Text by Ella Mudie
A futuristic world of unfeeling biological experimentation that’s just a small step away from the one we inhabit now. This is what conceptual artist Shen Shaomin invites his visitors to enter in The Day After Tomorrow, Shaomin’s first solo exhibition in Sydney for a decade. Having moved to Australia from China after the political unrest of 1989 until resettling permanently back in China in 2002, over the course of his globalised artistic career Shaomin has become known for his commanding quasi-biological and anthropological installations that carry a string in their tail, confronting the darker implications of human intervention into nature and unchecked scientific, political and technological ambition. The Day After Tomorrow sees Shaomin return with a startling new manifestation of his striking yet critical approach.
Displayed across both floors of the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Chinatown, at street level Shaomin’s first installation, I heard the sound of distance (2011), offers a somewhat elliptical experience for the viewer. Arranged in a ritualistic circle are 12 muyus, the traditional Chinese wooden fish drum, cast in varying sizes and diverse materials from throwaway plastic and aluminium to the more enduring stone, ceramic, steel and wood. Placed on white plinths beneath yellow cushions and with accompanying gongs, there’s a sense of cultural and chronological displacement in these ancient instruments’ resemblance to consumer objects on display. In Chinese culture, the drums are traditionally struck by monks when reciting texts as reminders to concentrate on their sutras while the fish symbolises wakefulness and in this way the drums may also signal to the visitor to pay attention and remain alert to their surrounds.
At the top of the stairs the tone changes as the visitor encounters the main gallery transformed into a vast expanse of clinical crystalline whiteness by a wall-to-wall carpet of rock salt. Inhabiting one corner is I sleep on top of myself (2011), an array of hyperreal silica gel sculptures of sinewy pink flesh coloured farm animals stripped of their coats of fur or plucked of their feathers, incubating atop hilly mounds of salt. Animals typically bred either for domestication or human consumption from goats and piglets to a cat, dog, goose, and rabbit at first glance they resemble carcasses, disturbing given their setting of heaped quantities of salt seasoning, but upon closer inspection subtle signs of life are discernible. On one mound a bald rooster, burrowed into a messy array of plucked feathers as if ready to cook, uncannily rocks backward and forward as it gently breathes in and out, quietly defying death.
What might be the cause of this perverse and disturbing scenario? At the other end of the room, the lifelike silicone figure of a frail elderly woman, all skin and bones and a shock of silver white hair sprouting like whiskers from her head, suns herself naked while reclining on a wooden deck chair. Titled I want to know what infinity is (2011) the viewer can’t help but draw connections between her apparent desire to prolong life and the pressure this places on the natural world, particularly those animals we rely upon as food supply or potentially might seek to exploit as resources for the regeneration of our flailing bodies. Could city life, which increasingly distances us from the animal world, accelerate this trend? A step removed from Chinatown’s footpaths bustling with shoppers and the noisy din of traffic, the surreal artificial ecology of Shaomin’s installations offer a rare opportunity to pause and consider some future realities we’d rather ignore.
The Day After Tomorrow by Shen Shaomin at the 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney continues until 10 December.2011.
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Shen Shaomin, I sleep on top of myself (2011) detail of production image, silica gel simulation, acrylic and fabric, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist.