A Conversation with Liang Shaoji and Cai Guoqiang
What About Art? Contemporary Art From China
ON DECEMBER 24, 2014 AT SHANGHART GALLERY IN SHANGHAI
CAI: I am curious. Can the silk you use wrap an even larger object? For instance, could it wrap your childhood cradle? Is a silkworm limited by the size of a cocoon?
LIANG: I started experimenting by wrapping small things. Actually, when I’m raising silkworms I want to see how they made silk, so I watch them spinning cocoons at night.
CAI: They will do their own thing, no matter whether you watch them or not, it’s just that people like to watch.
LIANG: I have made two discoveries: some silkworms spin cocoons according to the light and the direction of the wind¬¬.
LIANG: Yes. There is something else, they make silk at the same time as they excrete.
CAI: Their feces are useful too.
LIANG: Yes. I have kept all of these in my work. I used to watch them working. I would observe them making silk the entire night through. At one point, I fell asleep for about two hours and a silkworm fell on my neck. When I woke up, I found a thin layer of silk on my neck. Afterward I thought: I am a silkworm myself. I could do this on a huge scale. But after I started making big works, it didn’t feel right, it felt too exaggerated. Actually I am no different from a silkworm, we are equals.
CAI: You can’t be that demanding of silkworms. They don’t like to make silk on iron.
LIANG: Right! However, it suited my state of mind.
CAI: Don’t you have children? Why not let silkworms wrap up some of their toys? Why do you have to wrap iron? I used silkworms once in Japan in the 1990s. I found out silkworms can also work in the exhibition hall. I asked a research house for silkworms in Tokyo to do it. I used a Silk Road story to make the installation and I let the silkworms wrap many things. However, it made the cabinet very messy. Their excrement smudged all over the books, it was actually quite beautiful. I even used one hundred silkworms and wanted to see if they could wrap an entire child’s cradle in an evening, but I discovered it is impossible.
LIANG: Silkworms are sensitive to the sweat of human skin. And smell, too. If you are quiet, it will make silk on you. That is its most extreme work. Some silkworms are very small but they make a large amount of silk. Some are very large, but they only produce a little amount.
CAI: A woman who cannot give birth to children may be huge but a woman who can give birth to many children might be small. Does the silk differ in thickness?
CAI: I recently made a gunpowder drawing on silk in the Hangzhou Museum. I found out silk was tougher than both canvas and paper. It has flexibility, so it wasn’t easy to break even after using explosives on its surface. It doesn’t burn, and only one hole appeared after the explosion. Silk is amazing. People used it to make banners in ancient times. In the West, they used cotton to make their banners. They had emblems on both sides, so they were very heavy. During wartime they didn’t sway in the wind. The Arab world used Chinese silk to make their banners. So they waved beautifully in the breeze. Silk was important during wartime. It may be pierced, but won’t burn.
LIANG: I observe silk at a micro level.
CAI: Micro level is good. You don’t need to make a huge installation with silk. Chinese people always tend to see things on a macro scale.
LIANG: Silkworms have another trait: they like to climb to high places. If you put one down and don’t pay any attention to it, it will climb to the rooftop, fall down making silk, and then climb again.
CAI: It doesn’t die from the fall?
LIANG: Yes, it may. I am afraid of doing that in public. I have to be careful, otherwise people will criticize me.
CAI: You mean they will say you torture animals?
CAI: Did you photograph the silkworms making silk?
LIANG: Yes, a lot. I think it could be used somehow in Doha. The process is very interesting.
CAI: I doubt there are any silkworms in the Gulf region. It’s a desert out there.
LIANG: It was on the Silk Road.
CAI: There are no silkworms there.
CAI: Did you bring silkworms from abroad to make cocoons in the Arab world?
LIANG: I brought their cocoons. Live silkworms are not allowed.
CAI: Mulberry leaves have to be imported to Doha. Most of their fodder has to be imported. You can do many things with this. For example, you could make a small tomb and have silkworms wrap it up. I am not asking you to work according to my ideas, but I think silk can be emotional and beautiful. But will you set the silkworms free when this is over? Can silk deteriorate?
LIANG: They need to be treated and protected.
CAI: Why is your dinosaur egg called Origins?
LIANG: Origins means fundamental. It means a fresh start, the foundation. It actually combines religion and science. It could be infinitely huge or infinitely small. Silk is the same thing. It becomes invisible in the end.
CAI: Is it pretty? Is it on glass?
LIANG: I want to achieve the sound of the silkworms, the sound of silence. Last time it was a heavenly sound that came from nature, this time it comes from the heart. Perhaps I’ve been influenced by the Tiantai school [of Buddhism].
CAI: You use silk as your medium. What is your artistic goal when you choose this material?
LIANG: At the beginning I was mostly interested in time and life. Now I am interested in “traces.” Traces that change over time.
ON MAY 31, 2015 AT ROCKBUND COMPLEX IN SHANGHAI
LIANG: There is a lot of sand in the Middle East and Central Asia. I particularly like the emptiness. The Mesopotamian area was initially called the “Fertile Crescent” of the Middle East, so I made two curves. I make use of the light, which looks like the moonlight shining on the sand. The design is very romantic. There is no peace in the Middle East, but I will bring peace for you. They have the earliest civilization in ancient culture. Astronomy, geometry, and collective learning were invented there. So I use sand, the earliest stages of materials.
CAI: Where will you put the sand?
LIANG: I want to fire some ceramics or use your copperware and some Coca-Cola bottles. I will wrap some silk on it and shine light on it. It becomes transparent and become like a living space. There should be the Hanging Gardens of Babylon in the Middle East. On the back I wanted to write some words with sand and sprinkle it. I also make ceramics.
CAI: Why not use silkworms to write in Arabic?
LIANG: I could. I will stick the words on and they can trace the words.
CAI: Do you have a title for this work?
LIANG: Moon Garden.
Cai: You can also write “moon” in Arabic. Why do you want to use cola containers? The theme of the moon is idyllic and aesthetically beautiful. It has artistic conception and privacy. The Coca-Cola bottle seems random here. The star, moon, and two rivers all seem very poetic and full of imagination, so maybe you shouldn’t add the Pop Art–inspired Coke bottles. You shouldn’t use too many materials, but present the silk as well as possible. You have to push the silk-making process and use silk to write an Arabic word. It is OK if the word is not clear or a bit obscured. As you said, it is chaotic and violent in the Middle East. However peace will come back ultimately.
LIANG: I want to make it peaceful and beautiful. This line is Arabic calligraphy.
CAI: You send Doha peace and wishes that they will be peaceful in the future.
LIANG: Not only do they have silk, they also have sand, because I think that the world’s greatest cultures are buried in the sand. Even though the current situation might not reflect developed culture, that doesn’t mean there is no civilization. This is how I imagine civilization and the universe. Also, I’ve discovered that they also like glass painting. Even though my works aren’t like painting on glass, there is a similar feeling.
ON SEPTEMBER 22, 2015 AT POWER STATION OF ART IN SHANGHAI
LIANG: I failed in several attempts to write words with silkworms. I have only just successfully completed two recent experiments. This word I searched in Google. It means tranquility. The knife is 85 centimeters in height. I just found that the mirror looks like crystals.
CAI: Are these all made by silkworms? Or did you make them?
LIANG: Yes they made them. The silkworms like climbing, and are sensitive to height. They need to do it several times to adjust and make silk in a designed directions. After raising them in August, they reproduce very fast, while the silkworms in the fall need fifty days, and some even need more than that. After they lay eggs they need to be soaked in acid and kept in the freezer. We need to wait for the mulberry leaves to grow, and it takes around three or four days for the eggs to defrost. When the temperature comes down, the process takes about six days. After six days, we need to raise them for twenty to thirty days. They eat and don’t move for over one month.
During the process, there is a smell. I have to clean it, and take out the sick ones. I built my own greenhouse and planted mulberry by myself. However, the trees were blown away by a typhoon. So I ask farmers directly for mulberry leaves. It isn’t worth it to raise silkworms and plant mulberry at the same time. Most of the workload comes before the process and after it. Making silk is only part of it.
CAI: Raising silkworms sounds very exciting. Many artists seem to talk about art, but when you say silkworm, it sounds like you are actually talking about art and life.
LIANG: Raising silkworms is actually performance art in China.
CAI: Is Mount Tiantai near your studio? I’ve heard there are many mountains around there.
LIANG: Yes. It is very beautiful. When you go there in this weather, the clouds are beautiful. It feels unreal.
CAI: You live in the country alone while most artists live in the city.
LIANG: It feels like a supernatural fairyland.
CAI: I think in one respect it is the silkworms. There is “Tranquility” in Arabic on the top, and lots of sand below many knives. It is like hiding a dagger within a smile. Both are calm and sharp. The videotape on the wall shows how silkworms make silk. The installation has a philosophical spirit.
LIANG: Silk was ceremonial in ancient China. And it obviously was used for clothes in the Middle East. That’s the reason I use silk and light. The light gives this a ceremonial form.
I have summarized six methods of painting in ancient China. I have used six methods in the artwork.
CAI: You have six methods for using your silkworms.
LIANG: The first method is “omnipotence.” It means both the interactive relationship between human beings and the heavens, embodied in the relationship between the silkworm and myself. Actually, I am their director here designing their interactions. How to cooperate in the interaction will relate to the second method, which is “reasoning.” It is a science to raise the silkworms slowly and to know them well. First of all, I need to cull the sick silkworms or the silkworms that cannot produce silk. It is like selecting good weavers. I need to observe their behavior, the temperature and their food in the process. So I look at it now, when do I put on the light and in which direction should the light shine? Where do silkworms go? Other people say this is not scientific.
CAI: So all of your silkworms are artists. How about the third method?
LIANG: The third method is to understand the rules and inspirations from a micro perspective. I want to see a grand picture through a microscope. I want to observe the universe, society, and life by collaborating with tiny silkworms, to imagine the big from the small. This is why it is called micro perspective. This is my summary. I have another few characteristics. One is experimentation, the second one is a scientific point of view, the third one is probability, and the fourth is poetry. Silk is essential to art. There is a philosophical meaning in the process, transcendental and impossible to describe, a realization. Another meaning is biological. Silk is from an organism, it is a medium of living things.
CAI: So you can make a good living through your works?
LIANG: When I was in graduate school I supported myself by making sculptures, wall panels, and flags. That’s where my money came from. However, the more I made, the less time I had for other things, and afterward I lost my money and my studio. All my workers were gone, but I found places for them.
I had an interest at the beginning; but if I lose interest I can’t continue anymore. I’ve also done papermaking and had a wire netting studio but I didn’t continue in the end. So why did I choose silkworms? Because no one has done it yet, any other project would be overdone at an international level.
CAI: As you know, your works might overlap with others, or they won’t be unique at the international level. However, for silkworms, you became unique. Nowadays if anyone does silkworms in China, they will think about you.
LIANG: Everyone from the art academy thinks that silkworms are frightening. Especially the girls.
CAI: The silkworms make sounds when they eat their leaves. Do they talk?
LIANG: They make two kinds of sounds when they are climbing: one is when they move. I can’t hear them but they are definitely making noises.
CAI: Can they breathe? Do they have lungs?
LIANG: Yes. They have lungs to breathe. I have seen their biological structure. The main part of their anatomy is a long silk bag. Two glands run through the body. When silk comes out, the silk bag solidifies and only one little hole is left. It is like an industrial spray gun. There is one interesting thing about silkworms: they need more light when they’re young, and less light when they’re old.
CAI: Do they have eyes?
LIANG: Yes. They have eyes. Actually the sound of excreting silk can be divided in two types, one is the sound of the silk coming out, the other is when intertwining two threads, like strumming, or undulating.
CAI: Do you talk to the silkworms?
LIANG: We communicate telepathically, haha!
CAI: Do you feel lonely when you are raising silkworms? It is so quiet.
LIANG: Then suddenly the sun rises.
CAI: You don’t sleep. Do the silkworms sleep?
LIANG: They don’t sleep, so that is how I’ve wrecked my health. As soon as they start producing silk they don’t sleep. When they are small they can’t sleep for more than three days. A long stretch would be five to six days.
CAI: How many silkworms do you need to make one work?
LIANG: At least twenty to thirty thousand this year.
CAI: This installation is the work of thirty thousand silkworms!
LIANG: The cocoon of every silkworm has a different thickness. One worm can make up to 1200 meters of silk, at the most 1600 meters!