TIME, LIFE AND NATURE

A CONVERSATION WITH LIANG SHAOJI

Liang Shaoji was born in Shanghai in 1945. He was trained initially as a textile artist at the Zhejiang School of Fine Arts and in the early part of his career, during the 1980s, produced numerous innovative textile hangings and installations. In 1988 he began an open-ended series of installations and assemblages known as the Nature Series, involving the use of found objects and materials as sculptural supports upon which dense coverings of silk fibres have been deposited by live silkworms. In this interview, which was recorded at the ShanghArt Gallery in Shanghai at the time of the artist’s most recent solo exhibition there, Liang Shaoji gives an account of the cultural, historical and intellectual background to his work as well as insights into its making and possible significances.

 

Paul Gladston: Since the late 1980s, your work as an artist has been characterised by the use of found objects and assemblages upon which silkworms have been allowed to deposit dense coverings of silk fibres. Your use of silk as a sculptural medium can be understood to carry with it certain connotations of, for want of a better term, ‘Chineseness’. Could you say something about the relationship between your work and Chinese cultural identity?

Liang Shaoji: Actually, as a Chinese—as someone who lives and works in China—even though one doesn’t talk or think consciously about Chinese culture, one has already been marked by that culture. However, it’s not an easy thing to truly grasp what Chinese culture is or the deep meanings that lie behind it. More importantly, one now has to view Chinese culture from a new global perspective; one that allows us to see the advantages and disadvantages of that culture as well as its current state of development and the way it is changing. I’ve been to the Soviet Union three times; twice in the 1980s and once again in the 1990s. I went there before 1989 and saw clearly how contained, how backward the society was. You needed a signature to buy a train ticket! In 1989 the Soviet Union began to collapse. China was better than the Soviet Union at that moment. In 1993, I went there again, and it was ridiculous that one dollar could be exchanged for 1,400 Russian roubles. I witnessed a similar situation in southern Yugoslavia. I realised that the system was determined by local ways of thinking and that these ways of thinking were in turn reinforced by the system. I realised that it was right that China had begun to open up.

As a member of Chinese society, I have had my work to do, and during the process of that work I have gradually realised what kind of values I should follow and how to exert myself. I was born during the 1940s, so I’m part of a generation that has experienced a lot of changes. During Mao Zedong’s time, I was influenced strongly by traditional Chinese culture; so much so that it has now etched itself indelibly on my heart-mind. Traditional, Chinese folk-arts were a big influence on aspects of official art under Mao. Since Mao died China has undergone significant changes. For a person like me, in their sixties, it’s not so easy to adjust to those changes. However, I’m still very interested in truly getting to know the world. When I was at school, I was taught to follow the system of the Soviet Union. But, personally, I prefer German culture. I like something that is simple and naïve; something powerful, and thoughtful, even a bit religious.

Paul Gladston: Do you see your work as an artist as a focus for religious contemplation or meditation?

Liang Shaoji: Actually, I’m not religious. Nevertheless, I have a strong interest in religion. Religious feeling is, for me, a kind of spiritual power that can be contained in art. I’m just like the German scientist Albert Einstein, who started believing in religion when he realised that there were so many things in the universe that could not be explained rationally. That kind of belief in religion is not the same as superstitious belief. That’s one of the reasons I’m interested in German culture.

Paul Gladston: You were born in 1945; so you lived through the whole of China’s revolutionary period, from the Communist Revolution and the founding of New China in 1949, through to the adoption of Deng Xiaoping’s policy of opening-up and reform in 1978. Is your art in any way a response to the events of that period and in particular the violent suppression of traditional religious practices during the Cultural Revolution?

Liang Shaoji: My belief in religion is not the same as a traditional Chinese style of superstitious belief. I think it was a very superstitious time in China under Mao Zedong. I lived through the changes in China after 1949, but I wasn’t marked so strongly by those changes. I didn’t choose the path of antagonism. I accepted that there would be changes. As you say, I was born in 1945 after the ending of the anti-Japanese war. At that time, my father was working as a bank clerk in a British bank, which could be considered at the time as a middle-class profession. My immediate family wasn’t affected strongly by the changes during the 1940s and 1950s, nor was it affected directly by events during the Cultural Revolution. From the Anti-Rightist campaign in 1957 to the beginning of the Cultural Revolution, my relatives and friends all got involved in the transformation of Chinese society. My brothers and sisters all went to work in the countryside and mountain areas. I worked in the countryside during the Great Leap Forward of 1958-1960. I went there for several years, so I couldn’t go to university. It could be seen as a small setback that wasn’t expected. However, I only realised that it was a setback after the Cultural Revolution. Why didn’t I realise it before? Because the whole of Chinese society was so constrained that as an individual you just couldn’t feel it. My relatives were attacked during the Cultural Revolution, but not my immediate family. That’s why I wasn’t marked so strongly by the changes during the Maoist period. Once I was released—when I was enlightened after the Cultural Revolution during the 1970s and 1980s—I started comparing Western culture and Chinese culture. I began to read a lot of Western books, and I started to feel that there was more emphasis on humanity in the West than in China. During the process of comparison, I re-examined our tradition—which was reflected in my art works. I started to examine Chinese and Western culture, including their relationship with science, and philosophy, from the perspectives of life and human instinct. During the 1980s, the space for individual freedom in China was limited. So, I began to feel that I would very much like to break with these restrictions through art, to reconstruct art as a way of resisting restrictions on individual freedom. My art works are greatly influenced by my personal experiences—for example, the materials I choose. But, I never try to do something in an overly premeditated way. I’d like to make sense of life under certain historical conditions through my art.

Paul Gladston: What conclusions did you draw from your comparative study of Western and Chinese culture?

Liang Shaoji: To some extent Western culture tends to be more rational than Chinese culture, which itself is very vague or idealistic. Though Chinese culture emphasises the innermost being, it actually doesn’t know or tell us what that innermost being is. Daoism has been very influential on Chinese culture in this respect. However, in reality, a lot of thinking in China has not followed Daoist thought. Western culture is rational, so its conception of democracy is straightforward. In Western culture, everything needs to be tested, including democratic thought. China is not like that. Historically there was no democracy in China. After having been defeated by the Japanese, Chinese people started to feel a sense of crisis. The reason why China experienced numerous mass movements has something to do with this way of thinking.

Paul Gladston: Can you give specific examples of aspects of Western culture that have influenced your development as an artist?

Liang Shaoji: I should say that I have been interested in Western culture since my childhood. At that time, there were two musicians—one was a pianist, the other was violinist—who lived below my parent’s apartment. I often went to visit them, listening to music and borrowing books. Though I produce modern art now, I still like Western classical music; for instance, Mozart, Debussy, Bach, Tchaikovsky and Stravinsky, the composer of the Rite of Spring. Two thirds of my music collection is classical Western music. People might feel it strange that an artist who makes modern art, such as myself, also likes listening to classical music and reading novels. Also, I started reading Shakespeare when I was very young, though I couldn’t fully understand it. I felt the words and the sentences were so beautiful. I think literature influenced me a lot. I liked Tolstoy from Russia, Romain Rolland from France and also Victor Hugo. I also liked some American writers, such as Hemingway. My sister was studying at Fudan University in Shanghai at the time I was growing up and brought back lots of books when she returned for summer vacation. She read them and I read with her. Later on, in the 1980s, I was greatly influenced by the writings of Nietzsche.

Paul Gladston: How did Nietzsche’s writings influence your work as an artist?

Liang Shaoji: Initially, I read traditional Chinese books. Then I got hold of the book The Outsider by Albert Camus. I was shocked by it and started reading Western philosophical books. I was so impressed by Nietzsche’s oeuvre because it totally overturned my original thoughts. I could feel the power and strength of will behind his books. Nietzsche subverted Western classical philosophy and Hegel’s thoughts. I realised how great life was through reading Nietzsche. I read several critical articles about him and came to see that many people had been influenced by his writings, including Adolf Hitler, Mao Zedong, Lu Xun and so on, and that they had been inspired by those writings in different ways. The greatness of Nietzsche lies in his subversion. It seems Nietzsche’s philosophy is a bit out-dated nowadays. However, I can still feel the power of his work. When I read works by Hemingway, I felt a similar power. An American critic commented that he could feel the influence of Nietzsche on my work. I don’t know whether it’s true or not … that I was influenced directly by him. One thing for sure is that I gained the power from him to exert myself even under adverse conditions. Nietzsche’s work is so powerful while Chinese philosophy is comparatively soft. I realise the contradiction between the two points of view. But I welcome both the power and the softness. I think I was influenced by the creative spirit of the West as a whole, not just the power of Nietzsche’s writings—nevertheless, for me he was a very typical representative of Western thinking. Personally, I think that’s why Nietzsche’s oeuvre came to the fore when China had its cultural revolutions, including the May Fourth movement of 1919 and the ’85 New-Wave. It was a way of breaking with Chinese tradition. It’s like a hammer. Nietzsche’s thoughts pounded traditional Chinese constraint. During the 1980s, there were people who studied Sartre’s thoughts, Nietzsche’s, and also John Dewey’s pragmatism. Among them, Nietzsche influenced me the most; so powerful. At the time I was also reading books related to Chinese culture. I realised Laozi and Zhuangzi are typical representatives of the softness in Chinese culture. However, Chinese culture and society were actually influenced more by Confucius and Mengzi, whose thoughts were used as tools by the ruling class.

Paul Gladston: Nietzsche is known to have been influenced in his thinking by Laozi’s Dao Dejing, which he interpreted, alongside other instances of non-Western philosophical writing, as a challenge to the dominance within the Western intellectual tradition of philosophical rationalism. Do you think this affinity between Nietzsche’s and Laozi’s ‘philosophical’ approach is another reason why Nietzsche was readily embraced by Chinese intellectuals at various points during the twentieth century?

Liang Shaoji: No, they are totally different. Nietzsche’s thoughts were used as a kind of tool, a kind of weapon, to criticise traditional Chinese culture. I think it’s almost impossible to use Daoism as a basis for breaking with tradition—for breaking the existing social shackles—because Daoism and Confucianism have been mixed together closely as part of the Chinese intellectual tradition; they are strongly linked to one another and protect one another. They are used as tools, and they themselves are the constraint. That’s why we relied on Western cultural forms to break with tradition during the May Fourth Movement. But now, people in China have started studying Chinese traditional culture again. I don’t think the intentions behind my works, and particularly the Nature Series, have been fully understood in this regard. Historically, many Chinese intellectuals have become hermits in their later years. This is right and proper and I now work for the most part in isolation in a place called Linhai away from the city of Shanghai. The French poet Baudelaire suggested that the present is always fleeting; that it changes all the time in the twinkling of an eye. In Buddhism, the moment is even smaller and shorter than in the twinkling of an eye—and it’s a feeling from the innermost being. Chinese Taozi and Zhuangzi Chan Buddhism, argue that one should feel the world from one’s innermost being. In Western philosophy that feeling is often subject to outside influence. I think the interesting thing is that I don’t want to be a hermit living on the mountain totally isolated from the world … just like one of the Buddha dharma. ‘Small invisible in the mountain, big invisible in the city’—this aspect of my work hasn’t been understood by many people.

Paul Gladston: Historically in China, intellectuals often retreated from public life as a way of showing their disagreement with the prevailing political order. Is your own partial retreat from public life and the use of natural materials in your work in any way a reaction to the disruptive effects of China’s rapid modernisation over the last three decades and, in particular, the growing economic gap between rich and poor, as well as the destruction of the natural environment?

Liang Shaoji: Yes. If we look at it from the point of view of Daoist philosophy, those that ‘have’ would become ‘none’. There’s an article by Zhuangzi called Making All Things Equal, which argues that nature, animals and people are all the same. In the ideal society there’s no rich or poor, all people would live harmoniously; the same in life as in death. There are no clear boundaries in Chinese thought; things are always in a state of chaos. This is the same in Chinese philosophy and Chinese aesthetics. In the West, you often challenge existing ways of thinking and make a breakthrough. That’s why, in the West, one is encouraged to be critical. In China it’s not like that. Western artists have been influenced by Japanese Zen Buddhism, which is different from Chinese Chan Buddhism. They study Oriental Zen by using their rational ways of thinking to smash the art forms of the past.

Paul Gladston: Could you say something about your development as an artist and in particular the shift you made during the late 1970s away from making textiles to the kind of installations and assemblages you make today?

Liang Shaoji: During the 1970s, before I began my work on the Nature Series, I mainly produced textile art. I was the head of a craft research centre. In 1988 I made a transition from making textiles to the Nature Series, which is related to biology and the use of live media. The Nature Series is actually a reaction against my previous work and my original understanding of art. When I was making textiles I was trying to return to the origin of art by changing materials and forms, which was in contrast to the political art in China of the 1970s. The Nature Series is a reaction against the concept of crafts. In the Nature Series I started to use a live medium, silkworms, to express the concept of being reactionary. Though there’s a traditional cultural background, the Silk Road, behind it, I don’t think it’s necessary to repeat the past. Instead, I try to make silk stand for the line of life of human-beings, and also the history of human-beings and silkworms.

Paul Gladston: In English, and in other European languages, there are strong metaphorical associations between the weaving of cloth and textual narrative and, by extension, the unfolding of life and historical memory. Is your use of silkworms as a living medium intended to evoke similar metaphorical associations?

Liang Shaoji: As a living body, the silkworm has its own lifeline and timeliness. The process is very important. I have been raising silkworms for almost twenty years. As I said earlier, I used them as a reaction against my original ways of making art. The concepts arising from my use of silkworms have become rich and varied in the past few years. I have studied and used silkworms with different cultural backgrounds and, in doing so, have naturally quoted many different stories. I pay special attention to the marks of the silkworms weaving in different situations; in relation to different materials, and at different times. For example, when the silkworm is weaving, sometimes at first it climbs very high and then comes down, weaving a thread and climbing back to the top along the thread. Observing this, I began to think of making a work related to hanging. Initially, I thought I would link a series of weavings but found it too artificial. I suddenly realised I should connect the weavings with life and make a contrast of heavy and light by allowing the silkworms to weave around a large hanging metal chain. At the time, I was reading the book Life is Elsewhere by Milan Kundera. Another example would be my work involving glass. The material of glass has the spirit of dissimilation. The silkworm weaves on the glass to soften it. Time is also life, which contains my experiences in life and my thoughts of the past and the future. In one of my works I use newspaper as a medium. The newspaper represents the moment. There are newspapers of different times and types. I allowed the silkworm to weave on the newspaper. The silk covers the newspaper, which actually creates something new because it veils the print and makes the newspaper white again. The past and the future are brought onto the same plane.

Paul Gladston: That suggests a conception of time very much at odds with rationalist notions of historical progress; of the categorical succession of past, present and future. Is there an implicit critique here of the attempt to erase China’s past during the Cultural Revolution and of the progressive rationalism that still dominates mainstream Chinese society as part of the process of opening-up and reform?

Liang Shaoji: It’s just a kind of feeling; a realisation of the state of life. I was thinking about the living condition of human-beings and then looking from the perspective of a comparison of Western culture and Chinese culture. I think that all of our histories go back to the fundamental starting point of life according to the philosophy of Laozi. Laozi says that there is always a movement from non-being to being and being to non-being; it’s always like this. So when I’m making a work, I hope it can be endlessly done. The process of silkworms weaving is just like a cycle. The most important thing is life itself. Of course, there will be different historical changes during the process, but it will always return to the origin of life.

Paul Gladston: Your work would appear to involve an uncertain relationship between order and disorder. Ostensibly the weavings deposited by the silkworms are made randomly. However, as you have indicated, there is an underlying sense of order to those weavings.

Liang Shaoji: There is order in the disorder, just like probability. I think the aim of post-modernist art is to subvert the past and to find new order. New order results from the disorder of the present. The combination of silk and found objects is a way to apply the changes that have happened in my life to my works. I’m searching for something through my works. Initially, I used new art languages and forms to break through the constraints of the past. I understood later that art is actually a kind of feeling; the realisation and belief of an artist in relation to nature. Finally, I became more interested in the origin of life. Gradually, my works became simpler, though all show a sense of life. The Nature Series is not just a return to nature, but also a return to my own life origins. My works began to contain more complicated things after I began to compare Western and Chinese culture. Nature is without order; being unnatural is the opposite side to this. In my work, the silkworm weaves randomly, which looks accidental. But I have used scientific ways to guide the silkworm. The process becomes unnatural, because it’s not without order any longer. So, in other words, being unnatural means to do something on purpose or forcing things to do something. It is unnatural what human beings have done to nature.

Transcribed and translated by Xu Sujing

Paul Gladston is Associate Professor in Culture, Film and Media at The University of Nottingham. For a number of years he was head of the division of International Communications and Director of the Institute of Comparative Cultural Studies at The University of Nottingham Ningbo, China.