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Tale of Life

About Reading Series by Li Shan Author: Zhang Pingjie 2005

In the new millennium, when biological clones, transgenesis, gene synthesis biology and biological art have emerged in the world, to our surprise and shock, we have to look back at Dr. Lewis Thomas (1913- ), the profound biomedical theorist and academician of the US National Academy of Science.

His forecast on new biological phenomena proposed in the 1970s is almost the description on today's biological technology:

"We shall replace the old animal myths with the new ones."

The simplest and most splendid symbol of this trend is the new phenomenon of cell fusion, and today's molecular genetics depends on this lab technology to achieve their research material.

In a sense, it is a phenomenon of ultimate anti-biology, which acts against the most basic myth of the last century, because it denies the importance of biological specialty, integrity and independence. For any cell, no matter if it is if a human being, an animal, a fish, a bird or an insect, as long as it is given opportunity and proper conditions, it will fuse with any other cell upon their contact, despite the huge different between them.

The new animal myth is manufactured instead of told. Today's biological science and technology restore myths with legends.  In the 21st century, the biological century, nearly no technology can exceed this spectacular phenomenon.

Compared to the tremendous achievements in biological science, biological art is obviously pale and trivial. It is because there are only a few people focusing on biological art; because the plans of biological art are not in a position to obtain or utilize the results of biological technology; because biological art has not entered the market or become commercialized; because they have not aroused the interests of buyers and sellers; because our living environment, social environment, museums and galleries cannot offer suitable conditions of protection and growth for biological art; and because there is no corresponding laws and regulations for possible disputes caused by biological art.

Even though, biological art exists, and closely follows the development of biological technology.

Using transgenesis technology, Eduardo Kac, an American artist, one of the pioneers, created a glowing green bunny, called Alba, in February. 2000, followed by other glowing plants, fished and rats.

After a biological work Reading of butterfly and fish in 1998 in New York, Li Shan, an artist in Shanghai, has focused on computer synthesis and graphic works, due to the limitation of biological experiments. Though there works are not alive, the unique format of their language of biological art initiated this field in graphic art.

In terms of time, Li Shan is one of the earliest artists that initially considered the relationship between genes, biological variation and art.

In 1993, he attended Venice Biennale. The only work that shocks him was the part- animal part-human Loughton Candidate, created by the young artist Matthew Barney from the USA.

At the moment, the Political POP art in China was at its peek. As one of the representatives of Political POP art, it was commendable for Li Shan to realize its limitation. As an art phenomenon in a certain period in China, it can only be a stage of his art career. He has to exceed himself.

The changed of modern and contemporary art formats are always influenced by the initiation of science and technology revolution. Every major change in the history of art is initiated and motivated by revolution and evolution of science and change. Furthermore, the progress and achievements of cutting-edge science in the last decade are far more than any technological revolution in history, which results in another generation of artistic movement, such as computer digital technology us multimedia art, and transgenesis and biological engineering vs. biological art. Art no longer exists in a single field. It becomes a new and broad vision of life closely working together with cutting-edge science.

The trip to Venice in 1993 endowed Li Shan with a gene if visual change, which inspired his evaluation and revolution on his art.

In 1996 and 1997, Li Shan was enchanted by gene variation and biological fusion. He spent a lot of time reading such literature and even textbooks. He was eager to discuss with friends specialized in biology and medicine, including his description on future biological art and assumptions based on theory, some of which surprised biologists.

Meanwhile, he was also completing a transition from the concepts to the theory of biological art.

In 1998, after the completion of reading in New York, Li Shan wrote down a statement full of meaning, which showed us how important thinking is, because the appearances of artworks:

"New creatures can replace existing and old animals, plants, germs and human beings, which is determined by humans themselves, whether they are such willingness... I hope people can move away from our existing biological position and accept some thoughts of life equality and Great Harmony between creatures."

The theoretical foundation of Li Shan's biological works can be divided into the following stages:

Creature + non-creature

Top wrap drivable materials, such as automobiles and aircrafts, with animal fur.

Insect + mammal

To fuse the biological gene from these two extremes of species

Human or himself +insect or other small creature

To fuse humans with other creatures

In 2003, Li Shan made himself move away from his existing biological position and accept some thoughts of life equality and Great Harmony between creatures. He photographed skin in various positions on his body, and combined them with fish, butterflies, dragonflies and other small insects via computer. It is Reading series, an extension of Reading in 1998. Meanwhile, he painted the giant Reading series, also focusing on the fusion between humans and other creatures.

The 1998's Reading, implies that, "I try to discard materials, destruct language framework and directly produce life, so that the viewers can directly know it without any art guide." "The creatures in the work Reading are neither materials nor media of cultural or historical meaning."

And the 2003's Reading series clarifies the equality of human and other creatures. The significance of Li Shan's works is to break the chauvinist attitude of human beings towards the biological world, to accept the tiny lives in the biological world with art formats, and to move the position of human beings in the biological circle, which is also the viewpoint of Lewis.

When humans live equally with other creatures, we will more clearly recognize our dependence on and relationship with others.

There is no totally independent creature on the globe. All creatures are living dependently.

From a genetic point of view, not only can the genes from two extreme animals be fused but also those from animals and plants.

Lewis pinpointed, "The identity of lives on the earth is more surprisingly similar than their diversity. Such identity is probably because after all we come from a single cell. We still share the same genes with other lives. And the similarity between the enzymes in a grass and whale reflects the similarity of homogeneity heritage."

The essence of these works lies on:

1. They are different from art works commonly recognized in the past and at present: Both the description of the external world and the expression if internal minds are parts of culture and history. The language and format of art works are the social and cultural symbols of that time, which inherit the past history. But Li Shan's biological works are almost not related to past or present culture or history, other than humans or genes in a biological sense. First of all, its external format is a form of life, which is the synthesis of various genes in the biological world, as well as a form of life beyond our experience.

2. Art introduces a new formula. It is directly influenced by cutting-edge science, no longer following the existing logic. It is an art format of cutting-edge science. Biological art not only is a format, but also involves the development of biological technology, and changes the established view held by human beings on the biological world. Lewis notes that if the creature's nature is to fuse whenever is possible, we will have a new way to explain why the creatures forms are more and more diversified and complicated

Though the achievements of biological technology become gorgeous, it still takes one or two decades for biological art to become establish. The pioneers are deemed to be lonely.

As to Reading series, people familiar with Li Shan may feel strange or regret his disposal of an existing style and market. However, it is his excellence. Art history has been created by this category of people.

December 2003, in New York


Special thanks to Christina Yu and Chambers Fine Art for their contributions to this article.


1. Lewis Thomas, "Lives of A Cell", Hunan science& Technology Publications, 1995 edition, p108.
2. "Tendency", P386, Volume 13, 200 Years
3. Ibid, P385
4. Ibid, P3
5. Ibid, p26

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LI SHAN 李山

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