Issue 1: Research Festival

How my paintings rebels the era of mass media and digital communication.

This essay, in the tone of a practice report, outlines the author’s artistic practice during the MA, discussing how painting was used as a weapon to resist the late capitalist, consumer, image-infested era.

I imagine…that now you are feeling a bit like Alice,tumbling down the rabbit hole?…You have the look of the man who accepts what he sees,because he is expecting to wake up. Ironically,this is not far from the truth……Let me tell you why you are here. You are here because you know something. What you know,you can not explain. But you feel it. You felt it in your entire life. That there is something wrong with the world….. Like every else, you were born into bondage, born into a prison that you cannot smell or taste or touch. A prison for your mind.

Morpheus, The Matrix

Ernest Mandel (1975) analysed the dramatic progress in productivity since the Second World War, the liberation of labour and the accrual of capital. In order to absorb the massive hoarding of goods, the production society was transformed into a consumer society. By this time capitalism had entered a highly developed form, known as late capitalism. The logic of commodification dominates our ideology and influences the way we understand and see the world. In The Postmodern Condition, Lyotard (1984) raised questions about the meta-narrative and encourages us to revalue everything, and he also suggested that the knowledge loses its use-value to become a kind of commodity. I am interested in the conception about revaluation of everything. This seems to imply a rebellion and scepticism, especially towards the authority. In today’s world of information technology, information and knowledge are disseminated in the form of images, which are turned into a commodity. We thus consume images and buy them. Advances in technology have made it so cheap to produce an image. Deleuze and McLuhan, on the other hand, predicted a future world that was disorderly, or according to a non-linear order. A variety of things, phenomena merge and intertwine, taking on a fragmented appearance. In Deleuze this is called deconstruction, while in McLuhan it is the role of the modern media. Just as he was ahead of his time with the concept of the global village, no one would dare to laugh at him today. We are immersed in a sea of information every day, in what they call a disorganised, cross-cutting way, and gradually we adapt to this life.

Conflict of ideologies

Painting, as an ancient art form, is a condensed product of time. In these troubled times, when superficial culture is prevalent, the alternative way of understanding life, of seeing, that painting implies, has contributed to it becoming an alternative in its own way, a rebellion. Contemporary painters do not seem to do anything different from what painters did a thousand years ago. They sit in their studios, choose their own canvas, paint and study their subjects. Painting is a spiritual object, or rather, painting is a miracle, a dialogue between the painter and the viewer through brushstroke, paint, composition and form, something that was lacking in the age of the image.

Thousands of years ago in China, browsing scroll paintings was seen as a spiritual pastime by the literati class. As the eye moves along with the scrolls, the viewer feels as if he or she is in the world of the picture, as if he or she is on an adventure. Images can be reproduced indefinitely, like a virus. The aura of a layer of artwork itself that Benjamin(1963) described disappears in the reproductions

Painting is slow, corresponding to the anxiety of people in the post-industrial age. It rejects the notion of time invented by capitalism and painters continue to create their own images in a clumsy way. Painting is in revolt, against the domination of the proliferation of images, against the spiritual emptiness of capitalism. The glory of human nature cannot be replaced by industry and machinery, indeed painting has never been more important, painting is a weapon that tells the viewer of its own existence.

Staged narrative

It seems to me that both the media and the spectacle(Debord,1967), as well as the simulacra(Baudrillard,1981), have one thing in common, namely the alienation of people and their artificiality. We live in a false space, commercials, television, movies, like the world of Truman, we are in a huge show, sometimes even we ourselves are performing.

This sense of staging can be clearly detected in Neo Rauch’s paintings. In the picture above, for example, he directly depicts the curtain, and the stage, the actors, etc. The painting below(fundrube,2011), of course, is a more sophisticated approach, in which the different images are grouped together in a certain order. The content of the images is recognisable in a figurative sense, but as a whole they appear obscure. These collage-like techniques are derived from Neo’s references to contemporary media such as advertising, posters and new media images. Unlike collage, however, Neo Rauch sometimes connects the spaces of different images, making them coherent, or simply extracts elements from the images and places them in a single space, while sometimes retaining some of the boundaries between images.

Fundgrube, 2011
Oil on canvas
Overall: 118 1/8 x 196 7/8 inches (300 x 500 cm) Each: 118 1/8 x 98 3/8 inches (300 x 250 cm)

Like a magician, he transforms and transposes scenes of people as he pleases, constructing a hybrid time and space where you can see historical figures and modern objects on stage together. Viewing his work is also jumpy, as if we were browsing images on the internet. Neo Rauch captures well the viewing habits of the information age and combines them with traditional ways of representation.

In my paintings of The bourgeois needs to be more united , I continue this sense of staging by directing the viewer’s eye to the two main characters through the composition. In the painting,i paint a huge theme park. Visitors have fun playing in the park, creating a sense of conflict with the serious two people in the foreground.

Baudrillard (1981)sees theme parks as a simulation of reality, analysing Disneyland and

arguing that adults can only find their innocence if they come to the park, where people feel  back to their childhood through the act of playing children in the facilities.

The fancy colours and the brightness of the scene certainly contrast with the state of the characters. I have appropriated characters from The Matrix and modified them. They have serious and cold expressions, seemingly like terrorists, and the man on the left has his jacket open to show the audience his bomb vest. It is an explosion from communism, because what tied to the bombs are Marx’s work Capitalism and Mao’s writings.

The bourgeoisie needs to be more united
140cm x 180cm
Oil on canvas
The viewing experience in the digital age

Apart from the staged narrative approach, the painters have also found a visual experience unique to the digital age.

Daniel Richter
D.O.A.X.L, 2012
Oil on canvas
200 x 300 cm

Daniel Richter’s palette are rich and bold, often using bright yellow, blue, red, peach and other contrasting colours. He draws on the colour styles of Gauguin and Munch, and builds on them by incorporating modern technology such as x-ray images, thermal imaging and night vision images. His figures appear to have just emerged from the fire, shouting and shaking with a nervous quality. He also uses pink, fluorescent green and bright yellow colours, which he splashes on the canvas with paint or fluid paint before painting, giving his pictures a coldness and rustiness that is characteristic of the neon city. In addition, we can find in the picture his skillful use of spray paint, which seems to be related to his early experience in avant-garde music. It is reminiscent of punk graffiti in the streets.

Li Songsong
310cm x 380cm
oil on aluminum panel

Chinese artist Li Songsong emphasises the political nature of the spectacle images, documentary images from the post-Cultural Revolution era, historical paintings, constructing a grand narrative.Li Songsong’s artworks mostly unfold from images to the processing of images given, and his creations have been exploring the issue of the relationship between public images and the transformation between paintings and installations. The subjects of these images and installations are basically photographic photographs or textual reports on Chinese or world history, events and people, and the directional use of these images and textual resources is derived from his childhood feelings of such visual memories, as well as his contemporary reflections and expressions of the past history. Through the accumulation of huge amounts of paint, he treats his paintings as if they were fields, thus dividing his paintings into many rectangles.

Marcin’s paintings subtly draw on a wide range of photography and images from the spectacle. In this painting, for example, he has painted an overexposed image, or the paparazzi have used an overexposed light. In any case, he has managed to create a visual appearance that is familiar to us, and in an age of image flooding and datafication, countless photos of such celebrities are viewed.

P. david Marshall(2014) in his book celebrity and power stated the identity of the celebrity  from several angles, for example, he compares the relationship between actors and stars (actors play roles, while stars play themselves) and the difference between the narrative that astronaut-scientists belong to the heroic narrative, while celebrities are manipulated by capital, even though they are both famous. Ultimately what we can know is that celebrity is a manifestation of the commodification of the self and the commodification of democratic sentiment. In the past, the opportunity to appear on television was considered extremely valuable, i.e. the opportunity to be seen. Or, as the medium itself is the message, we know of course that celebrities are different on camera than they are in life. There is no doubt that Marcin Maciejowski dissolves the original meaning of these celebrity photographs and replaces it with a sense of indifference. The overly bright lights make everyone’s personality disappear and people become dull, seemingly with a sense of depression and despair. This is a powerful rebuke to the digital age.

In my painting Even the piglets can not stand the grand separation, I used the colours used in the commercials to make the images look flashy and colourful. By portraying the characters, they seem to have an aura of stardom. The faces of the people in the picture are illuminated by the glare, indistinguishable from their expressions, as if to intentionally remind the viewer of the position they are in perhaps the director, the camera.

Even the piglets can not stand the grand separation,
190cm x 200cm,
oil on canvas,

The broken sky behind the image tells the viewer that this is an interior space and that everything is just a game of images. This seems to echo what Murphys was quoted as saying at the beginning of the paper. We live in a world of images, and Baudrillard has criticised the line between the virtual and the real in the film The Matrix for being too clear, pointing out that in the present day reality and simulation are indistinguishable from each other.

Rousseau had a beautiful dream VI,
150 x 360cm,
oil on canvas, golden powder,

Plato in his work Republic described the three states of people, imprisoned in the cave, leaving the cave and returning to the cave. As the final part of this series, I conclude with a triptych. All the smaller narratives gather as a complete narrative universe, and this painting is a summary of the series.The triptych has a religious connotation in art history and my composition and treatment of the figures also carry religious allusions. Here I have directly represent a studio, with lush colours, the whole aura of the picture looks beautiful and dangerous, full of tension. In terms of composition if we take the figure as a clue we see a stable positive triangle, while with the plants and props we see an inverted triangle. The intersection of these two triangles is also the centre of our vision. I have designed this image to intentionally guide the viewer. In the place that belonged to Christ stood a woman, no one knew who she was, but from her costume she seemed to be a darling of consumer society, the godmother of commodity fetish. This leads me to a bold vision of what would happen if all the images and videos we have access to were made in a studio.

With advances in visual technology, we can enjoy unparalleled visual spectacles, and first-person shooters are a way for us to experience the joy of gunplay, even though we have never experienced war. Capital and spectacle offer a way of understanding reality, helping us to visualise society as a whole in a way that goes beyond anything we might experience in person.

Technology has made the impossible possible and the world may be one big live studio. For example, behind the scenes of science fiction films and deepfake technology. Quote from a Guardian article claiming that deepfake technology is weaponising social media.

The advent of social media has made our relationship with the spectacle less monolithic and more interactive, with each of us being able to post our own images, videos and even live broadcasts on a free terminal. It is hard to say that television is evil, that it is controlling the viewer, but it is now more likely that everyone is part of the spectacle. We have become inseparable from the spectacle.

What Foucault calls the panopticon and the transformation from the external, the physical, the gaze, to the internal, the spiritual, the digital. The subject of discipline is ourselves, and it is difficult to say whether we can remain absolutely neutral in such an age of pictures, because all images can be changed purposefully.

If the surrealist painters of history were resurrected and saw the current image-infested world, they might exclaim that there is no need for surreal painting, because the present is more surreal than any other time. The absurdity of the dream world is no match for the algorithm of technology. In the visual industry, such as the film industry, even the studio is no longer needed, the actors are simply recorded in their own electronic image and everything is done by technology.

But whatever the changing circumstances, painting has always followed the principle of simplicity from the beginning to the end. It is no coincidence that painting acts as a rebel in the digital age, offering a perspective that shows that in the financial moment, people are people and not wandering ghosts.


Still form Tong Wu,2022

Still from Neo Rauch,2011

Still from Daniel Richter,2012

Still from Marcin Maciejowski,2009

Picture available at :


Blumlinger, C. (2014) ‘The image scout: Harun Farocki, 1944-2014’, Radical philosophy, (188), pp. 69–70.

Baudrillard, J. and Glaser, S.F. (1994) Simulacra and simulation. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press.

 Jencks, C. (1977) The language of post-modern architecture. London: Academy Editions.

Lyotard, J.F. (1984) The postmodern condition : a report on knowledge. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press.

McLuhan, M. and Gordon, W.T. (2003) Understanding media : the extensions of man. Critical ed.. Corte Madera, Calif.: Gingko Press.

Marshall, P. David., Celebrity and Power : Fame in Contemporary Culture (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2014)

Valli, M. and Dessanay, M. (2014) A brush with the real : figurative painting today. London: Laurence King Publishing.

About the author

Tong Wu is a London-based painter, using painting as a medium to reflect on our relationship with post-modern, consumer society. Follow him @tongwuartist.