Na Zha Baby Boutique
Source:Artintern Author:John Tancock Date: 2008-05-02 Size:
Although he continued with this low key activity, more important developments were occurring in his thinking than in his practice.


Shi Jinsong, "Baby Strollers"

Shi Jinsong’s studio in the Factory 798 district in Beijing comes as a surprise to those who visit him there for the first time. Although he lives most of the time in Wuhan, he is more accessible to visitors in Beijing as few travelers venture as far as Wuhan. Located off one of the long, gloomy corridors that serve as main thoroughfares through the decaying factory buildings in Factory 798, it is the lair of a bricoleur, littered with found objects, dismantled to varying degrees, and hastily assembled maquettes for his own hybrid sculptural forms in varying states of development and disrepair. From this clutter emerges a range of gleaming stainless-steel objects – baby strollers, workstations, futuristic tractors and most recently baby-products – that are simultaneous beguiling and terrifying.

Prosaic in subject yet baroque in form and execution, Shi Jinsong’s objects may be seen as recent additions from China to a long list of everyday objects that began with Marcel Duchamp’s Bicycle Wheel and Fountain (a urinal). These were soon followed by a wide range of everyday objects that have entered the twentieth century pantheon, from the flat-iron that Man Ray used in Gift to the soft toilets of Claes Oldenburg and the Brillo Boxes of Andy Warhol. The fascination with everyday objects continues with Mona Hatoum and Robert Gober, both of whom have extended the range of references. In her monumental Mouli Julienne( x21) Mona Hatoum entered the world of the kitchen while Robert Gober’s sinks, cribs and playpens offer scathing commentary on the politics of the nursery.

From Duchamp to Hatoum, everyday objects have been a major theme in twentieth century art, presented in an unaltered state in gallery spaces, modified to varying degrees in assemblages and imaginatively transformed by Dadaists and Surrealists. Shi Jinsong is a recent addition to this select group of object-fetishists but his credentials are somewhat unusual. He was born in Danyang County, Hubei Province in 1969.The capital of Hubei, Wuhan, is better known as a major industrial city than as a cultural center but it was here that he enrolled at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts and majored in sculpture in 1994. Unlike so many art schools in the West, the curriculum at the academies in China is still largely traditional and Shi Jinsong mastered the whole range of sculptural techniques, carving in stone and modeling in clay in preparation for casting in bronze.

Although Wuhan, one of the famous “Three Furnaces” of China is rather far from Beijing, the exciting developments occurring in the capital from 1989 onwards were not without consequence throughout the country. Painting followed one course and was rapidly embraced by the West, performance artists did their own thing (not always with the approval of the authorities) but what was a young sculptor to do? What was the appropriate subject-matter for sculpture in the mid 1990s? Communist heroes? Clearly not and as yet there were no capitalist heroes. The approach adopted by Cai Guo Qiang in his recreation at the 2000 Venice Biennale of the Rent Collection Yard, a celebrated Socialist Realist tableau of 114 clay sculptures depicting the ways in which a cruel landlord exploited his peasants, could not be developed any further. Family values? No. Abstract bronze forms with no redeeming social values? No.

What was the appropriate material for sculpture in the 1990s? Stone carving and modeling in clay seemed to him to be too associated with tradition to reflect in any meaningful way the changing quality of life in China in the 1990s. Shi Jinsong has admitted that he did not have a ready answer to these questions right after graduating and that is probably just as well. As the art world has developed today, it too often expects young artists to have ready answers as soon as they have graduated. Ready answers become commodities at the drop of a hat.

For a time, rather than making any grand statements, it seems that Shi Jinsong turned to making a series of ephemeral works incorporating branches, leaves, seedpods and other natural materials that reflect his dilemma in the clearest way. Turning his back on traditional themes and media, he found that his sculpture was doomed to impermanence, as fleeting as ikebana.

Although he continued with this low key activity, more important developments were occurring in his thinking than in his practice. Society was being transformed, lifestyles were being upended in the most dramatic fashion, cities were being razed and built from scratch, domestic appliances and luxury goods were beginning to be within the reach of millions of newly enriched individuals, at least those living in the cities. Rather than reflect these changes in a non-thinking way, seeking for literal visual equivalents as so many of the Political Pop artists had, Shi Jinsong stood back for a time, a stance facilitated by his strong interest in Zen Buddhism, Daoism and Taiji (Tai Chi). To ruminate on non-attachment and reflect on the non-existence of the self in the ever more acquisitive 1990s was in itself a fairly revolutionary step.

As important in the development of his thinking were the writings of Michel Foucault, particularly Folie et déraison: Histoire de la folie à l’âge classique 1961, which were as widely discussed in China as they were in the West. Shi Jinsong has said that although he had a limited knowledge of the text itself Foucault’s dense history of the idea of madness in the West, its treatment and the institutions that developed to control it, had a strong unconscious influence on him. Foucault’s reflections on power – the power of the state and institutions over individuals, of professionals over prisoners and those deemed to be mad – facilitated a greater understanding of the political, cultural and social dimensions of the society in which he lived.

The birth of a daughter late in 1999 changed Shi Jinsong’s life, giving it a focus it had not had before. There is nothing like the arrival in the world of a child to focus the attention and this was the case with Shi Jinsong. In addition to taking care of his daughter, and writing essays on cultural issues, he now began to produce works that gave three-dimensional form to his concerns. A series of works in sugar resulted from his parental duties, notably Sweet Life, 2001, which was included in Alors La Chine at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003. In this work a series of everyday objects representing the material aspirations of today’s Chinese was cast in caramel and lined up on a shelf. As they melted during the course of the exhibition, their life-span was sometimes only marginally shorter than their equivalents in the real world.

In today’s world weapons are also objects of desire but unfortunately land-mines last longer than the latest cell-phone or iPod. In Secret Book of Cool Weapons, 2002, he turned his attention to corporate logos, powerful weapons in their own right in the corporate battles that increasingly define our lives. The logos of Mercedes Benz, Nike etc, were reconceived as ancient weapons and presented on a rune-covered sheepskin displayed in a vitrine.

Then there was the world of the baby or rather the world for the baby as conceived by their caretakers. Strollers and baby carriages, at one time dainty and elegant cocoons for the child, have morphed into miniature defensive vehicles which have all the grace of a Humvee. Once his daughter was born, Shi Jinsong had to buy a stroller as well as toys, only to realize that these not inexpensive items have become necessities that aim to please the purchaser rather than the occupant. How cruel, he thought, to submit the soft, yielding form of the infant to these devices that too often resemble instruments of torture. Is it not a power-game, designed to bolster the ego of the parent rather than to satisfy the desires of the child? As soon as it enters the world, the innocent child is engulfed in materialism, becoming its victim, however well-intentioned the motives of the provider. Just like the proud owner of a new car who soon becomes its slave, the child is doomed from the start to dependence on material things.

First to emerge in Shi Jinsong’s anatomical study of everyday objects that have an extraordinary impact on our lives was the Baby Stroller conceived in 2001 and executed in 2003. Meticulously assembled in stainless steel from mechanical drawings, the stroller is like a high-tech version of a Roman quadriga, bristling with enough weapons to defeat an overwhelming number of enemy combatants or young mothers taking their babies for a stroll. Attachments open into wings, enabling the carriage to fly while cutting down the enemy at the same time.

Shortly after followed several works based on the work-station, including Office-Equipment – Prototype No.1 (Uli Sigg Collection, Mauensee). Like the baby in his carriage, Shi Jinsong sees the contemporary office-worker as the victim of powers over which he has no control. As described by Bernard Fibicher: “The artist sees his objects as a metaphor for the authoritarian nature of design as propagated in modern China, and also as a criticism of indifference to violence. Of course, they must also be seen as the ultimate outcome of the functionalism and cold rationalization of planning in the time of totalitarianism.” (1)

While the office worker is subjugated by his work station, the peasant is dreaming of a new tractor, one that will free him of the back-breaking drudgery of his present work pattern. Departing from a rusty old tractor which he dismantled, Shi Jinsong has envisioned a stream-lined implement, a distant cousin of the Harley-Davidson, called the Halong-Kellong, 2004, which incorporates not only the mechanical elements of a tractor but also radio and karaoke equipment. How long will it be before the proud owner of this super-tractor becomes its slave?

In works such as these Shi Jinsong sees himself as an anatomist of contemporary culture who through the process of deconstructing and re-imagining familiar objects, reveals the forces that dominate our lives in ways we cannot imagine. For the current exhibition he has turned back to Chinese tradition and folk-lore. A new baby has entered his life – Na Zha – who, unlike his own daughter, is perfectly capable of taking care of himself.

As naughty as baby Krishna but capable of much greater mischief, even today Na Zha is known and beloved by Chinese worldwide. This is no great surprise, perhaps, as today he is known chiefly as a God of Lotteries and Gambling. The fantastic attributes that eons ago enabled him to cause oceans to boil and demons to drop dead are now so atrophied that only the “cuteness” remains. Peeling away layer upon layer of sugar-coating, Shi Jinsong introduces to New York a full range of implements and devices that might have been pleasing to the divine child in his original awe-inspiring form.

Some background may be required. A key figure in Chinese mythology and folklore that also appears in various guises in dramas and in novels such as The Journey to the West, Na Zha was originally an Immortal named Da Luo in the court of the Jade Emperor, Ruler of Heaven. Sent down to earth by the Jade Emperor, Da Luo was introduced into the womb of the wife of Emperor Li Jing. Reborn as Na Zha, he entered the world wearing a gold bracelet (the Horizon of Heaven and Earth) and wearing a pair of red silk trousers. It was clear he was a remarkable child! By the time he was six years old he was six feet tall and a force to be reckoned with.

Problems began when he went to bathe in the East Sea. So great was the heat emanating from his red silk trousers that the ocean began to boil, a fact not unnoticed in the palace of the East Sea Dragon King. After a series of encounters Na Zha finally killed the Dragon King as he was about to enter the Gate of Heaven to complain to the Jade King about Na Zha’s behavior. Some time later Na Zha committed suicide in order to save his parents from the wrath of the three remaining Dragon Kings (of the West Sea, the North Sea and the South Sea)

Reborn from a Lotus flower, the sixteen feet tall prince was finally reconciled with his father and they joined forces to slay demons. Recognizing his virtues, the Jade Emperor appointed Na Zha Generalissimo of the Thirty-six Celestial Officers, Grand Marshal of the Skies and the Gate of Heaven. The naughty boy survived to become an immortal whose birthday is celebrated even today on the 8th and 9th of the fourth lunar month of the Chinese calendar.

Shi Jinsong’s Na Zha is fearsome indeed. Gone are the cuteness and the floating scarves of today’s popular manifestation to be replaced by a three-headed, eight-armed, heavily armed figure that resembles a wrathful deity from the Tantric tradition. Wielding knives as his attributes and sucking on a knife-pacifier, the steely child seems to be looking for mischief. Melding folk-lore and contemporary marketing techniques, Shi Jinsong presents in his Na Zha Baby Boutique consumer products that would be strong enough to withstand the force of the divine child’s tantrums and the urgency of his bodily desires – a flamboyant Stroller, a fanciful Walker, Bottles and indestructible Cradle.

Analyst, fabulist and fabricator, Shi Jinsong arrives in New York with a body of unsettling work that reveals unexpected parallels between the myths of old and the myth of childhood today.


1. Bernard Fibicher (ed.) Mahjong: Contemporary Chinese Art from the Sigg Collection, 2005, p.114

[Editor] Zhang Shuo