'Piying Dream' set to revive interest in Chinese shadow play

Wang Jie
The exhibition, "Piying (Chinese Shadow Play) Dream," features shadow puppets and classic ceramic and embroidery patterns and may pique interest in the historic folk art form.
Wang Jie
'Piying Dream' set to revive interest in Chinese shadow play

Piying (Chinese shadow play 皮影) was once a popular form of entertainment for the Chinese, but today it has almost disappeared from public view.

Shadow play is, in fact, a folk drama in which actors carry human, animal, or mythological figurines constructed of animal hides or paperboards that are mirrored on the curtain by the light. Strings are used for "performance," accompanied by the playing of drums.

Shadow play was inducted into the first batch of China's national intangible cultural heritage in 2006.

"Piying Dream," a digital immersive installation, is set to revive the old art genre at North Bund Greenery.

The exhibition, running until the end of November, is composed entirely of Chinese shadow puppet imagery as well as classic ceramic and embroidery patterns.

It is presented by Temple of Light, in collaboration with Danny Rose Studio, a well-known creator of immersive spectacles with a global audience of over 3 million, and with a curatorial partnership from the Chinese Shadow Paly Folk Art Museum and Mashi Shadow Play Troupe.

Unlike standard digital animations, this immersive presentation is created entirely with shadow puppets.

"Piying Dream" attempts to bring a two-millennium-old tradition into the modern digital era by using over 3,000 ultra-high-resolution photos of original shadow puppets and animations of real performances.

To achieve realism, the team reached out to the Mashi Shadow Play Troupe to capture the complex movements of shadow puppet actors using blue screen animation.

"The digital immersive format, combined with innovative animation and set design, will generate interest among children and young people in learning about the artistry of Chinese shadow play," said Qiu Yelin, the exhibition's co-producer and curator.

'Piying Dream' set to revive interest in Chinese shadow play
'Piying Dream' set to revive interest in Chinese shadow play

Qiu has over a decade of experience in art and commerce, including curating best-selling exhibitions at the world's leading auction house, Sotheby's.

He joined the Temple of Light at the inception of the current exhibition and played a crucial role in the curation of visual materials and the formation of partnerships with artists.

He spoke exclusively to Shanghai Daily on digital art and the revival of Chinese shadow play in the modern era.

Q: Why did your team choose Chinese shadow play as the theme for this digital art exhibition?

We've always wanted to bring traditional Chinese art to a digital "stage." We've scoured the vast reservoir of Chinese culture for the most suitable art form that translates well to the immersive medium.

When we discovered Chinese shadow play, we knew it's the one because it is one of the earliest light-and-shadow art forms. In fact, the immersive medium employing cutting-edge projection technology follows the same artistic tradition of manipulating light and shadow.

Q: What advantages does the Chinese shadow play have when transformed into digital form?

We believe that the high-quality digitalization of original shadow puppets will play an important role in the preservation and promotion of this millennia-old art form. The larger-than-life format will also enlarge the shadow figures' details, allowing for a closer examination of their craftsmanship.

A digital database of this folk art, which is typically passed down through fragmented and informal regional troupes and families, will benefit both researchers and practitioners.

Q: How long did the project take? What's the biggest challenge?

The artwork was created over the course of a year by a team of nearly 100 people from China, France, Italy, and other countries.

The collection of this enormous amount of source material posed one of the greatest challenges for the team. Although well-known, the art form of shadow play is becoming increasingly obsolete among China's rapidly urbanizing population.

Shadow play collectors and practitioners are highly dispersed across families and regions. Consequently, it's practically impossible to locate enough shadow puppets that adequately represented the variety and depth of the art.

We were fortunate to have discovered the Chinese Shadow Play Folk Art Museum and the Mashi Shadow Play Troupe (comprising six generations of shadow play performing families), which provided us with access to tens of thousands of shadow puppets from the Ming Dynasty (1368-1644) to the present day.

Q: As digital art exhibitions become trendy, how would this initiative differentiate itself from the competition?

Noteworthy is the diverse composition of the Temple of Light creative team, which consists of nearly a hundred people from countries such as China, France and Italy.

This multidisciplinary team's expertise extends to digital technology, immersive exhibitions, film and music. It exemplifies the most extensive and internationally oriented effort to preserve and innovate the art of Chinese shadow play. It is a genuinely global production for a global audience while remaining faithful to the shadow play's artistic integrity.

The intricate animation and set designs are completely original, and every sound and piece of music was composed specifically for the production.

Q: What message does this endeavor convey to visitors?

The first message we wish to convey through this work is that Chinese shadow play is a cultural treasure that we should all be proud of because it is a beautiful and vibrant art history.

Another message is that the immersive digital art form has immense potential for reviving public interest in traditional or forgotten cultural heritage and other significant works of art.

Q: The exhibition is divided into several sections. How do they relate to each other?

It is the dreamscape of a primordial China.

In the first chapter, we enter this fantasy world through a bustling and peaceful village. In the second chapter, we stroll along the village street to the palace, where officials and bureaucrats greet the monarch. In the third chapter, youthful couples dance at the royal court. In the fourth chapter, guests from all over the world arrive to greet the king, bringing festivities and bounties. In the fifth chapter, we descend into pandemonium as a result of malevolent forces from foreign lands. In chapter six, palace soldiers and adversaries engage in enthralling sword and spear battles. The heavenly brigade comes to the rescue in chapter seven. In the final chapter, harmony is restored, and goddesses dance joyfully in the sky.

Q: Please use three words to describe the show.

A: Dazzling, imaginative, and groundbreaking.

Exhibit Info:

Date: Through November 30

Venue: North Bund Greenery

Address: 598 Dongdaming Road, Hongkou District

虹口区东大名路598号

Ticketing info:

1. Follow Temple of Light WeChat account to purchase tickets.

2. Tickets are also available on Moyan, Damai, 247 platforms.

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