LIANG SHAOJIMoon Garden, 2015, stills from single-channel video: 7 min 41 sec. Courtesy the artist and ShanghArt, Shanghai.  

Sha Sha Sha

Liang Shaoji


Silkworms are surprisingly noisy creatures. For proof, look no further than Liang Shaoji’s Moon Garden (2015), a single-channel video work that captures the caterpillars’ instinctive, relentless chomping of mulberry leaves and movement as they spin raw silk. Recorded by Liang as he lay on the floor to film the creatures, as if himself a silkworm, the sound is industrial, insistent and urgent. With a lifespan of around six to eight weeks, only three to six days of which will be spent spinning, for silkworms, time is of the essence.

Time was a recurring theme in Liang’s ShanghArt Shanghai solo exhibition, “Sha Sha Sha,” its various implications and narratives layered and woven to striking effect. This is typical of the Shanghai-born artist, whose last solo exhibition at the gallery, in 2014, was titled “Back to Origin,” or “元 [yuan]” in Chinese: a multivalent word used here to describe individuals’ roots and beginnings. In “Sha Sha Sha,” Liang expands his axis of time and humanity to investigate ancient civilizations and ongoing global conflicts.

Dominating ShanghArt’s downstairs exhibition space was Moon Garden (2014–16). Created for “What About the Art? Contemporary Art from China,” curated by none other than Cai Guo-Qiang for Doha’s Al Riwaq Art Space last year, the monumental installation comprises two acrylic sheets, in an “S” and a “C” shape respectively. Liang estimates that almost 35,000 silkworms spun on the sheets’ surface, as well as on a series of small sculptural objects—metal daggers and shards of mirror—positioned on a thin coat of sand.

Liang explained that the work is both a nod to the rise and fall of the “cradle of civilization,” Mesopotamia, as well as to contemporary turbulence in the region, which today spans Iraq, Kuwait, parts of Syria, and southeast Turkey. Much like ancient treasures, strands of silk and grains of sand glimmer in the soft light while the “S” curve resembles the Arabic word for “Serenity,” lending a poetic nature to the work. The region’s modern-day turbulence, particularly in Mosul and Aleppo, is evidenced by those violent objects nestling in the sand, softened and swaddled by the spinnings of generations of silkworms’ that soothe a chaotic reality.

Continuing the ancient civilization trope, The Aegean Sea (2004–17) incorporates the iron bow of a boat, surrounded by sand, feathers and silk. Missing, the artist explained, is Nike, the winged goddess of victory in Greek mythology. Has she fled, the piece demands to know, leaving feathers and a silken garment in her retreat? Or are these the scattered belongings of a recently, secretly beached boat of intrepid Syrian refugees on the shores of, say, Lesbos?

LIANG SHAOJI, The Aegean Sea, 2004–17, mixed-media installation with iron bow, silk, cocoon, feather, sand, resin and acrylic, 90 × 320 × 230 cm. Courtesy the artist and ShanghArt, Shanghai.  

LIANG SHAOJI, In Silence, 2015–16, mixed-media installation with plastic barrel, silk and cocoon, 12 pieces, dimensions variable. Courtesy the artist and ShanghArt, Shanghai.  

Striking a similarly overt political tone, In Silence (2015–16) recalls the 2015 Port of Tianjin explosions, in which a reported 173 people were killed. The installation juxtaposes commonplace plastic barrels deformed by heat to resemble a cocoon, with the softness and elegance of silk.

As emblems of time, a silkworm’s life cycle is mirrored in its movement: it spins in a figure-eight pattern, Liang explained, creating multiple infinity symbols during its short life. The outcome—woven silk material—has been prized for its beauty and strength since ancient times in China. But for Liang, who has dedicated almost 30 years to cultivating silkworms, this reverence is even more deep-seated. The artist’s respect for his crawling, chomping, cocooning collaborators is evidenced in Broken Landscape (2016). A cascade of raw, untreated silk, pocked with excrement, cocoons, shed skins, and dead moths, it celebrates the unembellished, warts-and-all complexity of these remarkable creatures. Viewed from a distance, the work resembles a traditional Chinese landscape painting, alluding to the fragile beauty of the natural world.    

In China, such openly political exhibitions as Liang’s are rare. Nonetheless, the overwhelming takeaway from “Sha Sha Sha" was that of the artist’s palpable passion for his medium and muse, the categorically not-so-humble silkworm.

Liang Shaoji: “Sha Sha Sha” is on view at ShanghArt, Shanghai, until May 6, 2017. 

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LIANG SHAOJI, Broken Landscape, 2016, installation with silk and cocoons, 520 × 145 cm. Courtesy the artist and ShanghArt, Shanghai.
LIANG SHAOJI, Broken Landscape, 2016, installation with silk and cocoons, 520 × 145 cm. Courtesy the artist and ShanghArt, Shanghai.