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, bone-meal and rocket fragments from China’s space programme? Only audacious artist Shen Shaomin.
Part theatrical showman, part Duchampian iconoclast, part sardonic social commentator and the creator of disturbingly beautiful installations, Shen is best known for his Jurassic-like creatures made of both real and fake bones.
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 during the interview. He took part in the 2010 Sydney Biennale, and his monstrous bone creations have shown in a number of exhibitions, including Serve the People at Sydney’s 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 the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art. He works from his studio in Qiaozi Town, a bleak rural area outside Beijing.
His studio is made up of vast spaces constructed to his own design within a brutalist concrete structure. Only a few works are in the studio, including an 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 and resistant to poisonous gas, in which are stationed model military forces and armed police. On top, he decided to place public showrooms and foot massage centres.
Shen 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 1980s, 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.
As in much of his work, a dada-inspired humour masks a quiet rage. Much of Shen’s work is fabricated in other parts of China, but there are assistants working at computers and at easels in different spaces in the studio. 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 in an annual programme supported by 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, giving young artists the opportunity to make work in China.
‘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.’
Recalling the pro-democracy protests in Tiananmen Square in the lead-up to June 4, Shen explained, ‘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.’ Giving his distinctive, throaty smokers’ laugh, Shen says, ‘a revolution cannot be made by artists!’
Like many other exiles, including the painter Guan Wei, a homesick Shen Shaomin returned to Beijing in 2001, keen 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 was 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 provided Shen with inspiration for his work: ‘artists are very shifty. Where there is a problem or chaos they will be there, they want to have a look.’
Shen’s work is compelling, crossing the boundaries of artistic convention. The 2011 exhibition at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art 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 lies back in a deckchair, and a nude man is slumped in a dark corner. Unlike the silica form of the old woman, the nude man is played by a living performer. This mixture of playfulness and trickery overlaying darker themes is a feature of Shen Shaomin’s work and conversation.
‘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.
‘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 and biological. He sourced the bones from slaughterhouses, making works that evoke Frankenstein’s monster, filled with intimations of hubris. His creatures are a warning to us all about the consequences of environmental destruction and the most extreme 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.
‘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? Shen refers to 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. Shen agrees that this outlook might be pessimistic: ‘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.’
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.’
Although he stopped making the bone sculpture because he feared they would become just a commercial money-making proposition, Shen remains keen to turn his own bones into a work of art one day. ‘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.’
Shen intends to direct this final artwork from beyond the grave. ‘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.’
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, leaving a ‘body of work’ in the most literal sense.
I Touched the Voice of God can be currently seen in 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 the conversation.
By Luise Guest
More Contemporary Artists from China: