Zongbo Jiang On Using Digital Art To Fight Climate Change

by Christina Donoghue on 15 May 2023

Imagine a world where Hieronymus Bosch characters take on real-life forms that explore the potential of climate change on us all. Thanks to Sarabande artist Zongbo Jiang, imagine no more; his digital art is living proof alternate worlds may be the saviour humanity is looking for.

Imagine a world where Hieronymus Bosch characters take on real-life forms that explore the potential of climate change on us all. Thanks to Sarabande artist Zongbo Jiang, imagine no more; his digital art is living proof alternate worlds may be the saviour humanity is looking for.

Sarabande artist Zongbo Jiang’s work knows little, if any boundaries. Dissatisfied with humanity’s response towards the ever-looming climate crisis, Jiang’s artistic endeavours seek to create complex alternate worlds exploring the effects of climate change on the absurd yet comedic characters he has created to fit his vision. These larger than-life, futuristic interpretations are akin to Hieronymus Bosch depictions of the natural world. Only, instead of mastering the medium of oil painting, digital coding and programming are the systems that make up Jiang’s universe.

Acting as a wake up call for planet Earth, there’s a darker side to Jiang’s interpretations that real life humans are yet to experience, however, the warning is there and it’s flashing red, mirroring the IPCC 'code red for humanity' report we’ve all read about. Despite the pessimistic undertones associated with creating such a unique body of work, Jiang’s motives are instead rooted in positive affirmations, making him the exact opposite. With a philosophy more akin to sculpture and storytelling rather than a consumed doom and gloom, Jiang isn’t looking to scare, merely to make it known how little time left we have to act, working with our planet, rather than against it.

Debuting his latest work Climate Heroes at Sarabande Foundation last month, we caught up with Jiang to find out more about his activist-rooted work and why his dystopian visions may not seem that dystopian after all.

I consider myself an Earthling, and my practice is visual activism - Zongbo Jiang
'Climate Heroes', Zongbo Jiang

Christina Donoghue: When did you start realising the potential of digital design? Particularly within the context of constructing your own narrative?

Zongbo Jiang: I have a background in graphic and digital design and I have always used these as a tool for constructing my own narratives since I began designing. When studying Fashion at the Royal College of Art I began to develop my design philosophy which focuses on sculpting narratives that centre around creating digital characters and virtual spaces that address important issues and initiate conversations.

CD: I've read that you choose to identify with the label ‘political activist’ over 'visual artist'. Please can you talk a bit about why this label is important to you and what it means to be a political activist in the Zongbo Jiang world?

ZJ: I would classify myself as a visual activist rather than a political activist, I think that this label is important as I see my practice to be visual activism, I focus on addressing social and environmental issues, such as mental health, animal rights, and the environment. I think exploring these issues in my world is to highlight them in an alternative way using strange characters and vibrant virtual worlds to show them in a different light.

'Climate Heroes', Zongbo Jiang
Film sews together the different sculptural pieces and creates a narrative that guides viewers through this virtual world - Zongbo Jiang

CD: Your work has a very unique visual aesthetic, particularly pertaining to the characters you create. Can you list any inspirations that have led to you cultivating this vision?

ZJ: My creative process is shaped by a multitude of inspirations. One of my most significant influences is the work of Hieronymus Bosch, their surreal and otherworldly paintings have been a big inspiration in how I sculpt my characters and the worlds they sit in. In particular, his work The Garden of Earthly Delights has inspired me to explore the intersection of reality and imagination, and to create characters that blur the lines between the two. I also draw inspiration from the natural world around me, but I want to create something new and unexpected, and to explore the limitless possibilities of the digital medium. I think by using humor in my work I strive to imbue each of my characters with a sense of whimsy and playfulness. By exaggerating the features and behaviors of animals and humans alike, I create characters that are both familiar and fantastical.

CD: What programs/systems do you use to create your work? Have you considered to / do you use AI?

ZJ: I use multiple softwares to create my work; I use Zbrush & DAZ for my Character design, CLO3d for garment design, and Cinema 4D for animation. I am excited to see how AI can be used to create new and innovative forms of digital art. That being said, I do want to keep my processes and continue to use my visual language, but maybe in the future, AI could be part of my work in progress or maquettes but I wouldn’t want it to take over part or all my process. Another way I am incorporating AI into my art practice is by using it to analyse and process data related to the social and environmental issues that inspire my work. For example, I use natural language processing algorithms to analyze news articles or social media posts related to mental health or animal rights and use the insights I gain to inform the themes and narratives of my work.

'Climate Heroes', Zongbo Jiang

CD: Your final result for this piece of work is a short film. Why did you choose to showcase your sculptural work in this medium?

ZJ: I think that I chose to create a short film showcasing sculptural work in the exhibition Climate Heroes in order to create a cohesive and impactful experience that engages viewers with the urgent issue of the climate emergency. I think that the film sews together the different sculptural pieces and creates a narrative that guides viewers through this virtual world. The projection highlights the interactive and immersive aspects of the exhibition, bringing people into this world, being surrounded by the soundscapes and the large hanging prints of the digital characters.

CD: What do you want people to take away from your work? What would you say your message is?

ZJ: I consider myself an earthling, and my practice is visual activism. Through focusing on issues such as animal rights, and the environment, I think the main goal is to offer an alternative digital representation of the dilemmas within these areas. I hope that when people view my work it opens and continues conversations on how we can improve the way we all live on this planet as earthlings and provokes the changes needed to support that.

CD: Please can you expand on your interpretation of the word ‘Earthling’?

ZJ: The term 'Earthling' refers to someone who sees themselves as living being on Earth, rather than identifying with a particular nation, culture, or species. I would say referring to myself as an 'earthling' is a way of recognising our shared responsibility to care for the planet we all call home, and a call to action to work together to address the difficult environmental challenges we face.

'Climate Heroes', Zongbo Jiang

CD: How do you feel digital art can help with climate change?

ZJ: I think that digital art can provide a platform for exploring alternative futures and by creating interactive installations, simulations, or virtual reality experiences, we can offer glimpses into potential futures and invite people to engage with new ways of thinking about climate change. We can communicate the urgency of the climate crisis, inspire change and encourage individuals to take action.

CD: Please can you speak about the main characters central to your work? The qualities they possess/ your research on them. Etc?

ZJ: As someone who is deeply concerned with issues related to the environment and climate change, I believe it's important to ground my work with data. In the creation of these digital characters, I have extensively researched the species they represent and the potential effects of climate change on those species and their ecosystems. By incorporating this data into my creative process, I am able to develop characters that are both visually striking and deeply grounded in scientific reality, helping to convey important messages about the urgent need to address the climate emergency.

CD: Is humour in your work important to you?

ZJ: Yes, I think that humour can be a powerful tool for engaging people and communicating more serious ideas in a more accessible and relatable way. I hope that the humour in my work makes important social or environmental issues more approachable, and encourages viewers to reflect on these issues in a different light. I would also say that humor is important as it plays a big role in how I approach storytelling, as well as engaging with audiences and conveying important ideas.

CD: What is it about Web3 that attracts you?

ZJ: I think that Web3 is an interesting and dynamic field that holds immense potential for establishing decentralised systems and enabling digital art to transcend the confines of conventional galleries and museums. It offers a unique platform for artists to showcase their work to a wider audience, thereby increasing awareness and facilitating change on a broader scale. As an artist, I see Web3 as a valuable opportunity to share my work and promote a deeper understanding of the issues I explore.

Zongbo Jiang



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