It is not often that a visit to an artist’s studio requires you to go on a pilgrimage, but this spring I set out for Tiantai Mountain, a place sacred to both Buddhists and Taoists, in pursuit of the artist Liang Shaoji.
Liang went to live near Tiantai Mountain at the turn of the millennium, but it was 11 years earlier, in 1989, that he began the journey that would lead him there. That year he was included in the pathbreaking “China/Avant-Garde” exhibition at the National Art Museum of China in Beijing. His installation for the show provided him with the twin ideas that have animated his work ever since: The theme of his art would be life, and his medium would be a humble living creature, the silkworm.
At 44, Liang was already much older than most of the artists who were then beginning to put Chinese contemporary art on the map. He had graduated from the middle school attached to the Zhejiang Fine Art School in Hangzhou in 1965, on the cusp of the catastrophic Cultural Revolution (1966–76). In those years intellectuals were reviled and the universities were closed, and Liang found himself working in a craft factory as designer where he was involved in the manufacture of carpets, fabrics, lampshades, handicrafts, and tapestry, while in his spare time he painted and made prints and sculptures. Later he became the director of the Institute of Arts and Crafts in Taizhou.
In the early 1980s he found himself on a Chinese trade delegation visit to Europe and the United States, during which he explored the contemporary artworks in museums such as the Centre Pompidou, in Paris. Finally, at age 40, he decided to go back to school. The Bulgarian artist Maryn Varbanov had recently set up an atelier at the Zhejiang Fine Art School, and in 1986 Liang was accepted as a student. Varbanov, who had arrived in the country as a student in the 1950s and became a pioneer of the use of textiles in installation art and sculpture, was a profoundly influential figure on the Chinese art scene. He made his name as one of the first artists to take weaving off the wall and present it in open space. Liang was inspired by Varbanov’s radical approach to materials and the way in which he merged Western and Eastern techniques and philosophies in his art.
In 1988, for the “China/Avant-Garde” show, Liang created an installation called Yi Series–Magic Cube, incorporating silk fabric, dry silkworm cocoons, metal, and rice paper — just the sort of experiment with space and materials that Varbanov would have relished. Later, when Liang was installing the piece for a show in Hangzhou, a chance breeze set the dead cocoons swaying in the light. Looking at them, Liang found himself wondering for the first time, What would it be like to work with living silkworms?
The first thing I notice when I walk into Liang’s studio is the stones. Dozens of them cover the floor, and they seem to be dusted with snow. But when I touch one, I find that it isn’t cold but soft. Silken, sparkling-white thread covers each stone. In a corner are stacked dozens of large white disks. These also turn out to be covered in silk. Liang explains that when a silkworm isn’t in a confined space, it won’t form a normal cocoon but variation, it could be made to spin thread into a flat plane and cover surface of the projects.
He likes to quote a line from a poem by the Tang Dynasty poet Li Shangyin: “Only at death does the silkworm’s thread reach an end.” To Liang, this line embodies the silkworm’s devotion to creation, its generosity, and its tenacity in life. He says that in working with them he aims to capture something of this spirit and to allow a meditation on the passing of life and time.
The first major work in his “Nature Series,” which he commenced in 1989 and still continues today, was called Bed/Nature Series No. 10, 1993. Liang raised silkworms to live within tiny bedsteads that he had fashioned from copper wire salvaged from old generators. From these fragments of the waste and ugliness of the man-made world, Liang had created comfortable refuges that the silkworms made their own, forming cocoons, metamorphosing into moths, laying eggs, and continuing their life cycle over and over again. The work, which took seven years to complete, was exhibited at the Venice Biennale in 1999. Later Liang created a piece in which silkworms covered suspended heavy metal chains with silken threads. He called it Chains: The Unbearable Lightness of Being/Nature Series No. 79, 2003.
In an essay on the “Nature Series” that he wrote last year, Liang says: “Every life is in search for its own space for existence amid absurd and implacable contradictions. The strong silk threads, symbol of life, as if to break but resistant, show a strong will to life, an unremitting life pursuit, a force to beat the strong with softness, and life associations with endless extension.”
By the time Bed/Nature Series No. 10 was complete, Liang had decided to move near Tiantai Mountain. It is home to the Tiantai sect of Buddhism, which Liang describes as the “most indigenous and most pristine” of all the Buddhist sects in China, and a place where over the centuries many “crazy monks” have gone to seek enlightenment.
On Tiantai Mountain there is a platform where the founder of the sect, Zhiyi, is believed to have meditated. In 2007 Liang went there to make the film Cloud Mirror/Nature Series No. 101. Since moving to Tiantai he has become committed to the concept of the interconnectedness of living beings. Liang thinks this is embodied in the connection between silkworms and humankind, and between both of them and the rest of the natural world. In Cloud Mirror he illustrated this connection by holding up a mirror to the sky.
On the mirrors Liang laid out on Tiantai Mountain, silkworms had already spun their silk in patterns that evoked the shapes of clouds. As real clouds passed overhead, they and the sky itself were reflected in Liang’s mirrors. In the video of the event, spun silk and clouds merge in the reflected sky until it is impossible toLiang Shaoji Weaves the Complex Work of Nature into Spellbinding Silkworm Art see where one ends and the other begins. The video is a poetic evocation of the passage of time, life, and the natural world.
Liang likes to point out that in Chinese the words for poetry and for silk are homonyms, perhaps suggesting some deep cultural connection. He tells me that sericulture has existed in his country as long as the Chinese have claimed to have had a civilization, around 5,000 years. Taking the word associations further, he points out that the word for silkworm and the word for Zen also sound alike, and in a work called Listening to the Silkworms, 2006, which he is restaging at London’s Hayward Gallery this fall, he aims to induce a Zen-like state by inviting his audience to do exactly what the title suggests.
The sound of silkworms eating mulberry leaves is remarkably like the bubbling of a running stream. In Listening to the Silkworms Liang asks visitors to sit in a darkened room and attend to the sounds of the silkworms’ life. What you hear is not a recording but silkworms living in an adjacent room in real time. And as you listen, you do begin to feel something of what Liang himself feels deeply, the profound connections that exist between everything in the natural world.
In a catalogue essay for his exhibition “An Infinitely Fine Line” at Shanghai’s Zendai Museum of Modern Art, Liang wrote that “the entire ‘Nature Series’ is a sculpture of time, life, and nature, a recording of the fourth dimension.” Looking at the works, especially amid the ancient surroundings of Tiantai Mountain, you see what he is getting at. By working with silkworms he has consciously slowed his artistic practice to the pace of his tiny co-creators and connected his art to natural forces beyond his control.
Liang calculates that he has raised hundreds of thousands of silkworms in the 23 years he has worked on the “Nature Series,” and estimates that the silk thread they have produced would wind around the world 10 times. One imagines he might try that someday.