Sheng Qi China 1965

Sheng Qi, My left hand in black & white, 2010

My left hand in black & white, 2010

Sheng Qi - Picturing History
Dr. Katie Hill

Paintings and skulls as memento mori

'...nothing natural anywhere nothing but history...'
Roland Barthes

All my best memories come back clearly to me... It's yesterday once more
The Carpenters

History is always subjective. For the past ten years, Sheng Qi's work has focused on human lives as political subjects affected by historical events, framed by his own life-time of some forty years. His new work, a series of history paintings and a set of hundreds of painted skulls, exudes an aesthetic sombreness which is unprecedented and marks a new stage in his development as an artist.

Ten years ago 'Universal Brand Happy Chicken', a performance shown in Fortune Cookies, was a cross-cultural piece of work using Chinese medicine and Buddhism, in which the phantom of global economy was presented by the use of supermarket chickens (1). Four tables were laid out in the form of the Buddhist swastika, a sign of good fortune and virtue. On the tables cooking pots and utensils, medical herbs, syringes and supermarket chickens were placed. A large projector on one side of the room showed gruesome images of chickens with syringes and dildos. The artist entered the room, naked, and then proceeded to stir a pot adding herbs. He proceeded to inject the herbal 'medicine' into the chickens using syringes, smearing it over the surface slowly and lovingly. The 'injections' contained food colouring and the chickens became drenched with bright red, blue and green, highlighting the grotesque, perverted nature of the project. Finally, in a dramatic gesture, he got up onto the table and urinated at length over the chickens, at which point the performance ended.

This performance comments on the complex interrelationship between the food industry, medical science and the herbal medicine industry, in which animals are abused for human consumption and well-being. Factory farming, gene-technology and the ingredients of drugs, both Western and Chinese, as well as the use of animals for medical research are all invoked here, through the soulless white body of 'British Class A1 chicken, an already perverted, unnatural chicken' (2). This work also refers to branding which might be culturally specific. The 'quality' of the chicken as the finest (Class A1) is emphasized in Britain, whilst in China, the 'Universal Brand Happy Chicken' denotes the fortune that this 'healthy' chicken promises the consumer. Ultimately though, the global economy has the same effect: what is marketed as 'healthy' is actually injected with genes or drugs or hormones, an abused body manufactured for human 'delight'. If there is reading of this work within the framework of colonialism, it is about invasion, and distortion of human values for one party's 'requirements' at the expense of the Other. Here, however, it is human culture itself which is the object of critique, a culture which thrives on perversion and injustice across specific national, cultural and historical boundaries (3). His work since returning to China has focused more narrowly on recent Chinese history framed by the chronology of his own lifetime. His interest in using his life as a tool to analyse social and political issues recalls Tracey Emin's work and has radical potential in the Chinese context of contemporary art.

His Hand series (2005) produced a memorable and lasting image which encapsulated the deeply personal physical pain and poignant memories of the past through tiny black and white photographs held on the palm of the artist's disfigured hand. By now, Sheng Qi's own life story is well-known (or at least the fictional version of it). What is striking in this work is its reductive simplicity which simultaneously compels a questioning of its meaning. The image is successful to the point of becoming instantly familiar, just as any classic piece of design. The four-fingered hand, the rich red background and the small black and white photograph within the photograph creates a triple layer, moving the viewer out of the overall image into its more fragmented meanings, its layered histories and the relationships which it entails of the personal, the public, the past and the present. What made this work distinct was the visual interplay between the personal and the political; the use of the artist's own trauma as a site of political abuse in his own life.

In this new series of paintings History in Red and Black, developed over the past two years or so, images of specific historical events are portrayed in dripping paint as unstable yet monumental memories writ large. The artist's personal history as seen in his Hand photographs, in this work is magnified to form a larger, more grandiose view of history whereby History itself becomes the object of scrutiny. The scale of the work is epic; it is a fictional representation interwoven with specific realities: real, traceable political events which are traced as an image of a picture. The use of pinkish reds and greys continue the theme of ideological symbolism. The canvases, produced as a series of pairs, appropriately echo the symbolic order in much of Chinese official organisation of space, whereby things are arranged in a symmetrical order. Power is invoked in the conception and the ordering of the work, but the theme of power is also embedded in a dark narrative of state violence and control over individuals. At the heart of this work is Sheng's own interest in people's lives as a collective experience informed by historical events, which are developed and elaborated with his own experience as the central point of departure. Beyond this, imaging pictures is what he is interested in, as the pictorial aspect of memory is key to how one remembers and why.

Depicting large monumental scenes of historical narrative frozen in time (Mao's Death, the PLA after Tiananmen) the iconic theme of Tiananmen as a site of national gathering remains a key focus, shown in subdued tones of reds and greys. The paintings are viewed as the backs of crowds of thousands who gather ceremoniously whether to pay tribute or to join together to respond to obey a collective command. They depict an unspecified yet recognisable experience reinforced more by the repetition of historical and pictorial understanding than by reality itself. The paintings evoke the largeness and seriousness of the event rendered unstable by the use of dripping paint perhaps more than the event itself and yet they are specific moments in modern Chinese history. The paintings themselves take on a tangible life as the drips of paint invoke the idea of blood, sweat or tears which come out of physical human pain.

Here the effect and construction of history rather than history itself is at stake. The cumulative effect of memory and history as a self-perpetuating symbiotic relationship is a visual one; in viewing we re-picture and re-interpret our own memories. The remarkable triptych Execution is very much a classic history painting, directly referencing Goya's The Third May 1808 (1814) and Manet's subsequent work The Execution of Maximilian made in the 1860s, both responses to political events, much written about in art history. It also draws on photographic documentation of executions and paradoxically draws us into desiring to see by obscuring our vision through the use of dripping paint.

Revolution or Memento Mori

Revolution is a new work of several hundred painted human skulls. This work presents a refreshing contrast in style from the paintings, even if the subject matter is equally dark and evocative of the violence of history. This work takes the universal site of fascination, the human skull, as memento mori of recent history in China. They are reminiscent of something between a talisman and a jewel, evoking popular culture, archaeology and contemporary subcultures of biker cults and goths. The spray paint illuminates the objects and the small images of human faces depicted on the skulls are taken from real pictures and dates of lives are recorded to form a kind of documentation, endowing them with a tragic element. Many artists have used the skull in recent work as the supreme objet d'art - the token of death (Shen Shaomin, Damien Hirst and Christina Borland to name a few). Here the work, again, is drawn back into China's own past specifically addressing deaths which occurred during the Cultural Revolution. The skulls add to a growing body of work on the subject such as Hu Jie's cutting edge documentaries and Wang Youqin's research on the events of 1966 in Beijing. This work displays a light and versatile quality which is offset by the written details recording the loss of life.

Some of the work in this exhibition is likely not to be displayed due to the sensitivity of the subject matter, an extraordinary reflection on the limitations of art in 21st century China. In his quest to expose a historiographic view of China's recent past (the artist's own lifetime) Sheng Qi re-activates the notion of history as central to our experience. The narratives Sheng tells are inter-textual, mingling fact and fiction, real lives and a view of a collective image as pictorial memory. In the words of Linda Hutcheon, 'We only have access to the past today through its traces - its documents, the testimony of witnesses and other archival materials.'(4) These paintings and skulls continue the universal themes of life and death as the most persistent, intertwining characteristics of humanity with history as its only witness.

Dr. Katie Hill is Senior Lecturer in contemporary Chinese visual culture and curator of the Chinese Poster Collection at the University of Westminster, London. She is currently based in Beijing.


1: Sheng Qi (b.1965), 'Universal Brand Happy Chicken', performance, Fortune Cookies, ICA, London, 9th-10th May, 1997. He graduated from the Central Academy of Applied Arts in Beijing (Zhongyang Gongyi xueyuan) in 1988, was based in Italy from 1989-1992, then London from 1992-1998, where he completed an MA at Central St Martin's School of Art and Design. He returned to China in 1998.

2: Fortune Cookies exhibition programme, Institute of Contemporary Arts, 9th May - 8th June, 1997.

3: Katie Hill, Unpublished PhD Thesis 'On Relocating Contemporary Chinese Art', University of Sussex (2003), Chapter 3

4: Linda Hutcheon, The Politics of Postmodernism, London and New York, 1989 (reprinted 2002), p.55.