Shi Jinsong

Embedded Terror: Sculptures by Shi Jinsong. The branches have been burnt to charcoal, and are rejoined, with the help of steel bolts, to keep the shape of a tree. At branch’s tips and forks show tiny pale buds. But on closer inspection the buds turn out to be teeth. There is a Chinese verbal pun at work here: bud and teeth are both called ya; the written words are derived from the same root. The growth of buds or teeth is the sign of new life and fresh power, with the teeth adding an additional element of menace. Destruction by fire is an ancient fear. For agrarian Chinese with timber architecture, fire is a natural force that especially needs attending to. But destruction is never absolute. Do not all conflagrations leave behind a field of possibilities as well? Ash leaves a rich base for new growth: fire clears the ground for a fresh start. In Shi’s world the new growth takes on a spooky transformation: it undergoes a genetic mutation that departs from its original roots. Buds changing into teeth tells us that the plant has now become an animal; it has become carnivorous. The lyrical associations of the tree, with its poetic and painterly history, have not prepared us for this mutation. Even as we appreciate the charred forms of the branches a sinister threat pervades the air: a pastoral symbol, silenced by death comes back to life stealthily in a form that no longer provides passive shelter from the sun or acts as filter for fresh air, but begins to resemble a toothed creature that needs reckoning with. The Surreal associations of Shi’s work are obvious: “Tree”is a dream brought into the physical world, and once here it starts to transform the way we understand the world. In two works preceding this charcoal tree, Shi had already started to draw the tree into his sculpture. One is entitled “168km/h”. This is a large tree trunk fitted out with stainless steel motorcycle parts, and is designed to run and roar like a bike. About this work the artist wrote: “One day I had a dream. Later on, I actually found the tree in the dream and it could really be started up. It has a V type 4 tanked 750 cc engine, and can run at 168 km per hour. The three rabbits quietly waited, and the white fox fur on the trunk shook with the wind … I am confused: why is it that I appear to be designing the dream? Or is it I who have been designed by the dream? Or both the dream and I have been designed? Or perhaps we together colluded in this? Design is perhaps a scheme, although it sometimes seems to be a shamanist spell. At least this is how it appears to me.” (1995) A tree that comes alive in Shi’s dream is not stationary; it can be harnessed like a horse.

For nomads, who already have their horses, dreams like this perhaps do not come to them; this must be a dream that comes only to the farmer who now finds himself both dispossessed and empowered by a new life that promises mobility. Dreams do not get ‘dreamed by’ someone; they come of their own accord, like an encounter that in retrospect turns out to be fated. Shi found his voice in sculpture in 2002 with a series of stainless steel ‘weapons’ made in the shape of well- known product logos. This was followed by other works, including fantasy versions of everyday objects, such as a stainless-steel baby stroller and computer desk complete with blades and weaponry. He was first inspired by Michel Foucault’s analysis of power control within daily life, and began to see hidden messages of violence and manipulation in the social system around him. The baby stroller is part of a set of products, "Na Zha Baby Boutique", designed for the mythical child god Na Zha, who sacrificed himself to pay for his mischief and for taking justice into his own hands. By designing a set of products for this child god, Shi exposes the hidden messages of violence that he senses in the real world. For Shi, the ideal ‘design’ is setting of the perfect trap, the scheming of a pure fantasy plan. Pursuing this logic, sculpture in the contemporary world is therefore the perfection of the unfinished messages of power and manipulation. As one who grew up on a farm, he finds the changing realities of China of the recent years especially shocking for the agrarian population. Industrial-commercial culture has taken over the lives of those near major cities, but habits and desires are slow in cutting their roots, developing unexpected approaches to the new material culture and the new visual realities that have taken over the agrarian world. In response to this, Shi has ‘designed’ a series of half-motorbike, half-farm-tractor machines in stainless steel as a fantastic incarnation of the dream of the new life. The “Tree” in this exhibition was made in 2007 as one of the works reflecting Shi’s rereading of Chinese classical poetry. Not only have material products ‘designed’ for new China mutated genetically during the past decade, even Nature can no longer stay above the storms of change. In this changed world natural objects have taken on new implications and have brought alternative poetic allusions. In Shi’s interpretation, the dark magic of the Surreal dream becomes the poetry of the new natural order for the Chinese agrarian urbanite. "Tree" is a simple, poignant statement about the desires and terrors hidden in China’s modern dreams.

Text by Chang Tsong-zung