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Shen Shaomin's art is designed to make people think about the world around them and the impact that they have on the world, as individuals and as members of the human race. He first became famous for creating fantastic creatures out of skeletons. These include a giant mosquito, a centaur, and a three-headed beast. In an interview from December 2006, Shen said, "Some people seem to think that I make only one type of work. But they are only works from one stage of my life. In each stage I choose a different material." He has since passed through many stages of artistic creation. Today, his works include skeletons of mythical creatures, experimental fields (also constructed out of bones), bonsai, the Summit installation, Fighter X, and Kowtow Pump.
Shen studied art history for three years at Harbin College of Education. His artistic career began with print-making in 1979. He later switched to making soft sculptures out of defective fabric prints from a textile printing and dying factory.
He visited Australia in 1989 for an international print conference; he returned a month later for an exhibition, and then returned again in 1990. Shen returned to China while working on his skeletal creatures because of the many animal protection laws in Australia preventing him from acquiring bones.
Each creature from Shen's original set of bone sculptures bears the title of "Unknown Creature No. __". (The pieces are numbered according to when they were created. They include a giant mosquito, a centaur, and a three-headed beast. Each skeleton consists of bones from real animals, bone meal, and glue. The bones come from creatures such as rats, rabbits, oxen, monkeys, and even humans. (He did not kill any humans to acquire the bones. He bought them from the Institute of Anatomy of the Harbin Medical School. The only animals killed were the rats for the Two Thousand Rats Project.)
To create each creature, Shen collected the bones from a variety of animals, mixed them together to give them autonomy from the original creature, and then reconstructed a new skeleton that bore no resemblance to the original creature. By creating his sculptures in this manner, Shen's skeletons gained an appearance of authenticity, encouraging viewers to view them as if they were real skeletons of extinct creatures such as they might encounter in a museum. Shen hoped that this kind of presentation would precipitate discussion about current issues such as genetic engineering. He says that he is "entirely convinced that scientists are capable of creating dragons" and points out that each element of his creatures comes from the bones of actual animals, thus demonstrating that the building blocks for creating such fantastical creatures already exist.
Shen's first work in this series, titled "Unknown Creature No. 1", also known as "Three-Headed Monster", is a skeleton of a beast with a long body, eight legs, and three heads made of cow skulls. Every bone is engraved with writing from the Koran, the Bible, and the Buddhist Sutra. These writings are jumbled to create an appearance of absurdity. The three heads look in different directions, although they share one body, thus hinting at the conflicts that religion can incite.
Fighter X connects the past, present, and future. Shen got the idea for this work when he was perusing a second-hand market and found confidential plans for the military aircraft Fighter-6. It reminded him of his childhood fascination with mechanics and weaponry. He created it as a model of the ideal military aircraft. It highlights the deadly, brutal nature of weapons of war by exposing the machinery beneath the metal exterior. It also questions the dream many developing countries have of creating the latest military weapons.
The model is five meters long. It was shown at an exhibition from 9 September to 21 October 2007.
Shen began his bonsai series in 2007. He created these bonsai by using wires, pulleys, cages, and other tools to make them appear tortured. He did this as a commentary on the brutality with which humans control their environment. It was also a commentary on how humans control each other, as a boss controls an employee and a parent or school controls a child. As Michael Young points out, the wires and pulleys on Shen’s plants are “implements of torture and the props on which the organism depends to survive.”
Shen was inspired to create these bonsai while looking for books about Chinese foot binding. During his research, he happened upon a manual detailing the process of bonsai-making and recognised its similarities to foot binding: They both drag and twist limbs to make them serve human interests. In an interview, Shen said, “I think the process of bonsai-making is basically the abuse of plants. You grow a sapling, then twist it to make it grow into artificial shapes. Despite the whole deforming process being extremely cruel, people find the bonsai beautiful.”  According to Shen, each tree took at least ten years to grow. He enlisted the help of many people from the Anhui province, as bonsai growing is a very common practice in that region.
Project No. 1: Tiananmen Reconstruction
Shen's Tiananmen Reconstruction Project, titled "Project No. 1", is a wooden model of the Tiananmen gate, re-designed so that it is twice as large as Tiananmen as it now stands. It is "accompanied by precise and detailed blueprints, construction progress photos, stills and an animated film of the interior." It was doubled in size to highlight the Chinese tendency to create oversize, extravagant buildings that stand in stark contrast to the poverty of the population. Many of the buildings surrounding Tiananmen are larger or more extravagant than Tiananmen itself, despite their lesser importance. Thus, Shen created this model to show how much larger and more extravagant Tiananmen would need to become to maintain its appearance in relation to these other buildings. Shen’s version includes underground passageways, soldiers, and tanks. In addition, one room is set aside for soldiers to receive massages from young women wearing cute outfits. Shen says that “[o]nly a Tiananmen of this scale could match the scale of China's modern urban development".
I Sleep on Top of Myself
This series is composed of several hyperreal silicone animals stripped of their fur, including a cat, a chicken, pigs, sheep, and a lamb (among others). Each lies on a bed of its own fur, wool and feathers, arranged on top of a mound of salt. Each animal has a mechanical respiratory system, giving the sculptures an appearance of life. This series was shown at Shen's solo exhibition, "The Day After Tomorrow" in 2011 at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney. The exhibition's title refers to the work's focus on themes of evolution and uncertainty, and particularly emphasises the impact of humans in the world as a consequence of their search for freedom and progress.
- "Fighter X - by Shen Shaomin". Art News.
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 18 July 2012. Retrieved 3 May 2012.
- http://www.blackbookmag.com/art/shen-shaomin-at-the-eli-klein-gallery-1.25488[permanent dead link]
- "Archived copy". Archived from the original on 10 July 2012. Retrieved 3 May 2012.