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EXPANDED.ART is committed to supporting emerging digital artists with the program EXPANDED DISCOVERIES. The digital artworks of the selected artists will be presented in a one-week-long solo exhibition at the Showroom in Berlin and released on EXPANDED.ART. The aim is to collaborate with art schools and universities to find talents and introduce them to working with a gallery. The artists will be individually mentored on topics such as storytelling and communication.

The first EXPANDED DISCOVERIES artist is Element Lee, a Chinese digital artist based in Vienna. He studied art theory at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts in Beijing and is now a M.A. student in digital arts at the University of Applied Arts Vienna (die angewandte) in the class of UBERMORGEN.

Element Lee explores the relationship between humans, technology, and nature. He creates pixel drawings with mobile phones and expands them to physical media like laser, robotic drawing, and 3D printing. In conversation with Anika Meier he discusses video games and Chinese culture, and pixel drawings and digital art.

Anika Meier: Why did you choose Element Lee as your artist name?

Element Lee: It is a translation of my Chinese name. It means mono, ordinary, or elementary. I want my English name to be also understandable and easy to remember instead of just meaningless pronunciations.

Portrait of Element Lee, the first EXPANDED DISCOVERIES artist.

AM: You pursued your studies in art theory at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts (CAFA) in Beijing. Currently, you are a Master of Arts student in digital arts at the University of Applied Arts Vienna (die Angewandte), under the guidance of the UBERMORGEN class, which is where we first crossed paths. What motivated you to study art theory?

EL: I had a strong passion and interest in various fields such as oil painting, prints, design, history, literature, and the sciences. I applied to study art theory at CAFA and painting at two other academies in China, but I was only admitted to the art theory program. I considered myself fortunate considering the fierce competition, as there were tens of thousands of students vying for a limited number of positions.

AM: Did you initially plan to study art theory before pursuing art?

EL: As I mentioned, it was more about being selected rather than actively choosing, but I was creating all the time. I began drawing at a very young age, even before I could speak. Therefore, engaging in art comes naturally to me on a daily basis. Despite being in the theoretical department, I had the opportunity to attend fine arts classes and engage in practical work.

Studying theory provided me with a structured understanding and extensive knowledge of aesthetics and the history of global art, which greatly benefits my artistic endeavors.

Element Lee, Principle, pixel drawing, 2023.

AM: When did you know that you wanted to be an artist?

EL: It was after I graduated from CAFA around 2011. Following our academic training, the expectation was to pursue a career in art history or curation. However, after working in various institutions, I discovered that I found more fulfillment in creating my own art rather than studying the works of others or navigating social dynamics.

Additionally, during my time at the academy around 2008, the art market experienced a significant surge. There was a global craze for Chinese contemporary art that lasted for 5-6 years, characterized by hype, record-breaking auctions, price manipulation, and ranking competitions. However, the market abruptly crashed after 2007 or 2008. Witnessing numerous concerning practices during that period also steered me away from pursuing a path in art management.

AM: And why now digital art?

EL: I have explored various art forms, and digital art resonates with me the most for several reasons. Firstly, it offers a high level of flexibility. With pixel art, I can create on my phone at any time and from anywhere. The artwork can be shared on social media platforms, printed on a large scale spanning hundreds of square meters, or even integrated into virtual reality experiences.

Secondly, pixel art is characterized by its simplicity and quantifiability, which I refer to as the comfort of countability. I have complete control over each pixel, with each one holding significance. The intriguing aspect is that while pixels are quantifiable, they have the power to evoke countless imaginations.

Thirdly, digital art comes with minimal material constraints. Given the abundance of ideas I wish to express daily, utilizing traditional canvas would necessitate a significant amount of materials, storage space, and a large studio. This is particularly pertinent in Europe, where material costs are notably higher compared to China. Reduced costs equate to greater artistic freedom; digital art enables me to create without being encumbered by physical limitations.

Element Lee, Green Mountain, pixel drawing, 2024.

AM: Could you describe a typical day in your life? You mentioned having a wealth of ideas you wish to express daily. What sources of inspiration drive your creative process?

EL: Typically, I dedicate around 60% of my day to solitary indoor activities such as creating art, watching videos, and exploring the internet. In today's world, being a visual artist bears similarities to training AI, as both require a continuous influx of visual and conceptual stimuli. I often immerse myself in videos showcasing 2D pixel styles from video games of the 90s. I am drawn to their simplicity, rawness, nostalgic charm, and the enduring appeal of 2D graphics, which closely align with the principles underlying my own art. Some of the games I enjoy watching include SNATCHER, DIVINE DIVINITY, and the FALLOUT series.

My sources of inspiration stem from various aspects of life, history, existing artworks, scientific concepts, and my travels. For instance, the color palette of a weathered wall in an ancient structure might serve as the backdrop for a piece like GREEN MOUNTAIN. The creation of SPOTLIGHT was influenced by the eerie sensation of entering an unfamiliar location at night, where objects only partially reveal themselves while the majority remains concealed in darkness, shrouding what lies ahead.

Each of my artworks originates from distinct inspirations and harbors intricate details waiting to be uncovered.

In the case of STONE AND PLANT, it serves as a visual allegory touching upon epistemology, information encapsulation, and data regulation: the presence of a solitary brick before your eyes can obstruct your view of the entire mountain.

Element Lee, Stone and Plant, pixel drawing, 2024.

AM: Upon examining your artwork, it appears that you primarily focus on incorporating a sense of emptiness and meticulous attention to detail.

EL: Ambiguity and emptiness are fundamental concepts in my artwork, which I consider to be essential magical elements of 2D imagery. In Chinese ink painting, there is an ancient principle that states that beauty resides in the realm between similarity and dissimilarity (妙在似与不似之间), and that areas left untouched are also considered as part of the artwork (无画处皆是画).

I believe that ambiguity plays a crucial role in enriching the depth of a piece, making it worth revisiting over time as viewers can have varied experiences at different stages of their lives. Each viewer's unique background can also influence their interpretation of the artwork. For example, in pieces like GREEN MOUNTAIN and MATHEMATICAL LANDSCAPE from my exhibition PIXEL CARTOGRAPHY, I play with the perception of objects to create multiple layers of meaning. Similarly, in the artwork SIMILARITY, I utilize perspective to craft a dreamlike scene where elements appear to blend and transform.

Emptiness within my work provides viewers with space for contemplation and relaxation. Monochrome hues serve as a form of color emptiness, while the sparse margins in my drawings allow different pieces to connect metaphorically, forming narratives that evolve across various drawings. Each drawing acts as a spatial, temporal, logical, and sensory module, akin to the interconnected narratives found in Borges' THE BOOK OF SAND, where the artwork forms a continuous, infinite loop without a clear beginning or end, resembling an everlasting computer game. For instance, the piece Palace exhibits margins reminiscent of book pages, hinting at continuity and context, evoking thoughts of Borges' novel, THE GARDEN OF FORKING PATHS.

Element Lee, Similarity, pixel drawing, 2024.

AM: You have just mentioned the title of your solo exhibition at EXPANDED.ART as PIXEL CARTOGRAPHY. We have engaged in extensive discussions regarding the selection of the title. Could you share your reasoning behind choosing PIXEL CARTOGRAPHY as the exhibition title?

EL: The concept of PIXEL CARTOGRAPHY involves the exploration and representation of various aspects through digital drawings. As a Chinese digital artist studying in Europe, I utilize my artwork to engage in profound aesthetic and philosophical contemplations that bridge the divide between East and West, digital and manual techniques, humanity and nature, tradition and the future, as well as the intersection of art and science.

This artistic style is an amalgamation of diverse influences, including classical Chinese ink painting, contemporary cartography, and video game culture.

Element Lee, Mathematical Landscape, pixel drawing, 2024.

AM: Living and working in Vienna, a city renowned for its rich history and numerous globally recognized museums and institutions, you are concurrently engaged in studying digital art under the guidance of UBERMORGEN, pioneers in net art. Does this juxtaposition of traditional and contemporary art worlds create a sense of cultural clash for you?

EL: My experience of studying in Europe represents a clash of cultures for me. Despite having some knowledge of Europe's history and cultural output, many aspects remained beyond imagination until I actually arrived here, particularly the differing mindsets and ideologies compared to my homeland. Vienna exudes a sense of refinement and comfort, yet within our university, there are avant-garde thinkers and groundbreaking art experiments taking place.

Previously, my approach to creating digital art was primarily instinctual, and I struggled to find like-minded individuals for discussions. However, under the mentorship of UBERMORGEN, specialists in net art and political art, as well as through courses such as yours on NFTs and the AI workshop led by the internationally well-known artist Kevin Abosch, I have been exposed to the diverse spectrum of the art world and its current trends. Themes such as postcolonialism, gender studies, and political art, which I had not delved into extensively before, have now become integral parts of my artistic exploration.

Everything in this new environment feels unfamiliar to me, yet as a digital artist, I sense a profound sense of belonging and familiarity.

AM: Who are some of the artists that inspire your artistic practice, directly or indirectly?

EL: My artistic inspiration is rooted in two main sources. The first is classical Chinese artwork featuring gardens and architectural elements, while the second is the pixel art found in retro computer games. Growing up in China, I was exposed to both influences: one representing tradition and the past, and the other symbolizing digital innovation and the future. This juxtaposition not only stirs feelings of nostalgia but also ignites contemplation about what lies ahead.

Furthermore, these two influences can be viewed as familial inspirations. My uncle, a successful traditional Chinese ink painter, played a significant role in fostering an artistic environment within our family. Additionally, I was fortunate that my father owned a 486 computer during my childhood in the 90s. Computers were rare and expensive in China at the time, but the tech company he worked for provided him with one. I spent a considerable amount of time playing games like WOLFENSTEIN 3D and experimenting with software such as MS Paint and Coreldraw.

AM: I recently visited Shanghai and decided to explore an arcade where I indulged in playing 90s computer games. Despite the convenience of having everything accessible on our mobile devices at any given moment, the arcade was bustling with people.

Computer games from the 90s serve as a significant source of inspiration for digital artists like Jon Rafman, Jonas Lund, Cal Fei, and Lu Yang. What aspects of 90s computer games captivate you the most?

EL: Computer games from the 1990s featured stylized graphics and innovative techniques that allowed for the creation of expansive worlds using limited resources. While these styles were prevalent for approximately a decade, they were swiftly replaced by more modern, fast-paced graphics. However, there are still many unexplored possibilities that have not been fully integrated with contemporary ideas, which could be a significant factor driving nostalgia artists to revive these older styles.

Ancient aesthetics can be viewed as a form of hyper-nostalgia, akin to the connection with classical Chinese arts. In traditional Chinese artworks, emphasis was placed on concepts such as emptiness, harmony, nature, minimalism, and zen. These artworks aimed to construct ideal worlds in which viewers could immerse themselves and reside. The same principles were reflected in gardens and architecture, with gardens serving as important mediums for preserving ideals related to life and aesthetics. Most ink paintings were characterized by simplicity, utilizing only ink as the primary pigment. By varying the amount of water and the brush angle, artists were able to create infinite possibilities from the simplest of forms, akin to drawings rather than traditional paintings.

This same approach is evident in pixel art, where the artist revels in using an extremely limited color palette to create artwork, with some pieces consisting of just two colors in a binary or 1-bit pixel art style. For instance, in the artwork COSMIC BLACK BOX, a 1-bit Macintosh aesthetic is employed to illustrate the transformative relationship between particles at the micro-world level and the vast cosmic system scale.

Element Lee, Cosmic Black Box, pixel drawing, 2024.

AM: Could you share some insights about your hometown and how it has impacted you as an artist?

EL: The city I come from may not have gained as much international recognition as Beijing. However, it holds significant historical importance as the first capital of China's first dynasty, dating back 4000 years. This city is the birthplace of Kung Fu and is home to the renowned Shaolin Temple. Additionally, it boasts Songshan Mountain, one of the most revered mountains in Chinese culture.

In Chinese traditional beliefs, mountains and bodies of water are revered as deities and are considered the nurturers and guardians of all living beings. In stark contrast to Western naming conventions, where locations are often named after individuals, in Chinese culture, people and dynasties are often named after geographical features. The transient nature of human existence, in contrast to the eternal presence of nature, has deeply influenced Chinese art, with a predominant focus on depictions of mountains and bodies of water. These cultural beliefs and artistic themes have also played a significant role in shaping my own artistic expression.

AM: Thank you for sharing your thoughts and ideas with us!