In the Underground of Heavenly Peace
The installations of the Chinese artist Shen Shaomin look at first like distorted images of reality but turn out to be facades behind which a network of meanings alludes to their historical and political backgrounds. Nearly always his artistic themes reach way back into his childhood. By mingling the past with the present and future, fact with fiction, science with fantasy, and candour with irony, he transforms memory and embeds the personal in the collective. Shen Shaomin, born in 1956 in northwest China, is now living in Beijing and Sydney.
The wooden model of Tiananmen Square is huge and split down the middle so exhibition visitors can walk through the gap. It looks as if someone had sawn through the scale replica precisely. The model reveals a love of detail but the overall impression is obscure, as are the dimensions which open up under the splendour of the square´s building: here on several storeys are to be found bunker-rooms like parts of a dolls´ house. At all corners wooden soldiers are looming with drawn weapons; here and there tanks are standing; and some of the wooden dolls are lying on pallets and allowing themselves to be massaged. At the site where the student revolt was bloodily repressed in 1989, there seems to be an arsenal and a secret underground fitness centre. The Square of Heavenly Peace generates and regenerates its army and state power. It is the underground spring, the state itself.
Such are the impressions made on exhibition visitors by the symbolism of the Tiananmen Square carefully crafted by the Chinese artist Shen Shaomin. Maybe this sculpture, completed in 2007, could now be read, on the eve of the controversial summer Olympics, as a further statement about China and its policy towards Tibet.
Shen Shaomin, though, has a much more complex relationship to the model which he perfected through years of work. There is no available official architectural plan which he could have relied on. Getting the scale right was the first tiresome problem, so he and his students simply began by measuring the square. Nonetheless, according to the artist, the sketches make it appear twice as big. He first kept them by pasting them onto 15 metre-long strips of paper.
In spite of Shen Shaomin’s statements about its architectonic details, the wooden Tiananmen Square in the exhibition Re Asia, curated by Wu Hung in the House of World Cultures, is not an architectural model but a fiction reaching back deep into the artist’s memories and Beijing’s collective identity. Already as a child Shen brooded over the place and tried to grasp the hub of the Middle Kingdom in terms of images and pictograms. Today he views the Square of Heavenly Peace through the layers of his memory and of history. The square, he says, is a monument of his childhood and even of his generation. But it is always changing. Hence there are various Tiananmen Squares – his personal childhood site, the historical Chinese site and the site of personal or collective imagination:
“In my life there are several Tiananmens. Tiananmen used to be central to our people and to our history. It was very positive, and as a youth I painted Tiananmen Square again and again. Then there is the present-day square, where tourists and Chinese have themselves photographed – the square which thus becomes something personal. But there are also many tales, according to which the square is built upon catacombs. These are merely fantastic claims, but I have taken them up and pictured to myself what might be hidden there and have shown it in this model.”
Shen Shaomin circles around his themes and does not discard old perceptions. Rather he integrates them into an overall work which is continually becoming more complex. Hence he says: “I would feel so proud just to take a picture in front of it. It’s a monument of our childhood, not merely a Chinese and perhaps political symbol. I think it’s also a symbol of our generation. In my heart, it’s extremely important.”
A series of works made of bones, which he has exhibited since 2003, seems at first to show the artist in a wholly different light. Bones, newly put together into three-headed monsters, gigantic Jurassic Park mosquitoes and other bizarre beings – Shen’s fictive fossils, now to be seen in London’s Saatchi Gallery, recall prehistoric exhibits. Their scientific aura remains closely bound up with the shapes which, warped or many-headed, seem to stem from a world of myth. Mysterious Chinese characters which have been scratched into the authentic bones nonetheless transport them into the realm of fable and also create a bridge from prehistoric and historical times to the present-day world of signs and codes. The beasts are themselves codified. The codes in a world of gene-technology can be not only decoded but also manipulated.
Like his look at the Square of Heavenly Peace, here is a memory going a long way back – a memory which Shen Shaomin reinterprets or re-imagines in the light of the present. His childlike interest in prehistoric exhibits was rekindled when he left China and tried, in his new homeland Australia, to come to terms with the dubious achievements of gene- and biotechnology. Like his wooden model, Shen’s fossil models mirror a world in which precise scientific methods and fictions and myths coexist. By the by he pokes fun at the ‘museum industry’ and plays God with his artistically created zoological Frankenstein figures.
Shen Shaomin, born in 1956 in Acheng in the northeastern province Heilongjiang, is now living in Sydney and Beijing. His works are exhibited internationally and have been seen for instance at the Liverpool Biennial, in the Kunstmuseum in Bern and in the West Gallery in Melbourne.
Group Exhibitions (Selected)
Exhibition / Installation
Die wahren Orte II, Alexander Ochs Galleries, Berlin/Germany, Beijing/China
Reasia , House of World Cultures, Berlin, Germany
New Vista - The Phenomenon of Post-Tradition in Contemporary Art , White Space Beijing, Beijing, China
Soft Power: Asian Attitude , Zendai Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai, China
Neue Asiatische Kunst. Thermocline of Art, ZKM / Museum für Neue Kunst und Medienmuseum, Karlsruhe, Germany
Two Asias, Two Europes - An International Exhibition of Contemporary Art, Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai, China
Mahjong - Chinesische Gegenwartskunst, Kunstmuseum Bern, Bern, Zurich, Switzerland
Shen Shaomin / Alexandra Schlund, Gallery Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne, Lucerne, Switzerland
Asian Traffic, Contemporary Art Center of South Australia, Adelaide, Australia
Silknet, Galerie Urs Meile, Beijing-Lucerne, Lucerne, Switzerland
Science Fictions, Institute of Contemporary Arts Singapore, Singapore
Science Fictions , Earl Lu Gallery, Singapore
This artist took part in the following project(s) organized/funded by the culturebase.net partner institutions.
Exhibition, Films, Literature, Dance, Conference
(13 March 08 - 18 May 08)
The Saatchi Gallery - Artworks by Shen Shaomin
CulturE ASEF - Installation Shen Shaomin
Installation: Tiananmen Square