When we imagine the impending robo-apocalypse, the day when the machines finally rise up to enslave the human race, we largely think of violence, nuclear wastelands and those big towers that shoot blue lightning bolts. But inside the Lisson Gallery, humanity is being tossed aside in a much more pleasant way.
Chinese artist Liu Xiaodong has created a painting robot that is in the process of depicting Trafalgar Square in deep, dark blues. The visual information is transmitted to it from a live feed of the square. The robot paints the constantly moving shapes of dithering tourists as blurry masses, the fleeting passing of clouds as juddering droplets. All around hang its previous canvases: visions of Beijing, Karlsruhe and Düsseldorf. Monochromatic digital vistas. They’re serene, placid and quite beautiful. Time to chuck out your Constables and Turners.
The forms created by the robot are deeply unnatural. The clouds, for example, are painted in a way no human has ever attempted, like lines of Arabic script with no sense of calligraphy, or the characters of a digital alien alphabet. But the robot is beautiful to watch, its motors singing a microtonal chorale in its long, graceful performance.
In the last room, Xiaodong has hung a hand-painted canvas depicting the scene of the 1980 student protests in Korea. A figure lies face down on the paving stones, blood red clouds hang overhead. Next to that work is a robot painting of the same square. Can an AI ever come close to the pain captured by a human? Maybe it’s because the man-made work isn’t very good, but the swirling brutality of the robot painting feels considerably darker and more affecting.
Throughout, what Xiaodong has done is communicate digital information in an approachable way. He’s showing us the bare mathematics of what we are. It’s a cold, harsh look at humanity, at us as a population. From the outside, the seething mass of bodies that visit Trafalgar Square becomes a swarming, dark, faceless blob. Months’ worth of human movement is caught and condensed into shadow. It's kind of terrifying in its anonymity, sending a shiver through your body like the one you get when you stare at the stars and realise that you're barely a blip in history
Ironically, by creating something so entirely artificial, he’s managed to make humanity a little bit more understandable. By showing us how we look from the outside, he fills you with realisations about how you feel on the inside. The apocalypse might mean the end of us all, but at least we'll get some nice art out of it.