Art Essays

Shen Shaomin: Bones of Contention

Published August 6, 2004

Monstrous bones have been turning up throughout the course of civilization, but it was not until 1842 that the British anatomist, Sir Richard Owen, coined the word “dinosaur” – bringing together the Greek words deinos (meaning ‘marvellous’ or ‘terrible’) and sauros (‘lizard’). The “dragon bones” found in Sichuan 2,000 years ago, as described by the historian Chang Qu, were almost certainly the relics of the terrible, as-yet-nameless, lizard.
When European geologists began excavating and classifying fossils and dinosaur bones in the nineteenth century, it gave rise to an extraordinary crisis of faith. In his Principles of Geology (1830) Sir Charles Lyell had argued that the earth had existed for many millions of years – a claim that shocked a public brought up on the views of Archbishop James Ussher (1581-1656), in his Biblical Chronology, that the earth was a mere 6,000 years old. With the publication of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species in 1859, the Victorian era succumbed to the complete religious catastrophe.
Darwin knew how his work would be received, famously saying that to speak about the theory of evolution was “like confessing a murder”. It was the nineteenth century German philosopher, Friedrich Nietzsche, who would declare “God is dead!” but Darwin is universally believed to have set the scene for this announcement. If Darwin and the geologists were correct, then the story of Genesis was no more than a myth, and the moral drama of Adam and Eve was in danger of being replaced by a mere mechanism. Nature was on its way to becoming “the blind watchmaker”, described by Richard Dawkins: the exact opposite of the “argument from Design”, advanced by the eighteenth century theologian, William Paley, who had claimed that Nature was far too complex and too perfect to have arisen by chance. In order to try and rescue Paley’s theory, some Victorian scholars adopted the ad hoc argument that God had placed fossils into the earth in order to test our faith. It may sound desperate, but the same argument is still being promulgated by Creationists today.
It is against this framework of ideas that one must view Shen Shaomin’s recent sculptures. His skeletons of imaginary creatures send one’s thoughts back to the debates generated by Charles Darwin’s “dangerous idea”, and forward to the Faustian ambitions of contemporary science. The bones of humans and animals we dig from the earth are the most basic and poignant proofs of existence. They testify to the act of being, and – in the hands of forensic scientists – provide clues as to the physical appearance and properties of the living creature. They do not, however, tell us anything about the mind or the personality that was once contained by that carriage of bones. Science deals in facts and leaves art to provide the imaginative and sentimental elements. It is one of the abiding conceits of Shaomin’s work that the artist mimics the role of the natural scientists. He presents us with a museum of relics that seem, at first glance, to have been excavated by archaeologists. We look upon a skeletal menagerie that has never truly existed, although the bones and bone meal he uses have been drawn from real animals. This gives his creations an uncanny verisimilitude – they are eerily reminiscent of Dr. Frankenstein’s experiments in stitching together a new life from remnants of the dead.
Because these works impersonate the reconstructed dinosaur skeletons and fossils we are accustomed to seeing in natural history museums, we are drawn to imagine them as once-living creatures. In our minds, we struggle to put flesh onto the bones; to see them as animate beings covered in skin, hair, feathers or scales. We find ourselves wondering where these creatures once lived? What did they take for their prey? How did they die out?
We know from countless novels and films that when scientists attempt to play God they flirt with disaster. No Dr.Frankenstein escapes the wrath of his own flawed creation – and Shaomin’s skeletons embody this looming danger. His creatures are family relations of all the slavering predators created by the special effects departments of the Hollywood and Hong Kong film industries, most obviously in Ridley Scott’s Alien (1979) and its sequels.
The Victorians looked upon the dinosaur bones with curiosity and dread because they saw their treasured religious certainties being brushed aside. In what is known as a more secular age, we construct imaginary monsters on celluloid to stimulate our own overloaded, jaded sensibilities. But despite the progress of science and technology over the past century, is this age any less torn by crises of faith, or conflicts between religion and science? The rise of global terrorism has been fuelled by forms of religious fundamentalism, and by the perceived imbalances between wealthy, technologically advanced nations and those of the impoverished ‘developing’ world. At the same time, the unravelling of the DNA code, has allowed scientists to glimpse a future in which genetic engineering will be commonplace. Yet while the visions of the science fiction writers are very close to being realized, fiction suggests there will always be some gruesome, unforeseen twist in the plot.
Shaomin’s monsters are symbols of that implicit menace. The bones in one of his largest pieces are inscribed with quotations from the Bible and the Koran, in English, Chinese and Arabic characters, as though the very existence of these creatures poses a threat to our cherished beliefs. On the other hand, it is equally possible to assume that the artist is saying our blind adherence to religious faiths – Goya’s “sleep of reason” – has the capacity to create monsters.
Science too, can become a fanatical faith, while the philosopher, Mary Midgley, has described evolution itself as a modern religious doctrine. In this sense, Shaomin’s creatures are a test of faith – or rather, of our credulity – in the manner of the Piltdown Man hoax of 1912, in which the skull of a man and the jaw of an orangutan were combined to create Britain’s answer to the Missing Link. As recently as March this year, the internet was circulating a bogus photograph of a gigantic human skeleton supposedly unearthed in the Arabian Desert. The accompanying text cites a passage in the Koran referring to the people of Aad, who were tall and powerful enough to uproot trees with their bare hands. Like the Titans in Greek mythology, their stature gave rise to delusions of grandeur, leading to their destruction by God for transgressing his law. Neither should one forget the line from Genesis 6:1: “There were giants in the earth in those days; and also after that..”
The holy books are full of giants and demons, just as the annals of natural history are laden with hoax discoveries, artfully put together to deceive researchers and collectors. In relation to Shaomin’s work, one of the most apposite must be a “dino-bird”, featured in a 1999 article in National Geographic. The piece was allegedly forged by Chinese amateurs, “using glue and cement from 88 bones and stones. Research suggests that Archaeoraptor was built from the front part of the skeleton of an ancient bird, and that its body and tail included bones from four different specimens.” ( Cf.
Part of the impact of Shaomin’s work comes from his willingness to create strange hybrids between species and to upset conventional expectations about scale. Some of his creatures resemble gigantic insects, in the manner of the bug-eyed monsters of the B-movies, yet they may have elements suggestive of fish or animal forms. The many small pieces in installations such as Experimental Field No.2, are combinations of animal and vegetable, as though small, sharp-clawed creatures were growing from between the leaves of a Chinese cabbage. In another work, the skeletal infants have been nurtured inside cocoons that look like huge pea pods. These clustered sculptures are even more disturbing than the large individual pieces, insofar as they portray a deliberate breeding program, with some anonymous intelligence at work behind the scenes.
There is a warning here about science running out of control, but also a delight in theatrical detail – in the sense that each piece acts as a prop in some unknown narrative. Shaomin never aims to capture a completely lifelike illusion, in the manner of a sculptor such as Ron Mueck, he shows us only the relics of life. His creatures are not only dead, they have been frozen stiff by some sudden disaster, as bodies were embalmed by volcanic ash during the destruction of Pompeii. He apparently suggests that there are deathly consequences when scientists go wading boldly into the gene pool.
There is a double irony in these works being made by a Chinese artist, because China, of all nations, has had one of the most ruthless attitudes towards the exploitation of the natural world. Mao’s “promethean” vision saw Nature as an unruly resource that had to be subdued at all costs, and parts of the country will long suffer the effects of pollution. With the introduction of a market economy, and China’s rapid ascension to the point where it is now the world’s largest industrial consumer of raw materials, there may be much worse to come. It is, perhaps, a further irony that Shaomin makes these works in an old factory in a northern industrial city, playing foreman to a team of assistants.
As China’s industrial and trading might continues to grow, it also continues to send exhibitions of archaeological finds to international museums. Even during the worst days of the Cultural Revolution, Chinese authorities were always ready to conjure up a show of recently-discovered relics, to suggest an ongoing concern with national heritage. In more open and friendly times, these shows have flourished. Many who viewed Shaomin’s sculptures when shown at Gallery 4a in Sydney, in June 2004, may have seen an exhibition of Chinese dinosaur bones last year at the Australian Museum. It is difficult to know whether one should emphasise the differences between the two shows or the similarities. In one sweeping gesture, Shaomin satirises the overwhelming hubris of science, and the timeless appeal of the touring dinosaur show. He points out where science and popular culture intersect – in our fascination with the skeletons of vanished behemoths and those small but sinister genetic experiments waiting to be born.