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Liang Shaoji: “I Am a Silkworm”

Author: Wu Hung Translator: R R Donnelley 2016

When Liang Shaoji said “I am a silkworm”, he could not have used a simpler, more concise statement to summarize his decades of artistic pursuit and his ideals about art and artists.

Many catalogues refer to Liang Shaoji’s work as “installations,” a characterless term that does nothing to illustrate the work, but instead distorts its nature. In fact, if we compare Liang’s work with the conventional definition of “installation art,” we can see that it in fact constitutes the antithesis of such art and thus expands the concept of contemporary art. A typical dictionary explanation of installation art is “an artist’s artistic selection, application, and compilation of consumed and un-consumed material objects in daily human life.” Liang, however, neither uses ready-made objects as his primary mate-rial nor reconstructs and reorganizes them to express his ideas. Like the Creator, he is an image maker and is similar in this respect to the classical masters. Yet his creations have entered the realm of contemporary art by interrogating and remaking the concepts of “artist” and “artifact.”

Regarding his art, an interesting question arises: who actually created this work—Liang Shaoji or the insect larva known to mankind as the silkworm? Some say that the ultimate goal of art is for the artist to express their life experiences and emotions. Then what we see here is the life of a silkworm, first as an egg like a black dot, then as a tiny creature, feeble and writhing, and then as a white larva greedily nibbling away at mulberry leaves. What follows is a mysterious transformation: the silkworm gradually turns transparent and produces a pure silver thread. To the rhythm of its rocking head, it wraps itself into a cocoon or glosses the surface of any object it rests on. In the end, after “the silk is all spun,” it leaves behind a black pupa. We can imagine the struggle, pain, and sublimation of a life in transformation that makes up the emotional and philosophical underpinnings of Liang’s work.

Thus, says Liang Shaoji, “I am a silkworm.” It is because his artistic creations, as well as what he feels and thinks about art, have fused seamlessly into a silkworm’s self-creation and sublimation. This “fusion” is not a sudden event but rather a culmination of nearly forty years of life experience. Of the hundreds of projects since his Nature Series No. 1 in 1988, each and every one is a collaboration between him and his idea of the silkworm, although the visual effects have become more and more complex, and the scope of his thinking, philosophy, and aesthetics also continue to expand and overlay. They include the shocking Destiny; Listening to the Silkworm, which sounds like a misty rain; Cloud Mirror, a cosmic retrospection; and Mending Sky, with its echoes of Zen. In these works, people can feel the primal encounter between the world and civilization and the interaction and acclimation of humanity and nature, rethinking life from a religious and philosophical perspective, and considering the eternal tension between power politics and individual desires. In one sense, “I am a silkworm” personifies and identifies with the Tang-dynasty poet Li Shangyin’s (813–858) famous verse: “Till the end of life do silkworms keep spinning silk.” In another sense, “I am a silkworm” is a visual development of Heidegger’s philosophical statement that poetry is a kind of homecoming. Liang has used Heidegger’s phrase, expressing his quest in the Nature Series as “looking up toward ‘poetry.’” Regardless of the specific theme of his work, whether cosmic philosophy or international politics, it is indeed poetry, written by the artist and nature together.

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