trail: part of Lu Shengzhong’s site-specific installation
at the University Art Museum.
to the Spirit
New Emerging From the Old—Lu Shengzhong: Works 1980-2005
Art Museum, University at Albany, through Nov. 13
Can one summon the spirit by cutting paper dolls? Is it possible
to attain a more enlightened state of being through a repetitive
activity such as chanting, knitting or mark making? Lu Shengzhong
would answer affirmatively. Shengzhong is a Chinese artist
and professor of folk art from Beijing who was in residence
at UAlbany last month, creating and installing a powerful
new piece composed of red paper dolls. Over the past decade
or so, Shengzhong has been engaged in this Chinese folk art,
practiced by his mother and peasant families for generations,
with the intention of reviving a humanist and spiritual dimension
that he had felt draining from contemporary Chinese art.
Repetition in art brings to mind Agnes Martin and Philip Glass,
who have used it as part of minimalist processes. Their actions
may encourage a state conducive to their own meditation that
perhaps may induce a similar effect in their audiences. The
essence of Shengzhong’s art is found less in the results of
the paper cutting (which are pretty spectacular evidence of
his actions), but more psychically concentrated in the process.
It is the ceremonial and physical act of cutting the little
red figures that brings “void of mind,” to quote from his
catalogue essays. Because of this, we might approach his work
as akin to performance art.
The cutting of Little Red Figures is ritual and performance
in its pure sense, practiced for generations as a devotional
act to bring fertility to the family and as a symbol of ancestral
continuity. Lu Shengzhong is not totally inventing a ritual
that may have been lacking from his life, as many contemporary
artists and performers have done. He is reaching deeply into
his cultural heritage for practices that light a spark, as
he says, “to summon the soul.”
A festival atmosphere suffuses the double-height gallery.
Red vibrations fill one’s eyes and quicken the senses. Three
red cut-paper curtains cascading from the ceiling and rhythmic
swirls and repeated patterns in red, white and black wrapping
around the upper gallery walls attempt to fill your peripheral
vision. Being a bit overwhelmed is a prerequisite for a sublime
response, and this is potentially an effect Shengzhong is
after. A combination of terror and fascination often built
by repetition and scale typically are associated with the
sublime. They set up an atmosphere of mystery and open the
mind to nonrational processes. If you’ve ever been in a Chinese
temple you know what I mean. The vast space of the University
Art Museum works both for and against this effect. The scale
permits an installation of grand proportions, but the separation
of elements that could have reinforced each other create a
less combustible atmosphere.
The sublime is not typically associated with humor or humility,
but the realization that the bristling red energy is composed
of funny little people, some with pigtails, some with the
oversized head of a newborn baby, embryo or frog, brings a
smile to one’s face. Continuity and fecundity of both culture
and race is the subject, and it is treated with a lightness
The floor-to-ceiling piece The Empty Book—The Book of Humanity
that Shengzhong completed at UAlbany comprises three books
at ceiling height, containing 900 hundred pages that have
been cut to liberate and suspend strips of textless paper.
Each contiguous line from each page attaches like an umbilical
cord to little red people that splay out along the floor.
This piece boldly sets aside dogma and affirms the vitality
of the people, and is the standout of the show.
act of cutting is also important as a symbol of the Dao, the
principle that embraces positive and negative forces. Shengzhong’s
piece The Vertical of Negative and the Horizontal of Negative,
a 42-foot-long cut-paper mural, embodies this principle. Large,
big-headed babies create islands around which masses of smaller
figures swarm like schools of fish or sperm, building currents
that carry the eye. Shapes in black and red transform from
figure to ground and to figure again in a joyful display of
In the four panels from the piece The Poetry of Harmony,
Shengzhong equates figurative recombination with the derivation
of language, an alphabet of form. He cleverly creates mandalas
from symmetrically placed cut figures, and lays out lines
of shapes vertically or horizontally beneath, created from
snippets of broken cutouts. From a distance these pieces appear
to be traditional calligraphy scrolls, but it is clear Shengzhong
has a sense of humor that is a bit subversive.
Close viewing is always rewarded. Subversive humor was a survival
tactic that Shengzhong used in creating erotic subtexts hidden
in the charming peasant narratives of Love Song, seemingly
traditional paintings on silk. Other early designs displayed
on the ground floor of the gallery have a generic, stylized
hand that, though informative, tend to draw energy away from
the visual statement made by the installation.
Shengzhong’s only retreat from an optimistic vision comes
in the 10 long vertical black-and-white finger-painted monotypes,
Record of Emotion, done after the Tiananmen Square
massacre. Their sweeping, continuous gestures and textures
recall landscape scrolls, but their directness and strength
imply a reserve of suppressed emotion that Shengzhong usually
channels into a more meditative artistic practice. His unusual
work poses lingering questions about art and the cultural
continuum that are vast and haunting.
peripheral vision this week-