Immersive installations targeting visitors to post their experience on social media have become an important means to attract public attention and gain media concern in China. By using mirrors, projections, balloons and virtual reality (VR), one can create a fantasy world. This kind of exhibition is popular in Beijing, Shanghai, Guangzhou and Shenzhen shopping malls and business districts. Visitors are usually driven by one purpose: to take a photograph and share it on their social platforms. In 2018, Jingyao Zou became interested in this phenomenon and has recorded more than 30 of these exhibitions around China for his series Visit The Web Celebrated Sites, Internet Celebrity Check-in. Here he tells us more about the series.
Tell us about the themes that permeate your series we are currently exhibiting in PHOTOFAIRS PRESENTS: Exposure Award.
Against the backdrop of the Internet celebrity economy, the concept of someone being Internet famous has extended to every corner of our lives. Checking-in has become a new buzzword in this new form of economy, as consumers check in at Internet famous spots. Extending beyond just cities, tourist destinations and food, its latest invention, Internet famous exhibitions, (which are immersive arts exhibitions that provide great Instagrammable moments) have gone viral on social media and have risen as a new consumer hotspot. This phenomenon is growing into almost a ritual of self-expression for young people on social platforms.
Internet famous exhibitions and pop-up exhibitions aim to attract a younger generation, especially millennials, by offering a captivating experience. Their origin can be traced back to the Museum of Ice Cream in the USA, which set the record for having its tickets sold out in five days with 200,000 people on the waiting list.
Unlike traditional museums, it barely showed any history or product description of ice cream. Instead, it was made into a dream factory dotted with photo-friendly art installations such as giant popsicles and candy-filled swimming pools, drawing in large crowds of young people who shared their checking-in moments on social media while having fun.
Since 2018, many such exhibitions – varying from hundreds to thousands of square meters in size – have appeared in key shopping centers, well-visited outdoor squares and high streets in highly populated cities in China. Compared with their traditional counterparts, Internet famous exhibitions don’t require viewers to do much homework beforehand, nor provoke much thought afterwards. Accustomed to the routine process of ‘come in, take a photo and go’, people ignore the value and social significance of exhibitions. Checking in at Internet famous exhibitions has become a trendy subcultural phenomenon in recent years and is still evolving.
What drew you to this subject matter?
In April 2018 I began to see more and more friends and alumni posting selfies or photos taken of each other in colorful, eye-catching scenes with hashtags that usually read ‘#checkinginat[location]’ and #internetfamousexhibition, which garnered many comments and likes.
After asking around and searching online, I realized those were new social media friendly locations in popular Chinese cities. I visited some of these exhibitions by friend recommendation and was surprised to see they were no traditional art exhibitions. They were set up just for people to take photos and waves and waves of visitors scrambled for a killer shot to share online. That was when I thought of systematically documenting and reflecting upon such an immersive phenomenon. After further research into the subject, I began my shooting.
What did you learn while creating this series?
Behind the huge crowd turnout, there is the problem of Internet famous exhibitions beginning to look more and more alike, as copycatting and idea-theft become increasingly rampant. These money driven, pseudo-art exhibitions, dressed in similar and shabby settings, homogenous presentation and vague – sometimes even farcical curation concept – faded away like fleeting clouds one after another.
This so-called immersive art experience is, however, influencing people's consumption behavior and aesthetic expression to some extent. While mesmerized by a theatrical stage co-forged by capitalism and media, visitors are themselves becoming part of the funny and absurd checking-in performances.
The phenomenon of checking in at an Internet famous spot sheds light on people’s consumption, entertainment and lifestyle choices. From the ‘I was here’ graffiti we saw in times past to the ‘checking-in’ phenomena today, capitalism and the media have come a long way and we do not know how they will evolve in the future. I hope to study it as a sample of the Internet celebrity economy in China today and discuss and reflect upon the logic, value and significance behind it.
What was the biggest challenge while you worked on this series?
The phenomenon itself includes both online and offline components, which connect and interact with each other, so the focus and challenge of my project was to present this dynamics as comprehensively as possible. The presentation of my work consists of two parts. Part one is photographing the empty checking-in spots of Internet famous exhibitions when no one was around as well as exhibition visitors who were creating their Instagram moments. Part two is collecting, editing and displaying pictures and short videos uploaded by people after their ‘checking-in’ trips. Combining the two, the final project presents the complete online-to-offline process of the phenomenon.
It was a great challenge for me to work with so many media forms and try to present the final outcome in multiple dimensions. The final work is not perfect and these are the areas that I’d like to work on in my future work.
What new understanding and perspective, if any, did you gain into photography through this work?
We are in an era where big social changes and new happenings abound. To me, the biggest charm of photography as a way of seeing the world lies in its ability to faithfully record and reflect real social issues. It is the most direct and powerful form of art that an individual can have to express their feelings towards oneself, life and the world around them. ‘A photo that loses its grip on reality is a photo without power.’
It is a good time for photographers as we can touch every aspect of society and life with our work. Photography is not about self-indulgence but about creating meaningful interaction with viewers, so as to shed light on the philosophy and issues behind and set the audience thinking.