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Reading Li Shan and Sensing Life

Author: Gao Ling 2017-06-25

While most Chinese artists, and even artists from the rest of the world, are stuck racking their brains and endlessly arguing about the ways to develop, extend, transform, appropriate, and update the genres, languages, techniques, forms, and materials of art, Li Shan, once known  both domestically and internationally for his abstract painting and performance art in the 1980s and political pop art in the 1990s, has in the past 20 years confronted life itself, and opened up a new realm in art: BioArt.

What is BioArt? To quote Li, it is“to use life itself as material to build living entities. The emphasis of current biological studies lies in the intervention into heredity from biological genes and artificial generation of the biological genome . Artists using the mechanisms of genes and genic generation to formulate his or her art plans and produce artworks embedded with biological features in line with the operating patterns of genetic engineering is called BioArt. ”

It is an art form, or in more precise terms, a brand new field of art, because for both Chinese or foreign artists to completely abandon their reliance on the expressive materials of media and frameworks of languages, to turn their back on referencing the social experience, or to abandon the adoption of symbolism and metaphors is virtually impossible to achieve and difficult to comprehend. The agent for Li’s waiving of styles, skills, themes, and media that he’d established utmost familiarity with over 30 years, might appear to have been inspired and stimulated  by Matthew Barney’s fictional human-hybrid orcs presented at the 45th Venice Biennial in 1993, but it is in fact the activation and transformation of his perspectives on  metaphysical life generated through the fusion of his strong humanism and consciousness of life since the late 70s. Obviously, we would not be capable of imagining Li’s devotion to the subject of life science, which has lasted for over 20 years since 1993, had he not articulated the totems of life that were filled with mysterious sentiment and represented by circular forms in the late 1970s and throughout the 1980s, or had the grafting and appropriation of plants and flowers in the paintings of political figures and signs in the early 1990s not been carried out. This process has been long and hard; if we examine Reflections of Li Shan, a voluminous writing of the artist, we’ll see from a note made in New York in 1995 the documentation of Li’s detailed reading, comprehension, and drawings on the origin(s) and structure of life and studies of cells and molecules ranging from cells, chromosomes, and genes. Within two and a half years, Li, at the time in his fifties, read a great block of biological writings including the academic textbook Proteins and Proteomics: A Laboratory Manual, and took a startling set of notes. Thus, Li’s confidence and perseverance in exploring BioArt can be strongly sensed from his broad base of knowledge that is rarely seen in other artists who have long been dependent on brushes as their artistic tool.

When we encounter the formerly - unseen eccentric plants and animal figures, or appreciate the freely soaring dragonfly- man accompanied by a mellifluous melody in the video Missfortune, we are astonished by Li’s poetic and infinitely imaginative unbound journey. But none of these memorably engraved figures were produced out of the artist’s mere imagination, but rather they come from the scientific reasoning and logical deductions derived from his perception of life, based on molecular biology and his capacity to visualize the potential order underlying dim dark microcosms. That is to say, the fundamental thing that distinguishes Li from all preceding artists who upheld the power of imagination and expression as an inborn duty, is that Li’s BioArt is far beyond the imaginary rendering that had occurred in the past; it is austerely science-dependent and logical, and is accomplished through the methods of genetic engineering and explicitly characterized  by the positiveness and evidence- based properties of biological science.

People cannot help but ask, after 20 years of dedication to BioArt, what position has Li come to hold in the global context? And what are the similarities and differences between Li’s practice and the few BioArt practices of Western artists at the turn of this century? In 1998, Reading, a plan of Li’s BioArt that proposes a recombination of the genes from fish and butterflies, was developed in New York, and made public in the magazine Tendency two years later in 2000 for the 13th issue of that year. However, Li didn’t have his own laboratory back then, and it was Eduardo Kac, a Brazilian-American artist, who first succeeded in creating a living fluorescent  rabbit, the first ever living entity in BioArt history, in his lab in 2000. As art critic Zhang Pingjie commented:“Just like scientific experiments, BioArt is only feasible through support from scientific technology. Therefore, there are two types of biological art: a plan of it, and a realized outcome . Since  most  plans are  limited by various objective conditions, though, they can only be displayed in the form of concept or visual images at this stage.”That is to say, Li’s proposal was in fact the very first in the history of BioArt, produced two years earlier than the realization of the living-body work by Kac. Between 1997- 98, he still perceived BioArt as a category of performance art, exemplified by inserting an electronic chip into his own body it indicated, on the one hand, the gap between his perception of the field and Li’s mastery of the knowledge in the discipline acquired several years earlier, and on the other, Kac’s lack of understanding that BioArt has to be based on genetic modification and recombination.

When we review Li’s 1998 plan, we become aware of the extent to which Li has acquired knowledge on his subject.“By placing a minor barrier,”writes Li Shan in Reflections,“in the process of a ribosome’s reading mRNA (note: Messenger RNA, responsible for transmission, is a bridge that translates DNA into protein), and depositing the required amino acid into a codon that is not co-respondent to the mRNA, we’ll be able to invalidate the message. In early 1998, I carried out this  process as above respectively on the sexual cells of a fish and a butterfly. Six days later, I extracted the eggs from the fish and sperms from the butterfly, opened up their nuclei and drew out a fraction of DNA from each. Due to the invalidity of the genetic codons, it is now possible to connect the sorted- in-even codons of the fish and those sorted - in -odd of the  butterfly . As the ribosome moves along the mRNA as usual, a protein carrying human cultural intent is therein synthesized.”We can learn from this that Li’s biological art practice has, from the outset, upheld rigid and scientific biological technology and adhered to the regulations and logics of biological engineering. We may even draw from this the verdict that if Li had possessed his own laboratory, this BioArt proposal of his, i .e . the recombination of the genes of fish and butterflies, would have occurred as early as 1998, which would have been two years earlier than Kac’s accomplishment. It can’t be said this isn’t regrettable.

However, the tremendous proposals and physical works made in the 20 years since then,  including  The Pumpkin Project and Recombination included in the show, and especially the hand-painted acrylic-on-canvas works, have more than established his pioneering position in developing BioArt experiments and production based on biological studies. And beyond specifically proposing the notion of BioArt and facilitating a theoretical basis and scope for it by revealing the idea, methods, and forms of BioArt, Li has, more significantly, expanded, promoted, and transformed the focus, pattern, and  range of contemporary art, and therein provided an unprecedented new horizon and created a new field for the future. In this series of programs and works by Li Shan, we see that he has given up and dismantled his earlier established artistic  materials and language framework – he is no longer bound or entangled in styles, languages, techniques, forms, and materials, or the genealogy of Eastern and Western artistic traditions, and stopped being concerned with thematic ideas or symbolism in painting in order to directly  produce life itself . And therefore, audiences are no longer required to refer to art guidebooks or gain a command of art history before they can understand Li’s work on its own.

To let life itself become art, rather than using art to express life, is transcendent over all preceding pursuits of expressing life with differing media and languages from art history .Li’s biological art turned away from deliberately cropping, cutting, or framing society, landscape, or ideas only from a human point of view, and from dividing all things into groups on an anthropocentric bases, and as well dispensed with the obsession over the existing dichotomy between artistic realness and the reality of life. Li instead aspires for relationships beyond those among humans. His paintings’ attachment to  metaphysical life, his performing arts’ questioning of physical and social properties of the human body, and his political pop arts’ grafting and appropriation of different images and signs of different backgrounds – all of which were constructed in his previous art practices–now serve as preliminary preparations for his thoughts and path of liberation from past fetters over the past twenty years, and for as well directly facing and producing life.

Some may doubt that Li’s BioArt can still be categorized as art. Indeed, Li no longer depends on artistic media or an art language framework, or considers art as a finished product, or sees the object of art as the carrier of artistic subjectivity, or abides by the rules and regulations of the art circles .  However, as the fields of contemporary and traditional art revolve around debates about “what is art” and “the boundaries of art,” if contemporary art  repeats the blunder of its traditional counterpart, trapped in seeing art as a concrete embodiment, a figurative form, some visual style, or certain ideas, then this means that today’s contemporary art  is facing a crisis of complacency, and is moving towards being incorporated into the traditional art that it once fought hard against. Over the years, I have repeatedly stressed in my classes, lectures, and discussions, that “art practice is so particular a mental phenomenon that any essentialist definition of it ends up itself a deviation from art,”and that“art is an open and dynamic category that is no longer a specific object or recognized preset, nor is it a recognized tool or commonly shared form of knowledge, but rather a process for the comprehension of life. ” Stepping out of the existing categorization of art and the art world, Li created a new sector, BioArt, which places its holistic focus on the world of life and all species in aggregate. It is the key to his continuous involvement with being and life and his exploration of biological character, and central to his effort to break the established order among species, and advocate for equality and harmony between different living entities and species.

The shock, confusion, and skepticism arising from and against Li’s practice, can be attributed to the difference between his BioArt and biological science, despite that support from the latter is required by the former. While the science of biology aims to serve the uniqueness of humans and the continuity of human life, the ultimate purpose of BioArt is to explore the uncertainty, contingency, and diversity in the forms of life. It is not for any specific utilitarian purpose, but out of awe for life and respect for all life possibilities. Therefore, Li’s advancing BioArt exploration is nearly bound to conflict with ethics that are anthropocentrically premised. Due to limitations from various subjective and objective conditions including ethics, laws, social tolerance, and  scientific experiment, the tiny number of biological artists in the world, Li included, are largely limited to demonstrating to the world their reflections and imagination in the form of concepts and visual representations. And precisely because of this, the pattern for BioArt proposals, e.g. the herein exhibited acrylic paintings, computer-generated images, and videos,
constitute a special form of visual synthesis.

Therefore, to discuss, evaluate, and appreciate the underlying value and significance of Li’s BioArt, in fact, is to learn to comprehend Li’s world view, and only from a horizon that transcends human subjectivity and believes in the equality shared among all lives and species, can a brand-new landscape for the universe and life be sensed, and the visualized depth and profoundness of the artist’s novel and unique thinking be perceived.

“Instead of considering BioArt as providing a new way of understanding art, it would be better to see it as a test of human thinking and our attitudes,” states Li Shan . As an artist, scientist, and thinker, he sends out to us his cordial invitation in a way that is so wise and profound that it rids us of all shackles, and offers a liberated journey of life through mind and art.

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