Shen Shaomin's Artistic Path
Source:Artintern Author:Wu Hung Date: 2008-06-20 Size:
Shen Shaomin did not receive a formal academy education. Instead, the starting point of his artistic path was completely by way of another course.

If we take the 1979 Stars exhibition as the starting point for experimental art in China, then this kind of art has already charted a thirty-year course. Alongside of its artistic development has been the continual unfolding of research and reviews of its historical experiences. Most of the earlier writings adopted a macroscopic lens, concentrating on discussions of different trends, groups, and schools of styles. Thus, centralized concepts like “‘85 Art New Wave,” “New Generation,” and “Political Pop” contributed to the elements and frameworks of historical narrative and analysis. These phenomena were particularly evident in Western introductions to contemporary Chinese art: to most Western critics, Chinese experimental art (or “avant-garde art”) was first and foremost a collective “Post-Cold War” or “Post-Cultural Revolution” socio-political phenomenon, rather than an assemblage of artists’ individual explorations and creations. With this as their premise, art historical writings on contemporary Chinese art were vastly different from accounts of the West’s own contemporary art history. Although the latter also made demarcations among styles and trends, these divisions were based on an established foundation of research, rooted in numerous case studies of individual artists. In this kind of art historical writing, artists—and not groups or trends—furnished a concrete foundation.

In light of this discrepancy, since the 1990s I have continually advocated the in-depth research of artists who demonstrate considerable individuality and creativity. An important reason being that although Chinese artists of similar age often grow up within common social and political environments, their specific experiences remain distinct. The environs in which they are raised, the education that they receive, and their individual artistic aspirations have even greater differences. The curating of an exhibition and writing of a catalogue—one that possesses substance and a point of view—must first begin with the collection of primary resources, including detailed interviews and research of the artist’s works, sketches, notes, and plans. Only in this way are we able to understand the artist’s particular family and educational background, his influences growing up, and the unique fondness and understanding that he bears towards art, and from there interpret the specific characteristics of the work. Only by first viewing contemporary art as an individual’s creations, can critics and art historians have the foundation for furthering sociology or the integration or abstraction of artistic styles.

This belief is also the rationale driving my curating of Shen Shaomin’s exhibition series Between Heaven and Earth. Like a symphony composed of four movements, this series is made up of four independent, though corresponding, works exhibited simultaneously in four locations in Beijing. (These four works are: Tiananmen at the Today Art Museum, Kowtow Pump at the Tang Contemporary Art Center, Bonsai at the Courtyard Gallery, and Fighter-X at the Platform China Contemporary Art Institute). This catalogue serves as one organic component of the curatorial program. Its intent is to offer a systematic introduction to the background and thought processes behind these four works, while at the same time positioning them within the larger backdrop of the artist’s own artistic career. For this purpose, I have spoken with Shen Shaomin on numerous occasions, from formal interviews to discussions in his studio. The contents of those talks have been organized in the section of this catalogue called “Art is Inseparable from Life Experiences: Discussions between Wu Hung and Shen Shaomin.” It differs from most transcriptions of on-site interviews in that it collects the contents of multiple conversations, and has undergone subsequent rounds of editing by both the artist and myself. This, then, constitutes one of the primary resources for researching Shen Shaomin and his works. Based on this groundwork, this foreword takes a review of his works one step further.



Unlike most noted experimental artists, Shen Shaomin did not receive a formal academy education. Instead, the starting point of his artistic path was completely by way of another course. First, he participated in the production of “Cultural Revolution” visual culture, then organized artistic propaganda for the masses—including drawing posters, making slide shows, and screening films—and finally “elevated” onto the professional track. In terms of the development of contemporary Chinese artists, his path offers a rare example of the “Chinese experience.”

Shen Shaomin grew up in Acheng city in Heilongjiang province in the northeast of China. His father excelled at carpentry, and as a child Shen enjoyed handling things and taking them apart. Whenever he encountered a mechanical bearing or a timepiece, he would be tempted to dismantle it and study its moving parts. His renderings of these spare parts perhaps constitute his earliest experience in “re-creating images.” This interest in skill and technology was one of the main reasons behind his love of printmaking: of all the types of art, this was the one most like a “craft.” He recalls his first woodblock print being a set of playing cards given to an elderly neighbor. In order to simplify the reproduction process, he carved three round cakes, nine long strips, and other patterns from a slab of wood, including the 108 heroes from the Water Margin, and then printed them one at a time.

Intense involvement in the Cultural Revolution positioned his interest in art on a unique trajectory. He was an active member of the school’s art organization and took part in spray painting the great leader’s portrait on windowpane after windowpane. The “porous printing” process used at the time was still based on prototypes of high contrast prints. His “works” from that period mostly entailed portraits of Mao: stalks of sunflowers collected around the red sun—fixed in the hearts and minds of the revolutionary people—and surrounded by resplendent rays of light radiating in all directions. His design and execution of a Tiananmen relief sculpture particularly revealed his artistic talent and imagination: he first made a rough sketch of Tiananmen on a piece of cardboard, then glued layer upon layer of sawdust on top of it. When it reached the desired thickness, he finished it off by applying bright colors to its surface. This kind of work earned him a reputation locally, and also foreshadowed his entry into factory propaganda work and film distribution. In the interview, Shen Shaomin couldn’t help but express astonishment at how these early experiences have influenced his new artwork: although he never intended it, these latest works seem to revisit that vanished period in his life. Tiananmen returns again to a familiar topic, wherein “blueprints” and “models” make an important reappearance, and the interest in the mechanical also appears vividly in Kowtow Pump, Bonsai and Fighter-X.

While these four pieces reflect on “revisiting” the past, they do not repeat it. The difference between the two is that a “revisit” is a critical return wherein previous experiences not only serve as motives and sources for creativity, but are also the subjects of the artist’s examinations and analysis. Thus, Tiananmen is not only a rendition of this famous architectural structure, but also a deconstruction and reconstruction of what the artist considers the “consummate” monument. And although Fighter-X is the final realization of a dream that the artist has harbored since childhood—that of designing a fighter plane—the work also transforms a child’s fantasy into a callous, aggressive plaything of war. The “kowtow pump,” previously a symbol of state-owned enterprises, appears in Shen Shaomin’s work as a twitching, convulsing machine. Its stuttering movement dispels its heroic spirit, and communicates the struggle produced by the modern world’s exhaustion of its energy sources. That nervousness and sense of tragedy also appear in Bonsai where basins of small misshapen trees, chained and fettered to metal instruments, recount the price paid by man’s pursuit of “beauty.”


The mid-1980s mark a critical moment in Shen Shaomin’s artistic career. It was during this period that his identity underwent a significant change: he turned from being an amateur art enthusiast to a professional artist. Bringing about this change was a rather important mechanism in China’s official art system, the “from popularization to elevation” campaign, which celebrated art education for the masses. Although rarely discussed by critics, this mechanism was critical to the development of artists like Shen Shaomin. His relationship with this kind of art education was achieved on two fronts. First, as an art educator: after he was assigned to the propaganda branch for film distribution, his duties included going to the countryside to screen movies for farmers, making slides, and formulating political propaganda so that it was suitable to local conditions. After the villages began to acquire their own projectors, his responsibilities changed to those of an instructor training the peasants to project slides.

Second, he also played the role of a student: as a young art enthusiast intensely interested in woodcuts, but who had never received any formal training, he enrolled in art classes offered by the local center for mass culture. Under the guidance of a professional woodcut artist, he began carrying out his own independent art creations. Through this process of “elevation,” he gradually entered the professional field. His works steadily progressed from being copies of mainstream models to explorations into personal style. In the beginning, he and other local artists were influenced by the then-renowned “Great Northern Wilderness Prints.” But, not long after, it was the pursuit for unique qualities that led them to develop new methods, thereby initiating “Acheng City Prints,” characterized by a distinct formalist rusticism. His work Autumn was chosen to participate in the 1984 Sixth National Art Exhibition and was met there with great success. He won the “Award for Outstanding Work” (it was rumored that he had also been nominated for the Gold Medal), and a color print of his piece was also published in the magazine Art. Such commendation from the capital immediately affected his recognition in the region. After he received an award at the Seventh National Printmaking Exhibition, Shen Shaomin was granted Heilongjiang province’s distinction for “first-class talent.” He received a first order salary, and was transferred to the Printmaking Academy as a professional artist.

But, it was also at this time that his artistic path began to diverge from the official government-run art system. Up to this point, members of the orthodox school had already called into question his method of using oil-based inks to make color woodblock prints. Moreover, he was becoming increasingly attracted to unofficial art ideas. The mid to late 1980s witnessed a period of frenzied growth in experimental Chinese art, and Beijing was the center of this movement. When he was in the capital participating in art exhibitions, Shen Shaomin came into contact with many avant-garde artists and poets, and began to read western art and literary theory. He participated in the “Advancing Chinese Youth Art Exhibition,” which emphasized a strong avant-garde consciousness, and his article “Don’t Duplicate Man, and Don’t Duplicate the Self” appeared in the newspaper Fine Arts in China. Even more illustrative of his shift in thinking was his critical attitude towards official art education. He advocated the viewpoint that “art cannot be done as a mass movement.” Using his words: “I believe that the model of ‘running a training class’ is a kind of mass movement. A big group of people, anyone with a little background in drawing, can participate, and instructors are tasked with making revisions. After revising, the results are presented as the group’s work, and everyone can look to see which region’s works are selected.” As expected, this kind of thinking made him the target of criticism by his superiors, and he became known as a “heterodox” in the northeastern art world. Casting off these kinds of constraints, Shen Shaomin left the art academy in 1987, moved to a new residence in Beijing, and became an independent artist.

Thus, even though Shen Shaomin did not participate in the ‘85 Art New Wave in the strictest sense, the influence that this avant-garde art movement had on his artistic concepts and growth cannot be ignored. In terms of his art style, his works from the late 1980s began to break with the traditions of printmaking. He even put away his paintbrush and woodcarving knife in order to probe how other materials and means of expression could be utilized. It was at this time that he created a group of works made from cloth. Using misprinting, pasting, scorching, and other methods, he worked to emphasize the tension between two-dimensionality and three-dimensionality. Some of these works were made after 1989. Although it was unintentional, these rips and tears and sense of “ruin” revealed the artist’s mentality at the time. At this point, one can say that Shen Shaomin bid farewell to the art academy and national exhibition, and walked into the realm of experimental art.




With this kind of “post-1989” mentality, Shen Shaomin left for Australia, where he lived for ten years. But, this wasn’t a happy and relaxed decade. Even with its temperate weather and picturesque landscapes, Australia was not his “second home.” In one of our interviews, he said, “Truthfully speaking, I never seriously spent a day there.” In Australia, he continued to explore uses for ready-made materials and methods of scorching, but what really piqued his interest was this tranquil yet infinitely unfamiliar environment. This unfamiliarity was due to the language barrier: to Shen Shaomin, a fellow from the northeast who enjoyed associating with friends, perhaps there was no condition that would cause as much perplexity or sullenness as “aphasia.” Thus, we can understand why in Australia he created two major groups of works that addressed the limits of language; in particular, pointing to the intensely personal nature of the division between different systems of languages and writing. What generated interest about these two works was their medium: they weren’t merely ready-made objects in the ordinary sense, but rather articles that people knowingly abandoned in their daily lives. The special interest in these kinds of materials reflected the artist’s own identity.

The first group of works was made from newspapers. Australians usually leave newspapers that they have finished reading on their doorways, where every Thursday the city comes by to collect for recycling. Shen Shaomin selected numerous discarded English and Chinese language newspapers, cut and mounted them into thick strips, scorched the edges, and then braided them together. What resulted was the complicated interlocking between English and Chinese texts and images. Sometimes, sentences and phrases from the two would intersect, resulting in absurd meanings. The other group of works incorporated discarded carpets. Right after he arrived n Australia, hardwood floors came into vogue, and as a result people started to throw out their once fashionable rugs. He retrieved a large number of old carpets, cut them into specific forms and wove them together. On some of them, he even wrote in Nü Shu (women’s script), a kind of writing understood only by the few who practice it. He then sprayed gasoline onto them and set them on fire. Because the carpets were all made from different materials, they developed into a variety of textured surfaces.

From a broader perspective, the interest in language and written symbols isn’t rare among overseas Chinese artists. But, this common ground is only a surface phenomenon. Beneath it lie divergent reflections and life experiences. The artists who possess real creativity are never satisfied with deconstructing linguistic conventions, but rather use different means to surmount this step in order to forge their own independent artistic language. To Shen Shaomin, what influenced him the most in his ten years in Australia were a new global field of vision and a cross-cultural context. Although over the passage of time, he has built an increasingly closer relationship with what is happening inside of China, what affected him most directly and deeply at that time were trends in international politics, economics, and art. The cross-cultural context in his art has, however, changed through the years. Careful inspection of his art from the 1990s and early 2000s reveals that the problems he investigated gradually changed from issues of personal perplexity to concern for international politics, religion, and culture. The 1990s witnessed the continual intensification of religious antagonism and international disputes (the first Persian Gulf War gave prominence to this), and increasingly drew his attention. An immense project began to form in his head: to use animal skeletons and human bones to reflect problems of the human species and the international world.

Over the course of five years (2001-2005), this project produced numerous works that exhibited four kinds of creative logic. First, the coexistence of different kinds of cultures and religions, and their inability to reconcile with each other; the most representative piece being the 2003 Unknown Creature—Three-headed Monster. Shen Shaomin used the ribs from fifteen heads of cattle to make the seven-meter long monster, complete with eight legs, three heads, but only one body. He describes it as, “the body of one living organism bearing the weight of these three major religions.” It’s unmistakable that this “monster” implies the contradiction within the human species or human civilization.

Second is the fabrication of an illusory existence through “deconstruction” and “reconstruction.” His earliest work in this series already reflected this kind of logic: he collected the bones of various animals, from mice to men, threw them all into a confused pile, and chose whatever he pleased to piece together a strange organism that no one had ever encountered before. This train of thought brought Shen Shaomin an inexhaustible reservoir for imagination. This is evidenced in his series Unknown Creatures in which flora, fauna, and man are all strangely blended together. Experimental Field no. 2 used the osseous tissue from fifty heads of cabbage. At the heart of each cabbage is a chicken skeleton; protruding from each, what appears to be a tiny human skull is actually that of a rabbit. In making this piece, Shen Shaomin was reminded of a kind of insect that upon dying transmuted into another organism. Experimental Field displays such a reincarnation of life; vegetation can be reborn into animals, and animals can change into humans.

When the concept of “change” is pushed further, it becomes the third object of expression in these works. Generally referred to as Experimental Studio, this group of pieces no longer displays the effects of deconstruction and reconstruction, but instead showcases the birth of a surrealistic existence, like that of a “dragon” or “Guanyin.” What emerges is no longer an individual image, but rather a series of variants within the process of evolution. Interestingly, Shen Shaomin’s fourth and final kind of creative logic runs counter to the three previously mentioned. In 2005, his work Experimental Studio no. 6—Mouse didn’t present a fantastical creature. Instead, it featured more than a thousand spotlessly white mouse skeletons as a huge installation. The visual sense of surrealism was imparted through the straightforward expression of reality itself—once we grasp this work’s contents, we can also understand why it engenders and proclaims the end point of this series.


In 2001 Shen Shaomin returned to his hometown in the northeast to undertake work on this series. With the help of his friends, he set up a studio in Daqing, not far from Acheng City. He pushed himself to create and produce one piece after another. These five years can be seen as the most critical period of his artistic career to date: in that time, he not only completed thirty very intricate pieces in this skeleton series, but, more importantly, he also re-established his connection with China. The outcome was a profound “domestic turn” in his art. A previously dormant artistic energy suddenly erupted and hatched in this place. His work was no longer stimulated by abstract global problems and human predicaments, but instead found impetus within his own life experiences and achievements. China, from its contemporary social transformations to its ancient cultural traditions, gave the artist a vast supply of artistic resources. Compared to the prints and fabric pieces that he made prior to leaving the country, his new works coalesce much more profound reflections on China’s social and cultural memories. Compared to the “newspaper” and “carpet” series that he produced in Australia, these works exude a far more vibrant energy. His new works employ more diverse materials, and embody a sense of challenge and contestation in their contents. Although his skeleton series already possessed great imagination and creativity, it at times still overlapped with work by artists inside and outside of China. This newest group of works, meanwhile, reveals a real distinctive artistic sensibility. One can say that within his oeuvre, these works manifest the richest individual character, and evidence his most mature thinking.

Among these works, Kowtow Pump most distinctly exemplifies Shen Shaomin’s dialogue with reality. Kowtow Pump is the epithet used to refer to the oil pump used in the oil industry. Because its lever (commonly known as the “donkey head”) has a regulated up-and-down motion during pumping, local northeasterners gave it this nickname. During our interview, Shen Shaomin said that after his return from Australia, his first impression of Daqing was of this machine: “As soon as I got off the train, I saw a line of them in front of the train station. A few meters behind them was a department store. In between the department store and train station were the kowtow pumps. Among them, some were abandoned and no longer able to pump oil, some moved slowly and some moved quickly. Its speed was regulated by its mechanical transmission, which was in turn determined by the levels of oil. Sometimes they were only a few meters away from people’s private residences.”

In the three years following, this impression only deepened. Kowtow pumps were virtually everywhere in Daqing that they merged with daily life there. Regardless of whether it was the entrance to a hospital, inside the courtyard of an elementary school, next to a shoe repair shack, or behind a shop selling roast chicken, they were always there silently working. Near the hospital, a street selling articles used in funeral rituals had a shop called ‘Heavenly Shrouds.’ Even there, next to the store, you could see this kind of machine. These scenes completely differed from the image of oil fields he originally had in his mind. These weren’t open fields full of oil wells, with ‘black gold’ gushing everywhere. Throughout the city, these kowtow pumps work incessantly day and night. In the three years that he lived in Daqing, he gradually came to grasp the symbolic significance of these scenes. Oil wells spurting jets of oil signified newly developed, rich, and abundant oil fields. But, all that the kowtow pumps indicated was the desiccation of these fields. It was only when the oil levels thinned out, and the downward pressure weakened that oil pumps were necessary for adding external pressure. He began to think that these machines communicated a “kind of inexplicable sense of dread”—a heavy psychological weight. Watching from the side, he thought, “one’s heart and mind are no longer dependable” because the ground beneath one’s feet is being hollowed out.

This kind of impending crisis is the psychological element that Kowtow Pump seeks to transmit. Shen Shaomin uses three different models of oil pumps, all of which are colossal creatures measuring over eight tons each. As works, their significance stems not only from the physical displacement of ready-made objects, but even more importantly they stand as a contemporary allegory narrated through “personification.” By refitting the mechanical transmission, Shen Shaomin changes their stable, uniform motions into twitching, convulsing gestures, giving these machines an unregulated rhythm of starting-and-stopping. The resulting image is like an old man suffering from constricted blood vessels and atrophied nerves, struggling to complete the task before him. They express a realistic scene that Shen Shaomin sees before himself, and a warning that he wants to communicate to the rest of the world.




If the content of Kowtow Pump is Shen Shaomin’s dialogue with reality, then Tiananmen and Fighter-X show an even closer relationship with the artist’s childhood memories. Fighter-X resulted from a fortuitous opportunity: while working on Tiananmen, Shen Shaomin would make a trip to a factory in Shenyang about once every two weeks. He would arrive there at seven in the morning, an hour earlier than when the factory would open. He wiled away this time in flea markets looking to collect materials. It was in this way that he discovered a set of government sealed, “top-secret” blueprints for a stealth aircraft with meticulously rendered parts and circuits. These materials immediately evoked a childhood fantasy. He said during the interview, “I believe an artist’s work has a direct relationship with his individual life experiences. What you take notice of influences your choice of materials and how you go about conveying things. When I was a child, I had a definite fondness for weapons. I liked to fold paper airplanes, and flew them everywhere. At that time, we were very poor, and could only fold little guns and planes out of paper. Later, I took to drawing these things. When I wasn’t drawing planes, I would be drawing tanks and guns.” Spurred on by this “fondness,” he decided to use his current skills, including his technical potential and artistic creativity, to produce an ideal model for a fighter plane.

But, the significance of Fighter-X is far from simply being an “interpretation of a dream.” As an outstanding artistic work, it coalesces not only reflections on “past” memories, but also the artist’s examination and imagination of the “present” and “future.” Measuring approximately five meters long, this gigantic model is not a child’s toy. Its exterior is in no way pleasing to the eye: it’s as if the epidermis of an organism was peeled off, leaving the interior structure, wiring, and apparatuses all exposed to the outside; a skeleton on the dissection table with blood vessels and internal organs laid bare. Stripped and brutal, its cold precision relays to the viewer the terror of warfare—a war machine devoid of all emotions. Its “futuristic” quality is related through its fabricated form and peculiar driver design. From Shen Shaomin’s point of view, the manufacturing of the world’s newest fighter plane would be the dream of any developing nation. Fighter-X thus signifies China’s rise as a political force and the deepening of its national consciousness. With an eye to Taiwan’s future, he outfitted the plane with a single engine for greater mobility and assault power. In the hypothetical liberation of Taiwan, such capacity would be of great use. Following a different train of thought, he also imagines Fighter-X as a new model of “suicide aircraft,” used in the next generation of terrorist arms. This feeling of the “future” is clearly not derived from childhood romanticism, but gestures instead to the carnage and warfare sustained through superior technology.


Although addressing a completely different subject matter, and for different motives, Tiananmen also assembles divergent meanings of the past, present, and future. In this work, Shen Shaomin directly confronts his inner “Tiananmen complex.” As recounted above, growing up under the radiance of the “red sun,” he received some recognition in his neighborhood when he was a teenager for his creation of a model of Tiananmen. In his interview, he said, “People of my age all have a psychological complex towards Tiananmen. To have one’s photograph taken in front of Tiananmen could signify the proudest moment in one’s entire lifetime, because it’s a monument rooted in your childhood. As a piece of architecture, it’s not simply a Chinese symbol or a political symbol. I think it’s an important mark of our generation’s psychology.” This sense of solemnity led him to adopt the most labor-intensive means for reproducing the monument: first, he collected materials and local surveys to produce a complete set of architectural data, then drew exceedingly meticulous blueprints based on the gathered information, and finally fashioned a series of wooden structural models based on these designs. This kind of lengthy investigation and rebuilding process eliminated any potential elements of “Political Pop.” For Shen Shaomin, to conduct a rethinking of Tiananmen’s symbolism, any implication of ridicule needs to be divested, and instead should consist of a conscientious and meticulous exploratory process.

This process was carried out in two phases. His initial plan envisioned three accurate models to display two aspects of Tiananmen’s classical architecture: one being its timber construction and all of its details, and the second a step-by-step process of its building. But, as planning got underway, he discovered that these methods of representation were still extremely limited, mostly because on the level of “re-creation,” a realistic replication of the material thing would not be able to lead people to penetrate Tiananmen’s authoritativeness and mysterious nature. The focus of the second phase of this project therefore strived to realize a deeper objective, that is, to rethink Tiananmen through artistic imagination and fabrication. Thus, Shen Shaomin designed a new model. Differing from previous efforts to “re-create,” this model integrated precise architectural reconstruction with fictitious elements. An important decision was to cut it open along the center, allowing the viewer to walk between the front and back walls and take in the interior at a glance. In fact, returning to Fighter-X, we can see that this idea of “unlocking secrets” is also a guiding concept in that work. To an even greater extent, Tiananmen gives free rein to this notion: by deconstructing the supreme authority of this political symbol, its sense of awe and wonder is also effectively dispelled. The masses are able to freely enter Shen Shaomin’s design, and experience a new model monument viewable from the inside.

Rich in meaning, the interior of Tiananmen—including the multiple levels of facilities and spaces below ground—don’t actually exist, but rather are products of the artist’s imagination. But, this kind of illusion belongs both to the masses and the individual artist: for some time now, Beijingers have alleged that there are secret passageways and faculties beneath Tiananmen, but no one has ever seen these places. Shen Shaomin’s work situates itself in the symbolization of this suspicion. He says, “The capacities of this underground engineering should be extremely comprehensive. Although what I have constructed is perhaps not very scientific, nor very rigorous, I think its operations should be very contemporary, ranging from riot prevention to the People’s Armed Police to an emergency treatment center. And there should be some kind of conference room, an armory, an ammunition depot—in any case, it should be fully equipped in case of emergency warfare. Then, it must also be outfitted with things for daily life, including recreational, bathing, and massage facilities. Only China would have this phenomenon of a bathhouse.” It’s similar to Fighter-X in that it is fictitious, but also culled from the reality of Chinese life.

To Shen Shaomin, the significance of Tiananmen is still found in its reflecting on imaginings of “the future.” If visitors closely examine his blueprints, they will be amazed to discover that the data on these schemes are not really based on the actual dimensions of Tiananmen, but rather an enlarged version of it. The exhibited model is constructed according to this blueprint, scaled to a 25:1 ratio. When I asked him why he made his Tiananmen even larger, even more brilliant, than the original, he answered, “Just think! The National Theater is already built to that size. Our city is expanding, and all of the architectural structures are being enlarged. In comparison, the original Tiananmen appears a little small.” The Tiananmen in his imagination is thus an “activated” organism. As a symbol of China and a focus of Chinese people’s pride, this monument should be magnified according to the development of the city, forever preserved in its lofty image.

Tiananmen and several attendant works are an important result of the “domestic turn” in Shen Shaomin’s art. Bringing together his ideas on contemporary China’s concept of “monument,” one of the pieces in this group is a fictitious engineering project entitled Pasting Ceramic Tiles on the Great Wall. Another work duplicates the memorial pillar in front of Tiananmen, and superimposes it into the Liverpool Biennial. In discussing these works, Shen Shaomin does not take these to be simple appropriations of popular government symbols. They each possess a deep sense of individuality and harbor complex, contradictory contents. On the one hand, these structures are all intimately related to his childhood and upbringing, and coalesce his inner emotions. Yet, on the other hand, they are also collective monuments and symbols of political authority. Tiananmen pushes this complexity and contradiction forward. It fuses the many different versions of Tiananmen that exist inside of the artist’s head, from the one that resides in his private memories to the one that serves as a political symbol, and even to the one that lives completely in his imagination. Perhaps the Tiananmen in China’s real society truly encompasses all of these multivalent meanings. This work thus forces people to reconsider its meanings, that is, the significance of Tiananmen in contemporary China.



Although also a result of Shen Shaomin’s “domestic turn,” Bonsai doesn’t concern itself with contemporary Chinese politics or economics, or the artist’s own memories, but instead delves into an even more essential layer of traditional Chinese culture. In our interview, Shen Shaomin traced the origins of this work back to an even earlier project based on “foot binding.” In the process of creating the skeleton series, he found a book that introduced foot binding and included photocopies of X-rays showing how the form of women’s feet changed. In the end, he didn’t put his original project into effect because he found an even more effective means of displaying this tragedy. A book introducing the art of bonsai led him to realize the resonance between the “abuse of limbs” and “abuse of plants,” which was made even more acute by the fact that both foot binding and bonsai are products of traditional Chinese culture. In some sense, the mistreatment of plants is even crueler as its traces of abuse are more deeply concealed within a pretense of “naturalness.”

Shen Shaomin began to systematically investigate the technique of bonsai, and even went to the regions of Anhui, Ningguo, and Xuancheng to visit bonsai workshops. All the scenes he encountered there shocked him. To make tree branches into twisting braids, the center of the tree trunk was cut open—“penetrating the intestine, and smashing the stomach”—then fixed into bending, coiling, and interwoven shapes. Two methods were used for giving the appearance of age to the tender bark: one required hacking the bark with a knife and waiting for the scars to form. In this way, one small sapling could simulate a hundred year old tree. The other method entailed coating the tree trunk with honey to attract tens of thousands of ants, which would gnaw its bark black and blue. After removing “superfluous” branches, the plant was burnished and scorched to give it an aged look and to help prevent rotting. These procedures all seem to replicate the surgical operations carried out in medical practices. The apparatuses used on bonsai trees, appearing in every shape and color, are comparable to the assortment and diversity of medical instruments available. But, there is an important difference here: a medical operation is performed in order to cure a sick patient, but bonsai takes a living healthy plant and distorts it into an abnormal state. But, it’s like foot binding in that people consider such abnormality “beautiful.” Conscious of this kind of latent cruelty, Shen Shaomin turns this invisible violence into a tangible form in his Bonsai series. Bonsai makes us reconsider the brutality in daily life, particularly that which has been transformed into kinds of aesthetic perception or concealed within nature itself. This group of works achieves its efficacy not because it displays the results of these man-made transformations, but makes apparent the process of transformation itself. Shen Shaomin uses two means for achieving this. First, the bonsais themselves display a sudden halt in the “process” like a freeze-frame in a movie, where all the small trees have been imprisoned in ironware, and hang like prisoners chained and shackled. Shen Shaomin calls these works “living installations.” Collectors can choose to let them return to their original state or maintain this process. Even when the bonsai dies, these installations will still record the process and mechanisms behind their transformation. The second means is through texts: every bonsai is accompanied by a meticulously designed course of study. Dense passages and illustrations record how bonsais are made, and the procedures and matters needing attention. Alongside of this, every tree also has an “official portrait,” documenting its condition during exhibition.

From an even broader standpoint, Bonsai reveals an introspective look on the notion of “control.” Control can take place in the abuse of the physical body, like foot binding or bonsai, and it can also be performed through a distortion of intellect and psychology, such as training children to become filial sons, faithful wives, and “war heroes.” Reviewing these four works Kowtow Pump, Tiananmen, Fighter-X, and Bonsai, we see that what they share are different methods and different perspectives on opening up a space for imagining and deciphering contemporary art. Although each work addresses subjects with which Chinese people are familiar, their power is in their excavation and display of the hidden qualities and mechanisms concealed within these familiar forms. Or, as Shen Shaomin puts it, “uncovering secrets.” The result is that these concrete forms become “allegories” for rethinking universal problems. These four works also share a focus on “process.” Even simply based on the appearance of these forms as static objects, it’s clear that they aren’t sculptures or installations in the conventional sense. The reason for this is that they all demonstrate processes of investigation, design, and manufacturing. Lastly, the completion of these works brought together a large number of resources; not only the artist’s own accumulation of knowledge and imagination, but also numerous social relations, realistic operations, and long-term relationships with international galleries and collectors. These resources often exceeded the field of conventional art criticism, yet the realization of these projects remained an indispensable condition and constitutes one reason for why experimental Chinese art possesses such competitive power in the world today.

[Editor] Mark Lee