At the intersection of rebellion and introspection, where everyday objects undergo metamorphoses to become the subjects of deep cultural critique, stands artist Rong Bao. Freshly graduated from the Royal College of Art in London with an MA in Sculpture, this China-born creator has already embarked on a promising journey that defies artistic conventions. Her early accolades include a Distinguished Scholarship and a BFA from the School of the Art Institute of Chicago. Rong’s work—often a curious blend of material transformations—questions the micro-powers that subtly dictate our daily lives. As she reimagines the functions and forms of the mundane, she opens up a dialogue that spans across continents, galleries, and academic halls. In this feature, we will navigate the labyrinthine world of Rong Bao, an artist who is not just breaking barriers but also reconstructing the artistic and social landscapes around her.
Image Courtesy of Bao Rong | Instagram: @rongbaobaobao
Q: Your art often challenges conventional norms and expectations by turning objects upside down, altering their properties, and defying their original functions. What drives you to subvert the ordinary, and how do you hope viewers will question their preconceived notions through your work?
What drives me to subvert? It's hard to pinpoint a specific thing that drives me, I feel like I just naturally want to be subversive. This is rooted in my upbringing. My parents always encouraged independent thought and questioning authority, which was a stark contrast to the suppressive tendencies I encountered in the Chinese education system. These experiences collectively fueled my desire to be disruptive in my work. When I encounter anything conventional, my instinct is to flip it and see how it could be different. In my view, art should contribute new experiences to human civilization, no matter how minor they may be. If it's different from what we know, it's worthwhile.
Because of my subversive nature, my work is infused with a pursuit of challenging established ideas, exploring various possibilities, and viewing issues from multiple perspectives. My aim is to disrupt people's preconceived notions and make them re-evaluate their worldviews, offering a fresh lens through which to understand the everyday.
Q: Within 'The Enigma' sculpture, the convergence of transparent white outer layer and pink inner tubes, along with the dynamic movement of the yellow ropes, creates a captivating sense of life and energy. Can you delve deeper into the symbolism of these design choices? How do they contribute to your exploration of life's complexity and the tension between the organic and artificial?
In "Enigma" I use a variety of visual and morphological elements to draw out a profound idea of life and energy. The intersection of the transparent white outer layer with the pink inner tube and the dynamic movement of the yellow rope are carefully thought-out design choices.
The original idea was to place a small car inside the sculpture's tube and have it move back and forth through the tube, creating the illusion that there seems to be a life force inside the sculpture, trying to escape. This dynamic design not only enlivens and multidimensionalizes the entire sculpture but also provides a metaphor for the inability of life to escape its fateful ring. The Möbius loop design emphasizes this predicament, suggesting a never-ending cycle, like a universe without an end.
The overall shape of the design is pink, meant to mimic an organ-like unidentified mass, an unknown mass of flesh, like a uterus, a nest, and entangled intestines or blood vessels.
The organ-like form of the work, The Enigma, 350x330x350cm, PVC fabric and tube, 2023
The whole design is inspired by the air model architecture of the last century, through which I want to challenge people's traditional perception of life and existence. The tentacles of the fleshy mass swing back and forth across the floor, further reinforcing the energy and dynamism of the piece.
Overall, these design choices help me to explore the complexity of life and the tension between the organic and the artificial, the static and the dynamic. Together, they give the work the ability to transcend everyday perceptions and trigger deeper thinking. It is my hope that viewers will be able to reassess their preconceived notions of life and existence through these visual and conceptual interweavings.
The Enigma, 350x330x350cm, PVC fabric and tube, 2023
Q: The element of repetition is evident in several of your pieces, like "Infinite Circumnavigation" and "Futile Ascent." How does this repetitive motif represent the human experience, and what emotions or thoughts do you intend to evoke in your audience through these themes?
I believe that human life is absurd, meaningless, and futile. Everything mankind creates is absurd, repetitive, and static, week after week. Through the element of repetition in my work, I aim to provoke reflection in the viewer about time, fate, and the human quest for meaning. Does it really make sense for one to rise early and go to work every day, to be punctual, and to repeat the same tasks endlessly? I love Albert Camus's book "The Myth of Sisyphus; each of us is a Sisyphus, eternally pushing the rock up the hill.
While we may gain insight into the absurdity and meaninglessness of life, the crucial question remains: What then? What should we do? How should we respond to this absurdity and lack of meaning? How should we live our lives?
The cyclical nature and endless repetition of life are not meaningless trajectories but rather mirrors revealing the true state of humanity. This is evident not only in the routines we go through day after day, year after year, but also in our unending search for destiny, meaning, and purpose. Through works like "The Infinite Circle" and "The Vain Ascent," I intend to prompt deeper reflections on the philosophy of existentialism in the viewer.
Life is an absurdity—an unsolvable paradox composed of man's relentless quest for meaning and the universe's indifference to that quest. Yet, upon realizing this absurdity, we are not helpless. Three possible paths lie before us: physical suicide, philosophical suicide, and revolt.
The first option, physical suicide, is an escape from the paradox of existence and a surrender to life's absurdity. The second, philosophical suicide, involves constructing transcendental meaning for life through faith or philosophical concepts. However, this too is a form of escapism, as it merely shifts the gaze from reality to fantasy.
Lastly, there is resistance—an act of acknowledging life's absurdity while choosing to courageously confront it. It is precisely because life lacks inherent meaning that we have a duty to infuse it with meaning. Resistance is not only an awareness but also an action—an engagement with each moment as it presents itself. It's a rejection of passive acceptance of fate and being solely driven by social and cultural values.
In my works, I aim to make viewers confront not just their own existence but the existence of the entire human community through the medium of art. I hope my works can serve as a starting point for people to explore and practice the concept of resistance, guiding them to question, reflect, and ultimately act to give their lives meaning on both an individual and social level. Along the way, the audience will be prompted to think: If life is a theater of absurdity, what role are they willing to play? How are they willing to resist?
Futile Ascent, metal machine, paper box, glass, 150x50x100cm, 2023
Q: Humor seems to be an integral part of your artistic expression, adding a touch of playfulness to thought-provoking concepts. How do you strike a balance between humor and the serious underlying themes in your works, and how do you envision humor as a potent tool for engaging viewers with complex ideas?
As I mentioned earlier, I see absurdity as the underlying tone of life. However, I choose to tackle this with humor. If everything is inherently meaningless, why not shrug it off with a lighthearted jest? Humor serves as a disarming tactic that makes people more receptive to heavier themes.
As an artist, my chosen medium of expression doesn't align with rigorous academic argumentation. If I were to express complex and serious intellectual themes using formal logic, I would essentially be functioning as a philosopher rather than an artist.
To be frank, many artists falter when they try to incorporate philosophical theories into their work. Some resort to name-drop famous philosophers in an attempt to give their work an aura of profundity, but this is merely a pretentious crutch - a sign that they lack confidence in their own art. They think they can deceive others by cloaking their work in philosophical jargon, but I believe this only highlights their poor control over their art and their deep-seated insecurities.
I'm not claiming to have an extensive understanding of philosophy—I'm the first to admit that I find much of it incomprehensible. My grasp is, at best, superficial. In light of that, I aim to employ succinct language and more accessible methods, such as humor, to engage with topics I find valuable and meaningful.
Humor is not just a part of my personality; it's also a strategic tool I use to engage my audience. It softens the weight of heavy topics, making them as easy to digest as a sip of water, rather than being confrontational. This approach makes my audience more open to contemplating and absorbing the ideas presented in my work.
Good Luck, wood, arduino, speaker, 200x200x40cm, 2022
Q: Your artwork often requires active participation from the audience, making them integral to the completion of the piece. In what ways does audience interaction influence the final form and impact of your art, and how do you handle unexpected responses or interpretations from viewers?
The viewers are not just consumers or interpreters, they are my collaborators who interact with my work and make it more vivid and complex. What I offer is not just a static object fixed on the ground or hung on the wall, but a living "field", a real art experience that is only completed with the participation of the audience.
I focus on the interplay between the space and the viewer's body because I believe that this experiential aspect is the key to promoting people to think deeply about the work. Anything the viewer does in this field-whether expected or unexpected-is part of my work. Their reactions and interpretations give the work additional dimensions and make it a continuously evolving entity.
I recognize that, as an artist, I am the rule-maker of this particular "field," but that doesn't mean that I have preconceived expectations of the audience's response. Instead, I encourage the audience to challenge, redefine, or even completely change the "rules" I set. Whenever an unexpected reaction or interpretation occurs, it not only broadens the boundaries of my work but also reinforces its multiple layers and complexity.
Art to me is not a one-way street, but a conversation, an exchange, even a collaboration. One of the purposes of creating my work is to stimulate this dialog and exchange, and audience participation not only enriches this process but also makes it possible. This is why I emphasize the importance of audience engagement - because it is only through this kind of participation that my art can truly reach its highest potential.
Audience Interaction with the work, Good Luck
Q: You mentioned that your art is universal and abstract, allowing it to resonate with a broader audience. Could you delve into how you achieve this universality while still infusing your work with your unique cultural background and experiences?
Universality and abstraction are key elements, but this does not mean that individual experiences and cultural contexts are ignored or erased. In fact, I do not think it is a matter of either/or between the two. On the contrary, they can coexist harmoniously and, to a certain extent, are even mutually reinforcing.
I am convinced that art is first and foremost a form of human expression, and as such, it should respond to universal issues and themes of human nature. By doing so, it can transcend cultural and geographical boundaries, resonating with a broader audience. This universality not only breaks the distance between the viewer and the work, but also motivates the viewer to think, feel, and even act.
However, I don't think this means that personal or culture-specific elements should be completely avoided. My personal upbringing and cultural background have all influenced my artistic creation to some extent, and I have never shied away from this. But the key is how to deal with these elements so that they not only add depth to the work but also don't prevent the work from having universal value. I try not to let these personal or cultural elements appear in a literal or direct way but rather integrate them skillfully into the inner structure and emotional expression of the work.
In this process, my cultural background and personal experience are like a kind of implicit "seasoning", which gives my works a specific texture and atmosphere but does not make them isolated or narrow. In this way, the viewer can feel my personal views and emotions in the work, but also find resonance and revelation within a larger framework.
In short, my artwork aims to establish a balance where universality and individuality coexist and reinforce each other. I hope that my works not only touch individual hearts but also respond to common human emotions and problems, thus realizing a more comprehensive and profound artistic expression.
Q: Your work often reflects a sense of deviance and a desire to challenge authority. How do you view the role of art in questioning power structures and contributing to broader social or political discussions?
Art has the power to challenge and question established power structures, providing a means for people to express themselves and communicate. Sometimes, it can even catalyze change. However, I am skeptical of art being a catalyst for political change. I don't believe art should be reduced to a mere political tool; it may serve a similar purpose, but when it becomes indistinguishable from political propaganda, the line blurs.
Let me make one thing clear: Art should not become a puppet of politics. When art is used as a tool for political propaganda, it loses its true power—the power to inspire critical thinking and self-awareness. I'm not suggesting that art should avoid engaging with social or political issues. On the contrary, I believe artists have a responsibility to delve deeply into these matters.
However, this exploration should be more profound, nuanced, and comprehensive than merely taking a specific political stance or becoming a mouthpiece for a particular group. The strength of art lies in its resistance to simplification, its refusal to serve as a mouthpiece for any single perspective or force.
In my creations, I aim to provoke thought and inquiry while embracing complexity, diversity, and openness. This is because I believe that only in this manner can art truly fulfill its role as a force that can resonate with people, challenge institutions, and incite genuine change.
Of course, let me reiterate that triggering change should not be the sole purpose of art. Art should not be judged solely on its capacity to provoke change. We must be mindful of the points I mentioned earlier to avoid narrow-mindedness, extremism, and the risk of being co-opted or having unintended consequences.
Rong Bao's Walk Home Project, video, 44 mins, 2023
From the outbreak of the epidemic in 2020 until the end of 2023, Bao Rong was unable to return home once during the three years she lived abroad due to national control policies and flight restrictions. In this work, Bao Rong uses Google Maps and Baidu Maps Street View images to walk from her home in London to her home in Beijing.
Q: Can you walk us through your overall process for your series of work, Alien Rhapsody?
"Alien Rhapsody" is not only a series of works, but also an exploration and deconstruction of the unknown universe and alien life. The project follows on from my previous work "Enigma" but is more complex. It began with the concept of a hanging sculpture, which I had to place on the ground due to various constraints (financial, space, technical), but this constraint became a catalyst for my creativity.
For the colors, I went bold with highly saturated fluorescent colors, partly inspired by the Chinese sub-culture. The pink is particularly striking, not just as a Barbie or feminine color, but as a symbol of life and energy.
The sculpture of a "breathing" jellyfish is actually an artistic deconstruction of an Asian cactus, the Xi Zhi Ye, also known as "Tephrocactus geometricus". Through programming and circuitry, I made the jellyfish form "breathe" before the viewer's eyes, as if it were alive. A stinging monster is trapped inside. With each breath, its stinger cuts through the envelope. Surrounded by smaller ones that you can immediately recognize as its children, together they form an ecosystem of restlessness.
The process of making this series was challenging. From programming to circuit design, I had to learn a lot of things that I had never done before. For example, writing control boards and programs, controlling the start-up and shut-down of the fan to simulate breathing, and so on. It was all a form of experimentation and exploration.
This whole series of works uses the most common cheap plastic products of human beings by re-forming them into a new set of ecology, trying to break the tradition and challenge the viewer's established perception of reality, life and the universe. I want to emphasize that human beings are not the center of the universe. We should view our own place in the universe from a more humble and holistic perspective.
Finally, the perishable nature of the work such as when an inflatable work begins to leak-actually becomes a commentary on the work itself. It reminds us that life and existence are fragile and need to be treated with more care and respect.
Alien Rhapsody, mixed media, 120x120x250cm, 2023
Q: As an artist who values being different, how do you balance the desire for individuality with the art world's ever-changing trends and expectations? How do you stay true to your artistic vision while navigating the demands of the contemporary art scene?
That's a great question, but I can't answer that question right now. I think it's a question that will stay with me throughout my artistic career. I think it's more important to stick to your own personality and artistic ideals. This way, you can maintain 100% passion and confidence in what you're doing. Only when you genuinely believe that what you're doing aligns with your desires can you give it your all. All those who follow the trend will eventually be devoured by the times. Of course, it is not unimportant to fulfill the needs of contemporary art, after all, artists have to make a living too. If I were to attempt an answer to this question, I would strive to maintain my unique style and beliefs while also staying attuned to art world trends. The key is to strike a balance, retaining individuality without losing touch with the times.
Q: What is your plan for the near future? Are there any new themes or concepts you are excited to explore in your upcoming projects?
Recent projects have provided me with an excellent opportunity to explore the interactions between humans and the natural world, and in particular between artificial intelligence and the natural world. Artificial Intelligence is gradually infiltrating our daily lives, and I think this provides a unique perspective to re-examine the relationship between humans and nature.
I find that I can always easily become interested in all kinds of new things, and this is reflected in my creative process. For example, I've recently become obsessed with small appliances - sweeping robots and pet toy balls catch my eye. These seemingly everyday objects actually provide me with a unique way to explore my interactions with the natural world.
I've also developed a strong interest in a variety of children's toys. Children's toys often present or explain complex natural phenomena in a simple and direct way, which has become another way for me to explore the relationship between humans and nature. In short, my creative process is like a constant game of playing with toys.
In my upcoming projects, I plan to place these "toys" and "appliances" into a new context. Specifically, I will utilize them to create a visual effect that is similar to my previous project, Alien Rhapsody. I want to continue to explore visual representations of grotesque and psychedelic creatures that echo my earlier work.
It's going to be a challenge from a technical and thematic standpoint. But I'm very excited about what I'm about to face. Through this project, I hope to continue to challenge and expand traditional definitions of "natural" and "artificial", while also pushing my own art to new heights.
Overall, this new project not only gives me the opportunity to further investigate a subject that I have always been interested in, but it also provides me with a new platform to explore and present my ever-changing perceptions and feelings about the world.