Dragging around folders, zooming in on random objects and double-clicking around in open space. With computers omnipresent in both work and private lives, idle fiddling via digital interface has become the equivalent of doodling in notebooks. Enter Chinese artist Lin Ke – pronounced similar to “link” – the master of digital procrastination.
Guided by music that ranges from meditational ambient to 8-bit dubstep, the BMW Art Journey nominee carries out operations whose aesthetic value is only strengthened by their ultimate fruitlessness. Whether moving around a hard drive icon atop a desert island background image in an imitation of Robinson Crusoe, or using the Photoshop polygon tool to draw stellar constellations into the night sky, Ke’s onscreen actions are mesmerising. Yet despite his obvious talent, the 33-year-old never really planned to become a digital artist. When he enrolled at the China Academy of Art, he did so with the objective of becoming a painter.
However, he soon found himself amidst what he describes as a “technological revolution”, whereby students were often taught in computer rooms rather than studios. Unable to afford a working space of his own, he naturally decided to make his computer his atelier – and his visual interface his canvas.
“[the internet] can be a creativity killer” – Lin Ke
What started out as a practical compromise evolved into an an ongoing learning process when he discovered the option to record his activities on his desktop. “I try to grow along with the software, constantly testing its boundaries and possibilities,” he explains. By offering viewers these insights into his practice, Ke is taking a step away from the smooth-edged functionality users expect from their devices. Through this experimental approach, the artist discovered the option to include himself in his screen recordings by using a webcam. In “Lightning 01” he adds a bolt of natural electric discharge to a photo of a cloudy sky with the help of his cam’s flash function, and in “Pu”, he creates the illusion of spitting folders onto his digital workspace every time the webcam shows him blowing into the camera.
Over time, Ke’s presence in his works has increased. Lately, his role has changed from a comedic addition to screen icons, to a relatable character with a personal relationship to his computer. In his 2016 video “Once”, for example, he is shown sitting in front of his screen and listening to lounge music on a breezy summer day. His face is a vague, sunlight-induced reflection on a kitschy image of cherry blossom trees and lightly flowing water. For Ke, who says he rarely ever visits galleries and mostly looks at artworks online, his PC is a window to the outside world, a working tool and an oasis of relaxation all at once. “My relationship to my computer is a very interactive and personal one,” he affirms. “It is like my personal assistant helping me discover different kinds of possibilities, while also being a sort of guide, since its limits become my own.”
Despite this close bond, he also acknowledges that technology and the internet “can be a creativity killer”. Ke addresses this issue in “Like Me”, which was presented at his Bank Gallery solo booth at this year ’s Art Basel Hong Kong. In it, he becomes the star of his own music video, rapping a quote from a Sixties Star Trek episode over beats he found online. “When dreams become more important than reality, you give up travel, building, creating,” he raps.“You just sit, living and re-living other lives left behind in the thought wreck”. Using the words of a fifty-year-old TV show, Ke describes the oversaturation-induced apathy that has left an entire generation of internet users unenthusiastically switching between tabs for hours on end. Played on a flat screen attached to the ceiling and floor with massive chains, the video is a stark contrast to the screensaver-aesthetic photos and surrounding it.
Ironically, if Ke wins the BMW Art Journey prize, he will be given the opportunity to travel anywhere on earth to make art. Previous winner Samson Young used the opportunity to record the sounds of church bells in different cities around the world and later weave them into his sound-related artworks. Ke, on the other hand, needs only his computer to create. So where would he go? “Maybe I’d travel to the lonely island on my desktop background that appeared in my Robinson Crusoe video,” he smirks. “I spend so much time looking at it each day, it would be nice to see it in real life.”