed a thesis and determined that artists such as Caravaggio, van Eyck, and Vermeer likely used a variety of optical projections to create their artworks. Some of the suspected devices include concave mirrors and the camera obscura (Boxer). Hockney and Falco essentially proved that optical projection was indeed the driving force behind Vermeer’s Officer and Laughing Girl. In Officer and Laughing Girl, its obvious that the foreground figure is unusually large for a painting typical of the 1600s. Other compositions from the same period, like Jan Steen’s Beware of Luxury, often feature figures that are typically the same size, no matter the distance of the figures from one another (Steadman). In Vermeer’s painting, though, the foremost figure dwarves the girl sitting in the chair. The realistic size representation of this officer is seemingly normal for today’s audiences because of people’s familiarity with photographs. However, this nearly perfect optical representation was unheard of during the 17th century (Steadman). The Hockney Falco thesis certainly validates that some artists during the 1300s-1600s used optical projections to create their paintings. This astonishing recourse of art history would not have been possible without photography; the mediation was necessary to compare paintings across hundreds of years.

Johannes Vermeer, “Officer and Laughing Girl,” 1655-1660

Jan Steen, “Beware of Luxury,” 1663

As defined previously, a photograph is integral to our society’s system of meaning. In the instances of the Mnemosyne Atlas and the Hockney Falco thesis, a photograph’s intent broadens when it is presented alongside others; it no longer represents just the object in the photograph, rather it reflects the development of an artistic period. The photographs used in the Mnemosyne Atlas and the Hockney Falco thesis generated a system of meaning that was previously unidentified. Additionally, the interfaces created by connecting those photographs advances their dialogic relationships. Comparing and contrasting individual photographs is just one method to create a meaning system. Books, like museum catalogs, are also essential to the system of meaning.

When printed in an exhibition catalog, photographs garner an altered meaning; a designation as important and academic. The arrangement of photographs in an exhibition catalog inherently identifies these images as “real art” because of the association of a museum specifically choosing to present these artworks (Buren 189). A photo’s automatic identification as something that has meaning and value, in this context, gives the curators of those exhibitions, and accompanying catalogs, unspoken power that influences the public’s interpretation of the system of meaning (Buren 191).

Curators are, inadvertently, providing a biased interface to the system of meaning. As students of art history, curators have developed their professional expertise based on the thoughts and analyses of their predecessors. The identification of an artwork as culturally relevant or technically masterful was most likely given those identifiers decades, or even centuries, prior. Additionally, a curator’s inclusion or exclusion of an artwork within an exhibition, and deciding where an artwork should hang, alters the dialogic context of the display. From beginning to end, curators are controlling the narrative, and usually, there is little room for other voices to be heard (Buren 191). However, the physical exhibition is more limiting than the exhibition catalog.

Exhibition catalogs are typically more thorough in content and description than the display space. With the ability to delve into detail and compare outside images with those inside the exhibition, the catalog provides a lucrative experience to the reader. Though completely static in presentation compared to Aby Warburg and David Hockney’s collages, museum catalogs are another facet to the meaning system. The interface of a catalog allows a more in depth dive into a specific collection, theme, or artist, and expands upon the exhibition’s original interpretation. These experiences have also been made more accessible in recent years with some museums digitizing their catalogs and collections.

Digitizing exhibition or collection catalogs has gained momentum in the United States. The leading provider of these resources is the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City. Through MetPublications, the Met currently makes available fifty years worth of knowledge to the public, for free (“MetPublications”). This unprecedented access to cultural knowledge and history on a digital interface literally opens the Met’s doors to anyone who may not have access to the physical site. Though the digital formatting of a museum catalog is still static in its presentation of information, the digital interface creates a worldwide audience.

Exhibition catalogs, both the physical book and electronic book, are filled with information that is unable to be modified. Within those catalogs, the descriptions of photographed artworks are unable to be changed when new information arises, and cannot be personalized with information that is relevant to the viewer. However, many museums are unintentionally avoiding this problem of fixed information by digitizing their collections. Through this digital platform, the medium of photography can be used by the visitor to generate an unbiased interface free from a curator’s perspective.

Museums that create access to their collections via a digital interface are thoughtfully contributing to the system of meanings. Through the medium of photography, a person can view a variety of pieces within the same museum or collection, and others from different locations across the web. A person can venture and compare artwork from around the world at their own pace. That person can discover new connections and meanings between artworks, periods, and locations without having to leave their homes. Their own system of meanings can be free from the influence of curators or art historians, if they so choose. Yet, if the person decides to acknowledge and incorporate the object descriptions and metadata that is likely attached to the object in an online collection, then the experience and perspective of the curator or art historian is valuable (Buren 191).

While a museum’s online collection can provide the visitor with a plethora of images and information about a photographed artwork, the collection is not necessarily complete. Though a person can compare objects within the same museum, like the National Gallery of Art’s online collection database, a user is typically unable to compare the same artist in one museum’s collection with another. The user may have to open multiple webpages to accomplish this task. However, this frustrating lack of linked open data amongst museums is partially rectified by Google Arts and Culture.

Google Arts and Culture partners with cultural resources and museums across the world to capture high resolution images of artwork. Their partnerships allow a user on the Google Arts website to access photographs of artworks by the same artist without having to visit multiple museum websites (“Google Cultural Institute”). This condensing of information into one cache is an incredible feat in the art history field, and greatly increases the system of meaning for the user. The user is able to create their own system of meaning from their favorite images, and turn those images into their personal galleries (“Profile”). The role of the curator is not limited to those in the field, but is expanded to include anyone who has an interest. The sheer number of dialogic contexts that can be generated from this website is unmatched in ease and accessibility. Though the flexibility of Google Arts allows anyone to interpret their world in a unique way, the mediation of an artwork into a photograph, and then mediated once again into a digital reproduction, is not without repercussions. With this double re-mediation, care has to be taken to ensure that an object is never “reduced to reproductions” (Irvine, “Malraux” 3).

View of Google Arts and Culture

Accepting photography as reality is embedded in today’s society. However, photography merely portrays the ideology of realism; it is nothing more than a simulation of reality (Irvine, “Conclusions”). While collapsing the 3D world into a 2D space is certainly convenient, the medium is not without its stark limitations. When a photograph is taken of a painting, for example, and then mediated into a physical or digital format, details are inevitably lost (Irvine, “Malraux” 3).

A strong example of a photograph flattening a painting into a physical or digital format is Vincent van Gogh’s Starry Night. This painting is widely known, and a person is quick to associate Starry Night with navy blue swirls contrasted with a golden moon’s corona. The quick brushstrokes of the composition whip the painting and draw the eye from the left to the right. When viewed through a 2D interface, like a print or online, the viewer is losing vast amounts of depth and texture that would be noticeable in person.

The Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) in New York has Starry Night in its collection (“Vincent Van Gogh”). Only in person is a viewer actually able to grasp the dimension of van Gogh’s painting. The physical surface of this composition is laden with impasto. The undulating thickness throughout the canvas is exceptionally noticeable when the lights on the artwork hit the surface. This reflection of light provides a depth that is lost in a photographic or digital reproduction. This thickness is especially lost when viewing the crescent moon in the upper right corner. It is completely unknown to a viewer that only has access to a physical or digital reproduction of the work that this entire composition has a texture that captures audiences.

Vincent van Gogh, “Starry Night,” 1889

The experience of viewing Starry Night in person is both an individual and group event. In MoMA, groups of people crowd the painting and a dedicated security guard protects the painting from viewers. The mob mentality is to get a glimpse of the painting, and this energy radiates across the gallery. Sharing this experience with others heightens the excitement surrounding this painting, and an armchair view simply does not provide the same energy. A person who is only able to view van Gogh’s work from a remote location is missing more than just the vibrancy and texture of the composition; they’re missing the shared experience of wonder and homage to a great artist.

Unfortunately, the fallout of photography doesn’t end with flattening an image and losing the human experience. When one searches for Starry Night through Google, the results are a myriad of images that reference the painting. On first glance, its noticeable that the results vary in perspective, color, and crop. For a viewer that has not been personally exposed to the painting in MoMA, which search result simulates the painting the best?

The wide variety of search results demonstrates the rise of photo editing. Through editing tools such as Photoshop, a person is able to manipulate an image that distorts the original painting. Photo reproduction inevitably alters the painting’s material history and changes the reception of the original piece, and subsequently, Starry Night’s interpretation (Irvine, “Malraux” 3). Photo editing has become universal, and the tools to obscure history are accessible to nearly everyone. Though photo manipulation is inevitable when generating a reproduction of a painting and other classic mediums of art, photo manipulation doesn’t necessarily hamper the effect when a photograph is the intended medium (Irvine, “Artworks and Museums”).

Andreas Gursky is a widely known German photographer famous for his larger than life photographic prints. Some of his prints, such as Paris, Montparnasse measures 4.4 feet by nearly 10.5 feet and Rhine II measures 5.1 feet by just over 10 feet (Gursky “Paris, Montparnasse” and “Rhine II”). Gursky freely and openly uses photo manipulation to create these gigantic prints (Farago). His images are not merely composed of one photograph; both Paris, Montparnasse and Rhine II are stitched together from multiple photographs during post processing (Sooke).

Andreas Gurksy, “Paris, Montparnasse,” 1993

Andreas Gurksy, “Rhine II,” 1999

Gursky creates a new reality by stitching multiple photographs into one image (Sooke). The human eye is not capable of perceiving the grand architecture and landscapes that are in his photographs. The even clarity and perspective of each image is only possible through the medium of photography and digital post production (Nayeri). Additionally, in Rhine II, Gursky has made an effort to make the print more pleasing to the eye by color correcting, and most significantly, editing out a power station that disrupted the print (Nayeri). It is important to note that although people tend to view Gursky’s photographs as objective, the prints are anything but unbiased. Ralph Rugoff, the 2019 Venice Biennale Artistic Director, noted “Andreas is not a journalist doing reportage” (Nayeri). He continued to elaborate that photography “… which we, for official purposes like passports and school IDs, trust to be an accurate picture of the world, has always been something that can be lent to fiction as well as to fact” (Nayeri).

The medium of photography, though commonly referenced as a replication of reality, is nothing more than a simulation. The interfaces that are used to interpret the world have evolved alongside the development of photography. From grouping images in a collage or museum catalog to digital platforms such as online collections or Google Arts and Culture, the mediation of an artwork into a flat surface has been unavoidable. Though photographing a painting collapses depth, perception, and texture into a 2D space, the mediation is needed for the public to generate excitement and open the dialogue to share multiple perspectives. The difficulties associated with photography are less of a concern when an image is meant to be a photograph, but as seen in Gursky’s work, the viewer’s grasp on reality is warped. Photography as a medium, inclusive of both positive and negative aspects, across all of its iterations and interfaces, is absolutely necessary to the dialogic context of how the world is interpreted.


Benjamin, Walter. The Work of Art in the Era of Its Technological Reproducibility. The Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 2003.

Bolter, Jay David, and Richard Grusin. “Introduction: The Double Logic of Remediation .” Remediation: Understanding New Media, MIT Press, 2000, pp. 3–33.

Boxer, Sarah. “Paintings Too Perfect? The Great Optics Debate.” The New York Times, 4 Dec. 2001.,

Buren, Daniel, and Richard Hertz. “Function of the Museum.” Theories of Contemporary Art, 2nd ed., Prentice Hall, 1985, pp. 189–192.

Farago, Jason. “Andreas Gursky: The Bigger the Better?” Culture, BBC, 6 Nov. 2015,

“Google Cultural Institute.” Google Cultural Institute , Google,

Gursky, Andreas. Paris, Montparnasse. 1993, Tate, United Kingdom .

Gursky, Andreas. Rhine II. 1993, Tate, United Kingdom .

Irvine, Martin. “Artworks and Museums as Interfaces: Metamedia Interfaces from Velazquez to the Google Art Project.” Art and Media Interfaced. 21 Mar. 2019, Washington, DC.

Irvine, Martin. “Conclusions and Final Essay Projects.” Art and Media Interfaced. 25 Apr. 2019, Washington, DC.

Irvine, Martin. “Malraux and the Musée Imaginaire: Interfaces for Art History: Photographic Reproductions and Mediating Institutions.” 

Johnson, Christopher. “About the Mnemosyne Atlas | Mnemosyne.” Mnemosyne, Accessed 3 May 2019.

Kreinik, Juliana. “An Introduction to Photography in the Early 20th Century.” Khan Academy, Accessed 3 May 2019.

Mansfield, Elizabeth. “Art History and Its Institutions: The Nineteenth Century.” 1st ed., Routledge, 2005. Crossref, doi:10.4324/9780203995099.

 “MetPublications.” The Met, The Metropolitan Museum of Art,

Nayeri, Farah. “Andreas Gursky Is Taking Photos of Things That Do Not Exist.” The New York Times, 29 Jan. 2018,

“Profile.” Google Arts and Culture , Google,

Sooke, Alastair. “The Stunning Photographs That Are Like Paintings.” Culture, BBC, 18 Aug. 2017,

Steadman, Philip. “BBC – History – British History in Depth: Vermeer and the Camera Obscura.” Vermeer and the Camera Obscura, 17 Feb. 2011,

“Vincent Van Gogh.” Art and Artists, MoMA,

Chinese Contemporary Artists in Global Art Conversation



For a long time in history, Chinese art developed almost independently from the influence of the other countries in the world. After Chinese artists finally get access to western contemporary art in 1980s, they inevitably became parts of the global dialogue of Art. In the trend of art globalization, Chinese artists are heavily affected by western postmodernism, and they also contribute to the conversation. In research in this topic, extraordinary Chinese contemporary artists’ career and work are used as case study resource.



This paper looks into one main question: how do Chinese contemporary artists participate in international art conversation? To find out the answer, careers of renowned Chinese artists including Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun, Wang Guangyi, Zeng Fanzhi, Xu Bing, Huang Yongping and Cai Guoqiang were studied. Although their current work varies, they were all pioneers in contemporary Chinese art when it first appears in early 1980s, after the end of Cultural Revolution. After looking into their works, the paper finds out that postmodernism has significant influence on Chinese artists, and museum/gallery plays important role in the early stage of Chinese contemporary art. Through development, some artists start to use Chinese traditional aesthetic elements in their creation. Others identify themselves more as an international artist rather than a Chinese one.



In 1996, Liu Ye, a Chinese contemporary artist, painted Qi Baishi Knows Mondrian to ask a question: what would happen to Qi Baish (a famous Chinese watercolor painter)’s work if he knew his coeval western artist, Mondrian? The topic conveyed by the painting was an unknown regret for generation and generation Chinese artists who worked independently in their unique context without learning from Western cultural heritage. Lack of communication kept Chinese art from international dialogue for a long time. When Western artists started their innovation and exploration to entirely new style in early 20th century, Chinese Art world was still dominated by traditional ink painting. However, nowadays, Art from different culture background has become connected under the path of globalization. Chinese artists know not only Mondrian, but also worldwide Art. And that changed their work significantly in technique, topic, technology and genre. From 1980s to nowadays, Chinese artist’s works serve as a vivid answer to Liu Ye’s question.


Heritage from World Art: The Influence of Western Postmodernism Art on Contemporary Chinese Art

In 1920s, Dada drove attention as a movement which reversed the traditional cognition of Art. Actually, it is always seen as “anti-art”[i] for it challenge the main aesthetic trend by creating a series of impulsive work to shock its audiences visually and spiritually. Benjamin likens it to a “missile”[ii] to illustrate its jolt to audience, and many theorists take it as the beginning of postmodernism. Later, Dada set agenda for contemporary art and became the predecessor of Pop art. Born in 1950s, Pop art shares Dada’s revolt and satire to the authoritative Art world.

In the most representative Chinese contemporary paintings, the heritage of Pop art is obvious. Chinese media and public named Zhang Xiaogang, Yue Minjun, Fang Lijun and Wang Guangyi as “Big Four” for the four artists share both great commercial success in the auction market and cynical irony to the serious politics and national character. For a long time, their works represents Contemporary Chinese art in public’s impression.

Zhang Xiaogang, A Big Family, 1995, oil on canvas, 179 x 229 cm. retrieved from

Each of them is famous for an iconic series. Zhang Xiaogang is famous for his Bloodline: Big Family series. Those paintings look like solemn Chinese family portraits from 1960s. In those dull color portraits, characters keep poker faces with large, extraordinarily black eyes. Yet it is hard to find any emotion in those pupils. In Yue Minjun’s oil paintings, he often creates exaggerated self-portrait figures bearing wide smiles with gaping mouths. The same face in candy color reappears so many times that it became his brand. [iii] Similarly, a bald guy with extravagant facial expression was portraited again and again with strong colors in Fang Lijun’s paintings. The distinctive subject is a figure of the artist himself. Wang Guangyi’s most influential work is the Great Criticism series. By combining the propaganda posters during the Cultural Revolution (a sociopolitical movement purging remnants of capitalist and traditional elements from Chinese society) with popular contemporary Western commercial icons, Great Criticism generated a strong contrast to claim a critical satire.

Fang Lijun, Series 2-Number 2, 1992, Oil on canvas, 200×200 cm. retrieved from×200-cm-Image-courtesy-of_fig7_326259163

Obviously, their works were heavily influenced by Dada and Pop art. Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism was even seen as the pathfinder of China’s Political Pop Art. In these paintings, we could find similar techniques used by their creators’ western fore-goers. Repetition is a common method in art, especially Pop art. Andy Warhol used repeated images in large scale so much that it became a pattern and brand for him. From celebrities (like Marilyn Monroe) to commodities (like Campbell’s Soup Cans), everything reproduced by Warhol in his paintings became his icon. Similar to Warhol, his contemporaries Wayne Thiebaud created series of paintings filled with repeated food images. They use repetition to express their reaction to mass media and reproduction.

Artwork by Yue Minjun, Pyramid of smile, Made of Print-Multiple, Lithograph in colors

Yue Minjun, Pyramid of smile, Made of Print-Multiple, Lithograph in colors,2001,11×81cm. retrieved from

The repetition could be found in Chinese Contemporary art work as well. Through repetition of same faces, Fang Lijun, Yue Minjun, Zhang Xiaogang and their coeval Zeng Fanzhi (who is famous for painting characters in similar masks) all made themselves big names. Different from Warhol and Thiebaud, repetition artworks of Chinese artist have another meaning. Monotonous faces in Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family shows his introspection on extreme collectivism. When the whole society is preached as one big family, each member displays the same face and indifferent emotion instead of self-awareness. The exaggerated facial expression on Yue Minjun and Fang Lijun’s characters is another extreme, yet it shows similar topic as Zhang Xiaogang’s poker-face portraits do. Being described as “a permanent condition of our nation” by its creator[iv], the smirking face offers a rich text for interpretation. It could be seen as a whitewash for the deep pessimism or a blind optimism born by ignorance. Although the figures originated from those artists’ self-portraits, they are hard to be recognized as anybody from real life or any celebrities. Therefore, the repetition of the figure images in Chinese contemporary art seems more like a presentation of collective mentality rather than just a reaction to the mass media or mass reproduction.

Appropriation is another significant manner Chinese contemporary art used which is inspired by postmodernism art. Instead of creating the whole painting on empty canvas, artists develop their works on the base of some existing materials. Marcel Duchamp, the outstanding artist in Dadaism movement, parodied the established order in fine art by adding funny goatee to Mona Lisa’s dignified portrait. Daily life goods also drew his inspiration and became the foundation of his ready-made art. He diverted a men’s urinal into an artwork titled Fountain. By separating the article from normal life context, he endowed it with critical and artistic value. Invented by Dadaism, ready-made is widely accepted by pop art. It enabled Andy Warhol to transform mass-media images into art, and gave him opportunities to inspect consumerism by appropriating its commodities.

Wang Guangyi, The Great Critism-Parker, oil on canvas, 1997, 200×200cm retrieved from

Appropriation influences Chinese contemporary art heavily. The concept of “ready-made” shaped Wang Guangyi’s Great Criticism. The artist combined propaganda images during Cultural Revolution with western commercial icons. Righteous workers, peasants and soldiers were clipped from the propaganda posters and collaged together with trademarks, price-tags and barcodes. Parody of classic western paintings also occupied positions in top-tier Chinese contemporary arts. Zeng Fanzhi uses his iconic characters in masks to substitute Jesus and his apostles at the Last Supper’s table. Yue Minjun parodied classical paintings including Liberty Leading the People, the Massacre at Chios and the Execution of Emperor Maximilian with his smirking figures.


They appropriate not only the paintings, but also the meaning then contained. Different from Duchamp, Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun parody the art classics for more than sneering at the fine art. They mimic it also for the rich meaning represented by those artworks. The viewer doesn’t need education to recognize the incompatibility between the goatee and Mona Lisa. But fully understanding of Zeng Fanzhi and Yue Minjun’s parody works requires knowledge of the original paintings. Parody became a method those artist makes themselves interpretable in the international dialogue. For example, Zeng Fanzhi’s parody the Last Supper alludes to the greed and betrayal showed in the original story.

Zeng Fanzhi, the Last Supper, 2001, oil on canvas, retrieved from

Dadaism and pop art became widely accepted and developed by Chinese artists for certain reason. Dada as a movement was initiated as a reaction to radical society change, especially the First World War. Dadaism’s participates use this unconventional art as a protest against the “effrontery to the insanities of a world-gone-mad”[v]. Pop art appears in the trend of mass culture, which was the result of increasing commercial prosperity and consumerism. When contemporary artist got decision-making power in their creations, China faces similar social context as West did when Dadaism and pop art appeared. Due to the unique development speed of China, the changing process was compressed into a very short period. People had gone through the end of Cultural Revolution, the enlightenment of Chinese art and the sensational trend of economic-oriented development with in one or two decades. When the artist started their creation in 1980s and 1990s, they had been repressed so long by the immediate past Cultural Revolution. And the ideal artistic Utopia they created was quickly disrupted by the public craze of making money. Postmodernism art is confrontational and uninhibited, which makes it perfect for Chinese contemporary artists under that context.

Obviously inheriting from Dada and pop art, “Big Four” and their companions who have similar style are controversial figures, especially in their homeland. They once faced domestic folk critics while their works were popular in auction market and were appreciated by art professionals. On one side, they are censured for smearing the compatriots and ingratiating themselves with the western ideology. Their character’s unbeautiful visages and the sarcastic irony hiding behind those faces were the arguments for the viewpoint. On the other side, critics think the Big Four’s representative art is influenced so deeply by western artist that it lacks originality. Some even boldly drew direct connection between the artist and their predecessors. Critics believe that Wang Guangyi’s works are inferior imitation of Warhol’s ready-made art, and Zhang Xiaogang’s Bloodline: Big Family series reminds them of Rene Magritte and Margaret Keane. The detractors believe the commercial success of Big Four shows an awry shortcut in art industry. By creating artworks inequivalent with their achievement, these contemporary Chinese artists are “dishonoring not only art, but life as well”[vi]. Although the negative comments are harsh, they raise a problem that contemporary Chinese culture has to face.


Museum serves as significant interface in the development of China’s contemporary art

The function of museums is worth noticing in the initial stage of China’s contemporary art. First, for Chinese artists in 1980s, exhibitions were extremely significant as an interface to the international art. At that time, access to the western culture was hard to find. Exhibitions in the museums (along with the publications of those exhibitions) therefore became rich resources and important inspirations. In 1985, an exhibit of Robert Rauschenberg was held in National Art Museum. For the first time, Chinese public got the opportunity to see original works from a contemporary Western artist. The exhibition set a profound influence to Chinese artist in the 1980s art movement. [vii]

Second, exhibitions later became important events to connects nodes in the artist network and promoted the community to the public. By bringing works from various artist together, museums offer a space for them to learn their outstanding peers’ works and to communicate. Thorough the interface, artist inspired mutually and become more conscious of their own creation. After the community was built, museum serves as the public’s access to artists.

During the short history of China contemporary art, key events always happened in museums or galleries. In 1980s, a series of pioneer art exhibitions held in major cities of China made the contemporary art creation a phenomenon. China/Avant-Garde Exhibition in 1989 was the zenith of that trend. Displaying over 180 artists’ 290 artworks, the exhibition held in National Art Museum of China was a milestone of Chinese contemporary art. It drove significant attention of domestic and abroad media as well as public, although most Chinese people couldn’t understand the pioneer spirit of those artists back then.[viii] In 2002, Wang Guangyi, Zhang Xiaogang and Fang Lijun started to be familiar with each other after cooperation in the Power of Graphic exhibition in He Xiangning Art Gallery. And this was the beginning of media and public considering them together as the representatives of Chinese contemporary art. [ix]


Innovation: Using Chinese elements to Discuss Global Topics

Along with the worship of western art, we could also see China’s contemporary artists attempting to combine western and eastern artistic traditions they’ve learned. Instead of simply inheriting or “borrowing” the western technique to tell their own stories and to satirize China society, the artists try to explore some common topics the whole world cares with their familiar cultural context.

After 2008,  Yue Minjun devoted a lot of time in the new series: Maze. Traditional Chinese aesthetics distinctly influences this series of works. Although painted with oil on canvas, the black-and-white color and light strokes of those pictures remind people of traditional ink paintings. Frames of the paintings are not rectangles, but multiple. The circle, sector and gourd-shaped frame are the similarity of traditional Chinese fans and ancient gardens windows.

Yue Minjun, Dragon in the Maze series, oil in canvas, 2009. retrieved from

But the Maze is far more than Chinese traditional aesthetics revival. Elements and characters in classic Chinese ink paintings were appropriated and arranged in scatter inside the mazes. The mess and disordered accumulation of those elements shows not beauty, but rather the self-examination of tradition. The series was interpreted widely as an introspection of Yue Minjun’s earlier parody to the classic oil paintings. After the intimate relationship with western art, the artist seems to started considering what is the role of Chinese traditional art in the international art dialogue. The artist himself takes Maze series as an explanation of his exaggerated-laughing figures. He believed that the traditional culture heritage is an important reason for the formation of nation character. [x]

After holding western postmodernism art in high esteem, contemporary Chinses artists realized that traditional Chinse culture offers rich inspirations. The most influential artwork inspired by Chinese culture is Xu Bing’s Book from the Sky. The large installation work contains hand-printed books on the floor as well as scrolls printed from wood letterpress type covering ceiling and walls. The content on the papers seems like Chinese, but if the audience try to read it, they will find out the Book from the Sky is not written in Chinese. Actually, it is not written in any known language. Xu Bing fabricated over 4000 characters with word-making theoretical principle in the written Chinese language.[xi] Since Chinese characters originally based on pictograms, Xu Bing’s invented characters are equally structural and beautiful. But Book from the Sky offers brand new perspective to semiology and linguistic. In the age of globalization and information explosion, it urges people to introspect the role of language in meaning-making.


Being an artist rather than a Chinese artist

After Book from the Sky, Xu Bing created Book from the Ground. In Chinese, Book from the Sky is a phrase meaning that no one can understand this book. On contrary to Book from the Sky, Book from the Ground is a book “any reader, regardless of cultural background or level of education” can read. [xii] There is also another contrast between the two works. In Chinese, “sky” often implies rootless, while the “ground” suggests solid and surefooted. According with their titles, characters in Book from the Sky are created by Xu Bing, while the one in Book from the Ground are combined by existing universal elements. The only prerequisite for understanding the book is living in contemporary society.

In the Book from the Ground, Xu Bing observed and extracted signs from public space worldwide. Based on the fundamental elements, he created more icons to generate meaning. His studio even created a translating system between the icons and Chinese/English. Language is always seen as the carrier of a nation’s culture and collective memory. By creating the Book from the Ground, Xu Bing expresses his ideal in universal language and weakens the spiritual boundary among different nations. Comparing to his earlier work Book from the Sky, his standpoint changed from rooting in Chinese culture background to a broader international view.

Xu Bing, Book from the Ground Software, retrieved from

Similar to Book from the Ground, from many Chinese contemporary artists’ work, we could see their creators self-identifying as world citizen rather than Chinese artist. They are not fond of attaching their art with traditional Chinese culture. And their motivations are far beyond introspecting homeland’s society and politics. Huang Yongping and Cai Guoqiang are representatives of those artists. They left China in their prime of lives. In their early careers, hints of their Chinese background could be found. As for now, they become more interested in exploring the limitation of art and probing global-concerned topics just as artists from any countries.

Huang Yongping is famous for installation art. His influential work Theater of the World happens in a cage, in which insects, serpents and lizards fight with each other to the death. [xiii]Inspired by Foucault’s imaginary panopticon model, Huang Yongping uses animals in the arena as metaphor to the public’s common destiny in contemporary society. Cai Guoqing’s reputation comes from his use of gunpowder. With living experience in both Japan and US, Cai Guoqiang used gunpowder to imitate a mini explosion in 1996 in Nevada in order to remind people the cruelty of weapon and war. The Century with Mushroom Clouds was Cai Guoqiang’s first artwork with gunpowder after he came to US, indicating the transfer of his attention to terrestrial concerns. [xiv]

Huang Yongping and Cai Guoqiang’s success vividly shows how is the art community transcending nations. Cai Guoqiang first came to US through the P.S.1 international Studio Program sponsored by the Asian Cultural Council. In the correspondence with media, Cai Guoqiang’s studio wrote that “mainstream art circles in the U.S. have given Cai the attention and support that have at times exceeded that for local artists”[xv]. Huang Yongping’s statement perfectly explain his self-recognition:“I think the duty of the artist is to deconstruct the concept of nationality. There is going to be a day when there is no concept of nationality.”[xvi]



When Chinese contemporary artists started their careers, they faced great impact from the society. On one hand, the Cultural Revolution left indelible marks on their spirits. On the other hand, the rapid advent of consumerism shook their ideals. The context led their worship to Western postmodernism art. Later, some artists find out the heritage of Chinese art can serve as great inspiration. Instead of revival the traditional aesthetics, they use it as a unique way to contribute in the global art conversation. Some artists choose not to attach their topic or technique with China. They identify themselves as citizen of the globe and use art to probe world-wide common issues. From their exploration, they test the boundary of art. Their career shows that art could be a universal communication transcending language and nationality.



[i] Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism: A very short introduction. Vol. 105. Oxford University Press, 2004, Introduction

[ii] W. Benjamin, H. Eiland, and M.W Jennings, “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility”, 267.

[iii] “Yue Minjun – 85 Artworks, Bio & Shows on Artsy”, Artsy, accessed May 3 2019,

[iv] “Yue Minjun: smirking face is a permanent condition of our nation,”, Sohu News, accessed May 3 2019,

[v] Ibid 1.

[vi] Jed Perl, “Mao Crazy,” The New Republic, July 9, 2008.

[vii] Gao, Minglu. Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011.

[viii] Ibid 7

[ix] Yan Hong. Fang Lijun:100 interviews about Fang Lijun’s art history. China Youth Press. 2017.

[x] “Yue Minjun: Ten Years of Confusion of a Rational Artist”, iFeng, accessed May 3, 2019,

[xi] Tsao, Hsingyuan., and Ames, Roger T. Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art : Cultural and Philosophical Reflections . Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.

[xii] “Xu Bing – Artwork – Book From the Ground,” Xu Bing studio official website. accessed May 4, 2019,

[xiii] “The Guggenheim’s Alexandra Munroe on Why ‘The Theater of the World’ Was Intended to Be Brutal,” Alexandra Munroe (blog), September 26, 2017,   (Alexandra Munroe is a curator and scholar at Guggenheim Museum)

[xiv] Zhang, Zhaohui. Where Heaven and Earth Meet: Xu Bing & Cai Guo-Qiang . Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2005,21.

[xv] “A Correspondence with Cai Studio,” LEAP, accessed May 5, 2019,

[xvi] “Where the Wild Things Are: China’s Art Dreamers at the Guggenheim – The New York Times,” accessed May 2, 2019,



  1. Hopkins, David. Dada and Surrealism: A very short introduction. Vol. 105. Oxford University Press, 2004.
  2. Shanes, Eric. Pop Art . New York, NY: Parkstone, 2009.
  3. Benjamin, H. Eiland, and M.W Jennings, “Work of Art in the Age of Reproducibility”.
  4. “Yue Minjun – 85 Artworks, Bio & Shows on Artsy”, Artsy, accessed May 3 2019,
  5. ““Yue Minjun: smirking face is a permanent condition of our nation,”, Sohu News, accessed May 3 2019,
  6. Perl, Jed. “Mao Crazy.” The New Republic, July 9, 2008.
  7. Gao, Minglu. Total Modernity and the Avant-Garde in Twentieth-Century Chinese Art. Cambridge, Mass: MIT Press, 2011.
  8. Yan Hong. Fang Lijun:100 interviews about Fang Lijun’s art history. China Youth Press. 2017.
  9. “Yue Minjun: Ten Years of Confusion of a Rational Artist”, iFeng, accessed May 3, 2019,
  10. Tsao, Hsingyuan., and Ames, Roger T. Xu Bing and Contemporary Chinese Art : Cultural and Philosophical Reflections . Albany: State University of New York Press, 2011.
  11. “Xu Bing – Artwork – Book From the Ground,”Xu Bing studio official website. accessed May 4, 2019,
  12. “The Guggenheim’s Alexandra Munroe on Why ‘The Theater of the World’ Was Intended to Be Brutal” Alexandra Munroe (blog), September 26, 2017,    (Alexandra Munroe is a curator and scholar at Guggenheim Museum)
  13. Zhang, Zhaohui. Where Heaven and Earth Meet : Xu Bing & Cai Guo-Qiang . Hong Kong: Timezone 8, 2005,21.
  14. “A Correspondence with Cai Studio,” LEAP, accessed May 5, 2019,
  15. “Where the Wild Things Are: China’s Art Dreamers at the Guggenheim – The New York Times,” accessed May 2, 2019,
  16. Huang, Zhuan.Politics and Theology in Chinese Contemporary Art : Reflections on the Work of Wang Guangyi . First edition. Milano, Italy: Skira, 2014.

From Andy Warhol to Takashi Murakami: Pop Legacy Passing Down Across Culture


Andy Warhol and his Pop Art during the 1960s inspired a large number of contemporary artists, including the now-famous Japanese visual artist Takashi Murakami. Though Murakami managed to innovate Warhol’s methods and idea, in essence, he also suffers from the same popular culture contradiction Warhol faced in his time. This essay analyzes the methods and works done by Andy Warhol and Takashi Murakami and explore Murakami’s intake and innovation of Warhol’s legacy, as well as the similarity between the two artists in terms of their interpretation of the popular culture of their times.


Andy Warhol’s contribution to Pop Art and the general Artworld is astonishing, yet controversial sometimes since his creations remodeled the Artworld’s perspective of “what can be used as ART.” As a successful commercial illustrator during his early times, Andy Warhol’s way of ‘shopping’ himself into the Artworld and rising to his fame is achieved through the use of mass-culture products during the 1960s United States. Instead of his former ways of ‘utilizing Art in advertisements,’ Warhol developed his way of reverse engineering the process and use the idea of it to ‘render advertisements to Art.’ His famous paintings of Campbell Soup Cans, Coca-Cola Bottles, and later portraits of American celebrity Marilyn Monroe demonstrated his obsession in the cycles of ‘money, product, and celebrities’. However, these representations are not merely reflecting his obsessions, but also the general American’s obsession in fame and post-war consumer culture at the time.

Warhol and his works have a profound influence to the later emerging artists, including Takashi Murakami (村上 隆), a Japanese contemporary artist, who successfully adopted his legacy and built up a unique interpretation of Pop Art belonged to him and his socio-cultural background of Japan. In the mid-1990s, he emerged to the international Artworld through integrating his paintings and sculptures with Japanese popular culture elements extracted from anime and manga, creating images and figures of exaggerated pop culture characters that genuinely reflects Japanese ‘otaku’ spirit, and ‘questions’ the future of Japanese popular culture.

Methods and Medium

Silk screening technique is Andy Warhol’s signature method of painting his works of Art. The process involves “pressing pigments of color through a silk screen with a pre-made stencil design.” Warhol started using this technique during the early 1960s since it supports his mass production of works. In 1962 at the Ferus Gallery, Warhol hung 32 of his silkscreen painted Campbell Soup Cans during his show to create a ‘grocery store’ effect, which openly challenges the Artworld’s idea of “what a valid art subject should be.” Silk screening technique also provides Warhol with an element of ‘surprise,’ which allows him to play with essentially the same image multiple times, applying different colors to it, and creating unique and unintended effects. His most celebrity painting ‘Marilyn Diptych’ featuring many Marilyn Monroe’s portraits with different color themes is a great example of such an attempt. Though compared to that of his other cluster repeated images such as the Campbell Soup Cans mentioned above, Warhol seems to create an ‘aspect-to-aspect’ transition between each one of Monroe’s portrait to generate certain mood instead of ‘grocery store like’ atmosphere. Therefore, to Warhol, the silk screening technique is both the way of mass production and a way of experimenting with different colors and themes.

Influenced by Warhol, Takashi Murakami is also obsessed with using silk screening as the primary way of painting. His early work, Such as the portraits of his signature figure Mr. DOB, is Murakami’s playful way of using different colors in the same image. However, Murakami did not stop the adoption of silk screening from Warhol. He expanded it and put his identity into using the silk screening technique to demonstrate Japanese craftsman spirit. Similar to the traditional Japanese craftsman, Murakami’s development into silk screening can best be described as faithfully preserving the traditional crafts while devoting himself to enhancing his skills.

Gero Tan (Left image. created in 2002) and a close-up photo of 500 Arhats (Right image, created in 2014) (photo credited to MCA-Chicago)

After the creation of the famous ‘727’ painting which exhibits in MoMA, he continued his exploration into enhancing his skills and finished the painting of ‘Tan Tan Bo Puking (aka. Gero Tan)’, an evolution of Murakami’s silkscreen art combined with the facilitation of digital illustration mappings. The piece is a large-scale painting with a significant amount of details that utilized thousands of silk screens to accomplish. However, Murakami himself seems not quite satisfied with ‘Gero Tan’ since all its colors are still single colors painted next to one another, without visible overlapping to create more details. Thus in 2014, he showcased one of his most ambitious painting called the ‘500 Arhats’. In this 300 foot long piece, Murakami utilized his newly developed technique with silk screens and painted multiple layers of colors over every passage of the Arhats’ body, creating even more complex layers of representations that blow all his previous works to the ground. Therefore, if Andy Warhol’s use of silk screening technique is to resemble commercial advertisements that reflect American’s post-war consumer culture, Takashi Murakami’s use of silkscreen is embodied with the Japanese traditional craftsmanship which enables him to challenge himself over and over again to create more details in his works of Art.

The Factory and Kaikai-Kiki

Andy Warhol had his art studio named “The Factory” after one of his employee’s idea since his silk screening and painting of pop culture products resemble that of an assembly line of a factory. However, though Warhol does engage in a certain extent of mass-production paintings, his Factory is still primarily an intellectual experiment ground of new form of arts ranging from painting to music, and films.

Warhol’s ‘Factory’ (Left, photo credited to and Kaikai-Kiki Studio (Right, photo credited to studio nevin)

Takeshi Murakami borrowed the idea of Warhol’s Factory and transformed his Kaikai-Kiki factory into both a studio and also a real factory of art. According to Lubow (2005), Murakami’s Kaikai-Kiki factory is just like the combination of a typical Japanese workspace, his 60 employees in Kaikai-Kiki are required to punch in with computerized timecards, and work for long hours regularly every day, every week. For new hires, Kaikai-Kiki offers them training manuals. Having a factory-like studio is one of the keys for Murakami to either mass-produce his art or producing massive art. As mentioned above, Murakami adopted Warhol’s method of using silkscreen for painting. Even though silkscreen painting significantly increased speed and efficiency of art, for artists like Murakami who love to engage in ambitiously large-scaled works, it would be nearly impossible for himself to finish one single piece along with all the details he pursues in his paintings. However, with the helping hand of his numerous employees, Murakami can create achieve his goal. Murakami described that his work is a cycle of production, where he produces the ideas with small drawings and give to his assistants, his assistants computerize, draw, and finish the art and bring back for his feedback.

Appreciating Yet Condemning popular Culture

During Andy Warhol’s period, American celebrities are the representations of American popular culture. Warhol himself is also fascinated in celebrity culture, and countless female celebrities have been immortalized into his now timeless artworks, which kept them famous even after their death. Among all the Warhol’s female celebrity creations, Marilyn Monroe becomes one of Warhol’s most famous as well as most debated pieces of creation. Warhol’s Marilyn Monroe series is littered with codes thanks to how influential Marilyn Monroe herself is. Monroe was the Queen of Hollywood, an icon of popular culture, and an eternal “sex symbol” of American culture.

Marilyn Monroe by Andy Warhol (1967) (photo credited to Siheng Zhu)

Moreover, with Warhol’s use of silk screening and application of commercial bright, vibrant colors, the portrait of Monroe seems to transcend into something somewhat superhuman, otherworldly, and even “Saint-like.” According to Needham (2015), Warhol returned to Marilyn Monroe several times during his career and increased both ‘quota (150 Black, White, and Grey Marilyns, 1979) and ‘saintliness’ (40 Gold Marilyns, 1980). This continuous return has reflected not only Warhol’s obsession with celebrities, but also his perception of post-war American fan culture, where people seem to give their idols a ‘mask’ of holiness, and immortality.          When approaching Marilyn’s portrait under the context it was made, things seem to be somewhat different. Warhol appeared to make his first series of Marilyn two weeks after her sudden death on August 5, 1962. Therefore, it seems that there is a cast of shadow over the creation of the first Marilyns and her death. Moreover, it seems that under all those bright colors that celebrate her stardom, there is a slight mood of sadness and mourning which grants this artwork a symbol of pity and death. Warhol himself confirmed this relation in Popism, and he said:

My first experiment with screens were heads of Troy Donahue and Warren Beatty, and then when Marilyn Monroe happened to die that month, I got the idea to make screens of her beautiful face — the first Marilyns.

Warhol attempts to use the glamorous colors to symbolize that although seemingly saint and holy, celebrities like Marilyn Monroe are just normal human beings. They can never shine like stars forever, they may suffer from pain and regret as regular people do, and they certainly cannot escape the hand of death — a perfect way of warning Americans of their obsession with material culture and fame. Besides, Warhol also utilized Marilyn as self-reflect, as he was also constantly seeking for the same fame and celebrity that his celebrity subjects enjoyed. Warhol’s Marilyns are also fascinating subjects in terms of depicting women. All of his Marilyn paintings seem to emphasize Marily n has sexualized facial features such as her lip, her eyeshadows, her skin, and her hair. As previously stated, Warhol likes to apply his silkscreen paintings with  commercial bright and vibrant colors, which perfectly symbolizes the idea of ‘Pop.’ However, using these colors on his Marilyns, especially on her facial features will render Marilyn superficial, as well as to enlarge and exaggerate her sexual values. Besides, while Warhol utilizes the ‘Saint-like’ representation of Marilyn to give the audience an impression of immortality, he also rids her from any signs of aging and flaws, leaving Warhol continuously being speculated as well as criticized as “sexist” or “anti-feminist.”

Murakami’s approach to popular culture figures is also profoundly affected by the idea of Pop Art, which is to use mass culture icons and symbols as a satire of contemporary socio-cultural phenomenon. Similar to Warhol’s contradicting perception of both obsessed yet criticizing celebrity culture, Murakami coined himself an advocate of otaku culture ( Japanese popular culture related to anime, manga, and video games), but still found himself standing in a position to condemn it from time to time. The primary reason for Murakami to speak for otaku culture comes from the public’s ignorance of otaku. Since the incident of Tsutomu Miyazaki (‘otaku killer’ that commit serial killing of 4 young girls) in 1989, Japanese society was filled with discrimination towards otaku community due to their misunderstanding. Therefore Murakami seeks to find a way to explain otaku culture to the society. He said in an interview with the Journal of Contemporary Art, that he thought he could ‘grasp an understanding of present Japan by analyzing otaku.’ Murakami’s analysis of otaku culture led him into creating life-size sculptures that both represent the ideas of contemporary comic culture and a critic from himself. One of the earliest sculpture works done by Murakami is ‘Miss Ko2’ (1998), a busty, long-legged, blue-eyed blond waitress, whose entire figure represents a collective aesthetic ‘ideal female’ of otaku culture. ‘Miss Ko2’ marks Murakami’s earliest attempt of visualizing otaku culture trends into stunning and exaggerated figures. In 2011, Murakami’s idea of compiling otaku aesthetic had pushed his representation of form and contents to a new extreme. The ‘3-Meter Girl’, showcased during Murakami’s 2011 exhibit in Gagosian Museum in London, is an exaggerated anime figure featuring a pair of hyper enlarged breast, an abundant hairstyle, a highly sexualized outfit, and a cute yet seductive standing pose. Like Warhol, who continuously stay on the far front of pop culture, Murakami is also continually chasing the new trend of Japanese otaku culture. When asked whether he view this figure as “beautiful,” Murakami replied that:

Not personally. I had a discussion with some comic writer about the contemporary trend of sexuality among otakus. He said that the latest trend is ‘mother complex’, where huge breasts is the sexuality icon […] It is not my taste. It is the taste of the young generations.

Therefore, If the previously mentioned ‘Miss Ko2’ figure represents the ostensible beauty of late 1990s Japanese culture, the creation of ‘3-Meter  Girl’ by Murakami can be a refreshing view of contemporary Japanese popular culture and society.

3-Meter Girl (Left image. 2011, photo credited to Gagosian Museum in London). ミュセル (Middle image, a digital illustration created by Pixiv artist ピスケ). Gyaru Model (Right image, photo credited to

Murakami cleverly utilized icons and symbols to land his criticism on contemporary Japanese popular culture. If sifted through, the figure of ‘3-Meter Girl’ represents an iconic female ‘gyaru (ギャル),’ who are typically characterized as having bleached or dyed hair (mostly shades from dark brown to blonde), tanned skin, highly decorated nails, dramatic makeup, sexy clothing, and wild attitude. The popularity of ‘gyaru wave’ reached its peak in the 1990s and early 2000s then changed and became more accessible and widely popular in Japan in the 2010s. To some extent, gyaru styled girls represent a highly recognizable and iconic ‘subculture fashion’ among Japanese pop culture communities. Moreover, due to the birth of gyaru being possibly related Japan’s unstable economic, socio-economic condition after the Japanese Bubble period, Murakami’s use of such figure in his ‘3-Meter Girl’ can be characterized as a representation of a sexual yet unstable aesthetic of young Japanese generations. Such a view can be further analyzed by looking at the character’s standing pose. During the heyday of Japanese kawaii culture (cute culture), young female Japanese usually apply the aesthetic of cute to themselves, expressed by the gesture of ‘burikko,’ or ‘pretended childish cute’ (Kinstella, 1995). In Murakami’s Gagosian exhibition, anyone familiar to Japanese otaku culture would immediately recognize that the ‘3-Meter Girl’ is also making an iconic ‘burikko’ gesture, seemingly to suggest that she is ‘cute.’ Considering the ‘mother complex’ theme, Murakami intended to deliver with ‘3-Meter Girl’; her signature ‘burikko’ seems to pose a sharp contrast to her’ role,’ which possibly suggesting something deeper behind her ostensible’ cuteness.’ McLelland commented on the issue of Japanese kawaii culture, stating that it is “a ubiquitous and hence extremely unstable signifier. Furthermore, he also pointed out that “kawaii culture transfers from products and merchandises to the national identity of Japan; the result is a nation-state grounded in undetermined, unstable values.” Murakami seems to be well aware of this issue, and he tried to present this unstable and contradicting values in his sculptures. In order to express the popular sexuality trend of ‘mother complex’ among Japanese otakus, Murakami hyper enlarged her breast, the signature feature of ‘mature women’ to achieve the astounding yet disturbing look viewers has in their first impressions. He also gave the character a ‘maid outfit,’ which symbolizes care-taker to emphasize her role further. However, the ‘burikko’ gesture taken by this character suggests a ‘childish cuteness’ which may never have appeared in a ‘mother-like’ figure. Therefore, it seems that through using such contradiction, Murakami is attempting to criticize the Japanese kawaii culture for its unstable values, and maybe to further condemn Japanese society itself for its loss of stable social values.


As one of Warhol’s admirers, Takashi Murakami adopted Warhol’s working method, his idea of his studio, and his perception of popular culture significantly throughout his career. His intake and application of Warhol’s legacy are strictly Japanese, including applying Japanese values such as craftsmanship to silk screenings, and the ‘renovation’ of art factory into a factory of art featuring contemporary Japanese workplace culture. However, both Warhol and Murakami’s work of art greatly suggests that they are, in fact, contradictive towards the popular culture environment of their age. Warhol’s depiction of celebrity figures not only suggests his interest in celebrity culture but also represent a criticism and reflection of himself and the superficially materialized American mass culture. Murakami, on the other hand, approaches his kind of contradiction through making life-sized figures with sexualized appearances. Though he is determined to stand up and speak for the socially discriminated Japanese otaku culture, Murakami also holds a rather critical view towards the progressive distorted values created by Japanese otaku culture and genuinely concerned about Japan losing its uniqueness in cultural values.


Works Cited:

Black, Daniel. “The Virtual Ideal: Virtual Idols, Cute Technology and Unclean Biology.” Continuum 22.1 (2008): 37–50. Web.

Bloomberg. “Murakami Says His Art Is Overpriced in ‘Scary’ Market.” YouTube, YouTube, 11 July 2011,

Eikenaar, Jannik Haruo. “Otaku Dreams: The Re-Membering of Japan in Murakami Takashi’s ‘Earth at My Window’.(Critical Essay).” Forum for World Literature Studies 3.1 (2011): 94–106. Print.

Kinstella, Sharon. “Cuties in Japan.” Women, Media, and Consumption in Japan . Honolulu: University of Hawai’i Press, 1995. Print.

Lubow, Arthur. “THE MURAKAMI METHOD.” New York Times Magazine (2005): 48–57,64,76,79. Web.

Mako Wakasa. “Takashi Murakami.” Journal of Contemporary Art , 2000.

Needham, Gary. “Publicity and Pathos: Andy Warhol’s Marilyn Diptych (1962) in Context.” Film, Fashion & Consumption 4.2-3 (2015): 221–225. Web.

Shanes, Eric. Pop Art . New York, NY: Parkstone, 2009. Print.

Warhol, Andy. “Art at Mayo Clinic: Endangered Species.” Mayo Clinic Proceedings 77.5 (2002): 474. Web.

Warhol, Andy, and Hackett, Pat. POPism : the Warhol  ’60s . Orlando: Harcourt, 2006. Print.

Exploring the Affordance of AR Technology in Art Museums By Analyzing Three Cases in Different Museums

Yutong Zhang


AR, which refers to the augmented reality, is a technology that can layer virtual content over reality. In recent years, AR has become an artistic choice for art museums. This paper briefly introduces AR and its relations with museums and the interpretation of artworks. By analyzing three AR projects in different museums (Invasive Species in The Pérez Art Museum Miami, ReBlink in The Art Gallery of Ontario, Hacking the Heist in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum), AR’s affordance in art museums is discussed. In the end, this paper also discusses the limitations of AR and possible problems for other art museums to implement AR in art exhibitions.


Mobile devices are omnipresent in modern society. Realized mobile phones and social media can help exemplify the influence of art and museums, museums, for example, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, gradually stopped entreating their visitors not to use their cellphones (Gilbert, 2016) After accepting visitors’ using mobile phones, museums started to think of a way of taking advantages of mobile devices as media, hoping to provide visitors with more information on the exhibitions and improves the traditional museum visiting experience. On the other hand, there is also a trend of digitalization among modern artists. Digitalization of art does not limit in using photoshop as a painting technique. Using different media and interacting with various technologies, digital artworks are transdisciplinary (Adams, Arisona & Gibson, 2008).

In such a background, augmented reality has come to the eyes of curators and artists. Usually, a museum may be sponsored by a foundation and then start an AR project. By collaborating with artists and technical teams, the museum can eventually launch the AR exhibition. The most commonly used way of applying AR technology in museums is to let visitors download an app specifically applicable to the exhibition on their mobile devices. Leveraging cameras, scanning technology, GPS and other technologies, AR tools augment the reality, add different layers of information, and strengthen the interaction in museums.

In the perspective of creating meaning and interpretation, AR technology also plays an important role. Because the applications of AR tools in different art museums are different, the analysis on how AR technology specifies the meaning of the artworks also cannot be generalized.

This paper picked out three AR projects in different museums:  Invasive Species The Pérez Art Museum Miami, ReBlink in The Art Gallery of Ontario, Hacking the Heist in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum. Based on specific forms and purposes of digital artworks, I analyze how AR tools as an art media are applied properly and successfully in three exhibitions.

Literature Review

  • What is AR

According to the definition given by Encyclopedia Britannnica (2013), augmented is “a process of combining or ‘augmenting’ video or photographic displays by overlaying the images with useful computer-generated data.” People usually are confused about the difference between AR and VR. AR, which refers to Augmented Reality, just as its name, can “augment” the reality with perceptual information generated from digital data, while VR (Virtual Reality) creates artificial environments to replace the reality with virtual views. Because AR technology provides different layers of information based on the real components in our physical world, it can alter people’s perception of the real world and simultaneously provides people with an immersive experience.

AR technology is a blackbox, in which there are more blackboxes of other technologies. In the book “Understanding Augmented Reality” (Craig, 2017), the author explains that all AR systems consist of at least three hardware components: sensor, processor, and display. Those are the most basic components and indispensable for the augmented reality system. Each of the components can take different forms but have similar functions. The sensor provides information for the system. The information provided usually is one of the followings: location, orientation, lightness or darkness, etc. The processor is like the brain of the system, in charge of receiving signals from the sensor, execute the instructions from the programming and then creates signals to drive the display. The display provides a signal for our sense. The most commonly used are visual displays, but there are also audio displays, haptic displays, and other sensory displays.

The popularity of AR technology in recent years probably benefitted from Pokémon Go, which is an augmented reality mobile game developed by Niantic and swept the world since 2016. However, AR is not a new-born technology. It was invented in the early 1990s. The commercial use of AR was mostly focused on the entertainment and game businesses. People are also increasingly aware of AR’s potential for applications in various scenes.

  • AR and Museums

Ding (2017) concluded in her article that the global trends of museums in recent years are digitally “mediated personalization” and “personalized learning”. Trendwatch (2015) released a report in 2015, showing that at that time museums have already thought of proper ways to take advantage of wearable devices. The hand-held audio guide has become a mainstream way of providing with extra information on the exhibitions for visitors. To enhance the interaction experience in museums, curators were thinking of utilizing AR technology in a portable way. Usually through mobile apps developed by museums, visitors who hold mobile phones or tablets are able to have a more immersive and innovative experience by using AR technology.

The advantages of implementing AR in museum visiting experience have been praised by many experts. Most of the opinions are from the perspective of diverse information and interaction. AR tools make it possible that surrounding spaces in the museums become endless layers of information through the screen of mobile devices (Ding, 2017). Besides, AR tools can contribute to more engagement in museums because of its creative feature. Enabling visitors to explore the displayed artworks by themselves through AR apps actually arouses people’s interest and strengthens the interaction between the museum and its visitors. The use of AR can also enrich the experience in museums visiting because it is useful for stimulating the other possible works in progress comparing them with the artworks (Nofal, 2013). What’s more, AR could also bring exhibitions to life, make the figures or animals in the artworks move and provide visitors with a new perspective of interpretation.

  • AR and Interpretation of Artworks

Museum visitors include both native and experienced viewers. They may have different types of appreciation of artworks, but, the common interpretation of artworks is usually the extension of everyday perception and is limited by one’s own knowledge construction (Cupchik &Gebotys, 1988), As Bartlett (1932) also mentioned, the effort after meaning in ordinary perception is as an “urge to perceive something in terms of a wider background of past experience (p.192).” The trained and experienced visitors have a wider scope of knowledge on art interpretation methods before coming to the exhibition, thus, they may have more qualitative art museum visiting experiences than naive visitors. In this aspect, providing additional and accessible information to enlarge the scope of naive visitors’ knowledge of the artworks’ background in the museum is a possible way of enhancing their appreciation experience in museums.

As early as in 2012, according to the 2012 Mobile in Museum Study, 1% museums in the United States have started with AR and introduce mobile devices into museum visiting experience (Ding, 2017), because museums have noticed that AR can provide hybrid layers of information and images, which can be used to provide visitors with more background knowledge and improve their level of appreciation or artworks.

On the other hand, an artwork as a meaning system reflects its artist’s thoughts and intentions. An artist’s thoughts and intentions are after all influenced by the social context. One of the factors in the complicated social context is technology. The development of technology brings more advanced and innovative techniques for artists.  In the process of meaning creation of an artwork, the specific techniques, also influence its meaning. Choosing AR tools as a specific technique may contribute to creating the intended meaning in artworks and further influence the visitors’ interpretation of them.

Case Studies

  • Invasive Species in The Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM)

The Pérez Art Museum Miami (PAMM) coordinated with Felice Grodin, the local-based artist in 2017 and held an AR exhibition named “Invasive Species”. This exhibition includes four site-specific digital works that virtually interact with the architecture and outdoor spaces in PAMM. In order to see the artworks, visitors have to download PAMM app in iOS devices. Though the screen of iOS devices, people can see the digital artworks interact with the physical background in the museums.

A Video Guide: PAMM AR – Felice Grodin: Invasive Species

Terrafish, 2017-18. Felice Grodin. Photo by Christian Bonet, Image courtesy of Pérez Art Museum Miami Retrieved from

The main concept of this digital artwork, according to Felice Grodin, is to evoke people’s awareness of the fragility of our ecosystem (The Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2017). One of the artworks, Terrafish (2017-2018), like a woven net of bright pink neon lights with pulsating stalks reaching up, is aimed to indicate the invasive jellyfish found in South Florida waters. Terrafish is virtually spread over the floor at the entrance of the museum. The digital pulsating stalks reach up towards the cell of the museum, interacting with the 45-foot-long hanging gardens designed by French botanist Patrick Blanc in collaboration with the architects of PAMM, Herzog &de Meuron, which gives people the feeling that the unknown creatures are foraging and devastate the plants. The stalks are 49 feet tall and the pink base is about 100 feet wide (Mortice, 2018).

Felice Grodin: Invasive Species Courtesy the artist Retrieved from

Another piece of the digital artworks has a three-dimensional creepy shape in a purple-blue-like color, standing on the terrace of the museum. It has many tentacles and legs. When visitors touch the screen, they can see the tentacles and legs of this unknown creature twitch as if it is crawling. It is also huge with similar size of a van (Mortice, 2018).

In the promotional video (Cuseum, 2017) released by PAMM, visitors were led by guides, holding iPad, excited about exploring the virtually existed invasive species. They continuously compare the physical background in reality with the virtual scene seen through the screen and marveled at the innovative way of digitalization of artworks. They also take photos of the invisible artworks through PAMM app.

The AR tools enable more possibilities for open space in a museum.  In this case, the open space in PAMM is apparently better utilized with AR artworks virtually overlapped with the physical museum background. Benefited from the AR artworks, the open space in PAMM has a better way of interacting with its visitors than just being a part of the architecture and being a resting place for visitors. With Grodin’s Invasive Species “hidden” in that open space in PAMM, visitors slow down their steps and carefully explore the open space that was neglected by them in the past. By virtually exhibiting digital artworks, the original museum space has been developed and gained more depth regarding the ability to exhibit artworks and strengthen the interaction between the museum and its visitors.

AR technology used in art museum may influence the interpretation of artworks in both positive and negative ways. On the one hand, AR tools provide visitors with a new context for interpretation. Because the AR-based digital artworks Invasive Species can only be seen through the screen of iOS devices, visitors in PAMM have to change from seeing the exhibition directly in front of their face to relying on handheld devices. The screen, as an interface of small size, limits the view. Thus, the screen also becomes a frame of the artworks, while the size of the screen may decide how large the digital artwork is perceived and how many details visitors can appreciate.  In this way, AR tools influence people’s interpretation of artworks in a negative way. However, Though the interface (screen), a new context is created. In addition to visual satisfaction, visitors can also have an immersive experience in virility and reality. In this case, if visitors hold iOS devices and move toward different directions, they may feel that they are embraced by the neon pink, honeycomb-like net of Terrafish. The artwork Terrafish itself becomes a context for visitors as a precondition of immersive experience. The innovative way of experiencing artworks in a context that is virtually constructed by the artwork itself can help visitors have a different perspective for the interpretation.

PAMM collaborated with Knight Foundation, which provided a grant, was planning an AR project. Grodin was interested in that project and after discussing with the curators from PAMM, she started to develop the AR project from her earlier drawings. AR technology also takes part in the process of creating the meaning of Grodin’s Invasive Species. She believes that drawings can “migrate between analog and digital” (Pérez Art Museum Miami, 2018). With the digitalization of her earlier painting by using AR technology, her new artworks now engage very actively with the architecture and respond strongly to the changing ecological environment in Miami. Grodin indicates that her new work is now not only “grow” from two-dimensional to three-dimensional but also in real-time. Those changes are perfectly in accordance with her purpose of showing the possible future due to the ecological change through the artworks. In this way, AR has been considered not only a technology but also an art medium, through which the meaning of the artworks can be better expressed by artists.

  • ReBlink in The Art Gallery of Ontario

From July 6, 2017 to April 8, 2018, there was a special exhibition, Reblink, in The Art Gallery of Ontario (AGO).  It was worked by a digital artist, Alex Mayhew, who reimage historical artworks based on AR installation. After downloading the custom app Reblink onto personal mobile devices, people have to authorize the app to use the camera and then scan the historical artworks from the AGO’s Canadian and European Collections. The painting’s subjects come alive on the screen in a way of “reflecting on our daily reality in the 21st century.” (Art Gallery of Ontario, 2017). ReBlink’s highlight is that it vividly indicates the contrast between history and 21st-century life. By using AR, figures and subjects in the historical paintings are able to be transported across the limitation of historical context and presented in a modern way. The exhibition itself is benefited from the new technology, and meanwhile, it also reflects on social changes due to the development of technology.

Painting, oil on canvas, 118.2 x 319.8 cm Retrieved from

Drawing Lots, George Agnew Reid Painting, oil on canvas, 118.2 x 319.8 cm Retrieved from


For example, in the original painting Drawing Lots by George Agnew Reid, there are three figures closely sitting or lying on the stomach, whose head closely bending over their game (Impossible Things, 2017). In Mayhew’s reimagined version, those three figures are all absorbed in their phone’s screen and separately sitting with each other. The implication is obvious:  the distance between each individual is further than it is in the past, and face-to-face communication among people is harder due to the popularity of mobile devices.

Marchesa Casati, Augustus John Retrieved from:

Mayhew’s Marchesa Casati Retrieved from

For another example, Mayhew also reimaged the portrait Marchesa Casati originally painted by Augustus John in 1919. This portrait depicts the flamboyant Marchesa with her fiery red fiery hair contrasted with a muted background of mountains. Marchesa in the portrait is looking toward the possible visitors of the painting with smiling eyes. However, in Mayhew’s version, Marchesa is holding up a selfie stick, smiling at the camera, and immersed herself in posing and taking selfies. She no longer has eye contact with the possible visitors, because she is now looking at the camera of her mobile phone. Mayhew’s version again implies that the development of technology has changed our behaviors. With cameras embedded in mobile phones, taking selfies becomes more and more popular. One’s portrait is no longer drew by a painter, or taken by a photographer but taken by himself or herself.

This is also the case that AR technology participates in creating meaning for the artworks. When Mayhew was asked about his inspiration and purpose of reimaging the historic masterpieces from a modern perspective, he mentioned that using AR tools is aimed to get people “to look up, rather than look down” (Coates, 2018). Many technologies become a type of distraction for people. As a result of the fast development of many technologies, people consume information faster than they did in the past, including art pieces. But he wants to encourage people to slow down their steps and explore more about the artworks in the museums.

By using AR technology, Mayhew is also trying to turn technology into a way to help people more engaged instead of distracting. Making a contrast of the historic paintings with the scene in modern society also encourages people’s own reflection on the encroachment of technology in the 21st century. In this aspect, AR technology as the carrier of his digital artworks becomes one of the many layers of meaning and intentions of his artworks. The feedback from the museum visitors does show that the exhibition realized by AR technology arouses their interests and inspires them to take a closer look at the original paintings. According to Shiralee Hudson Hill, the Interpretive Planner in AGO, around 84% of the visitors to the exhibition ReBlink reported feeling more engaged with the art (Impossible Things, 2017).


  • Hacking the Heist in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum

One of the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum paintings stolen in 1990, Rembrandt van Rijn’s Christ in the Storm on the Sea of Galilee, returned to its frame through the magic of augmented reality. Photo courtesy of the Cuseum. Retrieved from:

Hacking the Heist is an AR project aiming to digitally place the stolen art masterpieces back, in order to provide people with the opportunity of viewing those special art pieces and also to inspire people to think about the intersection of art, media, and technology (Cuseum, 2018).On March 18, 1990, thieves stole thirteen masterpieces in Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum at one time, whose total worth was more than $500 million, which makes this art heist one of the most notorious ones in history. Those paintings, including paintings by Rembrandt, Manet, and Degas, have never been returned back. The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum hangs gilt frames of stolen masterpieces in the same place as before. Now, leveraging the Hacking the Heist app, visitors are able to view the stolen works on the walls through the screen.

From the perspective of the museum’s function, the AR technology reinforces the museums’ role of preservation, which is one of the initial functions of the museum (Buren, 1985). A historic painting is like a freeze-frame of the past. The value of a historic painting is eternal when it is well preserved. People just think habitually that museum is the place for preservation, but forget the possibility of damages on artworks due to improper ways of maintaining and the possibility of theft and loss. Who could imagine or even think of the possibility that such a huge heist happened to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum? Fortunately, benefited from the development of technology and the innovative use of AR, the stolen paintings can return to the walls in a different way. The digital restoration of those stolen masterpieces has more than just original historical values. The visual content is layered over the real world and makes a contrast with the empty frames in reality. Thus, visitors can be more aware of the loss in art fields and realize the preciousness of the world’s culture.

This experiment was conducted by a group of Bostonians who love art. Their choosing AR to bring back stolen artworks is an important process of endowing meaning in this project, while the digital form of restoration inspires visitors to interpret the artworks and this AR project in different perspectives. In this case, AR technology enables more visitors to learn about the biggest heist in the world that happens to the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum, to appreciate the stolen masterpieces again, to realize the preservation function of the museum and the preciousness of art and to think about how art and technology intersect. This is also the intention of the group of art-loving Bostonians to have this AR project in the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum.


Possible Problems of Implementing AR in Art Museums

With the development of technology, art and art museums have both adapted to the new conditions. The rise of interactive and digital art and the widely and commonly use of handheld audio guides among art museums proves the simultaneous development and intersection of technology and art. Although AR has been increasingly popular among art museums and artists in recent years, it cannot be denied that there are also some limitations or disadvantages of applying it. Art Museums may also face some obstacles when implementing AR in exhibitions.

First, art museum may have financial problems. To launch an AR project in art museums actually costs a large amount of money. Some of the museums are founded by the special foundation, for example, Knight Foundation, which funds technology innovation for art-making and engagement, but most of the museums are not as lucky. The financial problem is the most realistic problem many art museums face. Also, to implement new innovative technology is an issue of the overall business and operational structure. It is also related to the infrastructure in the museum. A museum should decide whether to develop its own AR app or use some existing one considering their financial conditions. Also, a museum that is determined to embark with AR, its infrastructure should also be improved, for example, free and stable WiFi for the AR app in the whole museum.

Second, AR technology as an emerging technology may cause the challenge for collection in the future (Trendwatch, 2015). We cannot anticipate the technological progress in the future so it might be possible that the artworks we are now excited experiencing with mobile devices are not viewable in the future because of iteration or retirement of one technology involved in AR tools. Similar things have already happened. Take cassette tape for example: only after decades its popularity, it is now hard to find a proper player for an old cassette tape.  Art museums that consider implementing AR for permanent or temporary collections must take the risk of technological iteration.

What’s more, researchers and experts are still working on some fundamental problems in the process of designing AR. Tracking limitations may cause registration problems. How artists deal with the possible scene and depth distortions and visibility issues also remain questionable. (Kruijff, Swan & Feiner, 2010). If the digital artworks presented by AR have the issue of scene and depth distortions or visibility issues, the imprecise augmentation will apparently negatively influence visitors’ visiting experience and their interpretation of the artworks.


The analysis of three AR projects in the Pérez Art Museum Miami, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum shows that AR can afford

From the perspective of visitors, AR can arouse their interest and also inspire them to explore more details of the artworks. Visitors’ interpretation of artworks can be enhanced through such an innovative and inspiring way. From the perspective of artists, AR can help them to realize their specific intention of creating the artworks. When artists actively choose AR tools as the form to present their artworks, it means that AR as an art medium also participates in the process of meaning creation. For art museums, AR tools can make more use of museum spaces inside and outside of the museums and help artworks interact actively with the architecture. Also, using AR to restore historic stolen artworks help to maintain and reinforce the museum’s function of preservation. Since different AR project has different themes and different techniques and settings, AR’s affordance listed above cannot be generalized to all art museums and exhibitions.

In spite of the affordance, AR’s application also faces some problems. Some basic problems are fundamental technical problems. If AR is implemented in the art exhibition, museums should consider the financial and infrastructural ability, while artists should make sure that AR’s technical defects do not negatively influence visitors’ interpretation of the artworks.



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K11: A Good Attempt But Cannot Replace Museum


In the highly commercialized society, art may be regarded as a method to improve commercial benefits. Artistic shopping centres like K11 are examples of this phenomenon. Although this combination can be regarded as a new attempt, we still need the museum to appreciate the real art. The museum is the preservation of human memory and cultural heritage. The concepts of “disavowal” and cultural capital make the art originally distance from the market. By comparing the museum and K11, people can better distinguish these two models and understand the importance of museums.


K11 represents the breakthrough of a new shopping trend; however, the exhibitions in these malls are the methods for attracting more consumers, which are quite different from exhibitions in the museum. This paper will introduce the model of K11 as an example of artistic shopping centres and figure out how it combines art and commerce. And then compare this model with the traditional museum from three aspects: their aim, function and settings.

Exterior of K11

  1. General Introduction to K11

With the rapid development of The Times, people pay more and more attention to the spiritual life and the quality of life. K11, an artistic shopping mall, integrates art resources into the commercial, public space and creates an independent art area in the mall. On the one hand, it retains the independence of art and the quiet space it needs. On the other hand, people come to the mall for art exhibits, which increases the profit of the mall.

Exterior of K11 _2

1.1    Background of K11

Shanghai K11, the first artistic shopping centre in mainland China, was opened on June 28, 2013. Then, other K11 shopping malls in different provinces in China have sprung up. The founder Adrian Cheng said he did not view the K11 as a mall, but rather as a “Museum of the Modern City”. K11 is dedicated to changing life with art, integrating architecture and business, and bringing the new shopping experience to the audience. According to K11, the three core elements of it is art, humanity and nature.

1.2    What they do for art

In the overall design of the K11 shopping mall, there are many spaces for art exhibit and lectures. Taking Shanghai K11 shopping mall as an example, there are three floors used for art exhibitions. The shopping centre has six floors above the ground. They try to create the artistic atmosphere in the shopping mall so that the customers can see sculptures at the elevator entrance, the abstract painting on the wall of corridors, the free book bar and the artistically designed rest area in various spaces. The landscape setting style of the whole shopping mall is unified, and some art pieces of the same style appear in different places for many times, which shows a sense of unity in details. For example, there is a kind of glass lamp with candles, which starts from the entrance of the underground dome and is arranged at regular intervals at the corners of elevators and shops on different floors. K11 makes itself as an art playground where culture, entertainment, shopping and living revolve around art. They allow the public to appreciate art during their shopping and leisure time by providing various multi-dimensional spaces.”

Media-Dali Exhibition in K11

Except for the external art decoration, K11 has invested in providing a platform and opportunities for the development of local young artists. It not only offers young artists works but also holds art exhibitions for them regularly. Backed by financial support, K11 foundation will also continue to promote K11 art space workshop and K11 art village to encourage audience participation and increase the exposure of local artists and art projects. In the aspect of promoting cultural exchange, K11 uses various resources to introduce more works of international art masters, and regularly holds various exhibitions of domestic and foreign masters, which are open free. At the same time, they recommend Chinese artists to Paris fashion week every year and establish a solid relationship between local and international art festivals.

For many young artists, there is difficulty in finance to spread their work in professional venues like art galleries. The integration of art resources and commercial, public space makes it possible for artists to show themselves. Small restaurants and branded shops can become places for artists to showcase themselves. On the one hand, it can reduce artists’ economic pressure; on the other hand, the exhibition in public space enables artists to communicate with audiences of different ideas and types to a greater extent. This communication turns passivity into the initiative and expands the influence of the work of art

  1. Compared with Museum

The museum is serious. It is a place for the public to think about art. Serious curators work there and create a serious place for enabling the audience to have access to art. Museum works as an interface to the cultural interpretation, cultural meaning system and cultural history.

2.1    Different aims between artistic shopping malls and museums

In essence, however, artistic shopping malls advocate what they do for art; there is no doubt that they have to make a profit. By using elements of art, they can attract more audience to promote their brand and benefit. Through the creation of an artistic atmosphere, K11 successfully attracts consumers into the mall and reached expected effect. In K11, art serves a business purpose.

However, the museum is a holy temple for culture. According to Charles Landry, “Museums can tell us who we are, where we came from and where we are going. So we can reconnect our roots along the way.” In a museum, the dimensions of time and space are compressed. The experience of the audience in a museum is like a process of decompression, and its rules are different from real society. Such differences can form a critical or critical experience (the museum, as a heterotopia, can be regarded as semi-idealistic, and the deviation between ideal and reality is the reason for the criticism), thus affecting the development of culture.

Exterior of Louvre Museum

Not only do museums and artistic shopping malls have a difference in their aims, but also their functions and settings are different.

2.2    Different functions and settings between artistic shopping malls and museums

First,the core function of a museum is to define the objects the definition of objects. Museums have realized the classification and naming of things by people, thus influencing people’s cognition of the world. The naming of things completes a level of definition of world order and highlights the authoritarianism of god. At the same time, the influence of typology on the museum is mainly reflected in the construction of the “art community”. Museums of all kinds are constantly producing communities and promoting this identity. This function is both politically influential and socially influential. It is known that the earliest modern museums were like storage rooms, with no concept of the exhibition. Museum later realized they could organize the exhibition according to the classification, completing the “performance” for objects of interpretation. The museum experience can deeply affect people’s understanding of things, to produce a cultural concept. While the understanding of the cultural concept and criticism have the more professional division of labour organizations and personnel to complete, but the influence of museum exhibition can still not be neglected. However, if people see a painting in the mall, they may think it is just a kind of decoration. The dialogue of the artwork in the museum space acknowledges that these artworks are art, not merely something you’d find in a mall. The artworks in the Hirshhorn take on a whole new meaning because they are within the Museum. The Museum itself provides some of the meaning for the art. This symbolic space is especially necessary for works like Mark Bradford’s Pickett’s Charge. Referencing our visit, the Hirshhorn is a container for art.

When it turns into experience in museum visiting, we can divide the behavior of museum visiting into four levels, namely construction, deconstruction, reconstruction and verification. The audience at these four levels has different experiences and social influences. In this way, the diversity of cultural expression is realized, and the museum can be regarded as an important institution for the reproduction of social and cultural diversity. This diversity and the equality of the museum audience in the museum space is generally regarded as an incubator of democracy.  But, speaking of the exhibition in the mall. People will treat it as a way to show personal taste. In 2014, Claude Monet’s first Chinese special exhibition “Impressionist Master Monet”, co-organized by the Monet Museum in Paris and K11 art foundation, is on display. During these two months, according to Businessweek China, this exhibition had attracted more than 260,000 visitors, with a maximum of 6,000 visitors in a single day. Almost half of the visitors said that they just follow the trend on the social account and they are attracted by delicate photos by internet celebrities. To this extent, the exhibition is devalued as a kind of way of realizing the identity on the social platform or setting some online characters. Therefore, it is common that you can see many people just take a selfie in front of these paintings and pay more attention to personal photos rather than artworks.

Third, the museum can help discover the silent information hidden behind the art works. There are two forms of recording past human experience: books and objects. Social development can change all the social rules of the previous social stages, but it cannot avoid the redefinition of the symbols which represent the particularity of human culture, such as experience and tradition. When a museum collects a piece of work, this behaviour can be regarded as symbolizing this work. Even if this object almost loses its use value, the museum can excavate its record value as much as possible. When a museum collects a painting,this painting can avoid being a decoration hanging in the home of potential buyers. And since this painting works as the interpretation symbol of its time, art genre and author, the museum has to shoulder the natural obligation of the excavation of recorded value information. Modern society tends to construct history, present and future as a system. Therefore, the historical material symbols have the value of being reused in the current society, and such utilization relies on the museum. Then the preservation has become a question. Museum has a through the system to keep and repair these precious artworks. In this aspect, shopping malls are quite immatured. They are not built according to the security level of the museum. The transportation channel may not be wide enough, and the drainage system was not complete. Maintenance and security are important issues waiting for artistic shopping malls to deal with.

Forth, museums are classrooms for lifelong learning and important carriers for broadening the horizon. The museum narrows various cultures into a relatively small range, which not only works as a real library but also serves as a useful method for social groups to understand the world through selected works and samples. The museum is a place to display a variety of views and works of beauty. It should be able to touch people’s hearts with beautiful works, either intoxicating, shocking, sorrowful, introspective, touching and affecting your humanity, arousing your love and pursuit of beauty, and thus enabling you to have a broader experience of human nature and ideological realm. Nevertheless, when the art is connected to money or other mundane possessions, the art value will decrease. The concept of “disavowal” explains how artists and the artworld attempt to distance themselves from the commercial symbols and the market. In April 2015, the “Immortal Van Gogh” art exhibition was opened in K11. In the following days, nearly 20,000 people visited the exhibition, ranging from 60 to 70 people a day. In the following days, several restaurants, coffee shops and shops in K11 also launched the corresponding events and services echoing the theme of this exhibition. The art exhibition achieved the expected satisfactory effect in promoting the overall economic development of K11 and enhancing brand awareness. In this case, the art is devalued to serve commercial aims. In the mall, there is no sense of history and something “higher”. Artworks in the mall are beautiful, but this beauty is linked to the material. Thus, the art loses its soul. The essence of shopping malls is to make profits. The exhibition attracts the audience to change the brand image and improve benefits.

  1. K11 is an attempt, but the museum is irreplaceable

In terms of the overall positioning of K11, it aims to create a unique small luxury taste. Through the combination of art, humanity and commerce, the commodities will be turned into artworks for display, and the artworks will be transformed into commodities for purchase. Art is attached to commerce. There is no denying that artistic shopping malls are good attempts for new shopping models.

While, in terms of art value, these new shopping malls are extracting the value of art and they are commercial. Whatever artistic means they use to brand themselves, they are still “shopping malls”.

3.1    K11 has a good intention to make the public more involved in art.

a milk tea shop in k11

Since art and humanity have penetrated every corner in modern society, people do not only pursue material satisfaction but also increase their pursuit of soul and art. Therefore, exhibitions in the commercial centre are particularly attractive. Some consumers may not buy a ticket to go to the museum to see an art exhibition, but through the internal display of the mall, as well as strong publicity, the art exhibition will be more popular. The whole shopping mall is permeated with a strong cultural background, which looks like a museum full of artistic atmosphere. The concept of enjoying shopping and art at the same time, which will naturally attract more consumers to shopping. The K11 shopping mall is different from other commercial centres in that it features its brand and realizes more added value. With the word “art” in its name, it has already been different from other ordinary commercial Spaces. The bold and innovative cross-border cooperation mode overturns people’s traditional cognition of shopping centre and becomes the new lifestyle centre of Shanghai. All kinds of art sculptures are located on each floor of the mall, and there is an art gallery as a transition space in the corridor to appreciate artworks. Beside each work, there is an artist’s introduction and creation intention to understand the artist’s creation background, as well as some interactive installation to reduce the distance between the work and consumers. Although its fundamental purpose is to promote the sales of goods, it is easier to be accepted and recognized by consumers when it is displayed in artistic ways. Consumers are not simply go shopping. They can realize self-satisfaction and identity recognition through such consumption. Art exhibitions make the shopping experience in K11 become more recognized by consumers in terms of cultural communication, and the brand effect is more prominent.

3.2    The museum is irreplaceable whenever and wherever

To some degree, the practical function of museums is similar to that of history. In the 1980s, historians realized that the only way to overcome the challenge of historical skepticism was to connect the practical function of history with the most basic reality of human existence. Since then, some historians have often viewed history as a collective memory. They pointed out that without this memory, the actual existence of human beings is just like the infinitesimal point on the blade of a knife. In these transient moments, human beings can neither know themselves nor understand their relationship with the environment, thus losing the possibility of sober action in reality. It is history, the collective memory of mankind, that combines the narrowness of reality with the vastness of the past, and provides a solid foundation for our practical actions to understand ourselves and observe situations so that we can create reality and future based on the past. Today, when answering the function and social significance of the museum, the museum’s relationship with the basic survival of mankind should be focused. If history is the memory of human beings, then the museum is the preservation of human memory and cultural heritage. Alvin Toffler said that museums expanded social memory beyond the human brain, finding new ways to store it, and thus breaking out of its original limitations. From the perspective of preserving the memories of human beings, the museum is the eternal warehouse, the final form of this information storage, because it is more resistant to the erosion of time, and even the time decay adds its sacredness.

Palace Museum in Beijing


The appearance of the art shopping centre is exactly to stimulate consumers’ desire to go shopping. These shopping centres improve shopping experience through artistic ways. K11 has made a good attempt and has brought a lot of thinking to commercial real estate.  However, this model is not real artistic. It has the appearance of art but the core of commerce. Museum still has its meaning in this commercial wave. Since museums are closely connected to the existence of civilized society, it may never disappear and always occupy the predominance in our culture.


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Museum architecture- A meaningful space within a meaningful space


As museums architectures became part of the urban life, how could we interpret it? What made the museum architectures a meaningful place and how the meaning of the museum architectures changes? This paper is intending to study the meaning of the museum architectures, and how the structures, the spaces, and the urban contexts set up a meaningful environment. By analyzing both the modern museum architectures and compare them with classical architectures, this paper finally concludes that the structures and the space of the museum architectures have meanings while the meaning is changing in modern museum architectures. As part of the urban artifacts, museum architectures’ meaning reside within the urban environments, the cultural and historical backgrounds and modern museums architectures begin to interact with urban life.


Museum architecture is a specific building type that exists for 200 years and became a special place in the history of architecture (Searing Helen, 1982, p.11). Museums are part of the urban life, they are the cultural centers of a city. Museums are places for thinking, education, preserving, and collecting, and their space, their symbolic structures differentiate the architectures from the other constructions. “We have now reach to a point where we see not the art but the space first” (Brian O’Doherty, 1986, p14).

Art museum architecture is often used for preserving, collecting and showing the artworks to the public, while the meaning of the museum gradually changing. Mass education, public interaction and the urban area took part in the museum meanings, while at the same time, a new genre of art appears and differentiate them with the traditional ones. Modern museum architectures, facing the various dimensions and changes, bring new innovations and serve as new spaces to the art world and to the society. And I have two questions to study in this paper: how the meaning of the modern art museum architecture is changing? How the modern art architectures form meanings and how they service for the narrative between the visitors and the artworks? This paper is to study the meaning of museums’ architecture and the meaning created by the space of the museums. The first part introduces how the museums, as architectures, become meaningful by their structures and symbols. The second part introduces the idea of urban artifacts and what role the museums play within the social, cultural, and historical context.

Museum architecture- a meaningful space

When talking about the museum’s architecture, the word “architecture” was taken for granted that almost all of the museum’s buildings can be viewed as architectures. Architecture is a general idea and the broadly used term connects with a museum and it is hard to separate the two things apart. However, “museum architecture” should be much precisely used, and this paper is built on the basis of how to understand the architecture within the context of principles and history. Therefore, the question comes first: what are the architectures? and what is the meaning of museums architectures? Not all of the buildings of museums could be called museum architectures. Architecture is much more than a building or a construction. “The object of architectural attention is precisely the configurational ideas to think with that in the vernacular govern configurational outcomes.” In the book Space Is the Machine (Bill Hillier, 2007), buildings and spaces are configurative, and therefore non-discursive, and they both express the social elements and set up the social ideas. While the process of configuration does not merely follow a single regulation. The process and the constructions of architecture are not only the copies of the same configuration but are more like the process of aspiration and creation, and the dimension of the building is naturally, which is the same as language, solved and handled by the human-beings unconsciously (p.65). Structures and spaces have human ideas inside, and they represent human perceptions and creativity.

Space and time

The arrangement of the objects and utilization of the space mirrored the principle of the human mind and recreated by the designers and curators with their understanding of human activities. Unlike traditional architectures, modern museum architectures, adopt the idea of humanity, mass education and to differentiate from the traditional constructions, representing the common feeling of human and human society, and the idea is especially shown in the shapes of modern art museum, which is: “not only of the differences but also of the universality of humans” (Liane Lefaivre& Alexander Tzonis, 2004, p28).

Geometric Shapes (n.d.). Credited to Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum is a representative of modern museum architectures with the popular spiral structure designed by Frank Lloyd Wright, becoming a symbol of modern art museums. Frank Lloyd Wright’ personal experience and perspective from his childhood gave him the inspiration of the designing and aesthetics (“Geometric Shapes”, n.d.). The meaning of this structure is not only personal but seek to catch the trace of time and space’s moving. Frank Lloyd Wright believed that the spiral space and geometry shape held the meaning of the connection between human and the cosmos. “Geometric forms also held symbolic significance. The circle, he (Frank Lloyd Wright) said, represented infinity” (“Geometric Shapes”, n.d.). “At the end of a particular exhibition, one can simultaneously see the beginning” (Rob Kostka& Helen Searing, 1984, p111). When people walk around the museum, they follow the around walls and see the artworks along the curved, white wall, just like walking along with the flow of time, and sequence of space, and the trace of the art.

Installation view of Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden. 2017. Photo: Cathy Carver

Another example would be no further than the Hirshhorn Museum, locating in Washington DC. The shape of the Hirshhorn Museum is quite similar to the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum. Hirshhorn Museum abandoned the heavily decorated model and serious emotion injected to the constructions, trying to express the natural and common sense of human beings and create a special space that is differentiated with traditional museums. Trace back to 1966, the Hirshhorn Museum was designed by the Gordon Bunshaft and the construction was totally different from the traditional ones locating in the National Mall. The idea of Hirshhorn Museum resided within the structure and the exhibition. Mark Bradford, creating the narrative history of the American, created an infinite and circular space by eight installation arts. Mark Bradford combined his personal experience and understanding within the creation of the piled and “loosely ordered” history (Lyric Prince, 2017). The space of Hirshhorn Museum offers a space for the art to organize and construct the history. When the visitors walk around the space and view the artworks, the space with no light, forming a circular, let the visitors forget the time and appreciating the stories. The creation of time and space has the power for conceptual participation, which explained by the Stephen Alexander Wischer: “…the symbolic potential of architecture seems dependent upon its ability to persuade participation with perception, and with it, an essential act of translation.” (Jonathan, Suzanne& Laura, 2012, p136) The conceptual experience comes from the sensitivity to sense, the sense of the idea unhinged from the objectivity and rooted in human minds. The conceptual experience was provided from the shape of the modern art museum and it is hard to capture or measure, but it comes from the perception of human ideas and creativity and the inner sense of aesthetic and nature.

The skylights

Besides the shape of the museum architecture, the roof of the construction also indicates how the museum can form a special environment for the artworks and the visitors. The skylight of modern museums is changing, and the structure represents as different symbols and therefore transit various meanings. In modern art museums, the meaning of light is hard to unify, and the symbolic meaning tends to be blurry. First, eschewing from being injected by a specific meaning, skylights of modern architectures are more functional. Second, the diversity of public functional institutions makes modern museums preserve multiple genres, ideas, and voices. Third, the meaning of the roof or skylight did not hold specific meanings but take part in the artworks.

Interior of the dome, Cathedral, Florence. Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Peter K Burian

In classical constructions, light from the skylight can represent heaven, forming a connection between “a human connection to the location of spiritual, if not physical, permanence” (Lance La Vine, 2001). The light passes through the small circle on the dome of the construction and is regarded as the symbol of the center, the power, the connection with heaven, and the universe. Lots of museums architectures have domes. National Gallery of Art, for example, has a traditional classic style and the dome was designed as part of the neo-classical architecture. The dome of the west building of the National Gallery of Art services as the center of the gallery, as part of the symmetrical construction, connecting two curved skylights on both the east and west sides, letting natural light pour into the space of the architecture. The partition on the skylight transfer the nature sunshine into a soft and blurry light that saturates inside the whole space and the gallery follows the principle of creating a still, silence and regulated environment for the arts. The whole environment of the museum is unified and motionless. The west building with the classical interior garden, fountain, triangle square, demo, and the pillar, composing a traditional housing for the traditional artworks, creating a meaningful place which is sacred, serious, and unreachable.

Dome of West building. Wikimedia Commons. Photo: HillmanHan

National Gallery of Art DC. Wikimedia Commons. Photo: Gryffindor

In modern museums, the designing of the skylight makes differences in a way that light does not come from the center of the roof, but the skylight integrates with the whole construction. The east building of the National Gallery of Art is totally different in the designing of the skylight. Designed by the I. M. Pei, the building has a sharp and unsymmetrical shape, declaiming its personality and independence. The roof is specially designed for the large and open space for the modern artworks. The roof of the building was composed of two parts: the skylight and the scaled glasses structures. The skylight was opaque and does not shade the natural light, while at the same time, the structure let the light “slip around a smooth surface” (J. Carter Brown, 1991) and smoothly pour into the museum’s space, moving and flowing into the large interior of the building. Light is moving inside the east building, so how to capture the light’s moving? When I visited the museum, I took a picture under the skylight. When the visitors were walking across the bridge, their shadow is reflected on the wall and pass through the shadow of the trees, and the natural light becomes visible. There no central light seam pass through the top of the dome, the light comes everywhere, and the whole environment changed to be free, open, and bright. The light becomes interactive and moving, which gives space for self-consciousness and self-reflection.

The oculus of the Guggenheim Museum in NYC. (n.d.). Credited to Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum

Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum’s skylight is more central and enclosed by a circle space. There may be some people criticize that natural light will influence the audience appreciating the artworks. However, the open light, at the same time, offers a different experience, it let the audience “confronted with a multitude of ways of viewing the art” (Searing Helen, 1982). The white cube has white walls as well as the still artworks, and even the visitors keep silent when they appreciate the arts, while the large opaque skylight of Guggenheim Museum allows the participation of natural light. It introduces the movement and interaction of natural light to the museum space. The natural light and skylight also participate artworks and they become part of the artworks. For example, Danh Vo’s exhibition in the Guggenheim Museum utilized the nature light and represented a totally different feeling. “…unites the experience of the exhibition with daily and seasonal cycles while underscoring the interdependence of the objects on display…” (Ashley Mendelsohn, 2018). The light became part of the exhibition, and the museum, not only provided a space for the artworks inside but took part in the artworks and became part of the artworks. Even though there is no physical center in the modern art museum, the center of the whole architecture resides in somewhere inner and invisible, environmental and conceptual.

Museum architecture- within a meaningful space

The meaning of architecture resides within the urban context. Go back to the symbolic meaning of the museum architecture, Michaela argues that the museum architecture resides in the urban context, and within the historical and cultural background (Michaela Giebelhausen, 2003). “The painting is not an isolated image or artefact but has been part of a century of dialogic interpretations over multiple contexts of reception” (Martin Irvine, 2018, p21). And architecture is the same as artworks, they are urban artifacts and urban artworks with historical and social context. More than that, the urban environment is fulfilled by the museums. the institutions not only become part of the city but represent the city. The museum architectures enrich the urban space structure with its aesthetic representation and functions for education and researching. Museum architectures have connections with the social community, representing the value of the world or the values of the respective communities (Jonathan, Suzanne& Laura, 2012, p120), serving as a place for the narrative of thinking and communicating.

Museum architectures hold meanings for and from history. How could people sometime recognize a museum architecture as a museum? As talked before, the special historical architecture can always stand out from the surrounding buildings by the special designed symbolic structures, such as domes, stone pillars, large skylights, and abstract structures. Sometimes, we can easily find out the building is belonging to which historical period. History is context and museums represent it. “The context is amazing. There’s no way you can be here and not think about governance, there’s no way you cannot think about the foundations of the United States of America. Sometimes the context is so great, the work comes naturally out of it” (Sadie Dingfelder, 2017). The history of the cities was kept and reflected by the museums. The east building of the National Gallery of Art represents the transformation of the capital’ architecture style. Before the building was designed, whether remaining in the “monumentality” or embrace the modernism became a challenge and I. M. Pei considered to combine the urban context into the designing process. Finally, the modern art museum combined modernism with the capital city’s structure. Not only the building fits the area, but also the city lives inside the building and is represented by this building (Anthony Alofsin& National Gallery of Art (U.S.), 2009).

The urban environment is enriched by the museums. Over 200 years, American museums have become a space for mass education, and the space of the museums, inside or outside the constructions, are opened to the public. During March 22ed to May 20th, 2012, Doug Aitken created a 360-degree screen cinema, which is named SONG 1, enveloping the Hirshhorn Museum. Covered by the images, the museum became an urban artifact and “disappears completely into the content of the artwork”, changing as a more interactive, more integrated, and less isolated public space. The museums are going outside and take part in urban life and took part in the process of changing city space.


“…the features of this new structure are seen coming inside as well as the inside features going outside. This integration yields a nobility of quality and the strength of simplicity…” (Frank Lloyd Wright, as cited in Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation, 1960).

The museum architectures have meanings and they also reside in a meaningful space. First, the meaning of the museum architectures forms when people create space, building structures and principles, and it resides within the regulation of designing and utilizing, and reside within the symbols representing the idea of people and society. Modern art architectures are more tolerant and inclusive. As new genres spur out and they require for a space in the art world, modern art architectures open the entry for the new genres. The style of modern art museums does not stick to the classical symbols by adopting structures, shapes, and materials that are different from the classical architectures.

Second, architecture has meanings when it was viewed under the context of historical, cultural and social background. The architecture itself is creativity and the process of designing architectures is a process following the human’s perception and regulation, and it reflects the idea and sense of human beings. Designers find the common part of the human and inject the ideas into architectures, and that is why architectures can reflect social elements and take part in the human society, became part of the urban area and part of people’s daily life. Modern architectures are urban artifacts and they begin to interact with people, artworks, and the cities. They are not only buildings for collecting and preserving artworks but serve as a space for human interaction, communication, and sharing ideas.


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Alofsin, A. (2009). A modernist museum in perspective: the East Building, National Gallery of Art . Washington [D.C: National Gallery of Art.

Installation view of Mark Bradford: Pickett’s Charge at the Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, 2017.Courtesy of the artist and Hauser& Wirth. Photo: Cathy Carver. Retrieved from

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The Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum : architect : Frank Lloyd Wright. (1960). New York: Solomon R. Guggenheim Foundation ; Horizon Press.

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Untitled illustration of the Song1 [Photograph]. (n.d.).

Interaction, Participation and the User

by: Mary-Margaret Ewens


In art, there in lies an intersection between technology and interactivity. Within that interactive sphere lies another important component of the user experience;  participation and the social media experience. With the dawn of the “Social Age”,  museum goers are taking to social media now more than ever to showcase their highlight reel, especially when it comes to the hottest and most coveted exhibits they visit around the world. This paper will seek to answer the question of the role the user plays in interactive art, and how social media allows users to be a participant and interactive member within the art itself. We will focus on two specific exhibit examples, Yayoi Kusama’s exhibit “Infinity Mirrors”, which was exhibited at the Hirshorn Museum in Washington DC, and “Everything in Existence” by Italian multimedia artists *fuse, which was exhibited at Artechouse in Washington, DC. From there, I will seek to both identify and categorize key traits of a participatory versus interactive exhibit, while understanding the history behind interactive art, its purpose, and its message for the audience, while combing through social media’s presence within the exhibits, and how by its presence, it helps to user to interact further.

“Museums are inherently an interactive multimedia experience. The visitor is in control of the paths along which they navigate through the artifacts, images, sounds and texts and they are under no obligation to follow the linear structure imposed by the curator.”- David Bearman,

“Museum Management and Curatorship”

Why do I go to museums or exhibits? Is it for the immersive experience or just for the Instagram? This was the question that plagued me to write this piece, especially after learning about how important interactive museum exhibits are to understanding and living through the immersive experience of certain exhibits. Historically, people would go to museums to look at the priceless works of art, to discuss them, argue about the point of them, or why artists used certain shapes, colors, canvases, and other some anomalies to reveal a certain expression. As our generation has gotten less enthused with the idea of attending a museum just for the sake of seeing old artwork, they now tend to see a bigger reason to visit a museum; for the Instagram. To say you’ve been to the Met is one thing, but to have a picture on the iconic steps, or inside a photo of one of the illustriously built and curated art exhibits, that is another thing.

Go through any hashtags of current art exhibits going on, and you’re bound to be bombarded with hundreds if not thousands of photos of girls and guys, millennials and baby boomers alike, posing for a picture. When I first heard about the ArtTechHouse, my first incentive was to look it up on Instagram. Why did I do this? My initial call to Instagram the new attraction was because I came across a photo of a girl I knew, in front of what looked like some spacey, otherworldly backdrop. Between the backdrop, the light, her outfit, and how many people commented on how cool she looked, it obviously made me, a social media millennial, want to see this place for myself. I took to Instagram and dreamt about how incredibly fascinating the pictures would be, not realizing that this museum, and more specifically this exhibit, was much more than a photo that would be taken within a split second.

The History of Interactive Art

The historical context of how interactivity came about can be dated back as early as the 1920’s when Marcel Duchamp created the Rotary Glass Plates, which allowed the user to rotate the plates to see an optical illusion on the other side. Other examples included Yaacov Agam, an Israeli sculptor of the 1960’s, who created “Vibralite”, a “low relief genetic sculpture to function as dynamic pseudo-2D images. By using small manipulations by guests to vary the image, the artist was able to give interaction of his piece back to the user. Edward Ihnatowicz,a Cybernetic Sculptor of the 70’s, explored the “interaction between his robotic works and the audience, by using sound and movement sensors to react to the behavior of the visitors.” (Interactive Architecture) His works would go on to become one of the first ‘computer controlled interactive robotic works of art.” (Interactive Architecture)

In Ken Feingold’s article on the “History of the Interface in Interactive Art”, he describes how Myron Krueger was responsible for “the development of computer-controlled Interactive Art. He began as early as 1969 to conceive spaces in which actions of visitors set off effects. In co-operation with Dan Sandin, Jerry Erdman and Richard Veneszky he conceived the work Glowflow in 1969. This exhibit used “pressure sensitive sensors on its floor, loudspeakers in the four corners of the room and tubes with colored suspensions on the walls. The visitor who steps on one of the sensors sets off either sound or light effects.” (Ken Feingold)

In following, the technology world was also at the helm of creating a never-seen before interactive design, headed up by a University of Utah professor named Ivan Sutherland, who created the worlds first pair of “Head Mounted Display glasses,” which allowed viewers to wear a pair of glasses, which “contained two small monitors, each of which showed a stereoscopical sight to the eyes. Sensors register the head movements and transmit the information to a computer which then calculates the perspective and gives the viewer the impression to move within the image.” (Ken Feingold)

Following the invention and installations of both Krueger and Sutherland, the art and technology world would be turned on its feet. The future of art and technology would now involve the engagement of the audience and “development of responsive environments” for users. Without these very important creations, interactivity within art might not have existed, nor be as advanced and calculated as it is in today’s current interactive environment.

Participation Versus Interaction

It must also be noted the importance in defining the difference between participation versus interaction within the realm of interactive design. While the viewer can participate in the experience, it is not always categorized as necessarily interacting with the art it self.

Interactive art historian, Ken Feingold uses the example of Australian artist Jeffrey Shaw, who’s exhibit, “Points of View” allowed the viewer to sit on a chair and “move the projected video

image of a stage with Egyptian Hieroglyphs. With a second joystick she or he can steer sound traces.” The user is in complete control of where the picture goes and is described by Shaw as

a “particular audio visual journey made by a spectator who operates the joystick which constitutes a’performance’ of this work.While the person using the stick is considered the performance, those watching on are considered the audience, therefore concluding that the person acting is the performer.

However, the quick change from participant to interactant comes with very subtle changes.

“The term movement does not any longer signify the movement of the performer in space, but the movement of the image caused by the joystick. The projected scene can be changed in its perspective with only very small physical expenditure. Thus, the computer-controlled system inverts the reception situation. Formerly the spectator had to change her or his position to perceive differently; now she or he induces the computer image to change its perspectives. Thus, the movement of the spectator is substituted by the movement of the image.”

The very definition of interaction is “the situation or occurrence in which two or more objects or events act upon one another to produce a new effect,” while participation is the effect resulting from such a situation or occurrence.” (Webster) Exploring these minute differences between definitions is important if not vital to understanding specific artists interactive works. To further delve into these theories in an effort to explain these key differences, I will present two key exhibit examples; Yayoi Kusama’s Infinity Mirrors and ArtTecHouse’s “Everything in Existence.” Through these two key examples, we will be better able to understand both importance of interaction within art, but also the key distinction between participating and interacting with the works themselves.

Infinity Mirrors by Yayoi Kusama

In February of 2017, the Hirshorn presented what would be come one of its most well known and  highly trafficked exhibits thus far; Infinity Mirrors by Yayoi Kusama. Kusama, who was already a household name in the world of art, had done collaborations with Louis Vuitton, using her famous dot technique that was incorporated in many if not all of her works. In one room, rainbow colored dots were splattered all over the walls, furniture, and floors, giving the room a dizzying, colorful effect. The other was a room filled with mirrors, where the viewer could see oneself from any angle no matter where they were in the room.

The idea was that both the elaborate creation featuring the endless dots and endless versions of oneself reflected in the mirror, was born out Kusama’s idea that she wanted to represent her version of what infinity looked like.

“At the Hirshhorn Museum, visitors will experience Kusama’s version of infinity in six mirrored installation rooms illuminated by LED lights — infinity rooms that expand a viewer’s sense of time and space and suggest a cosmic hyperreality. Kusama has said she’s interested in the concept of “self-obliteration,” seeing her kaleidoscopic installations as connecting her viewers so completely to their surrounding environment that their sense of self is lost.”

While Kusama’s art differed from that of the emersion of true multimedia interaction, her art gave her viewers the ability to be both viewers and performers within her art, thus the very definition of interaction. Visitors were encouraged to not only take part in the experience of taking in the work from afar, but to also be immersed within the art as well, by taking photos sitting on the dot-covered ground or of themselves in the mirrors. It was Kusama’s idea that by making her art interactive, she was making the people viewing and visiting her art, performers. She wanted to fully immerse her viewers in an experience that could only be replicated in real life. Furthermore, to probe into the idea of performers within her art, by taking photos and posing, and posting to social media, Kusama’s “performers” were being able to take in the experience of her art, but also the point of her art; the interactivity of it.

Her artwork allowed for people to be present within the here and now, and while the photos in the coveted exhibit were ones that thousands of people would use and post to Instagram for social media “clout”, the purpose of her art only came through once the viewer themselves was able to fully take part in it. So to say her exhibit was primarily successful for her name and the exhibits ability to be “instagrammable”, would be an incorrect assumption. It was successful because it allowed the viewers to be fully integrated into the exhibit while experiencing the full nature of infinity from Kusama’s point of view, and taking home with them an indescribable untransferable experience that could not be translated over social media.

Within the dotted room, aside from the collective experience the user feels when they walk in, the purpose of the exhibit isn’t to take pictures. Kusama had the idea that like most people in the word, she was “one of the dots among the millions of dots in the universe,” and decided to use them to evoke individual disintegration and cosmic unity. “Polka dots,” she has said, “are a way to infinity.” (The Atlantic) By issuing this notion, the audience sees themselves within the art, a part of the art, not just by joining in and taking photos, but connecting with it as well from the sense that we are all just small dots in a larger universe that can go on for infinity. This premise is what makes the exhibit so intuitive and interactive, is that it engages the audience to think about themselves in the bigger sense of the world. Without the user, the exhibit would just be a room full of dots.

As we see, Kusama uses interaction in a different way than *fuse does with their exhibit in Artechouse. Kusama’s, while interactive provides a different although similar sense to the connection between the user and the interactivity.

“Everything in Existence” by *fuse

When my friends and I first arrived to the ArtTechHouse, it was a tiny structure from the outside. No queues, no waitlist, nothing. We were asked to put on a pair of blue booties as to not scuff the floor of the installation and were lead downstairs to a brief introduction by one of the museum heads who explained the point of the exhibit to us. “Everything in Existence”, was the title of the exhibit. Created by Italian artists fuse*, the exhibit was created to open up users to “new perspectives from which to observe and consider our reality.”

“Everything in Existence traces a line that highlights the evolution of the studio’s practice, presenting four multimedia installations that invite audiences to experience different perceptions of reality and new perspectives that are designed to remind us that we are all part of something bigger. The works are generated by a software that processes data in real time, whether that data is derived from interaction with the viewer (“Snowfall”), from social networks (“Amygdala”), from sound (“Clepsydra”) or from the software itself (“Multiverse”). Using this generative technique, fuse* creates “living” art that constantly renews itself and changes before one’s eyes, rewarding prolonged viewing and repeat visits from the spectator.” The largest part of the exhibit, combined both the Snowfall and Clepsydra is displayed on a large screen on three different sides of the room. Using digital and multimedia effects, the artwork uses sounds and imagery to repeat patterns similar to waves, spirals, and rainfall. Users can then watch the animation either standing up, or sitting on the benches or pillows provided.

Another room provides a space which mirrors the users actions, capturing them in digital manner using millions of tiny light probes to gather intel on the shape of the person, then repeating it back onto the frame to show the user. In yet another space, the technologies used locate algorithms within the social media sphere, specifically categorizing Twitter hashtags into colors depending on the “mood” of the hashtag using key words. The colors are then thrown together on various screens that illuminates each tweet for a brief second in time, in coordination with its mood color, thus creating the art piece.

Without the interaction between the art and the users, a museum like ArtTechHouse would fail to exist. While its job is to create intellectually stimulating works that not only grab the user, but engage, encourage, and challenge the users to think outside of the realm of their everyday notions, its job is also to create an aesthetically pleasing situation for the user. People wouldn’t just come to a museum just to go. There must be something in it for them. That is where user engagement, technology, and social media come into play.

“I think as humans, we appreciate art and we connect to it when we can be a part of it, when we can interact with it,” Tati, partner and managing director of Artechouse said. The director also explained in an article how while “interacting with the installations over the internet doesn’t do it justice, they’re happy visitors are sharing their positive experiences,” in other words through social media. Much of the hype around Artechouse originally came about with their very first exhibition XYZT: Abstract Landscapes, which originally debuted in the summer of 2017. Then, just a small gallery in Miami, Artechouse was met with international attention. After its opening in DC in 2017, it has seen over 100,000 visitors in less than a year, much in part due to its overwhelming marketing abilities on social media. Of the nearly 30,000 plus Instagram tags the gallery gets, nearly all of them involve pictures of the user within the exhibit, as opposed to the exhibit itself. But that is in a sense, the point of interaction within exhibits, no?

“The magic is what the person experiences interacting with the art,” said Lorne Covington, Noirflux’s, the company behind the XYZT exhibits, creative director and principal. “Most art is an object or a thing. We work with something that is intangible — that direct experience.”

Whether or not the user is visiting the space for social media usage is not a point of contention. The very idea that the user is interacting, be that taking a photo with the exhibit or of the exhibit, shows that the art is doing its job. However, much like the Kusama experience, the point of the audiences visit is to both experience the exhibit in real time, and moreover to understand the vast capabilities of multimedia art and allows for the audience to picture themselves in a space larger than their own selves.


As we have traced the history of interactivity, melding together technology and art, to how its influence is ever-present in the current interactive art models, the importance of user participation and interaction is highly important to the understanding of each exhibit. We learned that historically, interactive art began in the early 1920’s with people using early technology such as bikes and the invention of the worlds first gaming glasses. As technology progressed, more and more artists began incorporating the use of technology into their work with such examples as sensors within the exhibits themselves, where the audience would press on a sensor in order to engage the users with the very idea and point of the work itself. Further down the line, with the invention of data, and multimedia, artists such as *fuse, began incorporating large scale media projections, encompassing multiple forms of technology and art, to create a futuristic experience for the audience members. Others like Kusama took a different approach and used technology at a minimum, such as the use of lights within her work of “Infinity Mirrors.” However, in looking at both “Everything in Existence” an “Infinity Mirrors”, we can see similarities in their approach to how to engage their audience and utilize participation in order to further the point of their work.

While both exhibits were phenomenally popular and amassed a large social media following of Instagram heavy audience members, this never impacted the very premise under which the artists created their work. For Kusama it was getting the audience to be a part of the art, if but for a brief minute. It taught that we are all tiny beings in a large world, and to think of ourselves as just one person in an infinity of multiples. Infinity Mirrors allowed the viewers to be the performers within her work, be that existing in it themselves or taking pictures and sharing it on social media. All examples of interaction played into the very reason Kusama created the work in the first place.

Within “Everything in Existence”, in the main room, the very idea is much like Kusama’s; to picture oneself as but a small imprint on the world in its existence as a whole. It allows the audience to sit and contemplate just how vast the space of time really is, while immersing themselves in the multimedia experience. The very purpose of their exhibit is to engage their users to a point where they not only share their experience on social media, but moreover so that they take in the full feeling of what it is like to be both a performer and interacting within an immersive experience.

Art and the interactive experience are more now than ever becoming the future of art. For newer artists looking to break into the sphere of art and media interfaced, their new challenge is not how to engage people, but to make the audience feel the purpose of the piece itself. “It is about the experience the artist delivers to the public – whether it is provocative, whether it changes how the viewer thinks, feels and views the world,” graphic software developer Rama Hoetzlein said.

While social media and particpation can both prove to be important in the overall growth and expansion of interactive design, it is up to the artists themselves to make sure that the experience people take away is immersive, particpatory, and allows them to interact with the overall message of the work. As Hans Ulrich Obrist, co-director of the Serpentine Gallery, said: “I don’t think we can predict nor prescribe the future of art. It is the famous ‘etonnez-moi’ [astonish me] of Diaghilev and Cocteau’- great art always surprises us, takes us where we expect it least.”


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Arthur M. Sackler Gallery


This paper will be in the format of a case study to analyze the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Through the whole semester, we learn about the idea of the museum as an interface, the interconnection among art, media, and technology, and the principles and definitions of visual semiotics. This paper will take the gallery and the exhibition “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City” as an example to test the knowledge. Readers probably can get a sense of what the functions of the museum are, how technology helps the museum achieves its mission, and how semiotics make the viewers better interact with the exhibition and the culture.

Arthur M. Sackler

Dr. Arthur M. Sackler (1913 – 1987) was born in Brooklyn, New York, and received education from New York University. He was known as a physician and a doctor. Dr. Sackler founded many scientific institutions and had his own research laboratory. He published 140 papers in neuroendocrinology, psychiatry and experimental medicine. The research into the metabolic basis of schizophrenia was considered as his best contribution.

Arthur M. Sackler

At the same time, Dr. Sackler was an art collector and a connoisseur. He collected thousands of art pieces and established galleries at the Metropolitan Museum of Art and Princeton University, a museum at Harvard University, and the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery of Asian Art in Washington, DC. Metropolitan Museum is the first Asian art gallery in the United States, at the age when Asian art was underappreciated. More than that, after his death, his widow opened a teaching museum, the Arthur M. Sackler Museum of Art and Archaeology at Peking University in Beijing, China, to fulfill his wish of creating bridges between people.

He believed that the relationship between the knowledge (arts and sciences) and the humanities as inextricably connected. In a speech given at the State University of New York, he observed: “Communication is, for me, the primum movens of all culture. In the arts… I find the emotional component most moving. In science, it is the intellectual content. Both are deeply interlinked in the humanities.”

History of Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

On May 21, 1979, the US Congress passed legislation authorizing construction of museums and public spaces in the quadrangle behind the Smithsonian Institution Building, the Castle. On December 23, 1981, federal funding was approved, and combined with Dr. Sackler’s donation of 1,000 pieces of Asian Art and $4 million funding. The Sackler Gallery opened to the public on September 28, 1987.

96 percent of Arthur M. Sackler Museum resides underground, which was designed by architect Jean Paul Carlhian of the Boston firm Shepley, Bulfinch, Richardson, and Abbott. Carlhian carried out the concept of a linked underground complex of buildings. “It was placed adjacent to the Freer Gallery of Art and decorated with triangular forms to reflect Islamic design motifs. The pink and gray granite reflects the colors of the Smithsonian Institution Building, the Arts and Industries Building, and the Freer Gallery of Art. The Sackler Gallery is entered through a 4,130 square foot granite pavilion located in the Enid A. Haupt Garden. The rest of the 115,000 square foot structure is built on three sky-lit levels extending 57 feet below ground. The Gallery contains 40,905 square feet of public space for exhibitions and public programs (Smithsonian Institution Archives).”

Arthur M. Sackler Gallery

The museum is an interface

According to James Cuno, cited by Andrew McClellan (2008), the functions of museums like Arthur M. Sackler Gallery are more than preserving treasured objects and educating future generations. For Cuno, art museum provides a platform for invaluable objects made by different people with various background, which enables visitors to think “in a larger flow of human experience and to empathize with others through a shared appreciation of beauty (p.10).” People could see the world at a different angle and have a conversation with the objects “across the divisive boundaries of nationality, ethnicity, and religion (p.10)”.

Meanwhile, Andrew McClellan states that the functions of art museums: “—conservation, acquisition, scholarship, education—are increasingly directed toward, and justified by, this encompassing humanist purpose (p.20).” His definition of art museum’s functions matches Dr. Sackler’s idea that knowledge is closely related to humanities.

Moreover, Martin Irvine mentions that museum, as a sub-system of the art world, is a medium and or mediator displaying the cultural category of art (The Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld). He further explains what “the cultural category of art” is. On the surface, the museum only provides the conceptual and symbolic context of art. In fact, art itself can hardly be defined separately from institutional and cultural categories. The presentation of art keeps redefining the culture through the history of art. And the updated cultural things can be learned in the museum.

Hence, according to Cuno’s, McClellan’s and Irvine’s ideas, art museum not only presents the content of art itself but also exhibiting the inseparable connections between art, culture, and humanity. And museum should be a place helping visitors to understand the culture and history related to the artworks. A successful exhibition, in this case, should at least achieve this goal.

The layers in a museum work on meaning interpretation

To achieve the goal of helping visitors better understand the background information of an art piece, the museum has many techniques and approaches to reach that. For example, visitors can learn information about a museum on its website; visitors can read the brochure which introducing the basic information of the exhibition when they step into a museum; there would a paragraph of introduction besides every piece of art. Moreover, many museums offer their visitors to interact with the art pieces on digital equipment, such as on a touch-screen and/or on a smartphone application.

In this paper, the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery could be an appropriate example showing how these different approaches work together like the layers of the museum system to help a museum achieve its mission. For example, one of the gallery’s collections is the bronzed chime, which is the traditional musical instruments in ancient China. the gallery provides a white board containing the textual introduction of the origins and the background history of the chime. At the same time, a projection of a video shows how the chime works. Below every piece of the bronzed object, there is a paragraph description of the object. More than that, visitors can interact with the instrument by knocking the chime and seeing the sound wave on digital displays. Visitors can even learn how to play music with a chime. There is a large touch screen showing the specific areas of a chime. Red spots are marked on the specific areas, where can make the musical notes sound. Visitors can touch the red spots and hear the musical notes.

Art and medium interfaced

In the digital age, electronic equipment enables the museum to better interpret artworks to the viewers. The medium of art information is no longer limited to print media. Janet Murray (2012) introduces an idea of digital artifact (digital medium), which allows human-computer interaction (HCI). He believes that digital artifact is a part of the culture and becomes meaningful through the actions of people who engage with it. The video of how a chime works, the sound wave on digital displays and the virtual chime on the touch screen are the contents of what the digital medium transmits, which are made with electronic bits and computer code. Correspondingly, the projection of the video, the digital displays, and the touch screen are the interfaces that users (museum visitors) can see and operate.

Murray later discusses that media, including digital media, is the building block of culture, which forms the “basis communication and knowledge transmission through time and space” (p.18). He defines culture as a shared understanding conveying largely through symbolic representations, such as paintings, texts, images, and videos. Media can be the building block because it helps with the documentation of symbolic representations. Media ensures that future generations can inherit the culture and spread it to other people with a different culture. The emergence of digital media expands the scope of culture. People can communicate and elaborate their shared understanding in remote space with people who have a totally different cultural background. At the same time, digital media, as a new method, ensures museum visitors to understand the art pieces in a different way from pure text and printed images.

Moreover, Murray’s explanation of the relationship between media and culture refines the function of a museum. On the surface, a museum is a place where art and medium interact. Art is presented in different formats: paper, bronze, wood, etc. In fact, the museum itself is a medium and/or interface allowing people and culture to interact. Visitors with different cultural background come to a museum and see the symbolic representations of a specific culture. The exhibition “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City” could be a proper example showing how people with different cultural background and Asian culture interact in the Arthur M. Sackler Gallery in the United States.

An introduction to the exhibition

During Mar. 30th – Jun. 23rd, 2019, an exhibition entitled “Empresses of China’s Forbidden City” is held at Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. The exhibition assembles “royal portraits, paintings depicting court life, seals and symbols of imperial power, Buddhist sutras and other objects of religious devotion, along with costumes, jewelry, tableware, and furniture.” These objects were originally used by empresses in Qing Dynasty, showing the life of noble women and how they influence the history of Qing. The curators hope to break the stereotype of traditional Chinese women as being passive and submissive through the exhibition. Most of the art pieces come from the Palace Museum in Beijing, China, which is in the Forbidden City – the imperial palace of Ming and Qing Dynasty (The Palace Museum). The exhibition includes several themes: the noble wedding, the crucial doctrine in China – filial piety, and the daily life of empresses.

The art objects

A part of the exhibition shows the details of the noble wedding, containing the album leaves which are ink and color on silk, the wedding dresses, and jewelry, and conventional wedding objects, such as vessels and censers.

From some album leaves, we can clearly see a rigidly stratified social structure in the Forbidden City and in Qing Dynasty. Officials with lower levels are only allowed to stand during the imperial wedding. Officials with higher levels can sit outside the building. Eunuchs and guards are responsible for carrying palanquins. At the same time, on the upper side of the doorframe, there are several “囍”, which is a traditional symbol used as decoration of the wedding, meaning that many joys and happiness. The symbol is still used in today’s China.

The album leaves about an imperial wedding

In fact, “囍” is not the only symbol appears repeatedly through the exhibition. For example, in the wedding dress and the headdress, there is a lot of design of Phoenix, typically representing the noble female. Correspondingly, the sign of the dragon symbolizes the noble male.

With symbols of Phoenix

The ornamentation of “Ruyi”, another common decorative symbol, referring to peace and prosperity in Chinese culture, appears on the clothes and furnishes frequently.


In the painting Flitting Butterflies, “butterflies flitting wing to wing above a daylily refer to Chinese wishes for marital union and the birth of a son (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery).” The butterfly is also a symbol of Chinese culture.

Flitting Butterflies

Another painting Listening to Magpies, Magpies represent double happiness, referring to conjugal joy blessed by son. “The woman fingers an ornament of interlocking jade rings that symbolizes unbroken continuity for a family, and the case holding a cypress bough and fruiting persimmon branch, suggesting: may all your myriad affairs be peaceful (Arthur M. Sackler Gallery).”

Listening to Magpies

Some Concepts of Semiotics

In the semiotics study, Peirce introduces a model of sign. He asserts that a sign should contain three elements: the representamen, an interpretant, and an object. The representamen is the form of the sign; the interpretant is the sense made of the sign; the object is what the sign refers. He also categorizes the sign into three different modes: symbolic, indexical, and iconic. Symbolic sign emphasizes the conventional association, which is a shared identification in a culture. Iconic sign considers more about the resemblance, while the indexical sign highlights the physical connection and/or casual relation (Daniel Chandler, 2007).

In this case, the “囍” is an iconic sign, since it is the letter of happiness in Chinese calligraphy. “Ruyi”, butterfly, magpie, and persimmon branch are more like the symbolic signs.

Except for all the signs mentioned above, there is a special form of sign appearing in the exhibition. Martin Irvine points out the idea of prototype, which is an exemplary model of a type of signs.

In the exhibition, Cixi, one of the most famous female figures in Qing’s history, occupies a large part of the exhibition. Although she was an empress, her political power made her more like an emperor. There are many pieces of the portrait of Cixi in the exhibition, and a special type of portraits is Cixi playing the role as Guanyin, which is the bodhisattva. In Chinese culture, Guanyin is a symbol of compassion. The several different figures of Guanyin Cixi playing with can be seen as a prototype of sign in the semiotic study.

Empress Dowager Cixi as Guanyin

Empress Dowager as Guanyin

People and culture interacted 

As a Chinese, I can understand the cultural meaning behind every piece of art. However, since the exhibition is held in the United States, the target audience would more be American people (including Native American, Asian American, etc.). As one of the functions of a museum is to help people interact with the unfamiliar culture, whether American people could understand Chinese culture within the exhibition or not would be one of the biggest challenges for the curator.

What the curator misses

From my perspective, the introduction paragraph beside every art object explains the cultural background in a simple way. For those who know nothing about Chinese culture, they can get a sense of what the object is and the cultural information it conveys. However, the short paragraph cannot clearly and completely explain the culture.

At the same time, the gallery has its website publishing exhibition-related information. However, the website only contains a basic introduction to the exhibition. For those who are not in D.C. would not be able to see the collections, and for those who hope to do research on it would not be able to take notes.

Moreover, Jay David Bolter (2013) discusses several technologies that can be used in the museum. For example, he talks about the combination of mobile application and augmented reality. The two technologies work together enabling users to interact with a piece of work on their phones. In addition, the technology of panoramas can help visitors see the whole artworks, the environment, and the relationship between the artworks and the museum environment. Overall, every possible combination of mobile application, augmented reality, panoramas, and 3D graphic could make the exhibition more immersive and interactive. Unfortunately, I did not see any of these technologies in the exhibition.


Although it is always a hard mission for the museum to make the visitors and culture better interacted. Luckily, since the museum and the exhibition itself is a filter, the ones who have zero interest in Chinese culture probably would not visit the museum. People who come to the exhibition either have some background knowledge of Chinese culture or are willing to learn about it. In fact, I saw a lot of American old people read the Chinese text very clearly during the visiting.

From my perspective, instead of considering the museum as a place where art – medium interaction and people – culture interaction happen, I would more likely to see the museum as a trigger motivating visitors to learn more about the culture behind the art after they finish the visiting tour.


Andrew McClellan, The Art Museum from Boullée to Bilbao. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2008.

Anonymous. (2011, April 14). Arthur M. Sackler Gallery. Retrieved from

Arthur M. Sackler. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Daniel Chandler, Semiotics: The Basics. 2nd ed. New York, NY: Routledge, 2007. Excerpts.

Empresses of China’s Forbidden City, 1644–1912 | Freer|Sackler. (n.d.). Retrieved from

Janet Murray, Inventing the Medium: Principles of Interaction Design as a Cultural Practice. Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012. Excerpts from Introduction and Chapter 2.

Jay David Bolter, Maria Engberg, and Blair MacIntyre. “Media Studies, Mobile Augmented Reality, and Interaction Design.” Interactions 20, no. 1 (January 2013): 36–45.

Martin Irvine, “Introduction to the Institutional Theory of Art and the Artworld.”

Martin Irvine, Introduction to Visual Semiotics

Sysadmin. (1982, September 15). Sackler Donates 1000 Pieces of Asian Art. Retrieved from