China’s immense landscapes provided the perfect backdrop for Shi Shaoping to explore the meaning of life.
After a journey of 12,000 km, 3000 ceramic eggs recently came to rest in Beijing’s Today Art Museum. “The Metamorphosis Series – The Eggs”, an exhibition by Shi Shaoping, explored the fundamental question of “what is the essence of life”, a conundrum which took the artist and his eggs to some of China’s most inhospitable locations.
From 24 August to 11 September 2013, Beijing’s Today Art Museum hosted “The Metamorphosis Series-The Eggs: A Review of the China Landscape Project”, by Chinese artist Shi Shaoping and curated by curator, writer and artist Zhang Qing. The almost 3000 ceramic eggs filling the museum’s exhibition hall had travelled a long way: this was to be their last stop in China after a year-long exhibition tour spanning 12,000 km.
The ceramic eggs themselves formed only part of the overall show, which was funded by Shanghai’s Espace Gallery. The story of their creation, transportation and installation in five remote locations in China was recorded on video and was on display for the audience. Furthermore, the exhibition included high quality photographs of the ceramic eggs installed in those five unique landscapes.
With his series Shi Shaoping set out to answer a philosophical problem: “what is the essence of life?” The exploration of this question continues the theme of change and transformation that has occupied the artist’s thoughts in his previous work, including his “The Metamorphosis Series” at the Royal College of Art, London in 2010, which saw Shi draw creatures resembling frogs, tadpoles and moths being in the process of transformation.
In 2013, Shi has chosen to explore the topic of metamorphosis once again, but with a new visual vocabulary. This time he has opted for solid ceramic eggs placed in five distinct landscapes. Whereas eggs are usually associated with life and hope, Shi’s eggs are made of solid ceramic, bringing into question whether a metamorphosis is in fact possible. The artist decided to place these ceramic eggs into various landscapes and see what the outcome would be.
When first produced and exhibited at the Museum of Contemporary Art Shanghai’s exhibition square, the eggs were in pristine condition. Over the year and having been placed in various locations they now show signs of wear, having taken on some of the characteristics and materials of their surroundings such as grass, sand or mud. This tells the story of where they have been. As the artist explains, the eggs have no life of their own, yet they show us traces of life.
During the opening night of the Beijing finale, when the artist walked through the museum to explain his project, the recurring theme was how each step of it was fraught with a myriad of challenges, starting with technical difficulties in the production phase to extreme pressures from nature and man during the exhibition phase.
Hatching 3000 ceramic eggs
Just as frogs and moths lay numerous eggs to ensure the survival of many, so Shi Shaoping decided to produce 3000 ceramic eggs to see how they would fare in the natural world. He went to Jing De Zhen, which is known to be the best ceramic production city in China. He ordered 3000 solid ceramic eggs from the factory, not realising that almost no one in China produces solid ceramics. The factory was puzzled, never before having had anyone request anything made of solid ceramic; they were used to creating hollow ceramics only. Finally, after six months of experimentation and many broken ceramic eggs, the artist and factory were able to find the perfect combination of raw materials, drying and firing processes to produce 3000 solid ceramic eggs.
Once the eggs were ready they were packed into 800 crates weighing a total of 48 tonnes, then loaded onto two trucks and transported with six drivers, driving day and night, to five locations within China. In total the eggs covered 12,000 km.
As to the placement of the eggs, the artist intentionally gave his crew few detailed instructions, merely asking them not to spread the eggs too sparsely or too densely. The artist only suggested a general direction within a given setting in which to place the ceramic eggs. He wanted to give the crew a greater sense of participation in the project and for the art to feel less staged and more natural. He liked the unexpected results that came out of this flexible way of working. According to Shi, the placement of the eggs reflects the individuality of each of the members of the crew. Therefore every location looks different, because in each location the bulk of the crew was new, made up of local people. Although the ceramic eggs are placed by human hands, they retain a sense of naturalness and casualness as they lie scattered throughout the various landscapes.
Five unique locations across China
At each of the five stops the installation process was similar. The artist and his crew, with additional help from a total of 200 local people, would unload the crates and scatter the ceramic eggs in the surrounding landscape in an area chosen by Shi. Then filming and shooting would commence. Once that was finished, the crew repacked and reloaded the ceramic eggs and would relocate to the next stop.
Life and art begins in the ocean: the Beihai Coast of Guangxi
The first location to host the ceramic eggs was the rugged Beihai Coast of Guangxi Province. Shi Shaoping chose the seaside as his first stop arguing that life began in the ocean and that therefore he also wanted to start his journey there. Due to the unpredictability of the tide, many of the ceramic eggs were lost and the artist spent days figuring out the tidal patterns so as to place the ceramic eggs in the right location. This only left them a day of exhibiting the ceramic eggs and two hours of filming. The ceramic eggs blend effortlessly into the seascape and do not give the impression that they were placed there by human hand. Mirroring the white clouds above, the white glazed eggs seem to frame the scenery.
In the next three locations, the artist’s main concern was about life and its surrounding environment. In order to live, there is need for a suitable environment, he says. He chose the next three locations because he was curious about how the ceramic eggs would do in environments that are not conducive to life or growth.
The Devil’s city: Yardang Landforms in Gansu
The second stop was the Yardang Landforms, situated close to Dunhuang city in Gansu Province. The weather there is so harsh that Dunhuang has been termed “the city of the devil”. These landforms, created over a period of 40,000 years or more through erosion by rain and strong winds, sit in a desert landscape with absolutely no vegetation. This area is referred to as “Ghost City” because the howling winds, especially at night, blow very fiercely making strange noises like the cry of ghosts. In this landscape, the ceramic eggs blend in and entice the viewer to move closer and explore the unique environment.
The Black Gobi and “Ghost City”
The third stop was on the edge of “Ghost city” in the Black Gobi desert. When the artist came across this all-black landscape he was fascinated by it and decided that he would like to exhibit the ceramic eggs in this landscape, because of the contrast here between the white glazed ceramic eggs and the black sand.
Gansu’s shifting sands
The fourth location was in Gansu Province, on a forty-kilometre stretch of desert. The artist specifically chose this location because its isolation means there are no people to walk through the landscape and destroy its pristine condition. The artist did not want to sully the serene, natural setting of the desert with the footprints of the installation crew. Therefore, once the ceramic eggs had been scattered around, he allowed the wind to blow for a few days making the footsteps disappear. This meant that by the second day, the wind had covered up most of the eggs. However, after a few days of the wind blowing from another direction, small white dots appeared in the landscape, revealing the tops of some of the eggs. The shifting sand covering and uncovering the eggs allowed Shi and his team to take a variety of shots over a week’s time. This led the artist to the conclusion that even though we might think of sand as a lifeless thing, it in fact does have a life of its own.
Life, hope and art in the grasslands
For the fifth and final location the artist chose the Sangke grasslands of Gannan in Gansu Province. Shi intended to show that in this environment there is a faint glimmer of hope for life. We see the ceramic eggs surrounded by grass and small flowers. However, although there is life in the grasslands, it is of limited duration: spring and summer are quickly followed by a long and severe winter.
Overcoming nature’s challenges
The artist and his team had to face numerous challenges throughout their 12,000 km journey, from extremes of hot and cold weather to harsh living conditions. At the rugged seascape the tide came in, not only taking the artist by surprise, but also taking some of the eggs when it ebbed. Many ceramic eggs were also claimed by the desert sand. Sleep was lost over figuring out the timing for the tide to decide on the appropriate location for the eggs. Other challenges were posed by the remoteness of certain locations, which left tents as the only option for shelter from unrelenting winds and requiring water to be brought in by trucks. In other locations, the presence of the artist and his team caused suspicion and ill will from the locals, who were opposed to them filming their surroundings.
These challenges, says Shi Shaoping, taught him that nothing is easy, but if one perseveres and brings a project to completion it gives one a great sense of satisfaction.
Shi Shaoping and the essence of life
Since working on this project several questions about life have arisen in the artist’s mind:
- How can we achieve a harmonious coexistence between human beings and the environment?
- How can we ensure that we do not lose the natural environment?
- As human beings, if we destroy the environment then what is the point of life?
Now that the project has come to a conclusion in China, the artist has set his sights on exhibiting the ceramic eggs in far-flung locations, taking his questions on the essence of life to Spain and Australia.
This article was updated to include sponsor information.
Photographs and video by Antoine Icard. Additional photograps by Peng Bo. All images and video courtesy of espace gallery, Shanghai.
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