Sheng Qi China 1965

Sheng Qi


One of Sheng Qi's Astronauts

One of Sheng Qi's Astronauts

An interview with Sheng Qi
By William Corwin, Daily Magazine

"The doctor asked me if I wanted the finger re-attached, and I said,
"If I put it back, why did I cut it off in the first place?"
Sheng Qi

A shipment of bronze astronauts has just arrived at Sheng Qi's hangar-like studio.
There are ten half-scale and four life-size sculptures.
They don't stick out all that much, surrounded by giant paintings of Lhasa, protesters, execution squads, busts of Mao, a drum set (hallmark of artistic coolness), and, at the center of the room, a low table with a miniature Tian'amen Gate surrounded by toy-like tanks, one or two of them overturned.
Sheng Qi's assistants and the delivery men gather round as he crouches down and ceremoniously signs the base of each new statue.
It might be difficult to recognize the face of the astronaut, but the hand raised in a heroic wave is unmistakeable.
It bears Sheng's trademark four fingers.
Sheng Qi cut off his little finger in 1989, in a gesture that could be considered in solidarity with the protesters who were massacred in Tian'anmen Square when the Chinese government crushed the peaceful protests that had begun on April 15 and ended so tragically less than two months later on June 4 in the deaths of 2,000-3,000 students and their supporters (according to the Chinese Red Cross, The New York times counts the dead at between 400-800).

The bronze astronaut is a commentary on China's bid to enter the Space Age - the first Chinese astronaut orbited the earth last year - and it's Olympic aspirations. "Sports in China is really really political," comments Sheng, "Chinese athletes are national property: they are not allowed to marry or have girlfriends (without permission from the government)."
The golden statues are meant to satirize the idea of the National Hero - the clean-cut ultra disciplined pawn crossed with the dissident artist whose mutilated hand serves to remind himself and his audience of his country's great shame.
It is impossible to ignore Sheng Qi's left hand - he won't let you - he has transformed it into the most iconic image in contemporary Chinese photography.
He repeats the story of the hand with a practiced air.
The gruesome details have taken on a tragic-comic air in the retelling, in particular the somewhat slapstick exchange at the beginning of this article, but perhaps humor is the antidote to oppression?

In the late 80s, Sheng was part of the first Performance Art troupe in China. "Concept 21" was composed of four men.
"At the time I was not interested in painting, I was interested in action," says Sheng.
As is the case with many performance art events, they exist mostly in the form of grainy black-and-white photographs, and in the memory of the participants.
Attendance is rarely high at such things, especially for four naked men wrapping themselves in 100 yards of black silk on the Great Wall at five o'clock in the morning.
In 1989, the Tian'anmen massacre took place.
Sheng was there, but he took to his heels once the tanks moved in.
He is wracked by survivor's guilt over this, but it would be hard to blame anyone for leaving.

He became despondent, "I was a poor student, just graduated, no job. I had nothing, and nothing to lose."
The failure of the Tian'anmen protests to achieve any change left many young Chinese very disillusioned with their upbringing and education.
"What they feed you, you eat," says Sheng, "I finally noticed that for 25 years I had been fooled."
Sheng had a breakdown, " I wanted to change the [mental] pain to the physical - I tried to save myself and stop that pain."
Sheng summoned a taxi and paid the driver in advance to take him to the hospital.
Then he went into the kitchen and chopped off his finger with a butcher knife, burying it in a flowerpot in the back yard.
He had even told the driver to come and get him if he had not emerged after five minutes.
Clearly this was no suicide attempt, it was a performance.
Sheng acknowledges the insanity of his act.
"I was almost like a madman."
Van Gogh's ear comes to mind.

A few months later, Sheng Moved to Italy.
The human rights fallout from Tian'anmen prompted many sympathetic governments to grant asylum to the student protesters, as many who had taken part began to disappear into China's shadowy network of labor camps and prisons.
In Europe, Sheng Taught Chinese, Tai Chi and waitered. He spent a few years in Italy and France, mostly sleeping on friends' couches and the floors.
"I was so poor I couldn't afford a slice of pizza!" he reminisces.
He discovered Art Povera and became acquainted with the western tradition in performance art.
Three years after arriving in Europe he purchased a one-way ticket to England on an obscure African airline.
When he landed, "no customs, no one checking your tickets.
I bought a bus ticket to Victoria Station and started working in a Chinese restaurant in Leicester Square."

After two years, Sheng Qi was accepted to St. Martin's in London and began a Master's course.
He had no weekends - in his spare time he would earn some cash doing the in-between frames for cartoons.
His hand was an issue as well, "I didn't want people to know I was that kind of madman.
During my Master's course I was hiding my hand in my pocket."

It wasn't until ten years after the Tian'anmen crackdown that Sheng Qi took his hand out of his pocket in public.
He had returned to China, and despite his own immense shame about what had happened, and the massive campaign of misinformation being perpetrated on the Chinese people (that continues to this day), he had to face facts. "I chose reality.
I realised that my history is part of Chinese history, so I took photographs of my hand.
Maybe I recovered in a way."
Sheng also realized that his brutal and violent behavior was born of a brutal and violent time.

Once he began snapping photographs of his hand, the floodgates were opened: hundreds of images over time: faces of children, everyday citizens, protesters, communist leaders, and pin-up girls, all postage stamp size and placed in the palm of the arresting and disfigured hand - a painful frame for images of modern China.
Sheng painted as well and began to cast sculptures and to make models.
Drippy canvasses of Tian'anmen Gate, close-ups of tanks with bleeding and phallic red gun turrets, Chinese political prisoners in various stages of being executed.
Sheng Qi is engaged in a crusade to turn back the government-propelled tide to cover up and erase what happened in Beijing on June 4, 1989.

The works cannot be exhibited in China - the vast majority of Sheng Qi's controversial artwork is sold overseas to foreign collectors.
He started trying to get exposure in his own country; "I said, "Fuck it, I'm going to make a show myself."
I called the space "Dark Room" and filled it with paintings."
Government inspectors got wind of the subject matter - a small-scale model of the famous photograph of the lone protestor facing down a tank - and the space was closed down within a few months.
At Red Gate Gallery in 2007, "government officials came and made me take down the show," a show of the hand photographs. "[There were just] empty walls - the art dealer told people the show was sold-out completely."

Sheng Qi does produce some work for domestic consumption - the astronauts, for example, are not necessarily critical enough of Chinese government and society to ban.
Also Sheng paints nostalgic and melancholic paintings from old snapshots and magazine clippings which are more about muted pain than direct confrontation with a secret past.
In general, he notes, Chinese people don't really like the Tian'anmen stuff anyway.
When asked if he thinks he will ever be able to exhibit the work that is most meaningful to him, the work that faces the recent tragic past head-on, and if China itself will accept this past anytime soon, he replies immediately and without a second thought, "not in my lifetime."