Opening: 06.01.2007, 3:00 pm
By Ling-Yun TANG
There is nothing naturalistic about Feng Shu's small army of oversized insects and arachnids. Each creature occupies the same amount of floor space as might a small household pet, and possesses a tactile and visual appeal that encourages viewers to bend down for a closer look or even feel. However, frozen in the acts of mid-flight, attack, or prey capture, the sleek and shiny critters appear to be anything but man's best friend. In this convoy of ornate sculptures, the artist blends traditional and modern materials to explore the uncertain boundary between the civilized and the wild. By merging these themes together within the anatomy of the bugs, Feng Shu accents the contrast between insider and outsider, but also seeks to suggest, perhaps, in reality that they have always been bound by a single conceptual schema.
A Beijing native, Feng Shu (b. 1980), belongs to the first generation of Chinese artists born after the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and raised during the beginning of China's opening and reform period. Since the 1980s, Chinese society has been defined by unprecedented exposure to all things Western, including entertainment, medicine, transportation, fashion, and popular culture. From his perspective, elements of traditional Chinese culture have inevitably been deluged by these external influences, which in turn have trickled into the internal psyches of artists, writers, and other cultural producers of his generation.
In an era where technological transformations have undermined what once seemed solid and assured, the human urge to process these changes is manifest in his own musings on the dramatic material developments that he has witnessed in his lifetime. Feng Shu remembers when televisions became mainstream before he began to attend school, and even wondering during his first exposure to a television set: "Can the people inside the TV also see me?" Towards the end of the eighties, computers came to be regular fixtures in businesses, schools, and households. In middle school, while playing with computer games, the artist marveled at his power to interact with the on-screen characters, who had seemingly come to life on their own. Throughout the nineties, on Beijing's expanding boulevards and highways, taxicabs and private vehicles quickly edged out bicycles as the primary mode of transportation. Feng Shu himself joined China's automobile revolution when he picked up his driver's license in 2000 and began to crisscross Beijing's webs of roadways on his motorcycle.
There is no doubt that Chinese urbanites have readily incorporated Western conveniences into their daily life rhythms and that the material quality of life has quickly risen over the years. Growing up in a generation that is accustomed to a steady influx of new things, Feng Shu understands why the prospect of bigger-and-better has a dominant appeal. At the same time, for the artist, technology is to be approached with some reservation. Unlike some of his peers who identify with the so-called "cartoon generation" of artists, characterized by their willingness to embrace cutting-edge computer and video technology within their artworks, Feng Shu has been more captivated by the effects of the passage of time on the cultural products of the past. He cites his Beijing roots and his family's intellectual background as the source of his affection for the architectural remnants that define the city's ancient legacy, like the carved flowers and mythical motifs that he first encountered at the Imperial City, the Summer Palace, or Yuanming Yuan in his childhood. He has thus set upon the task of using his art as a means to become better acquainted with traditional symbols and techniques for the sake of coming to grips with, and rather romantically, to ensure the survival of the past into the present.
The choice of ceramic and stainless steel provide a key to understanding Feng Shu's artwork. The artist first became acquainted with the ceramic factories of Jingdezhen in 2004, one year prior to graduating from the Department of Sculpture at the Chinese Academy of Fine Arts. [Jingdezhen porcelain production reached the pinnacle of technical innovation during the Song Dynasty, and international trade in Chinese porcelain further highlighted the region's reputation for turning out the best decorative, ritual, and daily use pottery.] Feng Shu acknowledges the historic, symbolic authority that is associated with Jingdezhen ceramics. But he explains that his concern has less to do with the technical aspects of creating a work of art than with the conceptual space that incorporating such ancient techniques is able to provide for the development of his personal artistic vision. The "Post period of insects" series embodies his reaction to what he views as the intrusion of modernity into a Chinese society that, within his lifetime, has ostensibly been seized by the uncritical pursuit of wealth and consumerism. The question that he wrestles with as an artist is whether there is any room to preserve the aesthetic and philosophical legacies of a past that he has glimpsed mostly in just representational form.
In Feng Shu's conception, the melding of painted porcelain bodies and chrome appendages came to him with the idea of flight-the notion that when everything is new, "it is easy to fly away" and to reinvent one-self. It is no surprise then that he began by modeling the latticed wings of butterflies, a traditional symbol of rebirth. He constructed the wings first in clay, and later rendered them in stainless steel, which gives them an art deco feel with their polished mirror finish and aerodynamic edges. In the "Insect" series, the exoskeleton frames and bodies of insects and spiders are shaped out of clay, to which metal legs, wings, antennae, feeders, and other appendages are welded.
The fantastic scale and ergonomic forms of the creatures transports them out of the world of everyday human nuisance and shifts the conceptual reference point from the entomological (?) to historical and philosophical concerns. Giant mosquitoes suck blood from their victims through piercing syringe proboscises; muscular spiders perch atop threatening needle sharp legs; scorpions armed with hefty pincers raise their venomous tails ready to subdue their prey; and beady-eyed flies at rest, at once beautiful and instinctively repulsive, await their next meal. The finely painted surfaces of the insect and arachnid bodies-some in Ming-Qing blue and white and pastel floral patterns, and others in abstract geometric triangles and irregular blobs-paired with contrasting metal limbs give the overall impression that these ancient creatures are science-fictional mutants, part animal, part robot. Do they represent the inevitable intrusion of outside change in Feng Shu's imagined historic past? Or are they the odd by-product of a Chinese modernity that is looking to move forward in the 21st century by openly embracing the agents of technological progress? The answers can go either way. It is this interplay between tradition and transformation that typifies Feng Shu's interpretation of contemporary society, where the mutual struggle between predator and prey can never be disaggregated from the larger question of evolutionary survival.
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