In a large warehouse space in Shanghai, 31 miners’ helmets rest symmetrically arrayed on a concrete floor, illuminated solely by the light of their own headlamps, and swathed in a web-like film of raw silk. The filtered industrial glow exudes pensive melancholy, a difficult feat to achieve in the midst of one of the world’s fastest growing metropolises. Such diametrically opposed relationships between nature and modernity are an integral component in the work of Chinese artist Liang Shaoji. For his first solo exhibition in China, titled “Cloud,” Liang brought his complex intersection of philosophy, science and art to the forefront, using a hybrid platform that includes everything from ecology and biology to sculpture, performance and weaving techniques.
In 1988, Liang began to use live silkworms in his art; “Nature Series” was the result of the experiment. In the minimalist tradition, the works remain untitled save for a number and date but in a postmodernist vein, incorporate a number of mediums ranging from site-specific installation to performance and video. “Cloud” showcased a number of these pieces including the miner’s helmet work (Nature Series No.102) and another large-scale installation, Nature Series No. 87, consisting of 77 candles of variable dimensions sheathed in wax, silk and bamboo. In an adjacent room, two roughly four-foot-high piles of newspaper stood encased in raw silk, the Chinese text obscured by the milky cocoons. The production of these works is painstakingly slow, sometimes requiring years for the worms to spin enough silk to encompass Liang’s man-made objects. By allowing the silkworms to envelop and ultimately conquer his work, these pieces defy traditional categorization as art objects but rather, embody the residual vestiges of Liang’s actions, performances and artistic conception.
In Chinese tradition, the silkworm represents generosity and its thread, human life and history. In this sense, Liang’s silkworms function as the link between the production of his work and the artist’s philosophical underpinnings. The importance of nature in Chinese tradition coupled with modern China’s disregard of its natural environment (a poignant example is Shanghai’s rapid industrial and architectural growth in the past 20 years) serve as Liang’s starting point but this juxtaposition of dichotomies runs much deeper. Ultimately, Liang is creating a metaphor for the industrialized age; while manmade artifice may temporarily reign, nature is the only true immortal.