中文English

No.9 – Towards the End of Silkworms

Ruijun Shen (RJS)

in conversation with

Liang Shaoji (LSJ)

 

 

Recorded: 8 July, 2018

Location: Liang Shaoji’s studio in Tiantai Mountain

 

 

Shen Ruijun (abbreviated as RJS):

Why do you choose to live in Tiantai Mountain. It is quite far away from the city.

 

Liang Shaoji (abbreviated as LSJ):

It’s both an accidental and a predestined choice. When I was making Nature Series, which uses silkworms as medium, I became more and more intimate with the beautiful natural landscape of Tiantai Mountain. Also, my friends in Tiantai provided studio space for me to work here. Yet, what attracts me most is Tiantai’s historical recluse culture. Legendary poet Hanshan used to live here. He wrote many approachable poems in plain language, and his influence even reaches Europe, America, and Japan. Hippies of 1970s were especially fond of him. He wrote a lot about “clouds” in his poems, like “white clouds embracing the hidden stones”, “white clouds often at ease”… His carefree life and the sense of “cloud” in his poems reveal the independent and noble character of this half-Daoist and half-Buddhist, who spent 70 years in seclusion in Tiantai. His Poetry of Cloud has stirred my imagination of the delicate, soft, light and exquisite silk, whose traces resemble the clouds. Hanshan’s poet friend Shide was a cook at Guoqing Temple, he often gave Hanshan some leftovers to keep him alive. There was a famous conversation between them that has passed on for generations. When I tried to ask how come Hanshan could emerge from here, and curious about his daily life, I found that the culture in Tiantai, the birthplace of both Daoism and Buddhism, is so rich. Tiantai Buddhism, founded by Master Zhiyi, is one of the most important four schools of Chinese Buddhism. When monk Jianzhen crossed the East China Sea to Japan, he was carrying the Lotus Sutra of Tiantai School. Therefore, Guoqing Temple is now the cradle of Tiantai sects in Japan and Korea. On the other hand, Zhang Borui founded the Southern Church of Daoism in Tiantai, and wrote Awakening to Reality. Besides the two, Ji Gong, the Chinese Robin Hood, and chancellor of the late Song Dynasty Jia Sidao, who wrote world’s first treatise on crickets, were both born in Tiantai Mountain. These are all unconventional, unrestrained, carefree, half-drunk, half-mad people. Represented by Xiang Rong, Xiang Zhu, Wang Mo, the Tiantai school of splash-ink painting was also born here. Jing Hao, famous painter of Tang Dynasty, once commented: “Wu Daozi’s paintings ‘have strokes but no ink’, Xiang Rong’s ‘have ink but no strokes’”. Such “have ink but no strokes” is to praise the allure and imposing manner of his treatment of ink. As Tiantai is shrouded in cloud and mist all year round, plus the Southern China admires the spirits of Jin Dynasty, their art was finally precipitated into splash-ink here, and became one of the pioneering art styles. I have to stress that, it’s not because I want to live in seclusion so I come to Tiantai, I’ve been paying attention to the society and the present all the time. The speed here is a bit slower than that of the outside world, and because of that, it allows me to quietly observe the many bygone events and phenomena of the cities in this “outlying place”.

 

RJS:

You have been living here for quite a long time, What do you think are the conditions that make these idiosyncratic people live here?

 

LSJ:

There is barely any detailed documentation about Hanshan in the History of Tang, his biography is mostly inferred by later generations from analyzing his poems. For example, Yan Zhenfei’s Biography of Hanshan puts History of the Northern Dynasties and History of Sui Dynasty in parallel with Hanshan’s poems. Hanshan wore tattered clothes and wooden clogs, loved playing with kids, and talked in an unpredictable way. His poems, on the other hand, are written in simple language, expressing the natural charm of mountains and forests, as well as Buddhist thoughts of the other-world. They contain profound philosophy of life, satirical social criticism, and sympathy for the poor. I started from admiring Hanshan to looking for the occurrence of Hanshan phenomena, then I found the context and environment of his existence. Tiantai has never been the centre or the capital city of any dynasties. It has ethereal landscape and a spiritual atmosphere. The abbot of Guoqing Temple once told me: “The prominent mountain has a prominent temple, and the prominent temple attracts prominent people.” Religions, humanities and so on gradually accumulated here. Since Tang, many poets have come here for pilgrimages, thus formed “a road of Tang poetry”. Li Bai’s Ascending Mount Tianlao in a Dream – A Song of Farewell writes about the mountain stretching from Xinchang to Tiantai – Mount Tianlao. The legend of Hanshan and Shide changed a bit later. The Yongzheng Emperor of Qing conferred them the title of “Two Spirits of Union and Harmony” in order to consolidate his sovereign. In actuality, the real Hanshan and Shide are two figures who think independently. Although I can’t find Hanshan the real person here, I find Tiantai the perfect place for me to settle down, away from the restless cities. I used to notice a phrase on the wall of the Buddhist School of Tiantai: “The richness of life comes from solitude, and solitude means the present.” How contemporary is this sentence!

 

RJS:

Why does solitude mean the present?

 

LSJ:

Even if you live in a remote forest, you cannot achieve the Dao and real tranquillity if you do not know how to be alone. I once asked a friend in Wannian Temple, what is the “present”? He told me: “Present is the instant of the instant, it is faster than the speed of light”. This reminds me of Baudelaire’s words, about how modernity is the transient, the fleeting, the contingent. So in the West, people need tranquillity in theory and in mind, but they cannot achieve that in reality, as speedy transformations make stabilization impossible. Yet this Buddhist sense of “solitude” reveals the great enlightenment of “eternity is in the instant”, which provides the wisdom for us to know the world, know ourselves, know life, know human and environment, and be harmonious with the nature. There’s a famous teaching in Tiantai school of Buddhism: “Cessation and Analytical Meditation”, which means cultivation of concentration and cultivation of cognition. Only cessation and tranquillity can lead to the enlightenment and the great wisdom. Thus, I was able to understand why Heidegger was so meticulous in translating and proofreading Tao Te Ching, and understand the possibility of conversation between cultures of the East and the West, and finally, understand that only by knowing the wisdom of life and the existence can one know what is art and how to make art. To put it simply, the attitude towards art is the most important.

 

RJS:

What is your way for comprehending the world?

 

LSJ:

I wrote a sentence a long time ago: “ art is the freeing of human’s perception of nature.” Another time, I wrote “art is when artists using their acute eyes to open up other people’s eyes of enlightenment, thus to re-understand this world”. Now, I would say: “art is the liberation of life experiences”. Notice that I use the world liberation instead of explanation or release, it is a kind of “transcendence” in reflection. You may think Hanshan is very poor and deprived, yet he is very broad-minded. The reason why Foucault could write those books was because of his life encounters. He had a more profound understanding of life after experiencing homosexuality and drugs. Also, Dream of the Red Chamber was a reflection of the history of Cao Xueqin’s own family, thus he was able to deeply reveal the circumstances of a declining family. “I am a Silkworm” is the way I understand the world. All questions of art are basically questions of the relation between human and the world.

 


 

Liang Shaoji

Heavy Clouds

Installation

Silk, wood, cocoons

2014 – 2018

Courtesy of the artist and ShanghART Gallery

 

 

RJS:

I want to ask a further question, what is your opinion of urban life?

 

LSJ:

Nowadays, urbanization and rural developments swept across the world. What is progress? What is retrogress? Cities are the foci of economic, cultural, educational, and technological development, they are the centres. Yet their existence and development require great support. China’s rural areas are quickly decomposing. Old houses are pulled down, farmers have lost their land and poured into the cities. But most of them have no residence in cities, which then result in housing bubbles and social instability. The new buildings in the rural areas all have a uniform appearance. Localized cultural characters and precious historical relics are all erased. There are many fake Tang or Song architecture in the cities, yet they fail to respect the real traditional ancient architecture. Also, natural resources are madly exploited, social and natural ecosystems are in total imbalance. Therefore, a country’s economic development should have an overall arrangement and a scientific outlook on development. The rural areas provide what cities are lack of, and they are also the powerful backing of development. When natural resources are depleted, rich fields and grain reserves are overly consumed, how can cities have a healthy development? Restlessness is the current epidemic in Chinese cities. What a nasty disease! 

 

RJS:

It is a result driven by capitalism.

 

LSJ:

I think, from the perspective of the history of civilization, urbanization is a necessary trend, yet it should be developed according to a reasonable plan, consistent with its history, society, humanities, technology and science, population, geography and traffic, natural resources, economic base and potential. Famous Japanese architect Arata Isozaki once commented in the Shanghai Biennale, that the constructions of many Chinese megacities are “demonized”.

 

RJS:

When raising silkworms, you kept observing their movements, and completed the works using the approach of negotiation. Could you tell us about your feelings of raising silkworms, and how did you get along with them, what did they bring to you?

 

LSJ:

I’ll talk about this from several aspects. I first came up with the idea of raising silkworms, and making artworks using living bodies and animate fibres when I made the Transform: Rubik’s Cube in 1989. When I was preparing for the monumental China/Avant-Garde exhibition of 1989, I noticed overlapping shadows of dried cocoons that had been nailed on the silk. This suddenly reminded me of the sentence “it is elusive and intangible, and yet within is form” in Tao Te Ching, and I finally understood the beauty of void and tranquillity in Eastern culture, as well as the power and natural beauty of the potentiality of little lives. During the “’85 New Wave”, I read both Eastern and Western philosophy, from Hegel, Nietzsche, Heidegger, Camus to Freud. What impressed me most are Nietzsche, Laozi and Zhuangzi’s philosophies. Heidegger’s language was too erudite for me to understand at that time. After raising silkworms for over 20 years, I’ve started to understand the depth and greatness of his philosophy. I once wrote: “for me, silk is the visualization of time and life in the very long journey, it divides the ‘one’ of infinite greatness as well as infinite smallness.” I named my upcoming solo exhibition in M WOODS Art Museum in Beijing “As If”, which not only contains the “meaning” and “form” of as if, seemingly, short pause, and the intermingling of reality and virtuality, the character itself (“”) is composed of “heart” and “light” – the heart experiences the light, chases the light, and is bathed in light. “Dao is in the As If”. Idioms containing “as if” (“”), like “as if a generation has passed” (恍若隔世) and “as if reborn” (恍若重生), are very modernistic expressions reflecting modern human’s predicament and hope. “As if” is a kind of différance, through which Derrida has revealed the surfacization and fragmentation of the world. “As if” also has the power of transformation. When one’s heart reaches the pure state, it can give off light from the inner, as clear minds lead to Dao and salvation. Therefore, “as if” is the transient light of Mass, the ritual of life. Later I wrote: “silkworms are apostles of light, silk is a light and mysterious tremble that crosses all manifestations and calls for the redemption.” With a microscope, I discovered the most important organ in the body of silkworms – the silk gland structure. The upper, middle and lower parts of gland and the spinneret form an architectural structure resembling a divine temple. In this way, science, art and philosophy, together, burst out light of poetry, and manifest divinity.

 

 

Liang Shaoji

Time and Permanence

Installation

Silk, barbed wire, cocoons

1993 – 2018

Courtesy of the artist and ShanghART Gallery

 

 

The process of raising silkworms and engaging with them has inspired me a lot, which generated art, and then disintegrated art, disintegrated the wall separating art and life, the strict watershed between subject and object. When the silkworms reached the fifth phase and started to spin silk, I would stay up all night to keep an eye of them. One day, I spread a piece of paper on the ground and wanted to take a nap, but in the end, I slept soundly for over an hour. When I woke up, I found a transparent and delicate cocoon just next to my neck, apparently made by a silkworm not long ago. I was struck by the idea that I was actually a silkworm as well, running for life. To think again, this is a kind of “as if”, dreaming of silkworms! This thorough understanding of life precipitated my work Bed, for which I put the silkworms on a charred bed frame made of copper wire, and let them grow, spin silk, become butterflies, give birth, and reach the state of nirvana, year after year. From 1993 to 1999, the wobbly little beds multiplied and grew into an array, and finally showed up in the 48th Venice Biennale, before the new millennium. I need to mention here a lesson I learnt in the progress. In 1995, I actually used a real baby bed to replace the copper-wire bed, only to find that the disproportion between silkworms and the bed is too gross, which made the whole work reduced to a kind of “design”. The care and love for small lives are swept clean away. So I went back to make the copper beds that are around 10cm in length.

 

During 2003 to 2006, I spent all my time in Taizhou, studying and exploring. I didn’t even go to Beijing during those years, but my mind was enriched. Heidegger once said: “The duty of a poet is to return home, and makes the homeland a place of origin.” I’d like to change the “poet” to “silk”: “silk is a home-returning”. In 2007, I had my first solo show in ShanghART gallery in Shanghai.

 

Liang Shaoji

Bed/Natural Series No.10

Installation

Charred copper wire, silk, cocoons

1993 – 1999

Courtesy of the artist and ShanghART Gallery

 

 

RJS:

Could you talk a bit more about the beauty of void and tranquillity you just mentioned. Where does its value lie?

 

LSJ:

“Void and tranquillity” are very significant representations of Eastern aesthetics, especially in the philosophies of Laozi and Zhuangzi. The East’s minimalism emerged out of “(t)he (state of) vacancy […] brought to the utmost degree, and that of stillness guarded with unwearying vigour”. In Planar Tunnel, the extremely subtle and delicate silk came off the white wall and projected a slight shade of the circle, as if passing into the wall but then re-surfacing at the same time, an endless tunnel of time and space unraveled. Italian artist Fontana slit a canvas, and it became a sculpture, published Manifiesto Spaziale. With White on White, Malevich embarked on “Suprematism”. The 49 grams “plain voila unlined garment”, excavated from Mawangdui archaeological site, inspired me. I let the silkworms to naturally spin silks in a circle, thus forming a plain of extreme thinness and of total void, becoming historical fragments, time-space fragments, universe wormholes. Its void, transparency and whiteness were not insipid, but had dynamism in the stillness. Dimensions of life, time and space…… are eventually compressed into void-quietude, void-vastness, void-spirit, void-white, void-nothingness, achieving greater freedom in the void.

 

 

Liang Shaoji

Planar Tunnel

Diameter: 145 cm (x3 pieces)

Installation

Silk

2011 – 2012

Courtesy of the artist and ShanghART Gallery

 

 

RJS:

There are certain technological elements involved in raising silkworms, and you also mentioned that you did a research on GMO with an institution in Sichuan, can you talk a bit more about the relation between this practice and science or technology?

 

LSJ:

We are in an era of “the century of biology”. King Arthur had mentioned three features: information, materials, biology. They are characteristic of this century. “Where we came from; where we go, what we do.” Scientists and artists are all working on these questions, which is why I believe there is space for dialogues. As well as issues of genetic modifications, people often ask, we've been used to “(t)he law of the Dao is its being what it is”, and most of my works are about Zen hidden in the process of life. But genetic modification is artificial. I think there are some misunderstandings about genes, just like atomic bombs, they could be used in wars but (its technology) could also be utilized in peace time. Also, I think from theory of evolution by Darwin to Morgan’s genetics and to today’s genetic studies, step by step, the world’s truth is being uncovered, which is what we’ve called, “meta”. Gene is life’s “meta”, a starting point, which happens to coincide with natural materials which I’ve always been interested in and contained crudity. This crudity gives me rich possibilities to develop and to understand. Thus, I wish to study on exactly how the dialogue takes place. Through “as if” – materials of light, I’ve researched fluorescent silks. By collaborating with scientists, insects and sea creatures’ fluorescent proteins are edited into silkworm eggs, then nurtured anew, making the silk spun emits beautiful and mysterious green fluorescence under light. When fluorescent cocoons were put in a Plexiglas cone and moved into a cave-like exhibition venue, it became as if a stupa of the modern time. Crudity and scientificity cross upon one another at the “meta” of life. I plan to further collaborate with scientists to study the relationship between silk protein and mothproof and durability.

 

RJS:

I’m curious about your ideas on the relationship between man and nature.

 

LSJ:

The East admires nature while the West admires science and rationality. Different attitudes towards nature have created different systems of civilisations. Nature is the synthesis of movements of matters. The Daoist view of nature was “Man takes his law from the Earth; the Earth takes its law from Heaven; Heaven takes its law from the Dao. The law of the Dao is its being what it is.” “Dao” signifies methods, directions, ways and patterns. I think the word “Dao” is a gerund, it’s the field of changes and movements. Zen’s view of nature returns to the unworked and follows the nature. Humans have to first hold up a reverence heart for nature, to comply with nature’s development, but this doesn’t at all mean the rejection of science. Science is cognition, research, the method and weapon for grasping nature. Many great inventions of ancient china such as fireworks, compass all stopped at the stage of application without further exploring dynamite and magnetic field. However, western “humancentrism” have led to insane exploitation of natural resources, which is destructive for the earth’s ecology, thus the East’s view of nature becomes a suitable remedy for saving earth at the moment.

 

If my first engagement with fiber art during the 70s had taken on a method of primitivism of the folk art, my later practice has explored soft sculptures using a modernist methodology. Furthermore, during the 80s, I challenged myself in biology, earnestly questing after the time and life of fiber at the critical point joining art and science, applying living silkworms as the medium for art practice. I’ve been studying genetics lately, which is apparently in the framework of post-modernism.

 

Yet, I’ve always confessed myself to not forget the East’s great thinking in its relationship with nature, to be careful of getting trapped by technology. Thus, I named my creations during the past 29 years Nature Series, to express my compassion, interrogation and reflection. I admire Chinese aesthetic of nature, assimilating the objective phenomenon with that of the mind.

 

RJS:

Can you talk a bit more about the relationship between art and science?

 

LSJ:

Someone once asked me: “if you are to choose three artists that you respect the most or have influenced you the most, who are they?” My answer was: Giacometti, Bada Shanren and Einstein. The person said Einstein wasn’t an artist. I replied that artists are all meditators; scientists are also meditators. Einstein discovered special theory of relativity and “general relativity” only after meditation. He discovered the mathematical beauty of the universe’s order – the aesthetics of the astrological physics is rightly art history in a broad sense. A British scientist has said: “going near Michelangelo’s sculptures, night and day, dusk and dawn, are equally breathtaking as reading Einstein’s theory of general relativity.” Lots of scientific findings were not deduced from calculations but were only calculated following hypothesis. They had not just deep thinking but also unrelenting willpower. Not long ago, I went to the laboratory of sericulture research (at Southwest University, Chongqing), and found out that the researchers only have in total two weeks of holidays each year and no weekends. They work in the laboratory almost every day, and one research topic usually takes 3 to 7 years. The effort is truly respectable. On their journeys of questioning the truth of life, scientists and artists encounter one another. Nietzsche once said: “to examine science through art, and art through life.” In fact, I’m not entirely an artist, having the vision and the skills of a silkworm farmer, a scientist, and a practitioner. That being said, art has molded me into an undefinable person. Scientists focus more on “form”, while artists focus on perception.

 

RJS:

You mentioned experimental spirit before, why is this having such a big impact on you?

 

LSJ:

The most influence Maryn Varbanov had on me, was not only the techniques of soft sculpture, but his attitude of unceasing genuineness towards art. He is the coordinating anchor of my life. He influenced me the most in his ethos of experimentation. He didn’t lecture verbosely except for once, when he systematically taught the world tapestry history. Most of the time, he discussed about methodologies in practice, inspired and encouraged us to experiment in the process of reaching one’s goal. This was a very big revelation for me. I think without curiosities, artists won’t experiment. Curiosity brings sensitivity, thus passion for experiment, reflection, questioning, instead of falling into dogmatism. Only through exploration and experiment, can we understand science, nature and art from a new perspective, achieving the unity of knowledge and action. Thus, John Dewey regarded experiment as the motivator. Sometimes, when you think long and hard for a solution, maybe the best way is to take a break, to play. When you are desperate for an answer, you might seek it in your past knowledge and experience, thus easily make mistakes. In the dead end of dogmatism, many of those who are established could hardly give out creativities. Yet what you experiment might not be thoroughly developed, it contains great possibilities. Sometimes, I think art is just game playing. It’s not like any ordinary games, it’s a free and independent spirit of scrutinization, a very felicitous exploration.

 

RJS:

In fact, this is also about freedom and independence which you’ve mentioned earlier. You’ve already accomplished the unity of knowledge and action, which is your method and passageway towards freedom. Let’s discuss about space and why you are most interested in it. How do you understand space?

 

LSJ:

My practice was never well behaved. I used to do painting and sculpture while I was interested in outdoor space. In my early years, I had collected wild plants in the forest, and was close to nature thus my sense of space began to extend from the width, length and height of the planar space. I have worked in exhibition design at the Office of International Exhibitions at the Ministry of Light Industry in Beijing from 1979 – 1981. During the time, I realized that architectural space is more extensive than sculptural space, and began to aspire the synthesis of tapestry, architecture, painting and sculpture. It was the passageway towards great art. Later I also discovered space of natural elements. This space included invisible and intangible things. “Emptiness” and “substances” discussed in Laozi and Zhuangzi are spatial relations; psychological space as well, the desire and feelings, which led to my later understanding of religion as the revelation for a divine space. More and more, I started to realize the significance of space, which is not limited to length, width and height. The use of living bodies brought up time-space. I swap space with time. The process was the différance of time and space. People asked me how would I describe my works in the simplest words, I answered “life” and “time”, only to “exchange” time for “space”. In recent years, voice, light and shadow are the subjects of my focus. They created a shapeless void, soft and gentle. While people tend to perceive agitated space more easily, it stripes the unsettledness of the urban, as shown in my Listening to the Silkworms and A Move in Silence.

 

RJS:

I’m rather curious about your use of silkworm strings. They are gentle materials, though very durable, but you’ve always used them to wrap ruins and wounds.

 

LSJ:

It’s a therapy, art therapy. For example, I shipped the crumbled ruins from Wenchuan earthquake site to my studio and induced the silkworms to spin on them, humanistically caressing the wounds through this warm and gentle material, to console sufferers. From the genetic perspective, the major components of silk are fibroin-amino acid, the “meta” of life. Bandaging objects of ruins with silk is to breed life into them, to inject genes of life. On the other hand, my work Snow Cover is not only a “silk-therapy” but also a “cold-therapy”. Under snow-like silk matting, spring awakens. Silk around the sharp edges of the glass and rusted iron thorns shows the capability of the tender overcoming the tough. I believe Christo’s wrapping art is a very macroscopic landscape engineering. More importantly, he valued heavily the dialogue with society, history, politics and nature in the wrapping process. While my art is microscopic, internalized, the light void and the process of endless samsara and repetition. The jury of “Prince Claus Award” from Netherlands commented, “he cares for nature, society and humanity. He is an artist rich of meditative thinking. In his art exists nature, and in the nature exists art.”

 

RJS:

What is the “new”?

 

LSJ:

The old and new of artistic languages are only relative, with specific contexts. Artists’ creativity doesn’t aim at what’s new and different, but at emancipation. Sincerity, is the artist’s most precious quality.

    

RJS:

How do you understand conceptual art? We have been talking about how certain experience triggered your imagination.

 

LSJ:

Artistic practice is determined by the way of seeing. Conceptual art stripped away form and matter and pointed straight at the heart. Zen that promotes meditation is at some level similar to it. In 2016, I saw the American minimalist sculptor Richard Serra’s EAST-WEST/WEST EAST at the Qatari desert – four standing steel plates installed with 2 kilometers between each. I suddenly realized the relationship between minimalism and conceptual art, land art, as well as the inevitability of the emergence of conceptual art. It rose to significance in the 60s and 70s during last century. Initiated by Duchamp, it saw “thinking” as work. Conceptualist artists not only followed Duchamp and Dadaism but also engaged with linguistics, semantics and structuralism. When they first emerged, they were against the market, neither were they presented as visual art. But now, some had turned, deliberately mystified for a daunting impression, which are in fact arid in thinking. 

 

Over the 29 years of raising silkworms, I’ve summarised my experience and understanding in four (homonymic) words “silk, thinking, history, poetry”. Silk is my working medium and starting point, the spiritual carrier; “thinking” is questioning, criticality, exploration and pious questing; “history” shifts from individual to group, and even society, examining from historical aspects; “poetry” shuts the eyes in face of reality, transcending the contemplation of individuality, groups, society and history, it’s the end that philosophy and science try to reach but have not yet. It’s the space opened up by art, not yet elaborately expressed, full of meditations. Moreover, the four words are homonyms, with different meanings but lingering sounds, which makes them a special kind of différance.

 

RJS:

You just said that you had to control temperature, wind, smell and many other things when you were making works made of silk. I find this quite amazing. For example, we only need to control the using of wet or dry brush when we paint, but you utilize air, heat and all these natural elements to mould a surface. It’s very fascinating.

 

LSJ:

Silkworms are hyper-metamorphosis, monophagous insects. They mostly eat only mulberry leaves. They undergo various stage of metamorphosis and react differently to changes of light, density, humidity and food. If put in materials of wood, bamboo, metal, glass or human body, they show even more complicated reactions. It almost makes an ethology of silkworms. Creative experiments that use silkworms as the medium are in fact a process of constant studying, discoveries and research of silkworms that made me characteristic of them. A silkworm farmer only wants the large quantity, healthy silkworms and standardized operations while artists seek the differences for more possible silk forms and the life and social significance reflected in the structural variances of silk. The number of silkworms I raise each time range from a few to a dozen thousands. First, I conceive the work in meditation. Then, I let the tiny lives pitch in, sometimes tens thousands of them going at the same time, I call it splash-silk (relative to splash-ink in Chinese ink painting). And other times, I had to patiently wait for them to build from the edge. To complete a work, the process was often run repeatedly, building up, adjusting. Sometimes, a work even lasted seven or eight years and became a witness to the tiny lives and the artist’s living will. The work’s eventual form was the outcome of the synthesis of heaven and man.

 

RJS:

Do you think there are more accidents or repetitions in the process?

 

LSJ:

When I first started raising silkworms, accidents happened most of the time. But when I gradually became more familiar with their characteristics, many coincidences became inevitable. Of course, factors that could lead to accidents still existed, the world of knowing is endless. Exactly because of those accidental factors, I was propelled to study more, and contemporary art was then able to bear fruits. I once invited experienced silkworm farmers to assist my work, but later discovered that they were used to the productive way of seeing and operating. Thus, many things couldn’t be done by others. For 29 years, I insisted taking care of the mounting, staying up entire nights. “Dancing with the silkworms” is truly exciting. It has given me many creative inspirations and the process for achieving revelation should always be achieved in solitude. The natural symbiosis is relentless; my practice always goes on.

 

Liang Shaoji

Broken Landscape

Installation

Silk, cocoons

2016

520 x 145 cm

Courtesy of the artist and ShanghART Gallery

 

 

RJS:

Could you give an example of such serendipity that impressed you?

 

LSJ:

One year, the rain was heavy. Mulberry leaves had more moisture content. When the silkworms spun silks, they still peed a lot, making the silks wet and stained in yellow. Normally, this kind of product would be trashed. But that time, it inspired me, and I made Broken Landscape. I kept everything produced throughout the silkworms’ lives including the silk it spun, the cocoon, sick silkworms, silk moths, leftover mulberry leaves, excretions, urine stains and their special smells all on the very long silk scroll. Traces left by the silkworms’ metamorphosis and the remains of the natural states had made a silkworm (homonymic with “Zen”) painting, a landscape of Chinese literati, a destructed and “broken landscape” painting scroll reflecting the adventure of life, the pain of metamorphosis and the perseverance of revival. The making of Broken Landscape once again led me to the understanding of the “material spirit”, a sublimation from “Qi” to Dao, thus the physical forms become metaphysical, transferenceactivates objects.

 

RJS:

Correct, this is specific to the Chinese. I’m interested in the “material spirit” you just mentioned. For example, textures in oil painting are imitations of the actuality. But the Chinese paintings didn’t do so. We say that trees on the mountains are like hairs. A thing’s texture had in itself an indexical significance. The material’s own texture wasn’t just texture. We had analogies. It might has something to do with the cultural genes. This analogy through texture created a corresponding spirit.

 

LSJ:

In my Natural Series, themes and images about “cloud” are common. My first solo exhibition was named “Dloud”, and later “Cloud Above Cloud”. Works included Cloud Mirror, Mending Sky, Breathe,  which was also cloud… I believe clouds in western arts had nothing similar to those in Chinese art. For the former, clouds were like props, a construction for Assumption of the Virgin and had less natural beauty and infinity when compared to the latter. Clouds in the ancient Chinese paintings were infinite, ethereal and free. It was the white space that became clouds and smokes, changing unpredictably. The Buddhist teachings said: “the ones who share lotuses’ language, will meet among water and clouds”, in which the clouds point towards the passcode of cultural salvation accomplished by the coming together of spirituality, freedom, void and actuality, reflecting wonderful understandings of universe and life.

 

RJS:

We are depicting the nature of clouds, and they are just representing one particular cloud in the sky.

 

LSJ:

We are representing the images of mind, the energy field of the movement of clouds. In my opinion, silkworms spinning is the same as breathing, and arranging clouds. Thus I made a work of dance, titled “breathing”. I let the actors and actresses to freely move around, slowly rising with the body’s breath of dantian, steadily swinging limbs, without ritualized things but life’s natural breathing state, without construction of stage but dancing to one’s pleasure on a land dappled by the shadow of Tiantai Mountain’s clouds.

 

RJS:

Why do you think spinning silk equals to breathing?

 

LSJ:

Breathing is the most basic movement of life, it is a form of exhalation and inhalation of existence. The meaning of life for silkworms is to spin silk. It is a phenomenon of metabolism and physiology. Visually, the traces of silkworms’ circular way of spinning silk indeed resemble clouds, without an end. Also, “Breath” could allow us to feel the soft, delicate, pure and never-ending rhythm, a hidden vigour. This is Chinese’s understanding and free imagination of silkworms.

 

RJS:

Yes, you are actually meditating on the material, rather than using it to make something. You are observing what is in itself.

 

LSJ:

Art is not a physical fact, neither is it an activity for material gains. Concepts are also disintegrated in representations. Actually, it’s difficult for me to distinguish among philosophy, science , suggestive reflections of nature, and meditations or discoveries in an artwork… I only hope to let it relax, and transform the material into poetry.

 

RJS:

That is what art should be.