‘The just man walks the barren field’ William Blake
Liang Shaoji is well known for working with animals and nature in his art. But to understand his work, we must understand something of the Chinese traditions he is referring to when he lovingly rescues fragments of China’s architectural past from destruction, wraps references to the sadness and the strife of human life in raw silk thread, and atones for the unrest and the competition of the floating world by sitting on top of the sacred mountain of his village watching in a mirror how the clouds go by. We must know a little at least of the all-encompassing importance nature has in Chinese thought, and the ancient poetry that has canonized the images of silk and bamboo, candles and clouds, as symbols fleeting of life, of suffering and generosity. But even while referring to Chinese tradition and associative philosophy, Liang targets the here and now, transforming those well-known references into thoroughly contemporary installations and performances. Throughout the years, Liang has stubbornly refused to let the attraction of fame and quick money stand in the way of his work. Demanding unusual expertise and extraordinary techniques, his works are slow in the making and difficult to interpret. His installations don’t easily submit to commodification - they should be treated as the residue of actions and thought processes, indeed as markers of a chosen path of life, rather than as mere objects.
Liang Shaoji was born in Shanghai in 1945, graduated from Zhejiang Fine Art School, and studied at Varbanov Institute of Tapestry in Zhejiang Academy of Art. His early works consisted of serenely abstract hangings and installations made from textiles, often including bamboo as well. They made him a well-known figure in international exhibitions of arts and crafts. Then he reached a point where he felt that this was not enough.
”Weft and warp constitute the basic framework of textile weaving”, says Liang,”but they also constitute a mental framework that I felt was too limited for the making of art. I had to overcome the attraction of rich surfaces and decorative textures in order to find that deeper desire which was at the origin of my research for a new kind of fabric and form. I wanted to discover some kind of critical point where science and nature, biology and bio-ecology, weaving and sculpture, installation and action might meet.”
Having used industrial silk for his textile works, Liang started experimenting in 1988 with making his own silk. Breeding silkworms and using them as a living component of his work, became the starting point of a whole new oeuvre, beginning with an installation for the exhibition “Chinese Avant-garde Art Exhibition” at the China Art Museum in Beijing in 1989. He pinned live cocoons of silkworms on a big piece of silk fabric installed under special kind of lighting. The lighting was an important part of the work, because under a certain light silk still seems to move, to be alive. I wanted to reveal a sense of stillness or emptiness, and of a certain blurriness that is inherent in the quality of silk. “Xu” in Chinese means both emptiness and blurriness and the work therefore presented a typically Chinese state of mind. Since then he has created installations and performances using live silkworms, as well as made objects (often objets trouvés) wrapped in raw silk thread he has his silkworms spin around them. Most of these works are entitled “Nature Series”, followed by a number and a date. Each “Nature Series” may start with one initial work and continue to evolve over a number of years, comprising several works made at different dates.
Liang, who also has a studio in Shanghai, actually spends most of his time in Tiantai, a twon in Zhejiang province to personally tend to the breeding and growth of his silkworms. For almost twenty years, Liang has been working hard at his experiments, carefully watching how silkworms live and breed and change; how they respond to metal, grease, dirt or the smooth surface of glass. He often uses of their activities to finish his works, so that one can perhaps speak of his work as a type of modern silk weaving or an art that tries to explore the secrets of the perpetual motion between the universe and the human race. We live in a complicated era, nowadays. It is an era of sharp competition; people want to climb the social ladder as fast as they can, but they also want to free themselves from the slavery of fast living and return to nature and a simple life. So there are all these conflicting ambitions of conquering nature and feeling lost at the same time. The works of “Nature Series” address these feelings.
“Cloud” is Liang Shaoji’s first solo exhibition in China. It brings together a selection of works that deal with the uniquely redemptive aspects of his oeuvre The works exhibited in “Cloud” are all from the “Nature Series” with one exception: “Investigating Piao”, a series of black-and-white photographs Liang made of a day at the lottery in a town nearby his home village. “Piao” means “floating” or “lightness of being”, but also “movement without order”. The photos show the poverty and the desperation of the participants, the exhilaration of the winners, the wasteland that remains after the event and the lottery as a way of life for so many poverty-stricken Chinese. “Nature Series No. 24,25“ are two videos made in 1999 showing Liang walking through a scrapyard full of metal shavings, his bare feet increasingly bleeding from multiple wounds. “Candles” (Nature Series No. 87) is a pathway of approximately 1.60 metres wide and 7.50 metres long, consisting of bamboo stems partially filled with candlewax and/or wrapped in raw silk thread. “Nature Series No. 102” ( 2004-2007) is an installation of some 30 miners’ helmets wrapped in silk thread, their headlights burning underneath the silk. They were created as a memento for the miners who perished during the numerous mining accidents in China in recent years. “Chains” (Nature Series No. 97, 2002-2007) consists of big, rusty metal chains hanging from the ceiling and wrapped in silk thread. Liang started making them in 2001 after reading Milan Kundera’s “The Unbearable Lightness of Being”. “Mounted” (Nature Series No. 103, 2004-2007), consists of stacks of newspapers with silk thread spun around them to symbolically soften and ease the violence, wars and accidents contained in the daily news. “Cloud Mirror” (Nature Series No. 101, 2001-2007) finally, is a most recent work; a photograph of a big, square mirror laying on top of a mountain. The big mirror consists of several small square mirrors reflecting clouds drifting in a blue sky.
“Choosing, understanding and mastering a material gives you some insight into nature, society, history and the human mind”, Said Liang. By the end of the eighties and the beginning of the nineties, people in China were psychologically experiencing a rupture. That was reflected in his works, particualarly those using rusted iron and other industrial waste. To himself, metal has come to mean industrialization, cruelty and violence. When the First Gulf War started in 1991, he took a small desk globe and wrapped it in barbed wire. he attached bits of silk to the barbed wire and let live silk worms cover it with their threads. When warm, delicate silk threads are wrapped around cold metal, it affects you. In China, silk not only represents generosity, warmth, life, endurance, but also, because silk threads are so very long, human life and history.
Then he discovered that there was a problem with that work: silkworms don’t like metal. While he was experimenting with silkworms on metal, the experts in the field scoffed at him for wasting his efforts. But he succeeded in the end, rediscovering some almost forgotten qualities of those little animals. The experts look at production research from a purely commercial point of view, while he look at it differently, from an artistic angle.
In 1992 he started to research how to make silkworms weave on metal shavings. In 1999 he made a video of himself walking barefoot on metal shavings. He wanted to feel what the silkworms felt as they were crawling over them. He got a full truckload of shavings and spread them in the factory’s courtyard. The factory workers were the public.He didn’t expect it to be so incredibly painful. The smaller the shavings, the more painful they were. There was no way out, no way to escape the pain except to go forward until he reached the end of the courtyard. During that performance he felt like any human being in distress who has no way to give up or to get out of the situation he is in, and still you have to go on living ... He showed the bloody shavings, the ones that he had walked on, in the Millennium show in Chengdu on 31 December 1999.
“Candles” is made of bamboo pieces that are grouped together like a pathway of candles. Bamboo in China is like a person. It represents integrity and righteousness. Chinese intellectuals have always loved bamboo. “Candle” and “bamboo” have the same sound in Chinese, and he used the association in this work. The pathway resembles the way candles are put in front of an altar or on graves to commemorate the dead. He filled some of them with wax, but also had some of them covered in silk thread as a reference to the famous poem by Li Shangyin (813-853) which compares the last drop of the candle to the last breath of the silkworm. It is referred to as “The Tears of the Candle” because of these two lines:
The thread of the silkworm will only end when the spring silkworm dies
And not until the candle has burnt to ashes, will the tears begin to dry
Spring's silkworms wind till death their heart's threads:
The wick of the candle turns to ash before its tears dry.
The silkworm spins silk from love-sick heart till its death.
The candle had no tears to shed only when burned.
The candle provides warmth and light while it is itself consumed. The silkworm spits silk until it dies. Both represent giving and generosity until the exhaustion of one’s very life. So there is an almost natural association between bamboo, candles and silk. There are even further possible associations with the Mahayana, or “Big Vehicle”, in Buddhism, whose purpose it is to bring the spirit of giving to the sentient beings. So you could also say that this work is like an altar to pay homage to the lost spirit of giving.
The first Mirror piece he did was in 1993. It was actually a small piece of glass on which he put some silkworms to cover it with their threads. In 1995 he used a mirror instead and had the silkworms cover it with silk almost entirely, with only a little bit of the mirror showing. If you put a silkworm on a mirror it will automatically start to go in circles. In the end the silk looks like a cloud which is again reflected in the mirror. For quite some time he planned to make a new work based on the association of clouds and mirrors. Liang built his own studio in Tiantai nearby Tiantai Mountain 2003. The Tiantai mountain is sacred ground; it is the source of the Tiantai sect, one of the four most important Buddhist sects, and equally of a sect of Daoism. To make this work he hauled the mirrors up to the top of the Tiantai Mountain and photographed the reflection of the drifting clouds bearing in mind the poem “Riverside Pavilion” by Du Fu (712-770):
Water flows and my heart is quieting down
A cloud lingers as the mind tarries
The waters flow -- my heart won't contend;
The clouds remain--my mood is just as slow.
Seeing the water running, the cloud flowing,
You will have no mind to compete, beyond yourself, beyond nature.
This is close to a Zen state of mind. It means to empty yourself of pain and sadness, competition and unrest; to separate yourself from urban strife in solitude and tranquility, free and elegant like the clouds. Like the thread of the silkworm, clouds are considered a life force. Nature is not only our living environment but our cultural environment as well. The entire “Nature Series” is a sculpture of time, life and nature, a recording of the fourth dimension.”