Nov 02 2012

The Morbid Humor of Shen Shaomin

by Michael Young

Portrait of Shen Shaomin at White Rabbit Gallery, Sydney, 2012. Photo by Michael Young for ArtAsiaPacific.

In October, ArtAsiaPacific caught up with the 56-year-old Chinese Australian artist Shen Shaomin between his public talks at the Australian National University in Canberra (“Reality Behind Humour”) and at Sherman Contemporary Art Foundation (SCAF) in Sydney (“Art and Ethics”).

Shaomin was eager to discuss two of his works, one of which will surely be his final, as well as a piece from 2006, which has never been exhibited and which remains to this day hidden away in a private collector’s warehouse. The two pieces neatly demonstrate Shaomin’s morbid humor and moreover the ethical dilemma facing all Chinese artists navigating the country’s stifling censorship.

Shaomin’s ultimate and, one assumes, definitive work, the artist revealed to AAP, will be the reassembly and exhibition of his own skeleton after death. Shaomin is currently compiling a substantial document that details the procedures to be taken following his demise and an autobiographical text meant to accompany his postmortem exhibition. These preparatory elements will be exhibited next year in September at Singapore’s National Museum of Art.

Cheng Guangfeng, a 29-year-old artist based in Singapore, has been contractually engaged, in the event of Shaomin’s death, to carry out the task of stripping the corpse to the bones and bleaching and then reassembling the skeleton. “Obviously a young artist has been chosen because they must outlive me,” Shaomin told AAP with wry humor.

In spite of the artist’s ongoing contemplation of his own death, Shaomin, wearing a spearmint-colored shirt and yellow rimmed Karen Walker sunglasses, was garrulous and full of bonhomie when he met with AAP in the Chinese tea rooms of Sydney’s White Rabbit Gallery.

In addition to Shaomin’s as yet unnamed (and thankfully unrealized) personal memorial, his hyper-real sculpture of Mao Zedong, The Great Corpse (2006), neither is exhibited. The work was bought by Uli Sigg soon after completion and resides in a warehouse in Switzerland close to the collector’s Mauensee home. This has been a source of ongoing disappointment for the artist.

The Great Corpse was Shaomin’s attempt to deconstruct the myths that have cropped up surrounding Mao since the Chairman’s death. Leading up to the creation of The Great Corpse, Shaomin had become increasingly fascinated by the corpse of Mao Zedong, housed in its Tiananmen Square mausoleum. Shaomin frequently visited the tomb, as much as three times in one day, where long lines of visitors are allowed to look upon the clothed corpse lying inside a crystal sarcophagus. Shaomin’s silicone replica of the Chairman, however, presents the naked body of Mao as it might appear when removed from its tomb for cleaning, which is done twice every year out of view of the public. “I wanted to make a different version, one without make up and without clothes, a hyper-real version showing the levelling factor of death,” he said.

Shaomin assiduously tracked down several of the morticians who had worked on Mao’s body in 1976, but there were no records or photographs of the actual embalming procedure. The only thing Shaomin learned from them was that the body was cut open across the stomach, the internal organs removed and the cavity stuffed with formaldehyde-soaked cotton wool. 

Rather than displaying The Great Corpse in a coffin similar to the one at Tienanmen Square, Shaomin placed the sculpture, completely nude on a stainless steel mortuary gurney. Also part of the work is a fascimile of the sarcophagus where replicas of Mao’s clothes have been placed, neatly folded and precisely ordered alongside a respectfully folded Chinese flag. The silicone figure is as life-like as one can imagine a figure to be in death. There is a grey hue to the flesh and the body displays real human hair carefully added one strand at a time.

SHEN SHAOMIN, The Great Corpse (detail), 2006, mixed-media installation at the artist’s studio. Photo by and courtesy the artist.

While The Great Corpse is one of the 1,463 works that Sigg is donating to the M+ Museum due to open in Kowloon in 2017, Sigg did not release it for the exhibition, “Go Figure: Contemporary Chinese Portraiture” in Australia, a decision that caused Shaomin great personal concern. The show—currently on display at Canberra’s National Portrait Gallery and Sydney’s SCAF—is a selection of work from Sigg’s collection, and while the curator, Claire Roberts, requested the The Great Corpse to be included, Sigg refused, citing the sensitive negotiations with China at the time concerning his donation.

It is obvious that Sigg feared Chinese authorities would construe the work as disrespectful to the memory of Mao whose God-like status since his death has been actively encouraged by the Chinese Communist Party.

For his part, Shaomin says there is nothing remotely disrespectful in the work. “When you die you become like everyone else,” he said. “If people see it as horrifying then it is because they see death as horrifying. My work shows Chairman Mao, The Great Leader, in death, nothing more.”

Shaomin seems able to contemplate the inevitability of death with equanimity and indifference. The idea of having his own flesh scraped from his bones doesn’t faze him. He has used human bones before in a now destroyed precursor to his “Unknown Creature” (2003) series of phantasmagorical relics (made from animal skeletons) from a previous and imaginary era.

Shaomin plans to have his bleached white bones scored with biographical details of his life, a modern day scrimshaw recording the names of people he has encountered during his life journey. The names of his former wives, children and friends will be there in perpetuity with him.

We hope that it will be many, many years before Shaomin’s skeleton will be on exhibition anywhere. “I have no intention of meeting the Grim Reaper anytime soon,” he said, “But it pays to be prepared.”