A Lesson of Hope: Shen Shaomin's Bonsai and Kowtow Pump
By Josh Yiu

Shen Shaomin's works are unusually provocative in form and ethical in meaning. To date, his most celebrated works include the Bonsai, Fighter-X, Kowtow Pump, Project No. 1, and the Experimental Field. As several critics have provided a detailed account of his works, I shall limit my discussion to the issue of ethics that is central to his work, as seen in the Bonsai and the Kowtow Pump. In many ways, they attempt to raise our awareness of Mother Nature which we have taken for granted and the dire consequences of some of our habits and desires. As the artist himself has explained, the beauty of the bonsai and 'slick' appearance of flighter jets underline the cruelty of torture and warfare. Shen exposes these implications by showing the process in which the plants are distorted and 'tortured' by metal tools. Chaining, stretching and pulling the plants, the tools become an active agent, in which their cold and rusty forms appear to resemble a callous individual rather than the nature of metal tools. It is only through this ingenious juxtaposition of the plant and the tools that Shen has compellingly transformed the characteristics of the tools into their character, thereby 'personifying' the passive plants and the active tools. The result of exposing the 'natural' beauty of the bonsai is that the viewer can now see then as contrived, artificial and controlled. The poetic inscriptions on some of the pots (e.g. peaceful transcendence) appear particularly ironic as the sentimental feelings that one may have for the 'natural' plants are the sources that call for their distortion. Hence, the bonsai bring to light the consequences of our rapacious pursuit of 'beautiful' things.

In a similar vein, the Kowtow Pump also draws attention to our relationship to nature. The name refers to the machines that pump oil from Daqing, a well endowed place that is filled with those machines. Rather than seeing them as tools for construction and economic development, Shen is acutely aware and disconcerted that they are "hollowing out" the Earth in which we live. To demonstrate this taxing of nature, Shen again personifies the machines by manipulating the motion of their 'limbs'. In so doing, Shen makes clear the agent who takes the oil out from the Earth and, it is implied, at the expense of future generations. Hence, Shen has, in his work as well as the Bonsai, given us a new perspective on a phenomena that we have gradually grown accustomed to, but which we should not have accepted as they are. In a profound way, his works, especially the Bonsai and the Kowtow Pump, are thoughtful social commentaries on our lifestyle.

As these works prompt us to consider our relationship with nature, we are reminded that nature, as passive as it may appear, is not weak and feeble. The elaborate, heavy machinery that goes into shaping the bonsai, for instance, suggests the force of their resistance and the pressure that they can take. As such, the Bonsai can also be interpreted as a continual struggle between man and nature. Indeed, the eventual triumph of nature as anticipated in the Kowtow Pump, as its motion resembles the twitching and convulsing gestures of a sick man, who can no longer perform his duties. Such 'gestures' indicate that the machines cannot extract anymore oil from the Earth. Hence, Shen's hope for a healthier Earth is embedded in these works of admonition. As such, Shen Shaomin's work is a refreshing reminder that in an art world that craves shock value and exaggeration, it is still possible to create stimulating art that conveys a moral message.

Josh Yiu is the Foster Foundation Associate Curator of Chinese Art at the Seattle Art Museum.