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Silkworm Speech, Human Molts: Liang Shaoji's Silkwormworks (selected)

Author: Meiling Cheng Translator: Meiling Cheng 2015

A circle intersected by a cross and framed within a square forms one side of a magic cube, which is connected with numerous other magic cubes featuring diverse geometric patterns on their surface structure. Translucent silk draperies partially cover three of the cubes, while rice paper, with faint traces of ink rubbing, wrap over a few others. These fabric and paper facades, illuminated by some hidden sources of light, soften the cubes' skeletal steel frames. A spatter of white luminous dots like tiny eggs appear rhythmically interspersed among these abstract lines: they are dry silkworm cocoons. Thus we see a sculptural composition crafted by a human hand but also borrowing from the natural architectonic talent of insects. This installation, entitled Yi: Mo Fang (易:魔方, Changes: Magic Cubes , 1988), was Liang Shaoji's first experiment with found silkworm products; the piece soon became the catalyst for his Ziran xilie (自然系列, Nature Series, 1989- ), which revolves around the artist's quarter-of-a-century-long performance partnership with silkworms. Ten pieces of installation and video artworks chosen from this ongoing Nature Series will be showcased in Yuan (元, loosely translated as The Core), Liang's upcoming solo exhibition in ShanghArt.
       The title "元 [yuan]" is a multivalent Chinese word that, as the artist explicates, denotes "the beginning, the primitive origin, the initiation"; it signifies "the foundation, the basis, a genetic code, an element."  In classical literature, the word is often used as an equivalent of "园 [yuan]," which, literally meaning "a garden," connotes "the nirvana."  "元" is then a signifier indicating certain extreme existential conditions: the birth and death of one durational being and its promise of transubstantiation into another being. In this sense, Changes (1988), the installation piece that inspired Nature Series, stands as the implicit origin—the "元"—of Liang's silkwormworks. Selected as part of the historically significant China/Avant-Garde exhibition (1989, in Beijing), Changes appeared to have absorbed the divination capability of its classical referent, I-Ching, or The Book of Changes, in predicting how it would simultaneously change the course of Liang's individual art career and that of contemporary art. The piece had enabled Liang's subsequent exploration of silkworms as his living art medium; his incorporation of a species of nonhuman animal agents as performers and collaborators in his art practice, in turn, propelled the emergence of "animalworks" in contemporary Chinese art history.  
       Typical of Liang's discursive tendency, his well-chosen title word—元/yuan—is a prolific genetic code that may be recombined with other codes to generate more cognitively seductive bodies for thought. 元 evokes a chain of homonymic words, each adding to its semantic richness and expanding the exhibition's conceptual scope. Assembled together, these sound-related ideographic vehicles map out the core relationship supporting the show: the artist's prolonged connection with countless generations of silkworms.
       A "core" commonly refers to the innermost part of a fruit, comprising a semi-round outer shell containing seeds. Xue cang (雪藏, Hidden in Snow, 2009- ), for instance, includes a number of sculptures made of broken porcelain vases, dry vines, communication equipment, and other mundane castaways wrapped tightly by silk. In the exhibition, we will see the wonder of artistic transmutation by which a twig entwined with silk becomes a snow-buried liberation tunnel, but we will not see its core: when an artist placed several generations of adaptable silkworms on an alien environment for a breeding season or two, letting them spin silk, generating odd cocoons.
       Rounding up our homonymic cycle is 圆/yuan, the figure of a circle, a geometric shape traditionally favored by the Chinese. The circle offers a crystallized image for the karmic kinship signified by 缘/yuan; it looks like a mutated cocoon; it recurs as a diagrammatic motif in Changes, the installation piece prefiguring Liang's Nature Series. As an emblematic abstraction, the circle refers back to the title of Liang's solo exhibition, 元 [yuan], even as it evokes the pictorial contour associated with its English counterpart, The Core.
       If Liang's silkworms learn to alter their inherited speech from his intervention, what does the artist learn in exchange? As a human, Liang Shaoji cannot radically transform his body like his superb body-art insect pals. Nevertheless, as the virtuosic outputs from his Nature Series evince, he has adapted to the evolutionary necessity of periodically shedding his artistic skin like an outgrown molt.

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