Awakening from A Dream of Nature
A Dialogue between Nataline Colonnello and Shen Shaomin
Colonnello: You mentioned before that when you were in Australia prior to 2001 you were already preparing to make your work with bones, but due to technical or other problems, you couldn’t start working on it until you returned to China. Could you talk briefly about the work and the idea behind it?
Shen: I had been searching for a suitable material to convey my experience and understanding about science and religion, life and death, for a long time. The bone represents the ultimate embodiment of life. This quality of the bone became the source of creative inspiration for me. In Australia, I was already working on the idea behind the work and had done quite a bit of preparation for it, including some smaller projects of the theme. But this project encountered a lot of difficulties in Australia. Partly because unlike China, Australia has animal protection organizations which made it difficult to track down the raw material for the work. Besides, the cost of buying and processing bones is also very high in Australia. But the most important factor was that the gathering and use of bones is regulated by law. It hindered progress on the project, So I decided to come back to China. Since returning to China, I have put all of my energy into the project, and now this batch of work is more or less completed.
Colonnello: Could you say a bit more about your experience with trying to locate the bones used in your work, and the processing of this special material. What is the biggest challenge you faced in the making of this series of works?
Shen:? The production procedure can be broken down into several stages. Firstly, animal skeletons must be collected. They are then dissembled into individual parts, allowing the pieces to acquire a kind of independence. After that, the bones are heated, disinfected and dried. Then individual pieces of bones are reassembled in a way that bears no relation to the original structure. It completes the entire process of the deconstruction and reconstruction of the animal skeletal structure.?
I encountered some troubles in China when I first began to locate suitable material for the work. Because large-scale mechanized slaughterhouses tend to shatter animal bones, we had to go to smaller ones to find larger and relatively intact bone pieces. The manual slaughtering techniques used by smaller slaughterhouses is more likely to leave the bones intact - however the quantity of bone pieces is also smaller. In the end, we had to collect usable bone pieces slowly and gradually. However the quality of these pieces was high and the usable percentage was much higher. We needed many different types of animal bone pieces, from rats to cows. Even human bones. The human bones came through legitimate channels and were purchased from the Institute of Anatomy of the Harbin Medical School. We did not kill people to get their bones! [Smile] It was totally legal. Moreover, when we were making the Two Thousand Rats project about plague, we tried many methods to catch rats. But all of them ended in vain. We first tried killing them with rat poison, before extracting their bones. But this could have put my assistant’s health at risk, especially when they treated the poisoned rats. For safety reasons, we abandoned this method. We also tried catching them with rat traps. But the traps tended to shatter part of the bones. That would not do either. In the end, we tried catching them en mass with electrified nets in places like village granaries where the rat population was higher. This method proved to be very effective. We soon got hold of a lot of rats. But transporting their carcasses posed another major problem. Naturally it could only take place in the winter to prevent the carcasses of thousands of rats from decaying while being moved from the villages to my studio. The winter in Dongbei is bitterly cold. The world is like a natural fridge, so the decaying of carcasses was not a problem at all. However the transportation of them is not an easy task in itself. We all know that a lot of people have a strong aversion to rats, which is recapitulated in the idiom “as unpopular as a rat crossing the street”. The large quantities involved only made matters worse. In order to get them back to my studio smoothly so that I could begin the production of my work as soon as possible, I tried to avoid unnecessary complications by stuffing the rat carcasses in hemp sacks. A few hundred in a sack. We told people that they were frozen pears. And they did look a lot like frozen pears in the sacks. We then found a shipping company, and the problem was solved.
Colonnello: You have Manchurian blood in you. Right? Doesn’t it affect your works at a subconscious level? For example, in your Unknown Creatures installation series in 2002, the piece Three-Headed Monster assembled a huge skeletal structure from the bones of different animals, including three cow skulls that were the three heads of the gigantic creature. Engraved on the bones were scripture texts from the Bible, the Koran and a Buddhist Sutra. All of these seem to suggest that there are religious and philosophical elements in your work, as well as influences from Siberian and Mongolian shamanism. Stories of shamans are often recorded in the ancient legends of shamanism. For example, the spectre wants to eat the flesh of a reincarnated shaman and cook his bones. Once the bones of the shaman are cooked and turned into iron, the spectre can then take over the shaman’s true body (as opposed to its divided refractions), and walks freely both in the secret world of spirits and the world of man. When you treated animal bones, surely you also needed to cook them for a long time first, then bleach them and disinfected them with hydrogen peroxide. Moreover, you also mentioned that these works reminded you of Tibetan religious rituals. Although you claim that you were not religious, your works have strong religious connotations. Could you say a bit more about this?
Shen: In Tibetan Buddhist burials, after a person dies, you shave off his/her flesh, bash his/her bones and feed it to vultures. The original idea that inspired my choosing bones for my artwork comes from Tibetan burials. Apart from that, there is another religious ritual that uses the bones of the dead to build walls. There are also people who engrave their scriptures on ox bones or bones of other animals. These are all religious rituals. In the version of shamanism you just mentioned, the boiling of bones resembles the procedures used in my work. Indeed, the production process of my work has a touch of religious feeling to it.
I am not a believer of any religion, but I am interested in religion. There is always a historical and social element in the origin and development of any religion. The spiritual product of primitive cultures, such as shamanism, is endowed with a sort of na?ve charm. It has a long history behind it. “We can say that the origin of all the main categories of human knowledge can be traced back to shamanism.”
Colonnello: You mentioned that in all kinds of religion, the most important thing is to live together with other species in harmony. I would like to ask you: How do you perceive the harmonious co-existence between nature and mankind? Why did you engrave scriptures of different religions on the three-headed monster you created from bones of different animals? Is there a philosophical or religious explanation to it?
Shen: There were no animals (except for the rats of course) killed for the project or in the whole process of making my works. In fact, a natural world in which men and animals exist in harmony is the primitive environment that our ancestors used to live in. Even today, in remote regions in Africa, men still live side by side with animals. It is a beautiful ecological situation of nature that requires mutual respect between different species. In primitive religions such as shamanism, men respect nature. To an extent, I am grateful to, and envious of, people who - not as a result of conscious decision but as a natural course of action - ended up protecting the primitive ecological environment. Their way of thought is stable and stagnant, almost unchanging. But it is precisely these carriers of primitive culture that provide today’s scholars of humanities an important source of information to allow the investigation of primitive culture. They also retain the primordial meanings of existence and ways of thought for a humanity that has been charging forward without hesitation. Perhaps when humanity has pushed itself to the brink of total destruction, these ‘living fossils’ of precious primitive culture will lead us back to the state of harmonious co-existence between men and animals.
The visual image of my sculptures is often grotesque. Their colossal volume or alien image imposes an immediate visual impact on the viewers. Despite the development of human societies, the origin of life remains a myth to us. Life forms live only for a limited length of time. The unknowable nature of where they come from and where they return to has been a major domain of human enquiry for as long as the history of humanity. It has also generated countless religious feuds and scientific abuses. Religious conflicts have troubled us and continue to do so today. These conflicts have included the Crusades and the still unresolved Middle East conflict. These examples testify to the fact that narrow interpretations of religious doctrines defy the original meaning and intention of religion. At the same time, the adoption of cloning techniques on the scientific front may plunge humanity into a catastrophe of biological chaos. Our life is closely bound up with religion and science. I wish to give people a prompt to reflect on religious narrow-mindedness and the abuses of science, to enquire into the essence and destiny of human existence, and to ruminate on the source and origin of life.??
All religions and philosophies are concerned with the issue of life and death. Bones are a testimony to life and existence. Buddhism believes in reincarnation, in which life means death, and death means rebirth. Therefore bones are also associated with the birth of a new life. This partly explains why I chose this material for my artworks. In Three-Headed Monster, the scrimshaw of religious scripture from three major world religions serve my own conceptual needs. The scriptures are nothing more than suggestive in the work. And the reason why I chose to use texts from three different religions is to highlight that all religions are very similar in their original doctrines. The difference lies in our interpretations and prejudices. I tried to convey messages about life, science and religion in the same piece of work. With the help of the unique power of visual art, I intend to direct the viewer’s attention to a subject that is of serious importance but which is routinely overlooked.?
Colonnello: Is your work related to shamanism? Does it have any bearing on totemism in shamanism?
Shen: I read some books on shamanism before commencing the work. It may have inspired or influenced me without me realizing it. But all in all, my work simply reflects or summarizes my ideas about life, science and religion. It just turns out the way it is naturally. Different people might see different things in it. Some might see a totem in it. But it was not my intention to make it into a totem, even though I do not deny that it might be suggestive of a totem.
Colonnello: Your sculpture makes people contemplate on the process and the meaning of life. But it carries other significances at the same time. For example, the way you constructed an anonymous creature out of bones of different animals might be interpreted as related to China’s Classic of Mountains and Rivers (shanhaijing), or to animal fables of the Middle Ages in the West, or even to the mammoths discovered in Siberia. Can we see your work as a kind of fictional science - in the sense that when viewers look at these skeletal structures of ‘extinct creatures’, they can barely tell their authenticity and are therefore led to believe that these ‘Jurassic animals’ really existed in the past.
Shen: Yes, of course. It does indeed look like a creature that really existed before. Perhaps it will really confuse reality, say a few hundred years in the future, and lead people to investigate the reasons for its extinction. You never know. My intention is to create a bizarre anomaly to disrupt people’s stereotyped expectation of normal animal species. By doing this, it also imbues the work with a powerful visual force and impact.
To a real thinker concerned with the meaning of life, neither today’s religion nor science provides an ultimate or clear answer to their enquiries. Therefore the analysis of ancient myths becomes an alternative resource in their quest for the meaning of life. My understanding of The Classic of Mountains and Rivers is influenced by various phenomena that violate the natural rhythm of nature, such as gene reconstitution, cloning, and chromosomal aberrations, etc. The continuous progress of science is propelled by the fantastic imagination of mankind. And the anomalous creatures in The Classic of Mountains and Rivers is the result of our colourful imagination and should rightfully belong to the realm of the fable. But if our scientists attempt to create creatures from fables and make then real, what would the world become of? If we cannot utilize the research results of life sciences wisely, humanity may be digging its own grave and brings about its own demise.
Colonnello: Later you made another piece entitled Thousand Hand Guanyin Bodhisattva in 2005, which also has a salient religious and mythical overtone. But after that, your works began to lean heavily on the idea of ‘genetic experiments’ as a course of ‘creative direction’ aside from natural evolution. You made some even more grotesque and bizarre creatures – some kind of hybrid of plant and animal – mixing the traits of human, animals and plants. You tried to show us anomalous species – abomination that violates the law of nature - that could be created through scientific experiments (e.g. Experimental Field no. 2, 2004). Your works from different periods look entirely different from each other. As a result of the gradual evolution of your ideas, some of your later works are of creatures created in laboratories, creatures that died before they ever lived. If we follow that logic, it is fair to say that some of the artificial creatures created as a result of experiments could well end up being dangerous monsters, but some might simply become relics of failed genetic experiments.
Shen: Thousand Hand Guanyin Bodhisattva was created after I made a series of monstrous creatures. In that piece of work, human skulls were used. Normally, people find it hard to accept the use of human skulls in artworks. This tabooed material was used in order to wake people from the ‘sleep of rationality’ resulting from blind religious beliefs. In fact, my creative process cannot be separated from science or religion. The series of Experimental Field and Laboratories directly refers to science. The Victorians treated the skeletal remains of dinosaurs with curiosity and horror, because they worried that these might destablise their religious beliefs. But today, do people treat the scientific decoding of DNA sequences with curiosity and horror for fear that it might bring about catastrophe to humanity? The future envisaged in science fiction has been turned into reality. The sort of terror seen in fiction is no longer uncommon in the real world. The rise of international terrorism can be attributed to the disparity between rich and technologically advanced countries and their impoverished counterparts, along with the disagreement over original religious doctrines. You can say that the monsters in my earlier works symbolise another undercurrent of threat to the world that awaits us. My genetic experiment series suggests that a more rational attitude toward science is desperately needed. This series can also be interpreted as an attempt to reveal the nature of mischievously intended aberrations in the course of natural history.
Colonnello: You mentioned to me before that you planned to use bones to make another set of works about Chinese bonsai. It would depict the process of abuse of both the human body and plants. The process of making Chinese potted miniature landscape gardens, like the process of foot-binding in old China, is an act against nature. It is a violence against one’s body as well as nature. In traditional Mandarin, the bound feet of women are called ‘three-inch gold lotus’. It is a manner of expression that encapsulates something that is both irrational and beautiful at the same time.
Shen: Bound-feet was an important criteria for feminine beauty in imperial China. But the process of creating them was extremely cruel. It reminds me of Chinese bonsai-making. Both are based on the aesthetic indulgence of artificial forms that distort the natural order of growth. Both result in the abuse of the body. They share a striking similarity - both are processes in which deformity is violently imposed in order to fulfill the desire of personal taste.
The project on Chinese bonsai is my new artistic experiment. It marks a turning point from my previous artistic enquiries of a general nature towards examining more specific social issues. The work is an installation of a set of growing plants. Chinese people are practically numb towards bonsai making. It shows that people accept commonplace traditional practices without further thought. By demonstrating the process of bonsai making, I hope to prompt viewers to further ruminate on life.?
Colonnello: In your installations of bones, the skeletal frame is only a physical support of a creature, but the way you present it is a way of supporting the ideas you wish to convey. Although the bone series has been completed, I understand that there is still another piece of work to make of this type.?
Shen: Yes, that’s right. But this piece won’t be completed any time soon. You’ll know why when it’s done. [Smile.]
Colonnello: All of your latest works seem to be based on architecture. For example, Great Wall (2005) is a big project related to architecture in a real sense. In China, people like to show off their wealth by hiding basic building materials, such as bricks, underneath other things, such as not-very-attractive ceramic tiles. You adopted this idea in your Great Wall project, and turned it into the most extravagant ‘Great Wall of Ceramic Tiles’ ever created! [Smile.] It might look amusing at first sight, but it reflects a characteristically Chinese phenomenon. But Great Wall also has a political dimension to it. To construct the Great Wall is to defend your nation on the one hand, and to adopt a closed-door stance on the other. Could you say a bit more about this category of work, including 2102 Project (2006) and The Cloud Pillar Departs from China (2006).
Shen: The ideas linked to my previous works on bones were mostly conceived when I was overseas. The production of these works brought me back to China, allowing me to stay here long enough to visit some cities and witness some bizarre buildings. The majority of these buildings are entirely unrealistic. They are structures made to bluff. Our standard of living and wealth has not reached a stage to match those kinds of buildings. Besides, their self-aggrandizing fa?ade is a sharp contrast to their build quality and their cultural import. Behind the appearance of affluence, these buildings simply ooze spiritual poverty and cultural diffidence. And of course there is also the ‘show-off’ complex in the Chinese psyche. My work on Tiananmen (2102 Project) follows precisely this line of thought. As an important emblem of China as a nation, Tiananmen appears dwarfed in comparison with these extravagant structures. The scale of Tiananmen in this piece of work follows my own design - that is twice as big the real thing. It also includes a whole set of over-the-top paraphernalia, including an underground city and miscellaneous facilities. Only a Tiananmen of this scale could match the scale of China’s modern urban development. It would not be outshone by those local buildings that inspired my project either.
Colonnello: Some of your current projects are related to current international affairs. For example, your Oil Gaming Machines project is about energy resources. Oil is a vital resource to the world. China as a major oil supplying country plays a significant role on the international stage. But at the same time, this piece of work is also a reflection of your personal experience. So how do you think that it might relate to those who do not share your personal experience?
Shen: My original studio was based in Daqing – China’s famous oil producing city. So I used to see those stylish-looking oil pumps everyday. The locals nicknamed them ‘kowtow machines’. Out of curiosity, I found out later that the pervasiveness of these machines in the city was a direct result of the dwindling supply of oil. They herald the depletion of oil reserves by signalling that oil can now only be extracted by force.
Oil is a hot commodity on the international scene. Its scarcity turns the black viscid substance into a sought after resource, and a factor in international disputes. Superpowers such as China, America and Russia all reply heavily on oil.? Therefore energy disputes could lead to another world war. The work plays on the analogy of international tension and turns it into a game.
Colonnello: And you turned the game of world politics into a game entitled Oil Gaming Machines (2006), using three gaming machines made of three life-size oil-pumps. It might look like an entertaining toy. But underneath the fun exterior lies profound reasoning.
Shen: Crisis lurk behind gaming logic, including wars. I chose a folk gaming format for the production of this work. The viewers are encouraged to take part in the games. Despite the players’ efforts to control and manipulate, the rises and falls of the game inevitably resemble that of human disputes. The games therefore become an analogy of mankind’s vain effort at controlling nature and its resources. Excessive desire leads to our own demise.
Colonnello: So do you feel that your works are closer to society at large now?
Shen:? I suppose you can say that. Closer to international affairs so to speak. This one is quite different from my previous works. For example, The Cloud Pillar departs from China signifies a form of cultural export. China’s influence on the world is huge now. And the influence continues to grow. But the way Western nations see China is similar to the way local viewers in the UK saw The Cloud Pillar departs from China when the work was displayed there. It is precisely the feeling I was trying to capture with this piece of work. When the cloud pillar was shipped to Britain, it was treated with alarm. They raised many issues, including not wanting to have the columns erected on the ground for fear of the danger it might engender. It is precisely how the West treats China. On the one hand, they hope China can change for the better. But on the other hand they also fear the threat that a bettered China might impose on them. The China threat is a widespread discourse in the West.??
Colonnello: Your recent work Venus is a comment on world views, aesthetics, and history. The godess Venus plays a big role in the fields of culture and art theory across the world. Like guanyin, Venus is a mythical figure placed in the world of reality. Despite their similarity in that sense, these two figures have very different effects on viewers. I’d like to know where you got the idea for this piece of work from.
Shen: I think it is in line with my previous works. My bone series is associated with myth, science and religion, etc. After that, my attention turned back to reality. I started to focus on international issues, such as energy issues or cultural issues. These are things we see on the media everyday. They are very real. Through the making of these works, I could feel the unmistakable gap between the real and the ideal. Venus was chosen because she was a mythical being herself. But at the same time, she has also been worshiped by sculptors as an image of perfection – a goddess of beauty and a yardstick for beauty. So I began to wonder, what if I return Venus to the real world? Would a life-size Venus with a sexy complexion be seen as less sacred once returned to the world of reality? I wanted to find out how people thought of her after she descended from the mythical world into the real one that all of us lives in.
16 October 2006, in Beijing
See Primitive Culture: A look on shamanism, by Guo Shuyun, p. 4.
The Classic of Mountains and Rivers (shanhaijing) is the earliest collection of recorded ancient myths available. Written around four thousand years ago and collated around two to two and a half thousand years ago, it is a treasure trove of ancient Chinese myths.
During the Ice Age (ranging from about 18 thousand to 10 thousand years ago), very unusual kinds of animals lived in Siberia. Many of them are already extinct. The mammoth was the largest of them. All animals, living simultaneously with a mammoth, are classified by paleontologists as mammoth fauna complex (Mammoth Fauna).