Regaining the Pioneering Role in the Digital Age: The First International Digital Printmaking Exhibition

TEXT:Luo Yifei, ed. and trans. by Sue    DATE: 2021.11.30

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Editor’s note: On October 15, 2021, “The First International Digital Printmaking Exhibition” opened at Changsha Normal University in Hunan province. This exhibition is co-sponsored by the Central Academy of Fine Arts, the International Printmaking Research Institute of the Central Academy of Fine Arts (IPI), the International Academic Printmaking Alliance (IAPA), and Changsha Normal University. More than 150 works by over 80 artists at home and abroad are exhibited, and a special seminar was held on the same day.

This exhibition has raised many practical questions in the field of printmaking: when we regard digital printmaking as an internal member of printmaking, how do we accept this new member? Especially in the context of academies and institutions, how can digital prints be included in exhibitions, collections, transactions, and education? At the same time, the exhibition attempts to respond to how printmaking as a subcategory of painting survives and develops in this contemporary era: technology-based printmaking should embrace technology while maintaining a critique of technology, so as to provide spiritual resources for people.

Printmaking and Duplicating Technology

"All art has a physical part, but it can no longer be treated as it used to be, and it is impossible not to be affected by the operation of modern power and knowledge."

—Paul Valery

In 1936, when Walter Benjamin analyzed imaging technology and its production mode in The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility and Other Writings on Media, this production was conducted on a large scale, but it did not form a visual system covering every corner of society. This confirms a direction for research between art and technology, making it forward-looking and structural. In the first International Digital Printmaking Exhibition that opened in Changsha, a path of thinking has been developed from what Benjamin found.


Peter Bosteels, Microgasm, 3D Modeling, 30×42cm, 2021

Printmaking and printing technology have realized an information revolution in Europe. Before the rise of printmaking, all images were unique and handmade: the only way to copy a painting was to draw another one. When the lithograph was invented in the 19th century, images appeared frequently in daily newspapers, meanwhile special pictorial images also emerged. The mission of illustrations for newspapers was quickly taken over by photography. With the development of photography technology, films sprouted forth and developed. At the same time, practices in etching, lithograph, and silk-screen printing also appeared. Benjamin wrote that, “Around 1900, technological reproduction not only had reached a standard that permitted it to reproduce all known works of art, profoundly modifying their effect, but it also had captured a place of its own among the artistic processes.”


Chen Qi, Maid, Digital Print, According to the actual output size, 2002

Benjamin mainly discussed the art expressions after the invention of the camera, but in the 21st century, the intervention of computers is almost logical. The introduction of computers into printmaking can be traced back to the 1990s. Artists can use computers to digitize images, edit the plates in the computer, and then use traditional printmaking techniques (usually silk screens) to print out the finished products. With the advent of digital printing technologies such as giclee, digital printmaking has got rid of the physical template.

Benjamin pointed out that the fact that “art works can be copied by machinery” has changed the public perception of art. In the exhibition gallery of Changsha Normal University, the young students who were the first group that formed an audience and visited the exhibition as they would not be unfamiliar with the forms of these works on display, because they would encounter similar images on their mobile phones and computer screens every day.


Tang Hui, Five-pointed Star, Digital print, 2021

The Fading “Aura” and Identity Crisis

"You can be watching TV and see Coca Cola, and you know that the President drinks Coca Cola, Liz Taylor drinks Coca Cola, and just think, you can drink Coca Cola, too."

—Andy Warhol

Those who feel complicated about the exhibition are always those who come from the professional field of printmaking. As Luo Xiangke, Curator of this exhibition said, when WeChat and Tik Tok have become the daily experience of Chinese people across the classes and ages, when digital media has become an ordinary medium in contemporary art, “digital” remains to be an issue for printmaking. Actually, digital printmaking as a category is so controversial that in the conference of International Academic Printmaking Alliance organized by the Central Academy of Fine Arts in 2018, a statement was announced that digital printmaking, monoprint, and photography were included in printmaking.


Yang Hongwei, Division, Digital print, 73×46cm, 2021

For Benjamin, “In even the most perfect reproduction, one thing is lacking: the here and now of the work of art—its unique existence in a particular place. It is this unique existence—and nothing else—that bears the mark of the history to which the work has been subject.” In the age of mechanical reproduction, what has been impressed in artwork is its “Aura.” As the quantity of copied images vibrates the quality, the “Aura” of artwork will inevitably go into recession.

The viewpoint on “Aura” and authenticity seems to explain why traditional art rejected new technology, but why it should be within printmaking? Why do digital prints prominently reveal the issue of legal identity? The “Aura” of printmaking cannot be explained by the traditional concept of authenticity as it is based on the reproduction technology that caused the decline “Aura”, which also means that the problematic context has changed in printmaking. Here we can find a repetition of the historical structure, and the role played by digital printmaking can be found in the past. However, for contemporary artists today, “whether photography is art or not” was not an issue, and “digital printmaking is print or not” should not be the focus of controversy.


Zhou Jirong, Landscape—Drum Tower, Digital print, 60×75cm, 2021

For Curator Wang Huaxiang, the relation between printmaking and printing technology was an important issue, which indicates that the issue of pluralism should be re-examined at the same time. He thought that when confronted by new technologies, the “narrowness”, “selfishness” and “short-sighted vision” in the printmaking world have led to such a phenomenon which tries to refine a certain fixed concept of “printmaking.” Just as Clement Greenberg’s paranoia on the flatness of painting ultimately hindered him from understanding postmodernism, the desire for a fixed concept (which can be reduced to a desire for discourse power) led to digital technology becoming regarded as an “enemy” that threatened the purity of printmaking.

Greenberg’s theory represents a typical modernist discourse among which the new and the old, the avant-garde and the vulgar, the authentic and the non-authentic constitute a complete set of dualistic structure. This discourse has re-differentiated identity and boundary in the modern era. The anxiety that Wang Huaxiang has identified can be summarized as a cultural identity crisis: on the one hand, professional artists rely on their skills to build identity, create barriers, and produce discourse; on the other hand, when the development of secular society began to seek new technologies and identities, artists might become anxious again as they are worried that they will no longer be recognized and needed any more.


Wang Huaxiang, Natural Enemy No. 2, Digital print, 45.9×80cm, 2021

In the history of art, it is precisely printmaking that points out the “universal characteristics of art” after modernism and it also provides a way to escape the myth of modernism. It can be represented by Andy Warhol, although he rarely considered himself as a printmaker. With the help of cameras and silk screen, Warhol duplicated images of American lifestyle in the global market, and there was almost no distance between the way he copied and the objects he portrayed, and they were already visualized, they were consumed by the masses before being portrayed by Warhol, and the artist was also happy to know that his art was consumed.


Zhang Zhandi, Andy and Me, Digital print, 66×46cm, 2013

Benjamin reminded us that, “Just as the entire mode of existence of the human collective changes over long historical periods, so too does their mode of perception.” Although we don’t know whether digital technology will change our view of the entire visual art form like photography, it undoubtedly means a new experience. Digital technologies have expanded the media from TVs and billboards in the era that Warhol lived in to the current screens of mobile phones while delivering unlimited images at every moment. Similarly, the exhibition ceased to distinguish art from life in forms (Warhol has proven that this is irrelevant). All the works included in the exhibition are all printed in a unified form, and the high-definition printers have similar industrial standards to minimize the differences in materials and become images. Zhang Zhandi’s “Andy and Me” presents a traditional portrait of Warhol and the artist himself appears in a bright oval with his name (not a traditional artist’s signature, but a digital font with no individual characteristics. Floating with other geometric color blocks on a realistic background, just like the way people are observed today, in the ocean of digital images, subjects and their words are arbitrarily sliding.

Avant-garde Tradition and Digital Future

"This (print) is really art that fits the atmosphere of modern China."

—Lu Xun

For Benjamin, there was a close relationship between the decline of “Aura” and the decline of tradition, and at the same time it also brings a hope of revolution. The history of printmaking in modern China confirms this. Lu Xun regarded engraving as a power to inspire revolution. The new engraving movement he initiated has tied modern Chinese printmaking with revolutionary history, calling for young artists including Hu Yichuan, Jiang Feng, Li Hua and others. While the young printmaking artists inspired by Lu Xun continued to work in the  Luxun Academy of Arts in Yan’an founded in 1938 , the Yan’an Literary and Art Seminar in 1942 opened a new look, and Gu Yuan, Yan Han, Wang Shikuo, Luo Gongliu and other artists and revolutionaries emerged.


Luo Xiangke, Cold Night, Digital print, 150×125cm, 2021

The tradition of Chinese modern printmaking remains “avant-garde”, requires an active participation in social progress. In the category of traditional art, printmaking requires social significance more actively than any other categories. From the Northern Song Dynasty in China to the European Renaissance, the advancement of printing technology led to the diffusion of knowledge and it also marked the development of society. During this process, printmaking plays a role that makes a voice for the aphasia in the past. As Yin Jinan pointed out in the exhibition seminar, new technologies should not be used to convey old tastes.


Liu Jing, Flag—About Emerging Woodcut, Digital print, 90×100cm, 2021

The avant-garde tradition of printmaking also means that it always changes its appearance. From the reproduction technology of each era, printmaking has the richest media and technology in the category of graphic art; and in order to leap from technology to art, printmaking embraces technology while maintaining a critique of technology. Digital printmaking represents an attempt at printmaking art in our era. Feng Mengbo’s “The Apartment” and “The Library” were created with a game engine. This type of digital program was originally a tool for video game designers to quickly complete the development, though Feng Mengbo applied it to the creation of prints. The game engine builds a digital space that simulates reality in the computer, which has a relationship of physical depth and optical mechanics. Feng Mengbo transformed this virtual three-dimensional space into a realistic two-dimensional space. In principle, all the objects in it can move, collide, and deform. This variability constitutes a new “version.” Between the audience and Feng Mengbo’s prints, the audience is familiar with the game space (according to the “China Game Industry Report” in the first half of this year, the number of game users in our country has reached 667 million), and from this they find it difficult to enter the space and feel the distance in the digital age, it is in this “unique manifestation of being so close but always keeping the distance” that the new “Aura” becomes a possibility again in the digital age.


Feng Mengbo, The Apartment, video game engine, 139×78cm, 2021

As Feng Mengbo concluded in the Preface of the exhibition, “art, in the final analysis, is the creation of human spirit, and the road should go wider and wider.” The first International Digital Printmaking Exhibition has expressed its attitude: “The first” means that it requires to be an event in history and requires a new trend in the artistic evolution; “international” means that it requires openness in space and confronts a social field. The resulting isolation and closure (the background of the pandemic provides it with more connotations); “digital printmaking” is a rectification again. In the era of digital reproduction we are ushering in, we adhere to the experimental and pioneering printmaking slogan from Lu Xun.

Text by Luo Yifei, ed. and trans. by Sue/CAFA ART INFO

Image Courtesy of the Organizers.