The Worldly and the Transcendental: On Cai Zhisong’s Sculpture

By Peng Feng

I made the acquaintance of Cai Zhisong on the occasion of the 54th Venice Biennale, for which I was honored to be the curator of the Chinese Pavilion. Back then the exhibition space for the Chinese Pavilion looked rather weird and challenging: it was packed with oil drums (which were not removed until the 55th Biennale), leaving hardly any room for exhibits. Given the condition of the space on the one hand, and the associated specific cultural and environmental elements of the city of Venice on the other, I came up with a curatorial design called “pervasion,” featuring works that all gave off different scents. What a historical irony: these spices were once brought by the Venetian traveler Marco Polo from the East and propelled the European perfume industry, yet today the city of Venice is still besieged by stinking gutters. In resonance with the Chinese intellectual and cultural tradition, I decided to show five scents corresponding to “five elements,” “five flavors,” and “five smells.” My original plan was to invite Cai Zhisong to show his sculpture Rose, to bring this particular “eastern” fragrance to Venice. As a symbol of love, roses today have been widely accepted as part of western culture, and yet let us not forget that the birthplace of this flower is in China. Roses could be a perfect embodiment for cultural migration and interaction, and this was the idea that I intended for that exhibition in Venice. Unfortunately, later the plan was changed, and we were not able to show Cai Zhisong’s rose sculptures; instead the artist created another work, titled “Clouds” – a wonderful piece for the Chinese pavilion.

It was through our discussions over the exhibition plan that I came to know Cai’s expertise in figure statues, as he was well known for his Ode to Motherland series. These sculptures, thematically inspired by the Chinese classical text The Book of Songs (Chinese Pinyin: Shi Jing), transform our imagination of the ancient world into solid, concrete figures. The Book of Songs is to Chinese culture what Homeric epics are to western culture (so to speak). Cai Zhisong’s Ode to Motherland sculptural series invites us to embark on a journey in search of our cultural memories, and invokes in us an awareness of and critical reflection upon the absence of traditional inheritance in our contemporary culture. The works leave the viewers with an overall impression that is at the same time elegant and melancholy, much as how Confucius commented upon Cooing and Wooing (Chinese Pinyin: Guan Ju), one of the poems from The Book of Songs: “… expressive of enjoyment, without being licentious; and of grief, without being hurtfully excessive.”

To make roses a subject matter for sculpture proves too risky in the contemporary art world. The beauty of the flower, and the symbol of love that it embodies, have almost becomes clichés today, and unattractive to contemporary artists. Cai Zhisong, however, has successfully overcome this stereotype, and has transformed this flower into his sculptures with exquisite skill. An effort has been made in the choice of the specific color, dimension, and material used: sheet lead, with its grey and dark color, signifying the cold, ruthless, and toxic – in sharp contrast to the passion, love, and friendship that the red rose stands for. Roses sculpted with sheet lead are not a symbol for love, but maybe a curse for love. It is right here that we find the huge semantic tension in Cai Zhisong’s Rose series. What we see is not just the mere representation of the flower, nor the desire for love, but also earnest contemplation, sarcasm, and critical reflection.

Cai Zhisong’s Clouds series has developed from the works he exhibited in the 54th Venice Biennale. The pure and white clouds Cai created in the heavily fogged city of Beijing serve as an ironic reflection of that reality, and a yearning for a utopian world. The title of the work, Clouds, suggests disillusionment rather than hope. Man has been exploiting nature out of self-interest, whereas nature now returns with horrible disasters such as the ecological crisis, which has become increasingly visible in today’s China with the acceleration of economic development. These phenomenon involving man’s ever expanding desires, the retaliation of nature, ecological crises, etc. have also become the subject matter of Cai Zhisong’s most recent artistic practice.

Specifically for this solo exhibition at the Shanghai Minsheng Art Museum, Cai Zhisong has created the Homeland series. In fact, he has been developing this project for quite a long time. In search of materials for the work, he travelled as far as the Zha Long Natural Reserves to study the red-crowned crane, and he even bought a pair of sika deer from a farm. The choice of subject matter this time, i.e. the crane and the deer, is motivated by the spirituality and the good fortune and peace that these two animals signify in traditional Chinese culture. Crane and deer are frequently depicted as joyous subject matter in traditional painting and sculpture. In the contemporary art world dominated by the critical spirit, however, it has become rather rare for animals to appear with a positive energy. That said, to depict animals in a negative way in fact runs a greater risk. For instance, in “Art and China after 1989: Theatre of the World” (an upcoming exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum in New York), it is said that three works by Chinese artists have been accused of the abuse of animals, leading to protests. It thus becomes quite clear to artists today that to use animals in their works, whether positively or negatively, is not rewarding. However, Cai Zhisong is an exception here. Throughout the Ode to Homeland, Rose, up to the Clouds series, he has consistently presented his subject matter from a positive perspective, meanwhile fusing this with a critical reflection and awareness. Therefore, his works are distanced from the two extremes: positive vs. negative. In Ode to Homeland, we find the juxtaposition of elegance and melancholy; in the Rose series, of love and death; and in Clouds, of hope and disillusionment. Such semantic oppositions and juxtapositions infuse Cai’s works with implicit meanings and tensions, making them more than just the display of an attitude, or the adoption of a stance. In addition, the superb technique that Cai demonstrates in his work firmly attracts the attention of the viewer, and accordingly the allegorical implications become secondary. In terms of artistic principles, Cai Zhisong’s sculptures start with the particular and move towards the universal, which is similar to what has been said of the German poet Goethe (1949–1832) in opposition with Friedrich Schiller (1759–1805).

In Cai Zhisong’s most recent works, the Homeland series, how does the artist play with semantic tension? Compared with his previous series—Ode to Homeland, Rose, and Cloud—this new series is even more challenging in terms of how to create this tension. The subject matter of the Ode to Homeland series focuses on historical figures living in our imagination from the Book of Songs. Therefore, the realistic techniques are counterbalanced by historical imaginaries and fictions, and the result distinguishes itself from realism. In Rose and Clouds, to achieve semantic tension is relatively easy. Roses and clouds, due to their fragile and elusive natures, are not considered a conventional subject matter for sculpture. Thus when Cai Zhisong approaches roses and clouds in a realistic fashion through the language of sculpture, surprise is already present, as do many difficulties with plastic design and realization. But it is another story with the crane and deer: they are real animals that are not particularly hard to find in real life, and they have been favorably portrayed throughout history by generations of sculptors. Or, in other words, there have long existed certain stereotypes of these two animals, particularly schematized in the fields of craft and the fine arts. In the case of crane and deer, therefore, it is not an easy task to create semantic tension through realistic language. However, Cai Zhisong is wholeheartedly ready for the challenge. Out of a kind of religious piety, together with his excellent skills, he hopes that these crane and deer sculptures could ultimately transcend the average artifacts produced by mediocre craftsmanship. He embraces the technique of realism, craft, and fine art—and beauty as well—pushing them to even higher levels; he has successfully transformed the ordinary crane and deer sculptures into extraordinary artworks. When the utmost fineness and beauty is achieved, these animals become immortalized as works of art, and the man-made artifact unites with a transcendental spirit. When the two spirits in two different forms—sculpture and animal—converge into one, so too do the artistic and transcendental ideals. The animistic features in the crane and the deer render a layer of mystery onto Cai Zhisong’s sculptures, whereas Cai’s sculptures elevate the animals to the spiritual world – a heavenly existence indeed. In Cai Zhisong’s Homeland series, the semantic tension comes not from a conflict between the normal and the eccentric, but the distance between the worldly and the transcendental. In Cai’s works, the semantic tension lies in his attempt to convey the transcendental and spiritual—things that are beyond human language—while resorting to tangible and conceivable figures, such as these worldly, ordinary animals.

School of Arts, Peking University

October 3rd, 2017

About the exhibition

Opening Ceremony: January 24th, 2018, 3:00 pm

Dates: 2018.01.24 – 2018. 04.07

Venue: Suzhou Jinji Lake Art Museum

Courtesy of the artist and Suzhou Jinji Lake Art Museum, for further information please visit www.suzart.cn.

Related posts: