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

Saturday, April 4, 2015

Shen Shaomin: Handle with Care

Shen Shaomin, "Handle with Care No. 29," 2014, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches (91.5 x 91.5 cm)
Image Courtesy the artist and Klein Sun Gallery
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 interview this artist. After a frustrating series of emails and aborted encounters, we finally met at his Qiaozi Town studios outside Beijing almost a year ago. While we spoke, behind the artist, and the two film-makers who were disconcertingly circling us, recording our conversation for a documentary, his young assistants were working on a series of drawings and paintings inspired by the erotic bondage photographs of Japanese photographer Araki - but with a twist: the women are escaping their chains and ropes. What he didn't tell me about was another series of paintings, shown last month at Klein Sun Gallery in Manhattan's Chelsea gallery district, that subvert the familiar tropes of mid-century Pop Art. More of Shen Shaomin in a minute...

Shen Shaomin, April 2014, photograph Luise Guest
Its been a while between posts. Working at breakneck speed to get my book finished, managing a full-time teaching load and organising a family wedding are responsible for my lengthy absence from this blog. That, and an absence of especially interesting exhibitions to prod me into writing.  So - apart from my obsessive focus on the forthcoming book (October!) - what have I seen that might inspire me to open a blank new  page and begin to write?

The offerings in Sydney's commercial galleries over this summer just past have been a little lacklustre. Other than Zhang Huan's impressive and moving Buddha of ash, and the chaotic and anarchic visit of those Duchampian jokers, The Yangjiang Group, there hasn't been a lot to get excited about. The new exhibition at White Rabbit, 'State of Play', is provocative and interesting - quite a different curatorial "take" on works from Judith Neilson's collection, with a dark interpretation of the notion of play. Memorable works include MadeIn Company's leather and chain, bondage and discipline, spiky Gothic cathedral, Zhang Dali's beautifully ethereal cyanotype, and Yang Yongliang's giant cigarette, which is suspended from the ceiling (in fact, from a hole cut into the floor above), ashing layers and layers of multi-storey towers, referencing what Yang sees as the destruction of the unique character of his home city of Shanghai, and his sadness at the way that globalisation and modernity have made everyplace the same place.

The big blockbuster show over the Sydney summer was 'Pop to Popism' at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, by all accounts a financial success of a somewhat limited kind. I must confess I enjoyed it immensely: it reminded me forcibly of the excitement of being seventeen and discovering Warhol, Hockney, Jim Dine, Nike de Saint Phalle and Marisol. I went to Europe at eighteen and thought I had arrived in heaven in the Pompidou, in a room with George Segal and Ed Kienholz. The artworks, not the artists. Apart from nostalgically visiting my long-lost girlhood, though, I liked the connections established between the original Pop artists and the latter day inheritors of Pop. But where, I wondered, were the Chinese Political Pop painters? This seemed a most bizarre exclusion from what was otherwise a very comprehensive show. Much too important to simply ignore without explanation, their absence left a weird hole in the narrative.

When Robert Rauschenberg showed in Beijing in 1985 (a triumph of American soft diplomacy) it was one of those ground-breaking exhibitions that changes the course of art history. He met with the avant-garde artists of the day, in  a series of rather frustrating conversations characterised by misunderstanding and mutual incomprehension, but the effect on Beijing's nascent contemporary art scene was explosive. In combination with the opening-up of China to Western ideas, and the influences of Duchamp, Warhol and Beuys, this exhibition is the influential experience that almost every Chinese artist of that generation refers to. Rauschenberg, Johns, Warhol and the cool ironic stance of American Pop was perfectly suited to artists emerging from the traumas of the Cultural Revolution. Artists such as Fang Lijun, Zhang Xioagang and the much-copied Yue Minjun, among others, developed two influential movements, Political Pop and Cynical Realism, perfect expressions of the zeitgeist ("Shidai Jinsheng" in Chinese.) After his years in New York's East Village, even Ai Weiwei wanted to be "yige Beijing de Andy Warhol."
Shen Shaomin, Summit (Castro), 2010,  silica gel and mechanical breathing system,image courtesy the artist 
So my smooth-as-silk segue here is to a show that I wish I had seen, but haven't. Shen Shaomin  presented a new series of paintings at Klein Sun Gallery in New York last month. A change of direction in his work, and one which this prolific artist didn't even hint at when I interviewed him last April, the works challenge the notion of artistic originality and the ways in which audiences usually encounter works in art galleries. The exhibition is called 'Handle with Care' - highlighting the temporality, instability and fragility of what we define as "art". Twenty oil paintings depict archetypal Pop Art paintings wrapped in translucent plastic bubble wrap - we can see they are by Warhol, and recognise the famous soup cans, and iconic figures such as Mao, John Lennon and Monroe, but we are frustrated by seeing them through wrapping, as if they have just been delivered to the gallery.
Shen Shaomin, Handle with Care #10,2014, oil on canvas, 35 x 23 1/4 inches (89 x 59 cm)
image courtesy of the artist and Klein Sun Gallery
The gallery says, "Shen Shaomin probes the nature of artistic creation through the appropriation of Warhol’s pieces which occupy important territory in the historical discourse concerning individuality and authenticity. Leaning against the wall of the gallery, furnished with veneers that deliver a deceptive effect, paintings from the Handle with Care series represent a pre-installation state, a transitional condition of artwork. The unconventional “hanging” method of this group also breaks the boundaries between painting and sculpture. The setting subverts the traditional manner in which one interacts with artworks inside a museum or gallery, further issuing a subtle statement of institutional critique."

Shen Shaomin, "Handle with Care No. 19," 2014, oil on canvas, 36 x 36 inches (91.5 x 91.5 cm)
image courtesy the artist and Klein Sun Gallery
As with much of his earlier work, Shen Shaomin challenges us to think about the distinction between the real and the ideal; the real and the fake. His earlier works of hybrid creatures made of real animal bones and bone meal, his tortured bonsai plants chained in their ceramic pots, and most particularly the work previously shown at the same New York gallery, 'I heard the voice of God' all reveal an artist who is dealing with the big issues. That installation, made from the nose cone of a rocket from the Chinese space program which had fallen to earth ("You can buy anything in China!" Shen told me) engraved with text from the Book of Revelations - in Braille - suggests a darkly pessimistic view of the world. At first you might be inclined to dismiss these new works as a clever, but slightly facile art joke. You would be wrong to do so. An artist with a team of assistants to fabricate his works, Shen is asking us to consider whether contemporary art is any more than another branded luxury good, and whether the art market is different to any other market.
Shen Shaomin, "Handle with Care No. 15," 2014, oil on canvas, 35 x 23 1/4 inches (89 x 59 cm)
Image Courtesy the Artist and Klein Sun Gallery
Like Wang Luyan, Ai Weiwei, Guan Wei and Wang Gongxin, all of whom spent years living outside China, Shen’s work today emerges from his own 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 thought for a minute, then laughed and said, “But maybe they are smarter than our generation.”

The twenty paintings in 'Handle with Care', wrapped in their trompe l'oeil bubble wrap, are presented leaning against the wall as if propped there before or after the install of the show, subverting our expectations of the seamless experience of viewing art hung at eye level in the white cube of the gallery. He alludes to the fact that artworks are just another commodity, globally traded, and shipped around the world. Yes, packed in bubble wrap.