SHI JINSONG: RAZOR SHARP AND DEADLY, A CASE STUDY
‘Shi Jinsong is an artist of violence — not the overt violence of street fighting or war, but the implicit, unacknowledged violence that lurks within any society.’
(Elizabeth Keenan, ‘The Big Bang’)
Shi Jinsong, Design 2007 - Instruments of Torture, steel, paint, 123 x 220 x 51 cm, image White Rabbit Collection
Taking “cutting edge” to its literal limit, Shi Jinsong uses black humour and black-painted steel to question our relationship to designer objects. A Buddhist, he believes attachment to these modern must-haves makes us slaves to them and to the power structures behind them. His TV, coffee table and speakers are all guillotines, elegantly designed to decapitate their owners—unless they become as cold, hard and cruel as the objects of their desire
Course Content – NSW Preliminary and HSC Courses
Practice – the artist and the critic
The Structural Frame: interpreting signs and codes, understanding materiality
The Cultural Frame: Artworks in the social, historical and political context of contemporary China and a globalised consumerist world
Conceptual Framework: Artist/Artwork/World relationships
Outcomes: P7, P8, P9, H7, H8, H9, H10
Course Content – IB Comparative Study
Assessed Criteria for the Comparative Study include:
o Analysis of formal qualities
o Interpretation of function and purpose
o Evaluation of cultural significance
o Making comparisons and connections
o Presentation and subject specific language
o (for HL only) making connections to own art practice
For PRELIMINARY, HSC and IB students, this Case Study is focused on:
o Reading and analysing extracts of art critical writing to model descriptive writing and critical analysis and interpretation
o Understanding ‘visual codes’ and iconography – applying the structural frame to understand how artists create meanings in their works through their choices of materials and their visual language
o Understanding how contemporary artists work in ways informed issues in society, and how art historians and critics explain works in their context
o Examining how contemporary artists use materials and technologies
o Comparative writing – learning how to compare works (by the same or different artists) to make well-supported inferences and deductions
For Teachers – Some Information About Teaching / Learning:
This Case Study focuses on the practices of the artist and the critic. In the first instance, students
encounter the artworks themselves, in the gallery and/or in reproduction and/or online. A sequence of learning activities begins with a discussion of selected works, followed by reading the examples of art writing provided (models of critical practice), and responding to focus questions. Whole class and small group tasks are suggested, with links to other artists, and to other useful resources. An extended response question, with marking guidelines, requires students to develop an argument that demonstrates their understanding of the artist’s practice in his social and historical context.
The Case Study may be approached in a range of different ways, depending on the particular interests of teachers and students. Strategies may include:
o Independent research or collaborative investigations
o Debates or dialogues exploring how Shi Jinsong uses satire to explore the contemporary world
o Class or small group discussions focused on the materiality of his sculptural practice
A: Individually, students read each of the three texts and answer the focus questions before
attempting the extended response.
B: To extend this case study, working independently or in small groups, students may choose to investigate:
o The relationships between works by Shi Jinsong and other sculptural and design practices
o Works by contemporary artists who similarly transform found or manufactured objects – from Duchamp and Warhol to Xu Zhen, Fiona Hall and Mona Hatoum.
o How does Shi JInsong’s material and conceptual practice connect with other Chinese sculptors and their works such as Bai Yiluo, Gao Rong, Zhang Huan, Jiao Xingtao, or Jin Shi?
|Shi Jinsong, Baby Stroller, 2007, stainless steel image http://www.saatchigallery.com/artists/shi_jinsong.htm|
Students – Start Here!
Shi Jinsong’s sculptures, ‘in black cast iron and shiny stainless steel, purport to be household gadgets, tools and toys, but their normal functions are negated by lethal embellishments: spear points, chains and razor-sharp blades. Shi Jinsong says he “loves to dissect value systems”. When he does, he homes in on the contradictions. Combining technical perfection with an exaggeration so baroque as to be funny, he plays Transformers with the objects of consumer desire, turning them into diabolical engines of slavery and torment.’ (Elizabeth Keenan, ‘The Big Bang’)
Look at the photographs of Shi Jinsong’s ‘Gun Shape Baby Carriage’ and ‘Gun Shape Baby Cradle’ on the Designboom website http://www.designboom.com/art/shi-jinsong-gun-shape-babycarriage/ and explain how he has transformed these ordinary objects into things that embody quite different meanings.
What makes these sculptures confronting and disturbing?
What do you think are the major themes and ideas that preoccupy the artist?
Note: ‘Na Zha / Ne Zha’ is the name of the Chinese god of gambling and lotteries, a prankster in the form of a playful – but powerful – little boy who became an immortal. He appears in everything from mythological tales to movies, from techno dances and video games to classical novels. The name appears in some English translations of Shi Jinsong’s work as ‘Na Zha’ and in others as ‘Ne Zha’.
It’s also an animated movie! Watch the trailer here:
Shi Jinsong was born in Dangyang County, Hubei Province in 1969. He majored in Sculpture at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts in Wuhan, where he mastered a range of traditional
techniques, including carving and casting. Under the influence of three powerful stimuli –
radical socio-cultural change in china; a reading of ‘Madness and Civilization’ by philosopher
Michel Foucault; and the birth of his first daughter, he began to investigate ideas of
transformation and control. [note: Michel Foucault was a French philosopher, historian of
ideas, social theorist, and literary critic.] Through his razor-sharp sculptures and related works, Shi Jinsong initiates a dialogue, at once menacing and ironic, between the forms of mythic Chinese culture and modern-day globalization. Including his ‘Ne Zha’, series, a satirical brand — an outrageously unsafe line of baby products. Meticulously assembled in stainless steel from intricate mechanical drawings, they include a deadly carriage; a sadistic cradle; a sinister walker; and a malicious, multi-part toy complete with needle-tipped pacifiers and dismembering abacus. This baby boutique confronts its ‘shopper’ with a radically strange and seductive ‘product’: lethal luxury designed to reveal the forces that dominate our lives in unimaginable ways.
Text adapted from: http://www.designboom.com/art/shi-jinsong-gun-shape-baby-carriage/
Essential Terminology for this Case Study
|Shi Jinsong, Tricycle, https://theverybesttop10.com/scary-works-of-art-by-shi-jinsong/|
|Shi Jinsong, Na Zha Cradle, 2005, stainless steel, 24 x 31 7/8 x 24 3/8 in, source: Chambers Fine Art|
Useful References and Resources
http://www.galleryek.com//artists/shi-jinsong/biography - images, a bio and links to other articles on this excellent gallery website
http://www.thecoolist.com/tree-motorcycles-by-shi-jinsong/ his ‘tree’ motorcycles
‘Shi Jinsong pontificates on the contemporary state through his mixed media installations and sculptures that draw on traditional aesthetics. His seminal body of stainless steel work consists of parodies of objects associated with comfort and nurture — baby carriages, a child’s rattle — menacingly crafted in razor-sharp blades. Shi maintains a dialogue that juxtaposes globalisation and consumerism with mythic cultures from the past…’
(Eli Klein Gallery)
‘Shi Jinsong explores the long history and ever-evolving present of China, all the while creating work that humorously challenges the contemporary art market and the roles of artists, viewers, and buyers. His work includes sculptures, installations, mixed-media compositions, ink-on-paper paintings, and digital and participatory projects. These are filled with references to China’s ancient belief systems, crafts and aesthetics, cleverly tweaked by the artist.’ https://www.artsy.net/artist/shi-jinsong-shi-jin-song
Readings and Questions
Reading #1 – Extract from ‘The Big Bang: Contemporary Chinese Art from the White Rabbit Collection’ by Elizabeth Keenan
Design 2007 (2007) presents an ‘entertainment unit’ of the kind that dominates most modern living rooms: a flat screen TV, a stand and two tall speakers. These normally sleek devices are made of stainless steel, and the work’s subtitle, Instruments of Torture, helps explain why. The TV screen holds the black blade of a guillotine, while a row of holes on the edge of the screen looks ready to receive fingers or toes for amputation. Holes in the speakers and the TV stand are large enough to fit the victim/owner’s neck and limbs; a movable bar at one end of the stand controls another guillotine. The proliferation of knives evokes the traditional ‘death of a thousand cuts’, in which Chinese traitors (and not a few Western missionaries) were executed by methodical slicing. The distance between ostensible function and lethal form is even greater in the artist’s Na Zha line of baby products, named for the mythical armed prankster who is also China’s patron spirit of gambling. Na Zha was the ‘absolute idol of my childhood,’ says Shi Jinsong, ‘a human made of weapons.’ The god would be proud of Baby Stroller — Sickle Edition (2007), which looks like a sci-fi war chariot, with spiked and bladed wheels like the ones on which Na Zha travels. Its black body, made of the same metal as artillery shells, is pierced with holes that the artist says might actually be bullet holes or starbursts … It is no accident that his works look like props for a sci-fi movie. Social control may not be a thing of the past, he suggests — it may also pervade the consumerist future.’
|Shi Jinsong, Na Zha Stroller, 2005, stainless steel, Image courtesy Chambers Fine Art|
1. Write your own paragraph describing ‘Design 2007 – Instruments of Torture’。
2. Shi Jinsong seems to be parodying today’s emphasis on the sleek design of products such as furniture, electronics and baby accessories — how can you interpret his works and explain his intentions?
3. What aspects of today’s world do you think inspire Shi Jinsong? Give reasons for your opinion.
Reading #2 – ‘Shi Jinsong’s Fragile Branches’, by Christopher Moore
Shan Shui: tradition of Chinese painting focused on scenery of mountains (shan) and water (shui)
…The forerunners to his “Nezha” line of baby products launched in 2005–2006 (“Nezha”
refers to a folklore trickster and dandy, in modern China often adopted as the god of
gambling) included perverted famous corporate logos (“Secret Book of Cool Weapons,”
2002) and office equipment (“Office Equipment-Prototype No. 1”—a computer workstation
whose computer controls are torture implements). For the 2006 Shanghai Biennale he
produced a new “product line,” “Halong Kellong” (translated: “Hello-Clone”), fusions of old fashioned Chinese peasant tractors and American Harley Davidson motorbikes “pimped”
with shining traditional Chinese weaponry and a “dragon” aesthetic—no cheap knock-offs
these, however contradictory the presence of the tractor as transformed Communist
agrarian symbol of peasant production and modernization.
While all these works are sadomasochisticly (sic) fun and seductively sinister, analysis has
tended to be out-dazzled by the sheer “bling” attractiveness of the “consumer” items.
Clearly they are about the perverse and perverting desire of consumerism, especially in
China, but Shi Jinsong’s work is also closely tied to a traditional Chinese aesthetic and
philosophy—these words are easy to write but so often used as to be almost meaningless.
Shi Jinsong engages in the invention of mythologies of things as ideals, much as the
true shanshui painters would create ideal landscapes with mountains, trees and rivers.
Which is to say that invention and transformation are not corruptions of an ideal but rather
1. What did Shi Jinsong do before he created his ‘Ne Zha’ line of baby ‘products’, and what did he then make for the 2006 Shanghai Biennale?
2. What do you think was the concept behind his fusion of old-fashioned Chinese peasant tractors and American Harley Davidson motorbikes “pimped” with shining traditional Chinese weaponry?
3. In the second paragraph, what does the writer suggest is the conceptual basis of his work?
4. Christopher Moore suggests that Shi Jinsong is an idealist – what do you think he means?
Reading #3 – ‘Na Zha Baby Boutique’, by John Hancock
Bricoleur: a person who engages in Bricolage, who creates with whatever materials are available to them.
Maquette: a small preliminary model for a sculpture
Baroque: a 17th/18th c. period of art and design characterised by exaggerated, lavish, ornate
Ikebana: the disciplined Japanese art of flower arrangement
Political Pop: a Chinese art movement of the 1990s, characterized by satirical appropriations of Mao imagery in a style influenced by American Pop Art
Daoism: also called Taoism, a Chinese religious or philosophical tradition that emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao, (the ‘Way’)
Quadriga: a chariot in ancient Rome drawn by four horses
Shi Jinsong's studio in the Factory 798 district in Beijing comes as a surprise to those who visit him there for the first time. Although he lives most of the time in Wuhan, he is more accessible to visitors in Beijing as few travelers venture as far as Wuhan. Located off one of the long, gloomy corridors that serve as main thoroughfares through the decaying factory buildings in Factory 798, it is the lair of a bricoleur, littered with found objects, dismantled to varying degrees, and hastily assembled maquettes for his own hybrid sculptural forms in varying states of development and disrepair. From this clutter emerges a range of
gleaming stainless-steel objects – baby strollers, workstations, futuristic tractors and most recently babyproducts – that are simultaneous beguiling and terrifying.
Prosaic in subject yet baroque in form and execution, Shi Jinsong's objects may be seen as recent additions from China to a long list of everyday objects that began with Marcel Duchamp's Bicycle Wheel and Fountain (a urinal). These were soon followed by a wide range of everyday objects that have entered the twentieth century pantheon, from the flat-iron that Man Ray used in Gift to the soft toilets of Claes Oldenburg and the Brillo Boxes of Andy Warhol. The fascination with everyday objects continues with Mona Hatoum and
Robert Gober, both of whom have extended the range of references. In her monumental Mouli Julienne x21 Mona Hatoum entered the world of the kitchen while Robert Gober's sinks, cribs and playpens offer scathing commentary on the politics of the nursery.
From Duchamp to Hatoum, everyday objects have been a major theme in twentieth century art, presented in an unaltered state in gallery spaces, modified to varying degrees in assemblages and imaginatively transformed by Dadaists and Surrealists.
Shi Jinsong is a recent addition to this select group of object fetishists but his credentials are somewhat unusual. He was born in Dangyang County, Hubei Province in 1969.The capital of Hubei, Wuhan, is better known as a major industrial city than as a cultural center but it
was here that he enrolled at the Hubei Academy of Fine Arts and majored in sculpture in 1994. Unlike so many art schools in the West, the curriculum at the academies in China is still largely traditional and Shi Jinsong mastered the whole range of sculptural techniques, carving in stone and modeling in clay in preparation for casting in bronze…. For a time, rather than making any grand statements, it seems that Shi Jinsong turned to making a series of ephemeral works incorporating branches, leaves, seedpods and other natural materials that reflect his dilemma in the clearest way. Turning his back on traditional themes and media, he found that his sculpture was doomed to impermanence, as fleeting as ikebana. Although he continued with this low-key activity, more important developments were occurring in his thinking than in his practice. Society was being transformed, lifestyles were being upended in the most dramatic fashion, cities were being razed and built from scratch, domestic appliances and luxury goods were beginning to be within the reach of millions of newly enriched individuals, at least those living in the cities.
Rather than reflect these changes in a non-thinking way, seeking for literal visual equivalents as so many of the Political Pop artists had, Shi Jinsong stood back for a time, a stance facilitated by his strong interest in Zen Buddhism, Daoism and Taiji (Tai Chi). To ruminate on non-attachment and reflect on the non-existence of the self in the ever more acquisitive 1990s was in itself a fairly revolutionary step … The birth of a daughter late in 1999 changed Shi Jinsong's life, giving it a focus it had not had before. There is nothing like the arrival in the world of a child to focus the attention and this was the case with Shi Jinsong. In addition to taking care of his daughter, and writing essays on cultural issues, he now began to produce works that gave three-dimensional form to his concerns. A series of works in sugar resulted from his parental duties, notably ‘Sweet Life’, 2001, which was included in ‘Alors La Chine’ at the Centre Pompidou in Paris in 2003. In this work, a series of everyday objects representing the material aspirations of today's Chinese was cast in caramel and lined up on a shelf. As they melted during the course of the exhibition, their life-span was sometimes only marginally shorter than their equivalents in the real world.
In today's world weapons are also objects of desire but unfortunately land-mines last longer than the latest cell-phone or iPod. In ‘Secret Book of Cool Weapons’, 2002, he turned his attention to corporate logos, powerful weapons in their own right in the corporate battles that increasingly define our lives. The logos of Mercedes Benz, Nike etc, were reconceived as ancient weapons and presented on a rune-covered sheepskin displayed in a vitrine.
Then there was the world of the baby or rather the world for the baby as conceived by their
caretakers. Strollers and baby carriages, at one time dainty and elegant cocoons for the child, have morphed into miniature defensive vehicles which have all the grace of a Humvee. Once his daughter was born, Shi Jinsong had to buy a stroller as well as toys, only to realize that these not inexpensive items have become necessities that aim to please the purchaser rather than the occupant. How cruel, he thought, to submit the soft, yielding form of the infant to these devices that too often resemble instruments of torture. Is it not a
power-game, designed to bolster the ego of the parent rather than to satisfy the desires of the child? As soon as it enters the world, the innocent child is engulfed in materialism, becoming its victim, however well-intentioned the motives of the provider. Just like the proud owner of a new car who soon becomes its slave, the child is doomed from the start to dependence on material things.
First to emerge in Shi Jinsong's anatomical study of everyday objects that have an extraordinary impact on our lives was the Baby Stroller conceived in 2001 and executed in 2003. Meticulously assembled in stainless steel from mechanical drawings, the stroller is like a high-tech version of a Roman quadriga, bristling with enough weapons to defeat an overwhelming number of enemy combatants or young mothers taking their babies for a stroll. Attachments open into wings, enabling the carriage to fly while cutting down the enemy at the same time. Shortly after followed several works based on the work-station, including ‘Office-Equipment– Prototype No.1. Like the baby in his carriage, Shi Jinsong sees the contemporary office-worker as the victim of powers over which he has no control. As described by Bernard Fibicher: "The artist sees his objects as a metaphor for the authoritarian nature of design as propagated in modern China, and also as a criticism of indifference to violence. Of course, they must also be seen as the ultimate outcome of the functionalism and cold rationalization of planning in the time of totalitarianism." (1)
While the office worker is subjugated by his workstation, the peasant is dreaming of a new tractor, one that will free him of the back-breaking drudgery of his present work pattern.
Departing from a rusty old tractor which he dismantled, Shi Jinsong has envisioned a stream-lined implement, a distant cousin of the Harley-Davidson, called the ‘Halong-Kellong’, 2004, which incorporates not only the mechanical elements of a tractor but also radio and karaoke equipment. How long will it be before the proud owner of this super tractor becomes its slave? In works such as these Shi Jinsong sees himself as an anatomist of contemporary culture who through the process of deconstructing and re-imagining familiar objects, reveals the forces that dominate our lives in ways we cannot imagine. For the current exhibition he has turned back to Chinese tradition and folk-lore. A new baby has entered his life – Na Zha – who, unlike his own daughter, is perfectly capable of taking care of himself. As naughty as baby Krishna but capable of much greater mischief, even today Na Zha is known and beloved by Chinese worldwide. This is no great surprise, perhaps, as today he is known chiefly as a God of Lotteries and Gambling. The fantastic attributes that eons ago enabled him to cause oceans to boil and demons to drop dead are now so atrophied that only the "cuteness" remains. Peeling away layer upon layer of sugarcoating, Shi Jinsong introduces... a full range of implements and devices that might have been pleasing to
the divine child in his original awe-inspiring form.
Some background may be required. A key figure in Chinese mythology and folklore that also appears in various guises in dramas and in novels such as The Journey to the West, Na Zha was originally an Immortal named Da Luo in the court of the Jade Emperor, Ruler of Heaven. Sent down to earth by the Jade Emperor, Da Luo was introduced into the womb of the wife of Emperor Li Jing. Reborn as Na Zha, he entered the world wearing a gold bracelet (the Horizon of Heaven and Earth) and wearing a pair of red silk trousers. It was clear
he was a remarkable child! By the time he was six years old he was six feet tall and a force to be reckoned with … Reborn from a Lotus flower, the sixteen feet tall prince was finally reconciled with his father and they joined forces to slay demons. Recognizing his virtues, the Jade Emperor appointed Na Zha Generalissimo of the Thirty-Six Celestial Officers, Grand Marshal of the Skies and the Gate of Heaven. The naughty boy survived to become an immortal whose birthday is celebrated even today on the 8th and 9th of the fourth
lunar month of the Chinese calendar. Shi Jinsong's Na Zha is fearsome indeed. Gone are the cuteness and the floating scarves of today's popular manifestation to be replaced by a three-headed, eight-armed, heavily armed figure that resembles a wrathful deity from the Tantric tradition. Wielding knives as his attributes and sucking on a knife-pacifier,
the steely child seems to be looking for mischief. Melding folk-lore and contemporary marketing techniques, Shi Jinsong presents in his Na Zha Baby Boutique consumer products that would be strong enough to withstand the force of the divine child's tantrums and the urgency of his bodily desires – a flamboyant Stroller, a fanciful Walker, Bottles and indestructible Cradle. Analyst, fabulist and fabricator, Shi Jinsong arrives in New York with a body of unsettling work that reveals unexpected parallels between the myths of old and the myth of childhood today.
1. Why does the writer connect Shi Jinsong’s work with Marcel Duchamp’s ‘ready-mades
and Andy Warhol’s Brillo Boxes? Do you agree?
2. The writer states that ‘everyday objects’, both altered and unaltered, have been a
continuing theme for artists in the 20th and 21st centuries. Why do you think this is so?
3. Bernard Fibicher said, ‘The artist sees his objects as a metaphor for the authoritarian
nature of design as propagated in modern China, and also as a criticism of indifference
to violence. Of course, they must also be seen as the ultimate outcome of the functionalism and cold rationalization of planning in the time of totalitarianism.’ Explain what this means in relation to Design 2007 – Instruments of Torture.
Comparative Art Criticism – an Essay
The next step is to apply your understanding of Shi Jinsong’s practice to an extended discussion of how artists transform the everyday. You will be able to use the descriptive passages that you have already written in response to the focus questions as you structure your essay.
Answer the extended response question that follows this list with reference to TWO works by Shi Jinsong and ONE OR MORE of the following works:
1. Man Ray, ‘Cadeau’ (The Gift), 1921,
2. Angela Ellsworth, Seer Bonnet IV, 2009, http://www.aellsworth.com/seer-bonnets/
3. Lorraine Connelly-Northey, Narbong (String Bag), 2008,
4. Mona Hatoum, Grater Divide, 2002,
5. Fiona Hall, Medicine Bundle for the Non-Born Child, 1993,
6. Ai Weiwei, Surveillance Camera, 2010
7. Shi Jindian, Blue CJ 750, 2008
Plan and write an extended response to this question:
‘Since the early 20th century, when Marcel Duchamp transformed ordinary
manufactured objects into artworks by the mere act of choosing them, contemporary artists have explored the expressive possibilities of everyday objects.’
Examine how contemporary artists transform ordinary materials or everyday objects to convey their ideas about social issues.
(Remember to use TWO works by Shi Jinsong and ONE OR MORE by a different artist)
A 9 – 10
o A comprehensive knowledge and understanding of the
conceptual intentions of the selected artists is evident and
o A sophisticated analysis and interpretation of the visual codes,
materials, techniques and forms used by the selected artists,
demonstrating extensive knowledge and thorough
understanding of the works within their contemporary context.
o Appropriate art terminology is employed fluently and
B 7 - 8
o A sound knowledge and understanding of the conceptual
intentions of the selected artists is evident and well-sustained
o A good analysis and interpretation of the visual codes,
materials, techniques and forms used by the selected artists,
demonstrating sound knowledge and understanding of the
works within their contemporary contexts
o Appropriate art terminology is employed competently
C 5 - 6
o Some knowledge and understanding of the conceptual
intentions of the selected artists is evident
o A satisfactory analysis and interpretation of some visual codes,
materials, techniques and forms used by the selected artists,
demonstrating some knowledge and understanding of the works
in a more descriptive manner
o Some appropriate art terminology is employed more naively
D 3 - 4
o A limited knowledge and understanding of the conceptual
intentions of the selected artists may be expressed in less
o A simple analysis and interpretation of some visual codes,
materials, techniques and forms used by the selected artists,
demonstrating a developing knowledge and understanding of
the works, is applied in a descriptive or more limited manner
o A very simple attempt to apply appropriate art language may be
E 1 – 2
o A foundational understanding of artmaking practice
o An elementary understanding of the visual codes, materials,
techniques and forms used the selected artistso Minimal attempt to apply appropriate art language