The ongoing thoughts of an art teacher in China - and home in Sydney

A continuing diary about my travels in China, and thoughts about China and Chinese art from home and abroad

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Life, the universe and everything: a conversation with Shen Shaomin

Shen Shaomin, Laboratory, Three-headed Six-armed Superhuman, 2005, Bone, Bonemeal, Glass, Dimensions Variable, image courtesy the artist and White Rabbit Gallery
My interview with the very wonderful Shen Shaomin was published this week on The Culture Trip
Having been intrigued by his work since first seeing his tortured bonsai installations in the 2010 Biennale of Sydney, then sculptures made of bone and bone-meal in the 'Zhongjian' exhibition in 2011 and the White Rabbit Gallery more recently, I was keen to visit his studio in Qiaozi Town, in the countryside outside Beijing. Together with 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art he provides residencies for young Australian artists, giving them the opportunity to work in China, meet with Chinese artists and experience something entirely new. He is a man with a big heart and an indomitable spirit. And who knew that he is quite the Masterchef?  At the end of lunch he briefly left the table on the terrace of his studio complex and could be seen through the window whipping up noodles to end the procession of dishes that had emerged from his industrial-scale kitchen. The production of a bottle of Baijiu in the middle of the day was a bit alarming, but his sense of humour came to the fore after he had poured (thankfully) thimble-sized drinks for me, for the Australian film-maker who had filmed my interview, and for her cameraman. "Where's yours?" I asked. In response he poured a great slug into his empty noodle bowl, laughing uproariously.
Shen Shaomin outside his studio, April 2014, photograph Luise Guest
Here is the longer version of the published article, as written, which provides more of the flavour of our conversation and a sense of the artist's larger than life personality.

What kind of artist makes a legally binding agreement to ensure that after his demise his own skeleton becomes an artwork?  Who plans to have his teeth engraved with sentences in English and Chinese as an interactive performance work? Who has previously created works using animal bones and bone-meal, and rocket fragments from China’s space program? Yes, it’s the audacious Shen Shaomin. Part theatrical showman/magician; part Duchampian iconoclast; part sardonic social commentator; creator of disturbingly beautiful installations, Shen is best known for his impossible Jurassic-like creatures made of real and fake bones. Having seen his tortured, chained bonsai installations at the 2010 Sydney Biennale; his monstrous bone creations in a number of exhibitions including ‘Serve the People’ at the White Rabbit Gallery and an eerie installation of apparently living, breathing, hairless creatures lying on mounds of salt in a major exhibition of his work at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art , I had long wanted to meet this artist. We had been exchanging emails over many months but it was not until this last April that I was able to make the trip into the bleak countryside outside Beijing to visit Shen at his studio complex in Qiaozi Town.

Interior View, Shen Shaomin Studios
Vast spaces in the brutalist concrete buildings constructed to his own design contain only a few works, including his enormous model of the Tiananmen Gate, sliced in half like a Damien Hirst animal carcass. Shen has created a virtual Tiananmen, featuring secret underground tunnels that are bullet-proof, radiation proof, poisonous gas proof and in which are stationed military forces and armed police. On top, he decided to place public showrooms and foot massage centres. Like much of his work a dada-inspired humour masks a quiet rage. Much of his work is fabricated in other parts of China, but there are assistants working at computers and at easels in different spaces. The large complex, constructed some years ago after the demolition of his previous studios in Beigao, contains a full scale cinema as well as studios for assistants and visiting artists. There are also residency studios and living quarters where selected Australian artists will have the opportunity to work for a two month period each year in a program supported by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, giving young artists the opportunity to make work in China.
Studio View, Tiananmen Gate installation, photo Luise Guest
Shen Shaomin is an influential figure regarded with great affection and admiration both in Australia and in China, underlined by the unexpected presence of a film crew making a documentary for Australian television, who recorded my interview with the artist. Shen, his daughter and I sat on three chairs in the middle of a large space, with two cameras circling us throughout our entire conversation, adding to the somewhat surreal nature of the encounter. Behind us, an assistant worked on drawings for a series of new paintings appropriated from the Japanese photographer Araki, famous for his erotic images of women tied up with ropes and chains. In these works Shen wants to untie them, thus subverting the meaning of the originals, a characteristically quirky endeavour, and one which made me immediately warm to him as I find Araki’s photographs border on misogyny.

He is a member of the artistic diaspora who left China in the wake of Tiananmen after 1989 and dispersed to the four winds - Huang Yong Ping to Paris, Xu Bing and many others to New York, and a sizeable group of artists to Australia, where they mostly settled in Sydney and worked as waiters, dishwashers, taxi drivers and labourers, struggling to learn the language and survive in an alien culture. It was a shock to move from the “iron rice bowl” culture of China in the ‘80s, where although artists had few if any opportunities to show or sell their work, they were nevertheless assured of an income from teaching or other state-sanctioned occupations, to a culture where it was a struggle to survive and put food on the table. “In China we had political pressure and no freedom to create work, so we really hoped for western freedom. But when we got to the western world we realised a different type of pressure, the pressure of making a living. In China even though we were very poor we could live. I think almost all of the people who went to western countries after the Tiananmen event were artists, because they are the people most longing for freedom.” He recalled the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in the lead-up to June 4. “The artists were the most active group of people, making statues, making banners, but when the gunfire started the people who ran the fastest were the artists!” Shen laughs his infectious throaty smoker’s laugh, a laugh which punctuates our conversation. “A revolution cannot be made by artists!” he says.

Shen Shaomin, Bonsai No. 13, 2007, plant, iron tools, image courtesy the artist

Like many other exiles, including the painter Guan Wei, a homesick Shen Shaomin returned to Beijing in 2001, wanting to be part of the excitement and energy of a transforming China. He says, “During that time the development of China was so fast, and there was such a shift in society becoming more open. There were lots of changes, the whole world was looking at China, so I wanted to be here while everything is happening.” He returned to what seemed a completely different country. “There were huge changes in China – so many cities where I had been before, and when I returned I could not recognise them. It’s like many people’s memories were erased in only a few years. Very scary. There was not enough time to memorise things, and then they were gone and forgotten.” “But this has provided you with a lot of ideas for your work,” I suggest. He laughs again. “Artists are very shifty – where there is a problem or chaos they will be there, they want to have a look.  But if there is danger they will run away very fast!” In English he adds, “Just joking!”

His work is compelling, crossing all boundaries of media and artistic convention. The 2011 exhibition at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, ‘The Day After Tomorrow’, consisted in part of an installation of small pink hairless creatures lying on mounds of salt crystals. The naked breathing animals in I Sleep on Top of Myself are forced to lie on what remains of their fur and feathers in order to survive. Shen is suggesting that once we humans have depleted all of nature we too will exist in a half-life on the tattered remnants of our past glories. In another part of the gallery, a tiny, shrivelled, naked old lady lay back in a deckchair; and a nude man slumped in a dark corner. It was at least a half-hour into the crowded vernissage when a young woman, encouraged by giggling friends, poked this naked body and then shrieked when she realised that unlike the silica form of the old woman, he was a living performer. This mixture of playfulness and trickery overlaying darker themes turned out to be a feature of our conversation.
Shen Shaomin, 'The Day After Tomorrow', installation view, 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney,
 image courtesy the artist
Like his compatriots Wang Luyan, Ai Weiwei, Guan Wei and Wang Qingsong, all of whom spent years living outside China, Shen’s work today emerges from his own very particular generational experience. In the early 1980s there were no commercial galleries and no art market. Artists met in each other’s homes to discuss ideas and to make experimental work with limited resources. There was much excitement and a growing awareness of western contemporary art practices including performance and installation art. I asked Shen what unites the artists of his generation; what makes them different from younger artists. “The difference for my generation of artists is they are idealistic, but for young artists they are more commercial. In our time there was no market for our art so we never even thought about making money. Now it is very different. For the young artists, even just after graduation, or from their graduation exhibition, they can sell their work and make lots of money. Then they just keep doing the same kind of work.” He thinks for a minute, then laughs again and says, “But maybe they are smarter than our generation.”

His work today maintains that idealism, forged in the optimistic and heady days of the period before the Tiananmen crackdown, using visual metaphors to make us think about the human condition. He was planning his large-scale creatures made of bones whilst still in Australia, but was prevented from realising these projects, due to Australian animal protection and other legislation, and the consequent expense and difficulty of procuring the raw materials. That was another reason for his decision to return to China, where, as he says, there is very little regard for nature or for animal welfare. “Chinese eat anything,” he says with a shrug, “And that is one reason that after I returned to China I became a vegetarian.” 
Shen Shaomin, Summit (Castro) 2010, Silica Gel and Mechanical Breathing System, image courtesy the artist

“I spent quite a few years in Australia just making drafts and sketches but it was very painful. I had all those ideas but could not make them into a real work. When I returned to China I realised that labour and resources were so cheap that suddenly I could make large scale works.” For Shen Shaomin bones represent the embodiment of life itself – primal, biological. He sourced the bones from slaughterhouses, making works which evoke Frankenstein’s monster, suggesting that human hubris is likely to end badly. His creatures are a warning to us all about the consequences of environmental destruction and the madder frontiers of scientific experimentation. Laboratory – Three- Headed Six-Armed Superman’ (2005) consists of three skulls fused together with multiple arms in a bell jar, like a freakish embryonic creature floating in a 19th century cabinet of scientific curiosities.

Shen Shaomin, I Touched the Voice of God, Kiev Biennial, Ukraine, image courtesy the artist
 I Touched the Voice of God is made from fragments of metal which fell to earth from the rockets that launched the second Chinese manned space flight. The metal is embossed with text written in Braille, made by driving round-headed rivets into the thick curved steel of the spent fuel tanks. Only the blind can read this work, and when they do, the text turns out to be from the Book of Revelations, about the end of the world. Is it our “normal” sighted perception that renders us blind to the destructive consequences of our actions? In reply to my questioning Shen tells me the old folk tale of the blind men trying to describe an elephant by feeling a part of its body. The one who feels a leg says the elephant is like a pillar; the one who feels the tail says the elephant is like a rope; the one who feels the ear says the elephant is like a fan. “I think we are all like the blind people in relation to the universe. We can see a tiny little piece but we can’t see the whole,” says Shen.  We all struggle to “read” a text which is obscured from us, and which ultimately we have no chance of de-coding. “Are you a pessimist?” I ask. Shen says, “Yes. I am. For the whole world. I think it doesn’t matter whether a country is communist or capitalist… we can only compare in terms of which is worst. So as an artist I am a pessimist but I still need to live my life optimistically. An artist can only bring out the questions but cannot solve anything.”
I Touched the Voice of God, exhibition scene, Eli Klein Gallery New York, image courtesy the artist
I Touched the Voice of God, exhibition scene, Eli Klein Gallery New York, image courtesy the artist

In 2007 the critic Li Xianting, a pivotal figure of the Chinese avant-garde,  interviewed Shen Shaomin and asked why he had stopped the bone series. The artist’s response is now well-known but no less astonishing for that: “There will be at least one more piece to make, that is to use my own bones to bring my artistic journey to a finale. But since I am still enjoying my life, it will have to wait. When it’s time, I will make my assistant construct something with my own skeleton, using the same method and engraving my life experiences on my own bones.” I asked Shen to tell me more about this rather creepy scenario. Ever the idealist, he stopped making works using bone precisely because they were so popular, and collected by so many people and museums, that he feared they would become just a commercial money-making proposition. “But it’s not the end of the bone series, the final one will be my own skeleton,” he assured me. His daughter continued her translation of my questions and Shen’s replies, apparently unfazed by the prospect of her father’s skeleton being displayed as a museum artefact. He is still working out the details. “It’s different from what I originally planned. I am going to appoint a young artist born in the 1980s to complete this work, and I will draw up legal documents which will be a part of the exhibition. The work will use the same method as I used in the bone series… and also there is one point that will be specified – what happens if this young artist dies first? The organisation (which manages the project) will have the right to appoint another young artist! But of course I hope the young artist doesn’t die before me!” “So,” I say, “you are going to direct your final artwork from beyond the grave!” Shen agrees, saying, “I will also create legal documents to donate my cornea to a blind person, on the proviso that they agree that on their death they will then donate it to another blind person. Theoretically, by that time, this should be possible. So the concept is that even though the artist has passed away, through the donated cornea and through someone else’s eye he can continue to observe. I will also put my heart into preservative liquid and put a pump inside the heart, so as long as there is electricity in the world my heart will continue to beat.”
Shen Shaomin, 'I Want to Know What Infinity Is (Detail) from exhibition The Day After Tomorrow'
at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, image courtesy the artist
It seems that the idealist who began studying art history in Harbin, and later began his artistic practice as a printmaker at the end of the Cultural Revolution before achieving success with his ambitious installations will find a kind of immortality despite his deep cynicism about the state of the world  – a “body of work” in the most literal sense.
I Touched the Voice of God was recently exhibited at Hong Kong Art Basel in ‘Encounters’ (curated for the second time by Yuko Hasegawa, the chief curator of Tokyo’s Museum of Contemporary Art.) The writer interviewed Shen Shaomin at his Beijing studio in April 2014. Shen’s daughter translated our conversation.