The Comings and Goings of Shen Shaomin
By Joanna Bayndrian
Originally from Heilongjiang Province in China’s Dongbei region, Shen Shaomin moved to Sydney in 1990 where he lived and worked for a decade. Like a handful of artists who migrated from China to Sydney at the time Shen was able to experiment with new aesthetic and material fields, immersed in an entirely unfamiliar social, political and cultural environment. At the same time language barriers saw an experience of Sydney marked by passive isolation, prefacing Shen’s celebrated Unknown Creatures series (2001-2005), a collection of mutant organisms, whose mismatched bones coexist, but with a visible seam.
These days based in the Beijing suburbs, Shen continues his inquiry into human progress and its’ effects on the natural world, albeit with a less personal slant. Exhibited in The Floating Eye, Shen’s Landscape of Confinement translates literally from Chinese as ‘exercising control of nature’. A glittering, still mass of ice built upon multiple refrigerator elements, Landscape of Confinement’s conceptual relevance, like Shen himself, transcends the boundaries of geography and place.
Shen first travelled to Sydney in the late 1980s to attend a print-making conference. He was a visiting professor on a brief trip, relocating permanently to Australia never crossed his mind. However it was April 1989 when Shen left Sydney for Beijing. He explains: “At this time Beijing was going through difficult changes. Students had already begun demonstrating, in the lead up to June 4th.” The mood in Beijing’s centre was feverish, “Everyone was so excited they didn’t care about art anymore, all they wanted was to take part in the revolution.” Shen was one of many artists who went to Tiananmen Square to join the movement. But they were only met with disappointment. As Shen sees it, the revolution has still not succeeded. The artist’s disillusionment with China’s political situation at the time was a cardinal factor influencing his decision to move away. When asked whether his art-making was also factor, he answers: “People had said that outside China you can make better art, but art wasn’t the reason. The reason was political.”
The guidance and support given to Shen by Australian curator Claire Roberts and Nicholas Jose, Cultural Counsellor at the Australian Embassy 1987-1990, was instrumental in bringing him to Sydney. Roberts and Jose were pioneering figures in Beijing art circles- the couple held small exhibitions in their apartment at a time when contemporary arts infrastructure was severely undernourished. Roberts and Jose also helped secure vital sponsorship from Qantas to fly Shen to Sydney. When Shen reflects on the event more than two decades later, he sees it as an unwelcome but necessary move: “We drifted there because we felt China had no hope. So we didn’t leave on our own accord it was society at that time, Chinese society, that welcomed us to leave; forced us to leave.”
Though he arrived in Sydney alongside artists such as Ah Xian, Shen Jiawei and Fan Dongwang—who for the most part continue to live in Australia—Shen is quick to set his experience apart for the simple reason that he couldn’t speak a word of English. Having never learnt the language Shen describes himself as living without a map. He found it difficult to connect with art circles in Sydney and despite a growing community of Chinese-Australian artists, was forced to be very independent. Overall Shen seems to have had mixed feelings about his new home. But Sydney’s beauty was something that didn’t go unnoticed- and still doesn’t. When asked whether his impression of Sydney has changed over time, Shen is confident that it hasn’t changed much at all; insisting that the easiest way to answer the question was through verse:
I use my black eyes, To see white landscapes. Your beauty makes me suffocate, And makes me lose direction.
The 1990s was a time of cultural and artistic awakening in China; in Beijing especially, some of China’s now ‘big name’ artists were well and truly making their mark. But it was a scene from which Shen felt completely disconnected. The issues many China based artists grappled with at the time: the pace of urban development, commercialism, politics, were beyond Shen’s realm of experience, and as a result, helped set Shen’s perspective apart. Shen believes “a good artist makes art that resonates globally, at any time anyone can look at it, and understand it. I focused on the survival of the environment, and human beings, rather than localised issues.” The haunting mutant organisms of Shen’s Unknown Creatures series subscribe to this exact logic. The project, however, was also the reason Shen returned to Beijing: Australia simply couldn’t provide the amount of bones, and labour, that Unknown Creatures demanded.
No longer identifying as a Chinese artist, or even a Chinese-Australian artist, Shen jokes: “I’m just an artist. A free-range artist, a nomad.” Shen’s time in Sydney in the 1990s continues to influence his distinctively universalist perspective. With personal and professional networks spanning two world cities, Shen benefits from access to more information and more resources: “I’m not restricted to one location…I can escape, I can work in China or Australia or all over the world.”