Shen Shaomin first came to acclaim in the 1900s with his Unknown Creatures and Experimental Fields series - sculptures of mythical creatures and bizarre biological scenarios made of bones. Since then, he has produced a diverse and large body of work, expressing both horror and fascination at the perversities of science, the brutality of humans against nature and the unsustainability of human civilisation.
Shen Shaomin migrated to Australia following the Tiananmen Square protests in 1989. Like many of his Chinese-Australian peers, however, he relocated to China a few years ago to take advantage of cheaper materials and studio space, and the dynamism of China’s international art scene. Shen maintains a connection with Australia, and is increasingly represented in Australian exhibitions. I spoke to him during a recent visit for the 17th Biennale of Sydney - images and interview below.
CC: Your work can be extremely confronting. Your bonsais are tortured and the beasts from your bone series appear the product of bizarre genetic mutations. However I wonder about the contradictions between the purpose of an artwork and context in which it is exhibited, particularly when the work is about something like violence. By the time people get into a gallery environment can a work still be truly confronting, or has it been aestheticised to a point of safety? Is that something you have to work against?
SS: With most of my work there are two stages. When people first see it they might think it’s beautiful. But there is a horror within that beauty – that so-called beauty. There’s a violence in there too, and I have to work very hard to make people see that violence. Getting people to experience that terror is the ultimate purpose of my work. It’s not my job to give people something beautiful to look at – they can go to the park for that. There are many beautiful things to look at, but I think that contemporary people lack an ability to think beyond what they can see. The space we have for our current kind of existence is shrinking. The way we live our lives is getting more and more frightening.
CC: How do you feel about the future?
SS: I’m a pessimist. [laughs] I don’t feel good about the future at all. I just got back from China where just this year there have been a number of natural disasters: several serious earthquakes; drought in the South; and in Dongbei, where I’m from, and which is supposed to be freezing cold, this summer it got to 40 degrees. Then there have been floods and land subsidence … It’s been one natural disaster after another, and the majority of these so-called natural disasters have been caused by humans. The speed of China’s economic development is coming at a huge cost. People are living beyond their means, overexploiting resources and upsetting the ecological balance.
I’m using China to make a point here but this is a global problem. American capitalism and its modes of production are not sustainable. They lead to overconsumption and the overuse of finite natural resources. So much damage is done in the name of the economy, or for the sake of faster development. Ultimately it’s all at odds with human existence.
CC: Australia is also built on this system.
SS: It’s the same everywhere. And it’s just getting faster.
CC: It’s difficult. There’s so much that’s exciting about contemporary China, such a strong sense of positivity, change and optimism – it’s infectious and I think that’s why people find it so interesting at the moment. But then you can’t experience this without a strong sense of concern. The changes going on there right now, the enthusiastic uptake of capitalism – they also make you worry about the future of the planet.
SS: China’s current situation is very much like my bonsais. At first glance you will find it beautiful, but once you look more carefully you’ll see there are terrifying things behind that beauty. China has over a billion people, but over 800 million of those people are peasants. A peasant’s standard of life in China is still pretty basic. They say that if every one of those 800 Chinese peasants showered every day it would take more than all the water on the planet. That’s a scary thought.
CC: And if they all want a car?
SS: Well that when it gets even scarier. So you ask me how I feel about the future? I feel that the faster China’s economic development, the more dangerous a situation we’re putting ourselves in. And this danger isn’t like that from a war. It’s the destruction of our very environment, the overuse of our natural resources.
CC: It’s easy to forget all this when you live in a big city.
SS: That’s true. We enjoy ourselves and ignore what’s behind the experience. It’s more convenient to ignore it. So every year I use the money I’ve made from selling my art works to make a documentary film. The speed of China’s current development is so fast that many things are disappearing, and if you don’t record some of these things people won’t be able to see them at all anymore. It doesn’t even matter if your filmmaking skills aren’t any good at this point – it’s just a matter of building a historical archive, of documenting the destruction. I’m making a film about a temple in Northern China at the moment.
CC: Is this film about religion?
SS: The opposite, actually. Everything in China has been commercialised, completely commercialised, including the temples. A temple should be a spiritual place, but even the temples in China now are owned by companies. They’re publicly listed companies, you can buy shares in them on the stock market. They’re a business! It’s frightening.
CC: You’re obviously very concerned about contemporary society, ethics – a loss of moral compass perhaps. Do you think art has to have a sense of social responsibility?
SS: I think contemporary and classical art have difference functions. If you paint a very beautiful painting and hang it on the wall, everyone will stand back and admire it, they’ll think it’s beautiful, they’ll find it comforting – but that’s not going to make people think. Contemporary art can raise questions and social issues so that people can go away and really consider these for themselves.
CC: What about things like your personal experience, your subjectivity. Do you ever think about exploring these?
SS: Perhaps in China it’s a generational thing. People like me, Ai Wei Wei, Zhang Dali, Wang Qingsong, Wang Jinsong … This generation of artists feels a strong sense of social responsibility, and our art carries that weight. We’re different from Chinese artists born in the ’80s or ’90s. Their sense of responsibility as artists’ has weakened a lot. They’re less political.
CC: Perhaps when you were their age there was just no way to avoid politics.
SS: That’s right. At that time our generation of artists in China were living in an oppressive environment. You had to work underground; you couldn’t just make and exhibit our kind of art in public. The first shows I ever participated in were held in the houses of ex-pat friends. But you know China today is more open, and people have the opportunity to express themselves.
CC: You’re known for your use of unconventional materials, but you are also extremely versatile in the forms with which you choose to communicate. From sculpture, to installation, to film …
SS: My method is perhaps a little different from that of other artists. Every work represents a new stage. The materials are always different, the approach is always different. People who’ve seen my work in the past and then see a new show are often confused. I had three works in this year’s Sydney Biennale – the bonsais, the G5 installation, and the film – and they’re all entirely different!
CC: People probably think they’re made by three different artists. And then on top of that you live in two different countries.
SS: I know. It’s something that a lot of people mention.
CC: How much time do you spend in Australia each year?
SS: It’s hard to say. My family is here so I come regularly, but usually only for a short time. Actually my family just got back to Australia about ten months ago – they were living in China for over two years so that my son could learn Chinese, but now we’ve brought him back to Australia so that he can continue with his English. [laughs]
I’ll come to Australia when I have an exhibition, and there are more and more over here these days. My studio is in Beijing and my work is generally made there, but I often make plans for new projects while I’m in Australia. If I have some ideas I’ll write them down, and then return to China to make them real.
This interview was first published in Artist Profile, Issue 14