In 2009, Shi Jinsong was invited to make a solo presentation at the Today Art Museum in Beijing, in the main exhibition hall, which is just slightly smaller in proportion to Tate’s Turbine Hall in London. Keen to accept the invitation, Shi Jinsong found it harder to arrive at a precise concept for a reasonable, powerful and worthwhile project. It took him almost three years to strip away all excess to arrive at a satisfactory plan in 2011, and even then at the eleventh hour he scrapped that idea and began anew. The final result, however, was Penetrate, a massive, monumental mass of nothing so much as refuse, garbage, but of a form in which mass, volume and scale converged to extraordinary, sublime effect.
Penetrate as first presented here, appeared to be a final or finite work, but it is in fact an ongoing project or concept that continues to be refined and adapted as per the sites in which it is exhibited. In this first incarnation it took the form of a physical mass constructed from a volume of materials and on a scale that is monumental in form. Bound up—literally, by wires and rope—within its very being is an expression of the excesses of modern China; from the scale of factory production to the volume of items produced; from the mass of materials discarded as new replaces old, to the scale of the impact this has upon the environment.
Reclaiming these surplus materials from the collection depots that grow up on the fringes of the city, Shi Jinsong recycles them as a physical work of art. Wooden beams from traditional architectural structures are bound together with old tree trunks, pipes, tubes, and steel joists fill the gaps and add volume of their own. But in being bound together, their new role is not to form a simple mass. Instead, they serve as part of a new structure that whilst not entirely functional is a tunnel of sorts; a shelter, a space for visitors to enter, and to experience Shi Jinsong’s largest public experiment with art to date.
We have already seen examples of the distinct air of theatricality—an air of drama is perhaps more precise—in Shi Jinsong’s work. The early period of living in a theatre endowed him with an affinity for space and little fear of darkness, although he tells a story of darkness in a temple as providing inspiration for Penetrate . This story goes that one day, finding himself with a bout of artist’s block, he took himself to a temple, arriving just as it was closing. The monk allowed him to enter and asked if he required a torch as the lights had already been turned out. Shi Jinsong said no and entered the space, where in the darkness he found light in a clearing of his mind as other senses took over. That was to be the essence of Penetrate.
In the event the idea evolved, but also took on board concerns for public safety, such as the potential danger of letting the public wander over a mass of tree trunks and other tubular objects, which Shi Jinsong originally intended to be soaked in oil and other heavily scented or odorous substances. To do this in the dark was potentially problematic. Determined to retain the darkness, and to take it to an extreme, it was decided to let the audience interact with Penetrate through sense other than touch. It was encouraged to touch the external face of the work, in the manner of the blind feeling an elephant, to see what could be experienced through touch. There was no light within the exhibition space to assist in this task, save that which filtered through the narrow opening at the entrance. Thus for Penetrate Shi Jinsong was able to make it more complete, more total than he had been able to achieve before.
The choice of materials brought to Penetrate draws a direct connection to Beigao and the demolition-scholar stones, but the concept here began with something so much simpler as a form and a material: that of a “gunzi ”, a pipe, a stick, a long tubular object, flexible and versatile in both form and meaning: a basic building block of form. A number of the emotions—attitudes and angles—that had been fomenting were beginning to gel and find form in the mass that Penetrate was conceived to be. Mass, volume, scale are words routinely used to describe modern China in all its myriad facets. Across the nation, but especially in its capital, mass volume and scale are everywhere; physically and materially, psychologically and metaphorically. The ponderous form gives full expression to that dark anxiety about being moved on, as well as to the face of a monolithic authority driving that force within, across, society.
In late 2010, as preparations for the solo exhibition got underway, I engaged Shi Jinsong in a series of discussions about his work. It was during one of these discussions that he described his practice as ‘attempts to discover what art is, or what it might be’. It is an obvious enough claim for an artist, especially a conceptual artist. The sense of questioning is affirmed in the diverse forms of his works and the multiple angles from which he approaches the same theme or issue, which I first described as slightly schizophrenic. But at the same time, for an artist to ask ‘What is art?’ sounds rather disingenuous. Especially where, in China, almost every artist at work in the contemporary art field today received some form of formal training in one of the nation’s academies, art schools, or university art departments.
Where Chinese artists have a strong foundation in techniques and an ingrained and uniform set of principles about what art is, how it should be made and to what purpose its aesthetics and qualities should serve—which Shi Jinsong embraced in his time as a student of sculpture in Wuhan—how could any one of them have any doubt as to what art is, or what it ought to be? The answer is that the rigidity of the system inspires an urgent need in those of a vanguard or progressive mindset, and a compelling reason to disprove all of the conventions enshrined. And if China’s artists are progressive in nature, then Shi Jinsong is an exemplary model.
Penetrate is but a recent example in Shi Jinsong’s work of breaking conventions. As with the practice begun in Take off the Armour’s Mountain , the viewer’s engagement with Penetrate does not conform to the customary fashion of looking at art. Pointing to the fact that, as people—us, we—pursue their desires, we are so often blind to the mess we make of the environment and to the garbage produced each day as a result, where Shi Jinsong presents Penetrate in a completely darkened space, viewing becomes active rather than passive for the audience is compelled to seek the art in this exhibition.
Whilst Penetrate does not represent any physical danger, in referencing the past—one meaning of the Chinese title “guo qu / 过去”—talludes to an indeterminable future, and the passage of time that necessarily links our journey between the two. And yet, as a piece of art, Penetrate is not so literal. It suggests. It moots. But above all, it holds still, preserves its silence and, instead, penetrates our minds. In so doing, it plants there the seeds of insight. To nurture them or ignore them, that choice is ours, but as Penetrate suggests, we will live withthe consequences.
As an artwork, in the words of the artist ‘In the end the work is all about creating an attitude [perspective] within the space. A relatively chaotic, anarchic attitude, but at the same time, I wanted to make it an entirely ambiguous attitude, too.’ Once eyes adjust to the dark, the beauty of the structure, the power of its mass and the lingering odours of the past, multiple worlds, collide. The problems and dilemmas of modernity, of a post-industrial world, a world saturated with cut-offs, scraps and landfills upon which new structures rise, leaving more rubble in its wake.
The word “penetrate” implies puncturing, a breaking through, a passage, physical as a tunnel and a form of human motion; psychological as an insight into the mind and an understanding of complex cultural conundrums; and metaphysical in the sense of breaking through old into new, breaking boundaries and taboos. In Chinese, the phrase “ 过去” also references the past, and so as we approach, and gain measure of this monumental work, so we think of the past, of the uses, functions, goals and ambitions to which the components used to build Penetrate were put.
This long, dark tunnel which penetrates the space, simultaneously asks visitors to penetrate its darkness in order to experience the depravation of the senses Shi Jinsong intends. Setting makes or breaks a piece of art, and so does more frequently than we usually care to recognize. Shi Jinsong set himself a tremendous challenge in realising Penetrate : to reduce that cavernous space to a claustrophobic contained “cave”, which in spite of actually being of rather airy proportions—almost six metres in diameter—has been deliberately blackened to suck out all light from the visitors’ vision. Penetrate stands as a reminder of the richness of natural beauty, demonstrating that the essence of style lies in simplicity and an absolute understanding of from stripped of all excess.