[“All that is solid melts into air” installation, ShanghArt H-Space, 2012]
Text by Lee Ambrozy / First published in ArtAsiaPacific, Issue 80, Sept/Oct 2012.
It is mid-summer in Shanghai. Shi Qing unlocks the door to ShanghArt’s H-Space and small armies of mosquitoes flock to us. Inside the sunless room, the air is humid and heavy with the smell of the overgrown botanical life—all to be expected from a sunless room filled with plants for a month. This is Shi Qing’s latest exhibition, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air,” a garden of potted plants and geometric sculptures made of raw construction materials, resting on wooden shipping pallets. On the exhibition’s last day, it is now a wilting panorama flecked with neon colors from fluorescent tubes placed inside cardboard boxes, and several sporadic spray-painted Styrofoam scholar’s rocks nestled in the foliage.
Shi Qing’s installations tend to intrigue, or repel, audiences. Born in Mongolia in 1969, he began exhibiting in the late 1990s with the group of artists behind the “Post-Sense Sensibility” exhibition in Beijing (among them Qiu Zhijie, Sun Yuan and Peng Yu) and is currently based in Shanghai. Of modest height, Shi Qing wears boxy-framed glasses, has a sincere demeanor and a penchant for serious discussion. Drawing heavily from critical theory and modern art history, his research-based creative process has traversed documentary film, photography, performance and installation. His latest works resist the label of “art objects,” yet their forms borrow heavily from Modernism.
Reflecting on art history’s local and global narratives, Shi takes on invisible structures such as political economies, belief systems, collective behaviors, and institutionalization, challenging the assumptions supporting them. He sees art production as more than the fabrication of final material objects: to many, he is a prolific intellectual worker, blogging and Weibo-ing with zeal.
Addressing the global economic crisis in his 2009 exhibition “Halfway House,” Shi raised questions about how a nation could pause to reflect on alternative models for social and economic development. His own answers came from exploring local histories. Using his family’s standard-issue furniture from work-units of the “New China” era, he built model factory buildings to the same proportions as the family sofa, bed, bookshelf and other furnishings. These models were lit from inside with neon bulbs and then laid out in a typical factory floor plan. In the same exhibition, Farm (2009) was a wooden greenhouse constructed according to the size of a standard apartment balcony, inside of which he arranged vegetables and even a rooster, recalling the urban farms that were common in the 1970s and 1980s. By looking into the past, he proposed potential alternatives to the present “capitalist” model.
Shi’s references to Chinese traditional art, blended with Western modernist styles, read like an attempt to converge two art-historical trajectories that have hitherto been divorced. For instance, in the sculptural installation Not Long Enough (2010), he mimicked post-minimalist quadrilateral forms with plywood, coating them with a yeast mixture pigmented with Chinese ink, and lit them with white fluorescent tubes arranged in specific angles around the bubbling masses.
At the end of 2010, he held a small exhibition in his studio titled “Bird and Flower Painting for the Proletariat.” The vernacular of the bird and flower painting genre, once a realm for sentimental musings of the traditional literati, is combined with modernist abstraction in objects otherwise known as industrial waste. The result was a room haphazardly filled with sculptural “mountains” built of rebar, Styrofoam, and sometimes tree branches, all covered in globs of paint and occasionally an artificial bird. In the accompanying series of short, manifesto-like statements, he rejects capitalism’s influence on the scale of contemporary art production and the “auto-institutionalization” he believes it causes.
Here, the use of surplus materials from other production processes served as Shi’s strategy for artistic autonomy. As he wrote of their drippy and layered aesthetic: “The form copies modernist aesthetics, they are hand-made imitations of machine processing; ideas imitating geometry. Nothing is more suitable for imitating minimalism because smooth abstract surfaces are always plagued by the traces of labor…” Considering his working definition of “proletariat”—“here it refers specifically to the empty-handed people within the political order”—Shi Qing seems to see himself as in the same social class, or aligned with, the proletariat.
Despite its title, Plant Republic (2011), an installation at the Guangzhou Museum of Art, did not feature a single piece of vegetation. Instead, the notion of “wild” plant ecologies existing in opposition to systematic social organizations served as an institutional critique. As Shi Qing describes it: you can plan a garden, but you can’t control how the plants will grow.” He sees artistic creativity in the same way––you can build structures to contain artists, but you can’t dictate how they will develop creatively. In Plant Republic, architectural idioms such as porticos, arches and columns were extracted from their contexts, reduced to a lexicon of forms, and then reinterpreted in cardboard and industrial steel. The rough and irregular geometric forms hinted at the human touch involved in their manufacture. Shi’s appropriation of elements from classical structures, which he then renders in cheap industrial materials, can be seen as a gesture that ridicules the nature of ideologies––capitalism, socialism, and even religions are merely collections of ideas or words, which can, like other material components, be deconstructed and rearranged, then discarded.
On one level, the temporary nature of his chosen materials is addressed by the title of his latest solo project at H-Space, “All That Is Solid Melts Into Air.” This title is taken from Marxist writer Marshal Berman’s book, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air: The Modernist Experience (1982), and is a line that Berman, in turn, borrowed from Marx and Engels’ Communist Manifesto (1848).
The installation was realized over a ten-day construction process and based on vague blueprints, it was constructed by the artist himself with the help of a small team. A natural extension of the tropes and ideas he has nurtured over the past few years, the installation featured plywood architectural facades from totalitarian or supremacist societies––all which are no longer extant; 20th-century art historical terms spelled out in both English and Chinese using cardboard signage, what Shi Qing calls “dead words,” such as Letatlin (Vladimir Tatlin’s human-powered flying machine from 1930); and half-finished works or materials brought in from his studio. Shi’s emphasis on process, not outcome, is fundamental to his works, and it deemphasizes the importance of final object itself.
Shi Qing encourages critical approach to art viewing, and does so with formal hints that expose what he calls the “backend” of an exhibition: the deliberate transparency of the installation process, the use of unrefined and inexpensive materials, the inclusion of studio objects, and architectural models that are merely facades. Ambling through the exhibition, there is no front-end, no back-end, just different angles. A tribute to Malevich’s Black Square (1915) in perforated steel hung above a “proletariat bird and flower” sculpture, two lumber posts levered against the floor rest against it––one of the artist’s visual metaphor for “systems.” Nestled among the wilting leaves are art-historical terms such as Gläserne Kette (“glass or crystal chain,” a chain letter that circulated among important German architects from 1919 to 1920) carved into and out of cardboard, some lit from the inside with fluorescent lamps.
Discussing these references from an era when art, architecture and utopian dreams were moving towards the same goal, Shi is matter-of-fact, not wistful. If the wheels adorning the wooden shipping platforms pallets he has integrated into his installation are any hint, he seems to have made peace with the temporary nature of everything surrounding him, from the political and the economic, to art movements and urban development, and even to life itself.