Liang Shaoji is one of the most unique, singular and even eccentric figures in the contemporary art scene in China. For three decades, he has been working with passion, obsession and quasi-exclusively with unusual partners-silkworms.
As we know, China has seen its contemporary art scene boom in the most spectacular way, becoming a major force in transforming the global art world since the turn of the millennium. The process has been extremely dynamic and even explosive, with many spotlights and noises. However, as a veteran in the scene, who started his career in the mid-1980s, Liang Shaoji has stayed in a remote town far from major urban centres where the art worlds have been highly globalised and constantly agitating. He has preferred to focus on his deeply relationship with his silkworms and, by extension, on the inseparable affinity between art and nature. He has chosen to plough his own private field-greened with bamboos, refreshed by the morning dews, blued by the clear skies, mystified by the game of lights and shadows on full-moon night, and ultimately revived by the slow and beautifully rhythmed movements of the small creatures that produce one of nature’s most amazing materials-silk. Truly believing in the spiritual and material power of an intimate merging and exchange between the work of nature and the human imagination-in Liang’s case, an imagination profoundly rooted in Chinese culture and view of the cosmos-and turning this into contemporary forms of creation, he has endowed such a world with harmony, often considered as registered in the realm of the eternal, and rendered it freshly alive and firmly contemporary. His work is an enlightening remind of something crucially significant in our lives, our relation with nature, something that has been too often overlooked and excluded in the dominant system’s cult of a one-dimensional modernity.
At one of the most experimental art laboratories in China in the late 1980s, the Maryn Varbanov Studio for contemporary tapestry (Zhejiang Academy of Fine Arts, now renamed China Academy of Fine Arts, Hangzhou), Liang Shaoji embraced experimental forms such as installation and performance as well as traditional materials like bamboo and wool in attempts to converge modernity and tradition. His work of this period referred to classical Chinese literature and philosophy such as the Yijing and Sun Tzu’s The Art of Wars. Soon, his focus began to shift to direct contacts between man and nature without the textual and metaphoric inter-media or cultural filters, and since the early 1990s, he has been developing his unique Nature Series. On one hand, the Nature Series consistently and exhaustively explores the expressiveness of some carefully selected “primitive” elements of nature-bamboo, silk, silkworms, water, cloud-and, on the other hand, Chinese and Western philosophical, such as Zen Buddhism and Heideggerian existentialism. Pursuing an eventual harmony of co-existence between man and nature, Liang has never limited his reflection or artistic practice in to the traditional. He actively embraces modernity – especially its emphases on change, ephemeral-ness and unpredictability as essential qualities of nature – as a rupture with any static mode of existence. In his introduction to Nature Series, Liang states that his exploration of “primitive elements” of nature allows him to take his work into a new space beyond conventional sites of art production, where it functioning as an interface between art and science, between biology and bio-sociology, between various forms of art expressions and the cosmos itself.
Far from being seduced by the spectacular urbanisation, Liang has insisted on remaining as close as possible to nature. Yet, he also refused to be a self-exiled, hermetic outsider of the technically and culturally mutating world. He embraces advanced technology to realise his visions, collaborating with scientists to trues. Unlike conventional scientific experments, Liang’s work, through various artistic processes driven by imagination and poetry, has been turned into the embodiment of the ontological significance of life. It is about true meaning of living in the world: constant negotiations and struggles between life and death, endurance and fate, pleasure and pain… By extending the exploration of natural elements through merging them with human bodies, an important part of his work, He provides us with radical experiences of the conditions of our existence in the contemporary world which is full of contradictions – the hegemony of the powerful, whether natural, human or social, always being challenged and defeated by the weaker and more fragile but ever-changing forces, just like life itself. And this is indeed what ecology really means.
Liang Shaoji claims his art, ultimately, aims to create a new form of ecological aesthetics, or eco-aesthetics: “My art is based on the concerns with the eco-environment, concerns with life. It derives from reflections on contemporary eco-aesthetics. It emphasizes the interaction between nature and man, the spatial-timely changes in the process of art production as well as biological mediation.” Today, we are deeply concerned with the ecological crisis of our planet. Liang Shaoji’s work reminds us that taking up the challenge to solve the crisis does not only mean resorting to science. Instead, we should start reflecting on the very relationship between our senses and the nature itself, namely our aesthetics. The realm of beauty is the very starting point for looking at nature and treating our environment in a more relevant way.
San Francisco, 28 September 2009