UNSW Art & Design presents at 4A: ‘Memes, Myth and Meaning in 21st Century Chinese Visual Culture’

SYDNEY. 18 JULY, 2019, 6.00 – 8.00PM  Register here.

Dr. Justine Poplin (Victoria University Melbourne)

Moderator: Dr. Yu-Chieh Li (UNSW Art & Design)

With the expansion of our social networks and access to information through freely available online sources, the internet can provide an inspiring and highly educational method of working, communicating and researching. Yet not all people have unfettered connection to the global community as mediated through online sources, but instead are constrained by online and offline environments created by political entities.

This presentation outlines the background surrounding internet censorship in mainland China and explores significant expressions of identity through visual culture that proliferate despite censorship. Notwithstanding the restrictions on speech and expression of ideas that are divergent to the harmonious society, the online ecology lends itself to creative pathways to circumnavigate and attain information. The practice of using online visual metaphors is an alternative way to communicate to a like-minded community, simultaneously connecting to the subculture through codes, that were initially created to be read by people in that community. Focussing on the emergence of the Grass Mud Horse phenomenon in 2009, this particular symbol is used to explain how the internet can be driver for new forms of visual culture; outlining how, through online communities new heroic icons emerge. Poplin further claims that due to internet censorship, symbols are created by anonymous online users to circumnavigate the restrictions of internet censorship.

The discussion explores the capacity for understanding this contemporary and unique online visual phenomenon, also demonstrating how it manifests, drives and creates new forms of visual culture with a world spirit in mainland China and beyond. By giving examples of how creativity and online identities manifest and thrive through online communities using coded visual metaphors, the creation and use of the symbolism signifies an ideological departure from accepted and acknowledged Chinese values and belief systems through mimetic usage in art and design.

Presented by UNSW | Art & Design in partnership with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art.

Series organisers: Prof. Paul Gladston and Dr Yu-Chieh Li

Theorising and Historicising Contemporary Asian Art: Critical Reflections on the Social Contexts of Art in/from Asia

Aesthetics, Politics and Histories: The Social Context of Art AAANZ Conference 2018
December 5-7, 2018, School of Art, RMIT University, Melbourne, Australia

Panel Session:

Dr Michelle Antoinette, Monash University

Dr Justine Poplin, Victoria University Australia

Professor Paul Gladston, University of New South Wales

This panel proposes to explore the significances of theoretical and historical work for probing contemporary Asian art and its social contexts. This includes consideration of such work from within the academy, as well as within the work of art museums, galleries and other art institutional platforms. What use is theory to critically examining contemporary Asian art's aesthetics, politics and histories? What is the significance of an historical lens in informing and shaping aesthetic and social narratives of contemporary art in/from Asia? Rather than a specific focus on any one Asian country, this panel proposes a regional lens to examine critically, intersecting themes and issues of relevance in discussing contemporary Asian art. In particular, it reflects on the relevance of theory and history in articulating distinct aesthetic and social narratives for contemporary Asian art.

In exploring the ‘contemporary’ and ‘Asia’, the panel invites reflection on the diverse temporalities and social contexts of contemporary art. In this way, the panel session responds to this year's AAANZ theme especially by seeking to expand the discourse of visual arts in our region to include contemporary Asian art and museum perspectives. Particular attention will be paid to recent debates related to the term contemporaneity that have sought to extend critical legitimacy to experiences and representations of modernity divergent from those conventionally associated with western(ized) post-Enlightenment discourses. The panel will attempt to look beyond the becalming perspectivism of those debates towards the possibility of a critically dynamic contemporaneity located in productive interaction between differing cultural outlooks.  

Introducing Dr. Poplin

This week on the 7th August I was awarded a Doctoral Degree (PhD) for my thesis 'Cultural flows in the Digital and Beyond: the Potency of a Symbol in Mainland China' from Victoria University Melbourne, Australia. It has been a journey of resilience, patience, isolation, knowledge building and sheer determination. Now, to procure a secure & ongoing position in academia. 

Thesis Abstract

Cultural Flows in the Digital and Beyond: The Potency of a Symbol in Mainland China

In the twenty-first century, access to a fragmented global culture through online portals has created what Bauman (2011) calls a ‘liquid culture’.As screen-mediated ways of being grow and propagate through our art galleries, museums and online social media feeds, how are we to read this emergent visual grammar so that we can motivate, move or elevate our ways of knowing?

This thesis explores the symbolism created in mainland China in 2009 through an emergent and retained set of subversive symbols: the Grass Mud Horse lexicon in Chinese visual culture and beyond. To date, theorists have focused predominantly on internet memes, independent of other multimodal forms generated and transitioned from symbolic online internet memes to offline symbolic use in art and design. I investigate ways of deciphering and articulating these visual gestures through accessing cultural keys. I claim that the new symbolism generated as a result of internet censorship in mainland China demonstrates a generational and ideological shift; it does so through the creation and propagation of new visual grammar in twenty-first century China. To scaffold my claims, I explore an overview of historical changes in the visual articulation of Chinese culture. The use of Mao Zedong as a symbol in art and design clearly illustrates a shift from veneration to subversion. By exploring the symbolism in visual culture dating from 1912 to China’s digital age, this study reveals a transition that proposes a new heroic icon, the Grass Mud Horse.

The creation of this new symbolism has political relevance; it deploys practices and art forms to signal, dissolve and raise awareness of social and ideological change. This study maps the new symbolism to test the claim that over time, some symbols may lose potency, while others remain and reflect ideological shifts. The findings will be demonstrated through a synthesis of online digital ethnography, including semiotic and compositional interpretation, and incorporating multimodal discourse analysis. This study will challenge the Western perspective of Chinese stereotypes in visual culture by working with and interpreting visual cultural flows in the digital age.

“Liberating Technologies”: Digital Cultures of Protest in China

Digital Conversations Research Seminar: Arts and Cultural Management Program

“Liberating Technologies”: Digital Cultures of Protest in China

Dr Rachel Marsden (University of Melbourne) | Justine Poplin (Victoria University)
Curated by Dr Natalia Grincheva

Date: October 18, 2017 | Time: 12.30pm-1.30pm

Venue: Arts West, Digital Studio (Level 2), the University of Melbourne

How has the digital era changed the power dynamics between governments and publics? What happens beyond the Great Firewall of China? This seminar draws examples from the Occupy Movements and uprising Digital Memes sub culture to explore how cultures of protest in China manifest through “liberating technologies” of digital media.


12th International Conference on the Arts in Society Research Network:: American University of Paris,14-16 June 2017

Mapping the Meme in China: Online and Offline Signification

In the 21st century access to a fragmented culture through online portals has created a somewhat scattered heteronomy of visualities. The use of gesture in visual culture can be related to an action, a symbol, or solely for the image to have "an effect" on the audience. As these visual gestures grow and propagate through our art galleries, museums and online social media feeds, are we able to read this emergent visual grammar to motivate, move or elevate our ways of knowing? This paper explores symbolism created in Mainland China in 2009 - 2016 and investigates ways of articulating and deciphering these gestures through accessing cultural keys. The creation of the new symbolism is rooted in political relevance and deploys practices and art forms to signal, dissolve and raise awareness of social and ideological change.

The study maps the symbolism to test the claim that over time some symbols may loose potency. Findings will be related through a synthesis of semiotic/compositional interpretation and multimodal discourse analysis. The aim of the study is to deepen the Western perspective on Chinese stereotypes in visual culture by working with, and interpreting cultural flows in the digital age.

Keywords: Visual Culture, Internet Memes, Chinese Art

Stream: Special Theme 2017: Gestures that Matter 


Cultures of Knowledge: Creative Economy and China.

The Summer School + Conference is an initiative of the Digital China Lab. Both events are supported by the Centre for Culture and Technology (CCAT) and the School of Media Culture and Creative Arts (MCCA) at Curtin University.

Presented paper title:

Myth, meme and meaning: mapping the meme in China, online and offline signification


As a result of rapid digital innovation in recent years within the Chinese blogging community, a new generation of makers are creating and utilising traditional and digital visual cultural forms for extending communication values. This rise in sharing ideas online by amateur and or anonymous producers has invigorated the co-creation of new symbols; including memes, icons, artefacts and goods of desire. Online co-creation portals move knowledge faster than ever before, albeit the widespread censorship policies in Mainland China. The rise in this way of communicating signifies new ways of communicating creatively, reflecting how powerful the internet is in connecting people, ideas and community. Furthermore, the movement of new symbolism generated online now moves into broader visual culture realms offline, signifying that the internet is a driver for new forms of creative currency reflecting newfound ideologies in the digital age. This research paper examines and maps online co-creation, the dissemination and consumption of Chinese visual culture; including, new symbols/memes, online video and artefacts.

New Heroes, Ideological Shifts and Chinese Visual Culture
Justine Poplin

Poplin explores the hero and new symbolism in 21st century mainland China. Online social media culture is a testing ground for visual metaphors that represent changing tides in China in the digital age. Poplin argues that a new hero has risen from online collective co-creation.

E-Journal of the National Academy of Screen and Sound   ISSN 1833-0533

E-Journal of the National Academy of Screen and Sound
ISSN 1833-0533