Shi Zheng: the screen as a membrane

Roxanne Vardi

Shi Zheng is a multidisciplinary artist based in Shanghai and New York. Shi Zheng’s works range from audio-visual installations and digital music to live performances. The artist’s body of work explores the overlapping space between the real and the virtual by creating immersive spaces, which resonate as meditative spiritual experiences. In turn, these perceptual experiences created by Shi Zheng open up spaces for deep introspection.

Shi Zheng’s two newly commissioned artworks by Niio expose the artist’s ongoing interest in technology, machine vision, digital voyage and ‘latent time’. Marvelous Cloud #1 and Marvelous Cloud #2 are part of Shi Zheng’s ongoing Nimbus series, which he started working on in 2015. Nimbus is defined as a cloud, an aura, or an atmosphere. In Latin ‘nimbus’ refers to a dark cloud. In Shi Zheng’s works, the clouds are made visible by light, which instills in them a sense of aura of gaseous floating. The Nimbus series represents the artist’s construction of virtual realities where virtual clouds live inside of the screen space, thus setting his viewers into imagined virtual spaces that mimic reality. However, here, the reality is entirely generated from virtual cameras of computer programs and noise algorithms. Ultimately, the viewer is able to experience the virtual landscape that computers share with human eyes.

Shi Zheng’s works have been exhibited at a wide range of galleries, museums and institutions including TANK Shanghai, MOCA Yinchuan, Ars Electronica, and Institute of Contemporary Arts London. In 2013, Shi Zheng, together with Nenghuo, Wang Zhipeng, and Weng Wei, founded the artistic new media art group RMBit.

In your works, through computer technology, you explore the possibility to extend your viewer’s audio and visual experience. Could you elaborate on this process and the anticipated result of the interaction with your artworks?

In my Audio-Visual installations, I’ve always thought that sound and image are the two sides of one being. They are intertwined and can’t be separated from each other. In these works, there is no discernible narrative. I did not intend to let the work convey a specific message or language. Instead, sound and image as two different materials, are presented to create a purely perceptual environment. So in my work, I hope to create an immersive space in which the viewer can generate thoughts through their experience.

Shi Zheng, Marvelous Cloud #1, 2022.

As an artist that creates both electronic music and digital imagery, what is it about these two artistic practices and their association that interests you most?

For me, the most exciting part is the space, where the acoustic field created by the sound and the light diffused from the screen are composed into an immersive space that surrounds the audience. So I often prefer to describe my video works as spatial installations. The audience can resonate with surround sound and projection when facing the visual content. If we imagine the screen as a membrane, this immersive audiovisual experience is an attempt to make the membrane disappear.

“If we imagine the screen as a membrane, this immersive audiovisual experience is an attempt to make the membrane disappear.”

Also, I feel it is very interesting to create sound and video simultaneously, especially when considering them as a whole. It’s like the sound is an echo of the image, or the image is some kind of generator of the sound. For instance, in the work Nimbus, although the work visually portrays an ever-changing “cloud,” the sound embodies another part of it. So in terms of this relationship, as I mentioned earlier, sound and image are two sides of the same being.

Your Marvelous Clouds series display whimsical lights of nature and trace their boundless metamorphosis. Could you dive deeper into the artistic techniques that are involved in the creation of these artworks?

Marvelous Cloud is inspired by the clouds in J.M.W. Turner’s paintings as well as the “sublime” embodied in his work. The images of clouds in his work often appear in different colors under the illumination of light. I often focus on the flow of things rather than the still images, looking at how these dematerialized gaseous objects are shaped by light under flowing motion. So when I simulate virtual clouds in computer software, different modules and algorithms can help me transform the original realistic clouds into more abstract ones. In addition, I can control the distance of the light in the virtual space, which gives me a lot of possibilities in terms of color.

Shi Zheng, Marvelous Cloud #2, 2022.

“Sound and image are the two sides of one being.”

The clusters of clouds and gas which originate from natural light in your Nimbus series can be interpreted as an aura, an ignis, or a fatuus which together generate a meditative almost spiritual experience. Can this experience be interpreted as intentional?

Yes. It was also the first time I tried to create this meditative spiritual experience in my work. During the creation of Nimbus in 2015, I had the opportunity to visit the Rothko room at the TATE Modern. Rothko’s Black on Maroon series was displayed in the dimly lit gallery, which immensely impressed me. When I returned to the studio to continue working on Nimbus, the intense spiritual experience continued to influence me, and I couldn’t help but bring them into my work.

Shi Zheng, Nimbus, 2015.

You have stated that you do not only see yourself as the creator of your artworks, which display computer-generated virtual worlds, but also as a wanderer wanting to share the experience of these lonesome lands with your viewers. Is there an attempt to connect to your viewers through this shared experience?

I have always felt that making art is a sharing experience and that artists have their own way of seeing the world. I started to learn about virtual worlds from Second Life, and since then, my work has always had a sort of “wanderer” perspective. Whenever I create a new work or build a new “world,” I feel like I’m in a “sandbox” environment. Imagining this “sandbox” as a glass container, I can observe the real world through this container and also reflect on ourselves through the mirror reflection. I suppose the superposition of the real and the virtual is what I want to share with the audience through my artwork.

“I started to learn about virtual worlds from Second Life, and since then, my work has always had a sort of “wanderer” perspective.”