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A “Worldly” Artist

About Liang Shaoji’s solo exhibition at PSA Author: Hou Hanru 2021


For the past 40 to 50 years, Liang Shaoji has been a "worldly" artist who is passionate, deeply involved in reality, yet alone and away from the crowd. There are two possible interpretations of the word "worldly" here: first, "world" symbolizes the social reality, or the world reality faced by China in its efforts to participate in modernization and globalization. The geopolitical world is its most attractive image. Topics such as "the confrontation and fusion of East and West" are its expressions in the "field of culture", a world that is both "microscopic" and borderless. On the other hand, today, the "world" is increasingly being reconceptualized and redefined as "the World of the Living" beyond the anthropocentricity and the "human community". Even the original meaning of the world, which originated from Buddhism, has been restored from time to time by intellectuals to describe a kind of absolute world where one no longer needs to worry about physical existence. Liang Shaoji has always cared intensely and privately about these two "world issues" and sees this care as the meaning of his work and life. He participates in the discussion and shaping of this "worldliness" via a very unique way and media language. He naturally chooses to use "contemporary Chinese" styles to explore the dialogue, conflict and integration of aesthetics, poetry, biology, science, politics and personal destiny, in order to express a "Chinese" realm of life that achieves the "unity of heaven and man". He draws on various living states of the living world, from bamboo to silkworms, from rocks to flowing water, from clouds to sound, and conducts various experiments, either by observing, collecting, casting, constructing, or burning, or even manipulating and altering genes, grafting together disparate elements, and not hesitating to use the latest digital media and the Internet. In this way, he consciously seeks an "artistic expression" of contemporary ecology outside of the Western tradition. In today's era of environmental crisis and out-of-control epidemics, we are "suddenly" aware of the fragility of life and the various "political means" of sustaining it. We are eager to find a way out of this sense of fragility. What Liang Shaoji has been searching for with his whole body and soul for half a century is in fact the way to generate tenacity out of fragility. He has retreated from the geopolitical center and worked persistently in the borderlands, revealing to us the beautiful picture of turning darkness into light and weakness into strength when we need it most. He is "take the plunge" at the PSA, making a major exhibition that occupied most of the museum. His intention is definitely not to indulge himself in a narcissistic retrospective, but to lure each and every one of us "participants" into the "other world" that he has incubated through his wanderings and struggles between inadvertent and painstaking efforts. In an absolute contemporary ecological environment, that is, in a situation of "unprecedented" vulnerability and danger, he invites us to imagine and search for the "poetic" way out through which we can save ourselves.


Borrowing the "narrative mode" of Zhuangzi's "paradox of the butterfly dream", we can best understand the profoundness of Liang Shaoji's art. Therefore, we decided to call his large-scale exhibition "Can Wo / Wo Can (Silkworm me / Me silkworm)", or as it is translated in English (A Silky Entanglement), like entangled silk, weak and warm, but unable to for one to get out. ("Silkworms" [Tsan] and "entanglement"[Chan] pronounce identically in Shanghainese, and perhaps also in the "Mandarin" language that hadn't yet taken shape before the bannermen mixed Manchu accent the Beijing dialect? The more we get involved with a language historian, the obscurer things get, which is why we have "A Silky Entanglement "!)

Indeed, Liang Shaoji is conceiving the exhibition from multiple angles as a special world that is as clear as spring water and as complex as cloudy mist. On the one hand, he uses all kinds of heavy materials to compete with the huge space in order to be sublime and eternal, and on the other hand, he exposes everything in the invisible stream of time by means of "transmedia" that is as light as the "Ether".

The exhibition includes the results of Liang Shaoji's persistent exploration of the "intertwining" of nature and culture, which has continued from his early days to the present. First, the audience can see from the interdependence of bamboo and writing symbols - bamboo slips - to the biological phenomena of growth and transformation of the natural life of silkworms from birth to silk spitting, from metamorphosis to death in "Die Verwandlung" style. Under the artist's "artistic" intervention, this process becomes a metaphor for human life and transformation - the weaving of nature and artificiality as its embodiment (incarnation). Further, he tightly combines this process with the modernity represented by the discovery of science and technology, and actively uses various contemporary video and sound techniques to create a world in which creatures and environments, light and sound, silkworms and "me", "me" and silkworms, are intertwined and reflect each other. He is both sincere and transcendent. On the other hand, the artist, who has been living in seclusion and traveling around the world for many years, has not only kept the purity of the artist's heart, but also worked closely with the scientist with his unparalleled curiosity and imagination, coupled with his brilliant rational thinking and hands-on ability, "overstepping", changing his profession and identity, demonstrating how it is possible to break the disciplinary field and its "sphere of power". After all, living in today's China, which is both sincerely open to the "outside world" and constantly worried about losing its "traditional" status, he tries out various artistic, or "super-artistic" techniques with the utmost dedication. He is constantly concerned with the not-so-fortunate and happy social reality of human beings; he makes us face natural and man-made disasters together, and sighs with compassion from the heart.

Through Liang Shaoji's consistent persistence and all kinds of forms of expression, this painstaking and relentless exploration process unfolds with various adventurous "acts" and is derived into a system. This time, he has purposefully designed a route for PSA to present this creative system, inviting the audience to enter his "double world" in a coherent manner, in sections of nature, life, daily life, society, research and meditation, and to feel and share a certain hope for the "sublime spirit" together. Therefore, in the largest space of the exhibition, we are led to a "field between heaven and hell" - "The Temple" - to participate in the dialogue between "heaven, earth, human and god".


The weaving and growth of materials have been Liang Shaoji's main creative method since he became Maryn Varbanov’s “apprentice” in the 1980s. Through these means, he intends to "blend" the various aspects of human, natural, cultural, social and scientific subjects, images and processes together, creating conditions and situations for dialogue. Entanglement and derivation are the languages of his art, as illustrated by his biography, which links his creative career to a personal journey through the world's cultural, social and natural events that correspond to geopolitical developments. At its peak, this linguistic expression becomes an extremely simple state: listening to silkworms. When listening to the indistinguishable sound of the silkworm, and the "noise" produced by the intersection of its natural environment with other sounds, we seem to enter into a "dialogue between heaven, earth, man, and God", with a vague sense of the sublime image of existence and divinity formed when the silkworm, the self, and the ethereal, light, air, and sound waves are mixed into one. However, if we really look into its real meaning, we will inevitably end up in a situation of "confusion" because it really does not tell us anything that we can understand through our words. Is the silkworm/human dialogue a confusing one?

In other words, art is of casting pearls before swine?

Liang Shaoji lives with silkworms and gives them new life forms through various "artistic means" (in fact, also "scientific means") to symbolize the endless evolution of all things in the world and the interdependence and care, even "spiritual" love, of the livings, despite human beings. This naturally responds to the same historical and contemporary "spiritual experiments", such as San Francesco d'Assisi's delight in dialogue with birds, and Donna Haraway's intention to establish a connection of life with the significant otherness by emphasizing the interdependence and co-evolution of humans and "The Companion Species", such as dogs [2]. Of course, in the history of art, today we have to revert to Joseph Beuys, who rediscovered the true dynamism of the world by explaining painting to a dead rabbit rather than to a living person [3].

Indeed, by showing us and guiding us through the picture of the silkworm from birth to silk spitting to metamorphosis - and the evolution of other livings - Shaoji Liang actually makes us understand that man cannot overcome nature, but can only coexist with "nature". And from time to time, we can try to "carry out the heavenly wishes" - to pay attention to the "social" situation, to inspire humanity with spiritual transcendence, and to heal the inevitable damages. In other words, it is a way to evoke compassion and pity in the face of disasters and human tragedies. In this way, the artist seems to have acquired a certain sense of mission. However, in the end, this is only the creation of "Completely Empty Signifiers (Huang Yongping)" [4].

To look at it another way, the livings actually do not have to be "understanding". The world is fine without the existence of people. Art, as the typical act of "casting pearls before swine", is indeed a fleeting expression of "imagery" between "existence" and "non-existence", an "image" without materiality, a useless illusion. However, it reminds us that it is necessary to see the world in a "different way", and thus is the "evidence" we rely on to prove our existence.


Halfway through the year, due to the epidemic, we could not travel across the continent as we did during the "normal time", and Liang Shaoji, as an artist, and I, as a curator, could not meet in the "flesh", and the exhibition planned in the virtual reality became quite abstract. However, I feel that because of this, I have never been closer to him and I have never had such a close relationship with him. Sometimes when we communicate online, his intense activity, his creative thinking and expression at all times, can be beyond my comprehension. With me, maybe he would feel a little bit of casting pearls before swine. Also because of this, I think we both have a better understanding of what it really means to cast pearls before swine, that is, to "make art".

I decided that the first thing I would do after the epidemic should be to visit Liang. This immediately reminded me of the famous poem by Jia Dao, which is often misused by intellectuals -

Beneath the pine I asked the boy,
He said master's out collecting herbs.
Just somewhere in this mountain here,
But deep clouds set me wondering where. [5]

But by the time I was able to visit the place where Liang and silkworms lived together, he was probably traveling the world again. He may have crossed the mountainous hideaway, quietly exited from his place of seclusion to a prosperous city like Shanghai, or to the battlefield in the Afghan valley against the Taliban?

Rome, September 15, 2021


1. Cf. Liang Shaoji, "Notes on the latest program ABC of solo exhibition," Article 15, March 2, 2021, manuscript.

2. Donna Haraway, The Companion Species Manifesto, Dogs, People, and Significant Otherness, Prickly Paradigm Press, Chicago, 2003

3. Joseph Bueys, How to Explain Pictures to a Dead Hare (Wie man dem toten Hasen die Bilder erklärt), performance, 26 November 1965 at the Galerie Schmela, Düsseldorf.

4. Huang Yongping, "Completely Empty Signifiers - 'Dada' and 'Chan Buddhism'" (1988)

5. Jia Dao, Seeking out Hermit without success

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