Chris Moore On Shen Shaomin At Osage Gallery, Hong Kong, And Ov Gallery, Shanghai

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Shen Shaomin, ‘Bonsai No. 34′

Unassailable

Shen Shaomin, famous for simulacra skeletons of monstrous animals, has recently demonstrated a commanding facility with other media. In two exhibitions in Hong Kong and Shanghai we see him branching out into bonsai, model-building and film. His rigorous and provocative thinking continues unabated.

At Osage Gallery is exhibiting a scale model of the Tiananmen gate in Beijing and a series of nine bonsai works. The bonsai trees have been clamped, twisted and bent using a variety of excessive instruments – pinions, retorts, wire mesh and counterweights. ‘Bonsai No.34′ consists of four trees whose manacled trunks are completely controlled but whose soft foliage is so thick that it has bent the mesh above. ‘Bonsai No.35′ appears to be dead, the final frail tendrils straining to reach a mesh, recalling scenes from concentration camp films.

Each piece in the Bonsai exhibition is accompanied by care instructions to hopefully ensure that the art work continues to live, but even once dead it remains sculptural. Thus they only survive with the help of their owner. On the other hand, the owner is also responsible for prolonging suffering – caring ties you down.

The name “Bonsai” draws attention to the Japanese occupation of China and the Nanjing Massacre in particular. The bonsai tradition has Chinese origins, the Chinese name being penjing, after the planter-basins. They art of penjing/bonsai revolves around creating a private space for spiritual contemplation. It is ironic that in order to create this private space, one engages in torturing nature to control and stunt natural growth. The philosophy enacts a punishment and recalls the bizarre efficiency of the execution machine in Kafka’s In the Penal Colony. We are reminded of foot binding, the perverse aesthetic tradition of binding women’s feet to keep them small and of China’s deliberately crippled beggars (to give them a job).

Harmony

Rebuilt several times, Tiananmen, The Gate of Heavenly Peace, was where Emperors issued edicts and where Mao proclaimed the People’s Republic. His portrait hangs over the gate, which also appears at the centre of the national emblem. In 2005 the Xinhua News Agency reported the secret reconstruction of the gatehouse from 1969-70. Then Premier Zhou Enlai ordered that the rebuilding be kept secret because of the sensitivity of the national symbol. Tiananmen was the site of mass rallies during the Cultural Revolution and more recently in 1989. The cultural importance of the Tiananmen is deep.

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Shen Shaomin, ‘Project No.1′

Exhibited earlier this year in the Haus der Kulturen der Welt in Berlin, ‘Project No.1′ is an over-scale model of the Tiananmen gate, accompanied by precise and detailed blueprints, construction progress photos, stills and an animated film of the interior. The enormous model stands in a glass case atop an imperial red pedestal and sliced open, allowing an Emperor’s eye view inside – godlike and paranoid.

Shaomin imagines the Tiananmen as adapted by the military. The figures inside, many with guns poised, are fragile two-dimensional toys. So what is real, the foreboding structure or what it represents? Like a termite’s nest, signs of life are only found in the interior. Above ground the gate is desolate – no tourists, politicians, comrades, or soldiers. Below soldiers with helmets, goggles, and gas masks are protected and anonymous. There are racks of guns and higgledy-piggeldy munitions boxes but no protestors, no foreign hordes, no counter-revolutionaries. Below ground tunnels run off in many directions with armoured vehicles emerging, one about to tip-off the edge. In one room women massage the soldiers. Shall we guess that they are young, based on their shapely legs and cute-outfits? No Mao-suits here.

In the exhibition catalogue, Wu Hung writes that “[Project No.1] 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”. You get to choose.

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Still from ‘I’m Chinese,’ 2007
75 minutes

I’m Chinese

At OV Gallery in Shanghai, Shaomin’s first film, ‘I’m Chinese’, was unveiled. The setting is Hongjiang, a remote border village. In World War I Russian refugees fled to Heilongjian province in China. Fifty years later during the Cultural Revolution their descendants would be attacked for not being “Chinese” and Hongjiang dubbed the Village of Spies. Shaomin spent two winters filming 60 hours of footage of the villagers’ daily lives. They are shown at a funeral, drinking, dancing, joking, ribald, maudlin, and desolate but also defiant of their non-acceptance by China. This film meditates on the absurdity of all borders, cultural, political and artistic. It is bloody – various animals are graphically slaughtered, including if you like the open-field cremation of one villager. It is cruel and funny – terrified dogs ‘learning’ Russian and English. It is also beautiful, particularly a scene where some men blow a white substance into the air. This is a major work which fits within Shaomin’s oeuvre but will also redefine it.

‘Activated Organism or Unassailable’, Osage Gallery, Kwun Tong, 5/F, Kian Dai Industrial Building, 73-75 Hung to Road, Kwun Tong, Kowloon. Exhibition extended until 13 July 2008

‘Critical Moment – New Media & Installation’, OV Gallery, Shanghai, Shaoxing Lu, until 13 July 2008

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