The Birth of Death
Source:Artintern Author:Wang Minan Date: 2008-08-27 Size:
Shen Shaomin puts out inquiries everywhere seeking to locate and collect skeletons.


Shen Shaomin puts out inquiries everywhere seeking to locate and collect skeletons. He dismantles each of them, extricating the individual bones from an organic skeletal framework and allows each piece to achieve a discrete independence. He then sterilizes and removes any leftover traces of flesh and blood, and alters the original coloring. Working meticulously on these individual bones, he inscribes characters on their surfaces, and patiently organizes, assembles, installs, arranges, and finalizes them. This is the endless manual process that Shen Shaomin employs in this series of works. With his studio in Daqing tucked away in the bitter cold of winter, his pieces there manifest an even greater sense of sobriety, severity, and acrimony.

What emerges before us is still a skeleton, imprinted at once with life and death. While these bones have undergone a process of assemblage and installation—composed of an assortment of animal skeletons and constructed anew into a skeletal framework—they are still a symbolic form of life. Despite the fact that bones—whenever laid bare and exposed—signify death, these symbols of death always forcefully make people return to the reality of life. Life does not emerge from the self, but rather appears when one is faced with dying or experiencing the eruption of death. Only in the midst of death—dying while one is still within the clutches of life, dying violently and painfully—only then will the meaning of life tempestuously emerge.

The meaning of death is located in its gaze back on life, precisely as the crisis of life is always directed at this entanglement with death. Just as life is always attempting to comprehend death, only through death can one better comprehend life. This is the eternal paradox between life and death. Shen Shaomin has taken note of this paradox, and he pushes death to an extreme as a means of using life to better understand death. At the same time, these skeletons—representatives of death—assert the meaning of life and bestow it with a solemn emphasis.

Here, we discover that death emerges in a concrete form. It doesn't appear through a representational medium: it is not rendered on a painted surface, re-enacted through a portrait, nor staged through performance. Conversely, Shen Shaomin removes these indirect modes. This is not to say that he rejects these methods, but rather he has chosen his own approach: he allows us to directly touch death, touch that which is authentically dead. These bones are the vestiges of the living; previously belonging to breathing, walking persons or animals with a palpitating heartbeat. Now dead, this is real, unconcealed death. Bones do not suggest at or re-create death, they are death itself. Thus, here, we are not seeing death or imagining death, we are not engaged in a fictitious dance with death, but directly confronting it, touching and stroking it. We are seeing the tangible form and consequence of death. We are seeing its concrete materiality. This accompanies a real death; it is not a game played in an illusory context.

Yet, this materialization of death doesn’t lead people to feel a sense of dread, it doesn't engender a kind of appalling effect. Which is to say, Shen Shaomin doesn't want to allow death to produce a kind of physiological astonishment—the normal effect. On the contrary, although death actually transpires within these bones, they don’t cause people to feel death’s brief and immediate effects of pain and grief. Shen Shaomin has processed these bones so that they are very neat and tidy, mild, even productive of a kind of intimacy. Consequently, these bones constrain the meaning of death within its firm control, preventing it from being overstated or violently exaggerated. This way, death and its meaning do not unfold within the narrow scene of emotional tragedy, but instead is situated in its intersection with, intertwined and located in a broad time and space. Here, death is not moistened by teardrops. It is soaked with circumspect introspection. It doesn't lead us down a historical trajectory to sad recollections and individual reflections, but rather makes us lower our heads to pace back and forth in the face of a normative life.



This way, Shen Shaomin allows us to stand soberly in the face of life and death. Life and death unfasten the locked gate to history, and spring forward towards us. Life is swallowed up by time; in every sliver of bone is buried a departed life. It is decreed that life is doomed to lead to death. But, what is this path? How does life linger on the road to death? By what method does life transform bones into its historical remains, and why is there writing—the script of the living—inscribed on these bones?

Shen Shaomin's group of works responds to these questions. Here, Shen doesn’t use life to make taxonomical differentiations; he doesn't restrict life solely to the realm of man. To him, animals and people both bare the existence of life. By placing both at the level of the living, he destroys the long-standing privileged positioning of man above animals. Animals can thus stand shoulder to shoulder with man. In this way, Shen Shaomin freely grafts together the bones of both: assembling, installing, and interweaving them into one, and thus collapsing the civilizational spirit marking the centrality of the human species. People aren't sealed off within their own specially designated areas, and don’t constitute an indestructible homogeneous whole. On the contrary, people maintain a variety of heterogeneous properties: perhaps they possess an aspect of some primitive barbarity, one that tramples over science and technology, medical science and machinery; all means by which people construct a sense of conformity. In short, people’s established concepts are beginning to waver. Life should not be submitted to a crude taxonomy and ranked in a system of classes. Shen Shaomin here attempts to demonstrate how grafting man and animal together shows that they have not completely and naturally separated themselves from each other. Bestiality illustrates how people have not cast off their own barbarity and animalistic passions. Man is foremost a kind of animal conferred with life and death and domesticated by civilization. Writing and civilization redefined man by opening up the arbitrary segregation between people and animals. But, in so doing, this turned around and destroyed life—regardless of whether they were the lives of men or animals.

Shen Shaomin’s primary subject is the extermination of life by civilization and culture (symbolized by the written language). Here, life is not a natural, unadulterated process; it is not a purely biological process; it is not the organic process of aging hidden in the sick body of living things. It's exactly the opposite. Life carries a burden on its back: it has suffered undue contamination, corrosion, and injury at the hands of culture. This is why Shen Shaomin painstakingly takes characters—clearly, symbols of civilization and culture—and inscribes them on skeletons of the dead. He wants these skeletons to bear the memories of history and culture, forming an inseparable relationship between skeletons and culture.

Shen Shaomin strives to show that skeletons have not made a clean break from culture; between them exists hermeneutic reason. However, the writing engraved on these skeletons doesn’t serve as a recollection of philological thought. These skeletal structures are not a medium for documentation, nor are they intended for any sort of archaeological purposes. The combination between skeletons and writing isn’t to form a vehicle for a pre-existing historical narrative. The motley of writings is disorderly and confused: there are religious texts from canonical books as well as vulgar secular expressions, aphorisms from grand historical moments, and portentous omens from the present. Just as the typology of these writings exhibits great diversity, they also entail the languages of many civilizations. Clearly, these writings cannot be classified, and there is no central focal point or topic from which they all slowly emerge. The written language can express meaning, but because of their dispersal here, their lack of centrality, their miscellaneous directives and mutual contradictions, they lose the power to assemble and focus.



Thus, the meaning of the written word here serves to counter meaning: it’s evasive, suggestive, and abstract. In fact, the original goal of writing was never to document the meaning of historical events. These ideograms were common knowledge, simple phrases, non-narrative sentences, not the sacred repository of deep historical significance, granted immortality within the long stream of history. Thus, these writings don't record history's vast ambitions; they function neither archeologically nor philologically. On the contrary, these writings much rather desire to serve as the formal symbols of culture and civilization. Which is to say that here, the specific significance of writing is not in what it says, but rather in its own function as witness to culture and civilization—writing always hints at culture’s abstract suggestions because culture itself is always invariably rooted in ambiguous events. Writing and the written language are the testimony of civilization. To inscribe writing on bones is to inscribe civilization on life and death. To do so is to entrust culture and civilization with life and death. Life has the potential to attack civilization, while at the same time it is at risk of being captured and destroyed by it.

Death rarely occurs at the level of pathology or physiology, and instead can be found manifested in civilization and culture. It occurs at the level of writing and language. The characters on these skeletons point to this, silently yet forcefully. The characters on the skeletons are not relating history's secrets, but rather recounting life's secrets—this is culture and civilization securing, dictating, and judging life's secrets. Skeletons and death have been inseparable throughout history: writing is both the tie binding them, and their hidden source. Here, we cannot but be disheartened to say, civilization and culture often expose its savage front: religion or God, technology or reason, democracy or tyranny, spoken or written language…in different moments throughout history these have all had the possibility of leading to warfare and massacre. Life is often crudely broken off by this kind of civilization. Death is not the gradual aging of an organism; it arrives through civilizational violence.

Shen Shaomin thus lays bare civilization's uncivilized front. He doesn’t make historical analyses of specific wars and massacres—that is left as a battlefield for historians who subscribe to academic utilitarianism. To these bloodbaths, he only makes cold and abstract critiques. Historical facts in actual histories are always concealed in the disputes and clamoring over truth. Within the declarations of historical truth, death and massacre are always rendered immaterial, blurred and murky. One of the distinctive features of human civilization is the struggle to look for reasons and origins. Warfare, massacre, and violence all adhere to this principle, and are shrewdly cloaked under the shroud of civilization. This is civilization and history's eternal game. It is a game that belongs only to history and historians. To artists, visual perspective is derived from the aftermath: grim deaths and the tragedy of facticity. In the face of tragedy, artists don't circle around it playing an intellectual game, they don't pen more sources and reasons, but rather lash out with merciless imprecations. Cursing the death and tragedy brought upon by civilization, they aren’t concerned with seeking out the moment in history when this tragedy arose.

Shen Shaomin has discovered that death is born from civilization. But, he doesn't want to know how death happened, how it was born, and in what kind of civilization. He wants to critique all deaths produced by civilization, curse the universality of this kind of fate, and condemn the abstract yet shockingly tragic nature of these principles. Only in its interrelationship with death, will the written word betray its philological meaning. Thus, here, within the present ambiguity of history, we see skeletons and death come to the fore.

[Editor] Mark Lee