Shen Jingdong: “Shen Jingdong is here”
New York Gallery of Chinese Art
91 Allen Street
July 2-15, 2019
Curated by Shen Cen
By MARK BLOCH, July 2019
Shen Jingdong creates shiny replicas of himself that take many different forms and reach out across different media: sculpture, paintings, on canvas, on paper, prints, in books. He even sees his recent exhibit in New York as a cross between graffiti and a performance.
A statement written on the wall of the show contains a reference to these shiny replicas as “puppet-men,” and perhaps also refers to them when it mentions a shared position of the art and the viewers, the “One-dimensional Man.” It states that these Shen Jingdong characters and their shared position is not a joke, not cute and not funny but a means to “discovery” and “new ways of perception.” Shen Jingdong’s brother Shen Cen curated this show with the help of the brothers’ academic hosts Wang Hong and Lan Zhang. The 35 plus works seen here represent Shen’s confrontation of his times.
After the opening of China in 1978 and the emergence of the first generation of contemporary art makers, came Shen, born in 1965, whose work is more detached and ambiguous, even disturbingly so. He takes Chinese history and art history and projects it into the country’s ambitious future, using the formulae of contemporary art to transform its heroes into Everymen and its Everymen into heroes. Shen’s youth, spent in the Cultural Revolution, transport us through his childhood memories, neither toward state-manufactured oppression, nor to angry irony, but to a matter-of-fact acceptance of the individual’s position among the masses.
If such a process sounds potentially depressing, Shen battles it with a buoyant attraction to characters that are user friendly. Each subject is likable and fun. His oil paintings have no heaviness but employ smooth brush strokes and lively fresh colors to create doll-like, cartoonish, easy-to-look at faces. When asked if his figures were meant to evoke plastic or hollowness, he pivoted instead to a discussion of the texture of porcelain which he tries to convey in his oil paintings. He also cited the three silver military caps of a soldier cast in metal, identical to the original, but with a completely different feel. Shen is interested in proxies, not doppelgangers.
I do not call his “puppet-men” funny or a joke or cute. It is he that explains that his passion is “turning ordinary things into cute things.” He is creating fairy tales. “In a fairy tale there are no good people or bad people. It’s just a role,” he said. “In a fairy tale, even a bad person is cute.”
Shen called this show a bit of a performance, not because of its ambiguity but because of the invitation, bookbags, stickers and other branded marketing material that state the exhibit’s title, “Shen Jingdong is here,” a reference to graffiti art stars like Basquiat or Banksy but also to “Kilroy was here,” an American expression that became popular during World War II. Kilroy’s origins are fuzzy, but the phrase and a distinctive accompanying doodle became associated with American GIs in the 1940s: a man peeking over a wall or fence with his fingers and nose visible from “this” side of the wall. Other names for the character over the years have included Private Snoops, the Watcher, the Goon, Foo, Chad, Smoe, Clem, Flywheel, Overby, The Jeep, and Sapo. It is not known if there was an actual person named Kilroy who inspired it but rumors persist and so did the image. The most effective thing about it was how often and where it appeared.
Similarly, Shen wants to leave his mark on New York as he did at the 58th Venice Biennale, which also used the “Shen Jingdong is here” performance idea and where images from his “Hide and Seek” series were well received. Shen decided to re-create, on paper, for his New York exhibition, the kinds of pictures of children on canvas that he showed in Venice.
The child series began in 2014 with a depiction of the title character from the popular children’s book, The Little Prince. More pictures of children followed and Shen now likes to “use children’s eyes to see.” At the Venice Biennial, in a former church space, Shen examined the structure’s brick walls and did oil paintings to put in different rooms, seeing the gallery “like a playground.” Kids liked it and the artist liked the user-friendly message that is created when he combines the innocence of children with serious subjects being faced on an international level.
But the image most often associated with Shen are Chinese soldiers with black dots for eyes, like his own personal Kilroy and like his children paintings, that have been described by a Chinese writer as having “chickpea eyes.” The military figures in green uniforms were seen here in both two and three dimensions.
Shen was part of the military for 18 years, creating scenery from age 26 to 44 for what is ostensibly a state-run cultural, song and dance and theatre troupe. He was assigned to the service following college near his home in Nanjing from 1991 to 2009, where he did stage art design with the Frontline Cultural and Art Corps. Such units are common in socialist countries. The East China command of the Peoples Liberation Army was the testing ground and originator of patriotic and revolutionary plays and musicals from the 1960s to the 1980s that staged magnificent spectacles and continued to appear regularly on China Central Television until the unit’s recent termination.
Such stagecraft was a profession Shen was always interested in. It provided a dignified, stable income until his move to Beijing in 2004. Then, Shen used his military experience in his art as an attempt to establish his own identity.
Though they were able to dress in street clothes, Shen’s art career took an important turn when he took photos of his colleagues dressed in uniform. Through this activity, Shen discovered his own symbolicized self: In 1999, he curated an exhibit “100 years, 100 family names.” It was a reflection of personal identity and their development. He then began to do an exhibition every two years, often with 100 artists, in 2001, ’03 and ’05.
Shen also paints his familiar figures in American, German, Japanese and other uniforms—in their historical WWII garb. He shows Uncle Sam, female American soldiers and Arab fighters right out of Lawrence of Arabia. When I jokingly inquired where the American woman’s gun was, I was told, “It’s not political. It doesn’t matter. People are people. Skin color doesn’t matter. Uniforms don’t matter.” Shen also showed these figures marching together in a video clip projected in the gallery. Downstairs, the different members of the international marching “team” appeared individually in a grouping of eight on paper.
Back upstairs, Shen’s large sophisticated painting Gathering of Heroes was inspired by an important historical moment. On Saturday October 1, 1949, Mao declared the inauguration of the People's Republic of China atop the Gate of Heavenly Peace (Tiananmen Gate). This proclamation was followed with a procession that opened with a military parade of tens of thousands of troops. Going forward, the scene would be repeated twice a year for perpetuity, Mao declared.
The three-paneled image of familiar faces has an ironic or satiric ring to it. While many of Shen’s fellow artists—in China and elsewhere—depict a dark, victimized, muzzled, angry history, the Cultural Revolution that Shen lived through and the history that he learned, produce, in him, results that are, at least on their surface, optimistic and confident. While arms and militarism were more important than consumerism for his generation, in Shen’s portraits the leaders and soldiers have an Everyman quality. There is no difference between the leaders, the soldiers, and regular folks, including the kids in his “Hide and Seek” series, all part of the same “fairy tale,” with the final result hard to read. Shen leaves the interpretation up to the viewer.
Another frequently used symbol with a similarly ambiguous expression is a man with a bandaged head—in the beginning another symbol of a soldier in his personal mythology, but now, Shen explains, “anyone being hurt.” Similarly, ambiguous newscasters appear, as does a character with a long nose, a lying Pinocchio figure in any language. Each symbolic face provides a character to ponder from the lengthly period of transition in China that Shen has endured, a period of extreme change.
One less universal symbol that was not lost on me was Shen’s tribute to Marcel Duchamp’s With My Tongue in My Cheek from 1959. Duchamp’s work of plaster, pencil, and paper mounted on wood was originally mailed by Duchamp to the writer Robert Lebel upon the occasion of the latter’s publication of the first monograph devoted to the artist’s work. Duchamp’s piece superimposes a pencil drawing and a three dimensional shape, an impression of his cheek in plaster, one of several cast body parts from the period when he was working secretly on his final work Étant Donnés.
Shen was painting a soldier in profile when he was suddenly reminded of Duchamp’s work and made the art historical addition with the three dimensional mold rendered in oil paint like Shen’s simulations of light bouncing off of porcelain. Shen tells me he admires Marcel though, before 1978, it was impossible in China to know about him. “In ‘78 everything changed 180 degrees. The way you see the world. The value system changed drastically. America had been the enemy. All of a sudden they were our friend,” Shen said of those uncertain times, his ticket to the inconclusive.
“In the ‘80s, at the time, resources were so limited. There was a huge desire to learn about Western art and the only way was though the printed word, books and magazines. Artists had to share and borrow each others’ .” He started to learn about Western art. “Andy Warhol and Marcel Duchamp. Conceptual art.” He developed his ideas.
In 2004, age 39, Shen moved from Nanjing to Beijing. At the time, having seen lots of art for over 20 years and no longer tracing Western art, he wanted to do his own. “I didn’t feel satisfied,” he said. “I wasn’t comfortable. I had to define my own style.” Twenty years hence, Shen’s work stands in for the emotional experience of the masses. Do his smiling soldiers represent the collective will of a billion Chinese people? Of all the world’s people? Or just him?
Shen Jingdong was born in Nanjing, Jiangsu province, in 1965. His mother still teaches math and his father teaches art to elementary school and middle school kids. Jingdong himself studied drawing and color in art classes at a local youth center.
In 1976 when Mao died, Chinese society was repairing itself after the turbulence of the Cultural Revolution. As schools opened up and took new students, Shen entered a painting training course as preparation for the art academy.
Shen passed admission exams and entered Nanjing Xiaozhuang Normal School, established by the well known educator Taon Xingzhi in 1927, and received systematic training, graduating from the Fine Art Class in 1984 when he was 19. The school’s long humanist tradition was a cradle of fine art trends for China. Since ‘79, when Shen was 24, new art movements had begun to emerge in China. Under the guidance of his teacher Guan Ce, Shen was exposed to Western contemporary art and his horizons widened. The new trends in China were washing over him.
In ‘84 he graduated from the Fine Arts Department of Nanjing University of the Arts after winning the Liu Haisu Scholarship. Located near his native Nanjing, it is the earliest art academy established in China, dating back to 1912.
When he left college, he joined the Political Department of the Nanjing East China Military Command founded in 1946. He was a printmaker doing contemporary social realism for the Chinese government.
Shen worked in the Nanjing conceptual tradition until 2003 when he made porcelain ceramic bust of a soldier with a round face and an innocent expression wearing an old style uniform. It resembled Shen’s personality and form and created a fictional 3D environment he could operate in. The light hitting the porcelain led him to a new way of working. Shen combined this with a Nanjing tradition of conceptual art, literary symbolism and humanism that is part of the southern China experience.
He ventured to Beijing while still in military—answering a global artists call for a residency at a gallery. He then moved permanently in 2004 from Nanjing in the southeast to Beijing. The last five years, Shen has been the President of the Oil Painting Academy, Chinese Contemporary Art Research Institute.
In addition to military subjects, children and leaders, Shen also has painted religious figures, artists and animals. When I asked him about the latter, he replied that he looks forward to creating whole systems. “Animals or plants could be next.”
In 2018, Shen collaborated with a photographer Dongchu Zhang, who agreed to take pictures of Shen throughout 2018. They put them in a book, Shen Jingdong 2018. “It’s not just a joke,” he said. As they worked together the project seemed to get more serious.
“Shen Jingdong is here” was Shen’s third show in New York City and his fifth in the USA. He has done eight in Beijing since ’06 and another five in Hong Kong. In addition to the recent Venice exhibition, he has also shown in France and Korea as well as his native Nanjing and elsewhere in China.
If Shen’s puppet-men are not any specific person, but instead a self-portrait standing in for viewers, then the apparent joy seen on every identical face must also be a proxy for everything which underlies those “chickpea” eyes and accompanying deadpan expressions. To feel a loss of identity or one’s place, to feel anxious about self and society—or the world at large—are normal feelings—anywhere in contemporary life—but especially in a place experiencing seemingly overnight social upheaval, like China. It all gets pushed down. In our brief encounter, perhaps part of his performance of bringing his art to Manhattan, I detect no sorrow in Shen Jingdong. I can tell he is a smart and passionate person and his announcement that “Shen Jingdong is here” brings him nothing but joy. Yet I know there is more beneath the surface.
When I tell him that I am not comfortable with ambiguity, he replies ambiguously with a twinkle in his eye, “An artist is not a politician.” WM
Mark Bloch is a writer, performer, videographer and multi-media artist living in Manhattan. In 1978, this native Ohioan founded the Post(al) Art Network a.k.a. PAN. NYU's Downtown Collection now houses an archive of many of Bloch's papers including a vast collection of mail art and related ephemera. For three decades Bloch has done performance art in the USA and internationally. In addition to his work as a writer and fine artist, he has also worked as a graphic designer for ABCNews.com, The New York Times, Rolling Stone and elsewhere. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org and PO Box 1500 NYC 10009.
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