Shen Shaomin (artist)
Shen Shaomin: I stand a little higher than Socrates
Interview completed on September 12, 2022
Editor: Emma Lee Images: provided by Interviewee
In the 1970s, in Heilongjiang, four men went to rob a local savings office. They brought along tools such as welding guns and put up a fence around the outside of the savings office. They divided the work; two people welded the door open, and then went inside and welded open the safe; the other two sat outside, put a kettle on, prepared tea, and kept watch while smoking and chattering. After getting the money, they did not forget to clean up the scene, and then slowly walked away. During the time, the police passed by there several times, but did not notice anything wrong. This is a true story, and as far as it is known, the case is still unsolved.
Four decades later, Shen Shaomin, who was born in Heilongjiang, still remembers some of the details he read in the newspaper at the time. He said that in regard of the art he makes, these four men have the greatest influence on him – no matter what you do, you have to have wisdom. Whenever he is asked about artists who influence him the most, he tells this story. Whether or not the listener can appreciate this “wisdom” and the relationship between this story and making art is a matter of opinion – it is another kind of “wisdom”.
“Opinion” and “wisdom” are determined by one's experience and knowledge structure. Buddhists would say that this is not the highest level of wisdom, but “heart-to-heart communication”. A critic told me that good artworks are rich in “Zen”, and representative artists include Huang Yongping, Xu Bing, and Shen Shaomin. I agree with him. There are three dimensions of Zen: confronting suffering, expressing it, and inspiring oneself and others. Similar to Buddhism's “not setting up written scripts (to attain sudden enlightenment without having to train to be a monk in the conventional way or to study Buddhist scriptures)”, art offers an option, an intuitive and open option, free from the cultural structure of words and its suspicion of cognitive and psychological manipulation of man, so that the emphasis is more on the viewer’s “enlightenment” of the “original nature”. First, in the Chinese context, art that confronts history and reality is always precious; secondly, there are many sides to reality, and there are many forms of confronting it – what reality to choose and what form to take reflects wisdom; thirdly, how to convey your “reality” to the viewer, to make the viewer think, to achieve the Buddhist “enlightenment” – this is “heart-to-heart communication”. Shen Shaomin is one of the most representative artists of such kind.
Let’s take a look at 11 of his works to explore such wisdom.
Life and Death
In order to achieve Zen enlightenment, life and death is the first proposition to be faced directly. “Everyone suffers and suffering is part of the world”; “What joy is there in life; what sorrow is there in death” – Buddhists advocate facing life and death with ease and grace. Not surprisingly, Shen Shaomin is the same. If he has to return to ashes and dust the next day, he will use today to make his art until the last moment.
“Monument to the Sea”
I took the sea
out of the water
Dried it up
and folded it into
the shape of sound sleep
December 27, 2019
Seawater dries up and becomes salt – salt is the body of the sea. With 33 tons of salt and 10 tons of salt brine, “Monument to the Sea” was made at a location where it could be washed away by seawater in Xichong, Shenzhen. After high tide and wind erosion, the work slowly faded away with time and finally returned to the ocean. This work was made of materials from nature, presented in a natural location, and through interaction with nature, explored the profound philosophical proposition of life and death.
“I am My Own Result”
Life unifies and reconciles the human body and mind. The human body is a substance. Shen Shaomin wondered if there was a possibility to turn the vagaries of life into an artistic substance.
He wants to take himself out of his body so that his body is just a substance and give it to artists as a creative material, as a result of which the artist can have a dialogue with artist Shen Shaomin as a material. This dialogue might explore the meaning of art today in one way or another.
When Shen dies, he will donate his corneas to a blind person, and this blind person will donate his corneas to another blind person after he dies, and it goes on. That means even though Shen has died, he can continue to see the world through the eyes of a blind person. Other organs that can be used will be donated to people in need, and the parts that can't be transplanted will be left for artists to make artworks.
Shen Shaomin has been inviting artists to make proposals on the condition that the proposals are related to him. They can be written descriptions, manuscripts, sketches, etc., any form the artists see fit. The first exhibition is the starting point for collecting more proposals until the end of Shen’s life, and every two years the proposals will be exhibited and made into documents.
Luan Jiaqi's proposal: “Heartbeat Blood Painting”
The beating of the heart drives the circulation of blood, which makes the life system function normally.
The heartbeat is converted into sound vibrations by connecting the heart to a high-powered speaker through an amplifier mixer. The fresh blood is dropped on the vibrating canvas, and the plasma bursts out with the heartbeat vibrations to paint a heartbeat blood painting.
Fenni’s proposal: “Entrance”
Form: Music file
Duration: 5 minutes
Medium: Vinyl record
Style: Ambience, pulse, microsound, experimental white noise, and beep
I will use music to document my journey, body, emotions and changes in my life. I will release a single EP every year, to be made into CD or vinyl; it is a record that can be collected, and the music will appear in different forms, but each one will be related to Mr. Shen Shaomin's “I am My Own Result” project: about life and death, the simple but complex interpretation of human nature, life and illness, emotional changes – all will be presented in my music, until the end of life.
Aging with Ease and Grace
Immediately after life and death is the attitude towards growing old. Shen Shaomin says he is a man who forgets about age. Secular people inevitably fall into such psychological traps as anxiety about their own age and anxiety about supporting their aging parents. Shen Shaomin made the basement of his home into a gym, maintaining the habit of exercise, and loves mountaineering; friends say he has more impetus than his young companions, and always commands the forefront. Keeping a strong body and a sharp mind is the best way to transcend age.
“How Far is Forever”
A dried-up, naked old woman lies breathing quietly on a white plastic beach chair, beneath which is a salt beach, formed by the depletion of seawater. The salt represents eternity, but life is so powerless in front of nature, and the long-gone image of the beach beauty is ever depressing.
Truth and Religion
Shen Shaomin believes that truth does not exist, and that the so-called laws of science only hold true at a certain point in history. The scientific community believes that mankind currently knows only 4% of the body – Shen Shaomin believes that man knows no more than 4% of the universe. He has no religious beliefs, but believes in “mystical forces”. Speaking of the absurdity of the current reality, I asked him what helps him transcend such absurdity, since he neither believes in science nor relies on religion. He said that he had been advised by many people to leave the country during the three years of COVID-19; he had considered it, but finally decided to stay in the absurd present, to be a witness of history, and to use it as the scene for his art. “There is a crack in everything, that’s how the light gets in”; no matter how tightly censored we are, there is always a way and a channel to voice out. He trusts his own judgment.
“I Touch the Voice of God”
In this work, Shen Shaomin used four pieces of debris separated from the spacecraft's launch and inlaid them with the Braille Bible. The symbols are incomprehensible to most of us, but the blind can read these messages that descend from space by touching them. The artist says, “In the face of the infinity of the universe, humans are essentially as blind.” Our world is full of all kinds of illusion, greed, strife and evil; we try to master the world with our ambition and go beyond our own vision to challenge the unknowable future.
The residual fragments of the spacecraft illuminated by the chasing lights commemorate the glory of another human space expedition. Yet the fragments themselves do not come close to a success, but rather hint at an ominous future. The message from God represented by the Braille Bible still seems to be open to interpretation; in fact, it is taken from the very last book of the Bible, the Book of Revelation, and foretells that apocalyptic vision.
At the opening forum of the exhibition “Shen Shaomin's Brief History of Science” at Shenzhen's Pingshan Art Museum this August, Shen Shaomin said that the digital art exhibitions that best embody the spirit of science today are only a showcase for technology, because young people who lead the development of new technology were born in the new century, grew up in the era of technological change, and live in a virtual world, so they are generally indifferent to history, and care more about how to connect with the big world. Although art academies have established “technology + art” majors, which has also become a trend, but due to the lack of reflection on history and the lack of questioning spirit of the present, digital art exhibitions are reduced to “technology exhibitions” and technology showrooms, and become the backdrop for selfies and photos.
The G5 Summit is a meeting attended by heads of governments or states, and because of the high level of officials attending the meeting, there is a greater likelihood of consensus and more assurance of future implementation.
This summit represents people with authority, but there is no expression, only the scene. When the whole world is caught in the whirlwind of economic crisis, when people have doubts about capitalist values and institutions, will people remember these pioneers of socialism (Lenin, Mao, Kim Il-sung, Ho Chi Minh, Castro) who have been forgotten, or are already in another world? Do their ideas, concepts, and theories provoke any self-examination in the present?
Human perception and consciousness are highly deceptive. Take Tiananmen Square, the most important political symbol in Chinese consciousness, as an example. People who have never been to Tiananmen Square build up an impression of it through various media, where it is described as grand and imposing; and on the day we see it with our own eyes, we all have the feeling of being deceived: Tiananmen Square is actually so small! In order to decipher this deception, Shen Shaomin decided to dissect Tiananmen Square. He made a model with a scale of 1:50, and three other small models presenting its architectural phrases; the large model was cut from the middle, so that people could walk through, and all the mystery of Tiananmen disappears completely during the walkthrough. In addition to the surface part, Shen Shaomin built an underground part according to the legends of the Beijing people: secret organs, war command centers, weapons and ammunition depots, etc.
If one wishes to reflect on the symbolic meaning of Tiananmen Square, this reflection must be a meticulous process of exploration that eschews any ambivalence.
What is on display here is a new type of monument that is freely accessible to the public and can be viewed by them from the inside. The layers of facilities and spaces below the surface are not a factual existence, but a product of imagination. This imagination is from the people, and also personal to the artist. Shen Shaomin's Tiananmen is an “active” organism that is constantly adapting to the new needs of the city as it grows, a deconstruction and reconstruction of an authoritative political symbol, a process of dispelling mystery.
“Project No.1” brings this complexity and ambivalence to the forefront: it seems to merge several Tiananmen in the artist's mind, including his private memory of Tiananmen, Tiananmen as a symbol of the regime, and Tiananmen as a fantasy. Perhaps Tiananmen does have these different levels of meaning in the real social life of China, and this work can therefore inspire people to think about these meanings – i.e. the significance of Tiananmen in contemporary China. (Wu Hong)
Moth Flying to the Flame
Shen Shaomin's posture of questioning everything and never being convinced is somewhat similar to that of Socrates who liked to find people in the markets, streets and sports arenas of ancient Athens to debate and get the truth out of it. Socrates had a miserable end, because challenging the authority of majority – especially authoritarian power never ends well. So, is there any point in moth flying to the flame? Shen Shaomin is affirmative, saying that martyrs are also warriors, and the gesture of resistance always has value.
The work "Huabiao" is made of the same Chinese white jade as those in front of Tiananmen Square, in the same size and weight. In Chinese history, Huabiao was originally made of wood and inserted at the crossroads for the people to write their political views and express their opinions – it had a democratic function. Later its material and function changed and it became a decoration of palaces and temples and a symbol of supreme imperial power. In Liverpool, England, the work “Huabiao” was erected in front of a church, losing its cultural context as a symbol of power. The artist let tourists write their impressions of China on it with graffiti, restoring its original function.
Imagining the Future
To me, Shen Shaomin is Victor Frankenstein, and the "Bones" series seems to be Victor Frankenstein making a whole lot of Frankensteins. He is a pessimist who believes that the faster technology develops, the closer humanity is to extinction; human is a cancer of the earth, a parasite of the earth, and extinction is the right way. The algorithm technology invented by human will one day surpass man in computing power; if the earth still exists, the future master must not be human. As to Elon Musk, the biggest representative of the first productive force of science, Shen Shaomin believes that he is the person who accelerates the extinction of mankind.
The "Bones" series
In the late 1980s, Shen Shaomin went to Australia as a visiting scholar. There, he visited many nature museums and was greatly shocked by those large animal skeletal specimens, inanimate matter as the ultimate form of life, thus constructing some imagination for “future creatures”. He searched for various animal bones from the surrounding countryside, and contacted the anatomy department of the university to purchase human bones. After the various bones were processed, they were piled up like a mountain. With so many bone parts, he studied how to put them together every day, just like putting together Lego, and enjoyed the process. The bone structure of any animal is basically similar, and he imitated the method of museum specimens by connecting the bones with wire. When bones of dogs, chickens, geese and donkeys were randomly combined together, they might be a monster, which was both reasonable and bizarre. He used the bones of a dozen cows and donkeys to make an 11-meter-long dragon skeleton, and put together human and horse bones into a centaur from Greek mythology, turning virtual creatures into an archaeological reality.
Subverting the Mind Games
Shen Shaomin once read a magazine on an airplane that described many cults. He found that cults, like pyramid schemes, are a process of brainwashing, and that human cognition and consciousness can be constructed and manipulated. He wanted to use hypnosis to test this theory. He invited a master hypnotist from the US, and from a single person, a group to a collective of 40 people, he did experiments again and again to confirm this theory.
A magician friend once told me that the highly intelligent people of Mensa International are the easiest to be manipulated through mind reading, and even the higher IQ the person has, the easier he or she would be fooled.
“The Hypnotized Artists”
In this process, Shen Shaomin just gives an answer to his own intuitive judgment; the answer may not be accurate, but at least he has his own idea, and the work has the potential to make more people think. Compared to solving the problem, the significance of raising the question may be greater, because once an answer is given, things end there.
Refusing to Set Traps
Shen Shaomin once discussed in a forum the way public art “sets up” the public. The so-called public art in China is often just large pieces of artworks that are put in a public space, with no connection to the local people or their lives whatsoever, and no questions asked.
When it comes to traps, there is no end to textual traps. Shen Shaomin emphasizes that he is also a poet, but in the Chinese context, “poetry” is a dangerous word: first, many incompetent people call themselves poets; secondly, “poetry” has been seriously polluted by the “poetry and faraway destinations” fashion, an excuse young people use to escape from life. Shen Shaomin said poetry is his rock music. He told me a story: a very rich friend of his has a villa in the suburbs, which the friend does not visit often, so he hired a nanny to take care of it; one day he went back there, and found the nanny was listening to rock music – the friend was immediately taken aback, asking: tell me what is rock, and what is pop music; can you tell the difference? The nanny said: pop music is succumbing to life, whereas rock is saying no to life. People without a little experience and wisdom would never have the ability to summarize the spirit of rock so simply and directly. The nanny is more poetic than many of the so-called poets. To this, Shen Shaomin wrote a poem in response:
“The Latest Skills of a Chinese Dentist”
full of dentures
nice and shiny
September 29, 2016
"Kowtow Pump" in Shanghai
"Kowtow Pump" in Chicago
The work “Kowtow Pump” is about the traps of public art. Shen Shaomin worked in Daqing for three years, where "kowtow pumps" (local dialect, meaning drilling rigs) were something people encountered every day. There was a strict rule in Daqing that all buildings must be built around the oil wells; because of the strong underground pressure, the freshly drilled oil wells would have self-injections; so, when you saw many pumps in a place, it meant the oilfield was close to depletion. By modifying the gearboxes of the iconic pumps from different historic periods of the Daqing oilfields, Shen Shaomin changed the steady motion of the machines into a jerking action and redesigned the motors to give the machines a walking-stopping effect.
This work was originally planned to be exhibited in Millennium Park, Chicago for six months, but because of the high transportation costs of the work, which cost up to three exhibitions, the duration of the show was changed to one and a half years. At that time, the citizens of Chicago did not know that this was a public art project and thought that the government was drilling oil in Millennium Park, so they called City Hall to protest that they strongly disagreed against turning the park into an oilfield.
Art as the Supreme Way
At the end of the interview, I asked Shen Shaomin what is the closest to the truth among science, philosophy and religion. He said it could only be art: science is a bunch of hypotheses of the universe, and can provide a set of verification methods at a certain stage; philosophy provides no arguments, and stays a bunch of assumptions; while art is in between: it does not provide results, only inspires you to think, and cannot be defined.
“Everybody is a Collector”
“Everybody is a Collector” is Shen Shaomin's own favorite project, which was aimed to be disruptive for Art Basel Hong Kong in 2020 – due to the breakout of COVID-19, the fair was cancelled and the project has not been carried out yet. He invited several executives from the Industrial and Commercial Bank of China to explore making a work using the model of a financial product. Usually, we would commoditize the artwork, while this time the plan was to artisticize a business model. He designed an ordinary everyday mop and made an elaborate name tag for it – “The Shen Shaomin Mop”, which would be sold at US$100 each, for a total of 10,000 mops. They would work with galleries to set up a booth at the fair to sell them, and also sell online.
The rules of the game are, the buyer can return the mop within three months after purchase, say a week or ten days, and the artist will refund US$120 to the buyer. The purchase will be limited to a maximum of ten mops per person. The artist estimates that 200 people will return the mops. In order to prove that the purchasers have used the mops, they will be asked to provide images and videos, so that the artist will not only receive 200 mops, but also collect 200 images and videos. Finally, the received items will be packaged into another work and sold to the museum for US$2.5 million, and as a result, each purchaser who returns the mops will receive US$800 as profit. Of course, there is a risk involved: if it doesn't sell, the artist will lose money. But the good thing is that the process of completing the work is relatively fun, and the artist believes that most people will participate. In fact, this work reflects how public art is becoming more and more like a trap.
Back to the story at the beginning of this article: what exactly is the relationship between the four brazen thieves and Shen Shaomin making art? First, the four men so calmly carried out robbery, which reflects their superb psychological composure; they also managed to avoid the police, which reflects their counter-investigation capability – this requires high IQs. High IQ means different ways of thinking from the general, i.e. “wisdom”. Secondly, the four men did not forget to clean up at the end, in the historic context of the 1970s, which was an extremely unjust environment for individuals as well as the people of China, those men may have acted out of rebellion against this injustice, or they may have aimed to do some kind of justice, i.e. “the honors of thieves”. The high intelligence and strong psychological qualities of the four men in this story influenced the way Shen Shaomin would later think about issues in life; the choices made by the individuals in the story and the way they responded to the circumstances of the times influenced his view of art. The absurdity of reality is the best work of art, so how can an artist make higher art than that? It can only be more absurd than the absurd. Stand higher than science, philosophy, religion, etc., question all, deconstruct all, demystify all, dig out the “original nature”, and inspire oneself before inspiring others. The “Buddha” has always been there, and the artist only removes the surface of illusion, just like a sculptor facing a piece of marble – he has already seen the Buddha or David in it while others cannot, he works the carving knife to remove the extra stone, and the Buddha and David are thus presented to the world.
Upon completion of the interview, Shen Shaomin invited me to submit a proposal for the project “I am the Result of Myself”. The “thief-artist” story reminded me of two scientific studies: Einstein's brain and a scientific research on more than 800 incarcerated men. 1) The brain of Albert Einstein has been a subject of much research and speculation. Einstein's autopsy was conducted in the lab of Thomas Stoltz Harvey. Shortly after Einstein's death in 1955, Harvey removed the brain, and then took it to a lab at the University of Pennsylvania where he dissected it into several pieces. Some of the pieces he kept to himself while others were given to leading pathologists. Studies have suggested an increased number of glial cells in Einstein's brain, which was suggested as the explanation of his genius. 2) In 2021, examining brain scans of more than 800 incarcerated men, a new research co-authored by a leading University of Chicago neuroscientist found that individuals who had committed or attempted homicide had reduced gray matter when compared to those involved in other offenses. Those reductions were especially apparent in regions of the brain associated with emotional processing, behavioral control and social cognition, i.e. the biological causes of antisocial personality.
Einstein's brain was preserved after his death in 1955, but this fact was not revealed until 1978.
Areas where homicide offenders exhibit reduced gray matter density compared to other violent offenders are highlighted in blue/green.
Does the brain of artist Shen Shaomin lean towards the former or the latter? Is he a genius or a potential criminal? What kind of association is there between a genius and a criminal, on top of high IQ? In an abnormal society, is antisocial personality necessarily “bad” in the secular sense? In this context, does a person with antisocial personality have more potential to become a genius? Can we even say that when a person does not have a little antisocial personality and instead submits to the personality construction in an abnormal society, he would most likely be reduced to the mediocre majority?
Looking forward to Shen Shaomin's next work of demystification.
Contemporary artist, documentary director, poet
Shen Shaomin currently lives and works in Shenzhen, Beijing and Sydney. He specializes in cross-media creation in multiple fields, including installation, video, documentary, conceptual painting, poetry, and public art. Currently, he is the Director of the Institute of Public Art at Shenzhen University's Ben Yuan Design and Research Center, and the Artistic Director of the “Science + Art” Joint Laboratory. In addition to many published books dedicated solely on the artwork of Shen Shaomin, The New York Times, BBC, and many other well-known International media outlets have spotlighted Shen Shaomin and his works. Shen Shaomin's work is included in the collections of many museums, institutions, universities and foundations in China and abroad.
Recent Large-scale Solo Exhibitions
2022 “Shen Shaomin's Brief History of Science”, Pingshan Art Museum, Shenzhen, China
2019 “Chinese Carp”, Mountain View Space, Shenzhen, China
2015 “There is No Problem”, Redtory Museum of Contemporary Art, Guangzhou, China
2014 “Let it Be, Wind”, White Box Museum of Art, Beijing, China
2007 “Project No.1”, Today Art Museum, Beijing, China
2007 “Kowtow Pump”, Tang Contemporary Art, Beijing, China
2007 “Bonsai”, Courtyard Gallery, Beijing, China
2007 “Fighter-X”, Platform China, Beijing, China
Major International Exhibitions
2019 Shenzhen-Hong Kong Bi-City Biennale of Urbanism/Architecture
2016/2012 Busan Biennale
2012 Kiev Biennale
2012 Shanghai Biennale
2012/2005 Guangzhou Triennial
2010 Sydney Biennale
2006 Liverpool Biennale
“Sertar Diary” (2022); “The Vanishing Village” (2021); “One Monk Temple” (2010); “I Am Chinese” (2007)
“I am My Own Result” (2022); “Propping My Shadow” (2015)
Documentary of Shen Shaomin | A Trip into the Past (with English subtitles)