Why are Chinese millennials in love with made-for-Instagram exhibitions?

As the editor of Art Market Journal, I find that covering new art exhibitions in Shanghai is becoming a difficult task. This is not because there aren't enough exhibitions but because of the kinds of exhibitions available.

Scrolling down the art exhibition list on Damai, the major online platform for exhibitions tickets in China, I see: Wonderland Apartment: Instagrammers' stereoscopic photography exhibition (When does Instagram become stereoscopic?), Infinity Dream: Multimedia Interactive Art Exhibition (Is it just another copy of Kusama Yayoi's Infinity Mirrors?), Gallery Unicorn Star (Great, you know how to be an influencer.), etc.

Interactive, Insta-perfect and immersive are the keywords of these exhibitions. However, if you read the show guides, you'll only be left bewildered. Take Wonderland Apartment: Instagrammers' Stereoscopic Photography Show as an example." This is an exhibition about more than taking pictures. We'll explore our daily life and aesthetic in a digital age." Nevertheless, what presented on the photosare just bathtubs filled with ocean balls, living rooms with balloons and pink neon lights and projections of pictures of seas and forests.



Wonderland Apartment: Instagrammers' Stereoscopic Photography Show

In recent years, made-for-Instagram exhibitions like Wonderland Apartment: Instagrammers' Stereoscopic Photography Show are becoming popular. Jia Bu, the author of Times of Feature Exhibitions says: "Exhibitions that feature beautiful settings are extremely popular in 2018. Most of them are entertaining yet void of meaning. You are not required for any academic knowledge. You just need a camera."

Ms Jia defines these exhibitions as cultural and creative feature exhibition. According to the Report of Shanghai Cultural and Creative Feature Exhibition, in the first three quarters of 2018, there were more than 225 cultural and creative feature exhibitions in Shanghai, a 12% growth from 2017. The ticket sale for these kinds of exhibitions increased 280% and the ticket income increased 248% in 2018.

The rapid growth of these made-for-Instagram exhibitions indicates a growing need for validation from an audience.This appears to be especially the case for the millennials. Ms Jia says: "The audience is young. Their purpose of visiting the exhibitions is to socialise."


▲ The research Shan Feng is explaining cultural and creative feature exhibition in Shanghai

For many Chinese millennials, especially those in big cities, showcasing their lifestyle is important when socialising with others. Going to art exhibitions is a good way of doing that. Nevertheless, lacking the ability to appreciate art may prevent them from truly enjoying art at traditional exhibitions. Made-for-Instagram shows not only make them confident that they can understand aesthetics, but also taking photos at these exhibitions to post on social media enables them to show off their taste and lifestyle. The only harm is that these exhibitions change what is meant to be art into a lack of meaning.

The millennials in China are special. They grew up during China's dramatic economic boom. The GDP in China grew nearly 18,000%, from 45 trillion yuan (about $ 66bn) in 1980 to 8,271 trillion (about $ 118tn) yuan in 2017. People born in the 90s, like myself, grew up with Pokemon iPhones and 5G soon. This generation is not satisfied with the simple life lived by our parents and those before them. They desire a lifestyle, and in some ways, a "materialistic" one that based on social media and internet.

Art is a great way for some people to display what they have and showcase the "materialistic" lifestyle as art is often identified with wealth and class. Yet the lack of art education means many can't say anything about it at all.


▲ Young people posting made-for-Instagram exhibitions on Xiao Hongshu, the Chinese version of Instagram

In an essay called "On the Problems in Chinese Art Education and the Way Out", Yue Youxi pointed out that the art education in 2009 (when millennials were in middle or high school) was marginalised. "The teachers, teaching conditions, teaching hours and so on of art education curriculum have not often in a state of atrophy. The art education in most schools is basically still in spontaneous 'art activity' level, and some even think art education is the extra-curricular activities, and the art education has not really gone into the curriculum."

Yet the root to the problems, according to Ms Yue, is that "Chinese education system impedes the development of art education". "The main way of selecting talents has been the 'test' system." For many of us from the 90s can still vividly recall maths teachers grabbing classes from art teachers and forcing students to do exam practice.Driven entirely by grades and test scores, our school systemhas disregarded the arts.

When millennial finally escape the "test" system and are able to attend art exhibitions, they are faced with a level of uneasiness. On one hand, they desire a taste of good art that they can enjoy; on the other hand, they haven't been taught much about art to begin with.

And then comes the "hero" cultural and creative feature exhibition. You don't need to know anything about Da Vinci or Picasso. As long as you have a good camera or phone, you can still enjoy the aesthetics from the exhibitions. Moreover, you can interact with and be part of the artistic experience through taking "Insta-perfect" photos and posting "Insta-perfect" photos of exhibitions on social media to show off.

Neil Postman wrote in his book Amusing Ourselves to Death: "They no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images." That is what Chinese millennials are experiencing now. To change this distant form of Insta-perfect that lacks meaning into one that is meaningful and lasting, we need to add art classes to the curriculum and learn to truly appreciate the arts.