“Grafting Operation Diagram,” by Shen Shaomin (1956- ), a contemporary and controversial Chinese artist, is a stark white tome. Its only exterior marking is the title reverse-etched on its thick, hinged plexiglass cover in English and Chinese characters. If the John Bale Book Company sold books by the pound, this piece would be a treasure based on weight alone. However, the real significance of the book is found on its 125 thick vellum pages. The book is a manual for the training of bonsai trees, but this is not your typical gardening handbook.
The “Grafting Operation Diagram” is a twisted parody of a bonsai manual. This book contains 38 pages of detailed illustrations of methods which push the boundaries of normal bonsai arts. Many of the techniques, such as skinning the bark from the trees and cauterization, are perfectly ordinary bonsai practices (Deadwood). However, the naturally human-like form of trees allows these methods to mirror human torture; the clamps look like thumbscrews and shackles while the process of “ant-nibbling,” where the tree is smeared with honey in order to attract ants to bite it, is similar to the ancient torture known as “Scaphismus” (Gallonio 11).
While I looked through “Grafting Operation Manual,” I began to question the ethics of treating a living organism in this way. The trees are cut, burned and flayed. Even as I cringed at the mutilation of the bonsai, I recognized the hypocrisy in selective sympathy towards living organisms, an ideal underlying Shaomin’s book. This manual was created to be a part of Shen’s art installation titled “Bonsai.” The cognitive leap from bonsai training to the mutilation of human bodies is precisely the one Shen Shaomin hopes we will make. Shen conceptualized the series while looking at x-rays of women’s feet subjected to Chinese foot binding. In this installation he presents bonsai that have been twisted and marred, like the bones of a bound foot. They are in the grip of large metal clamps and scaffolding, which both restrict the plant’s growth and become a support structure necessary for the plant’s survival (Young 63). In an interview, Shen shared his perspective on the manipulative art of the bonsai:
I think that 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. (Li)
As a Chinese artist working with these controversial themes, Shen Shaomin has faced difficulty over the course of his career. He moved to Sydney, Australia in 1989 following the censure of one of his installations by the Chinese government. Despite his self-imposed exile, the artist does not call himself political. “When I have an idea for a project I just do it. I never think about whether it has a political angle or not” (Young 63).
In fact, in some respect, Shaomin has faced more pressures outside of China. While in Australia, he began working on one of his most famous collections, “Unknown Creatures,” a series of imagined beasts crafted from human and animal bones. Ironically, the restrictions placed on the sale of bones in Australia forced him to move back to China for the freedom to produce his work. “[In] China, it is different to Australia where artists rely on the government for grants and funding. In China artists are independent, they have to look after themselves so they never care about the government” (Minus).
In creating “Bonsai,” Shen has created a piece that makes visible the often invisible forces of manipulation in people’s lives. By combining the inspiration of traditional foot binding and the ancient art of bonsai to convey this, he subtly implicates his own government and culture in this manipulation. Despite his insistence that his work does not have a political motivation, “Bonsai” reflects the influence that governmental bodies have in all of our lives. They also call to mind the brutal forms that this manipulation can take through acts of war and the abuse of political prisoners.
The project also questions a person’s right to inflict this sort of mutilation on any living organism, from the bonsai to a fellow human being. Shen provides each collector who purchases one of his trees with a copy of this same book, “Grafting Operation Diagram.” This allows them to confront the ethical decision of whether to continue the torture of their tree or allow it to die (Van Proyen 100). Even without the engagement of true moral crisis, however, this is still a lovely and thought-provoking piece of art. The illustrations of bonsai in various states of development are detailed and beautiful. Whether you are interested in the work of Shen Shaomin, contemporary Chinese art, or simply unconventional bookbinding, this book is a treasure.
“Deadwood Bonsai Techniques.” Wikipedia. Wikimedia Foundation, n.d. Web. 25 Feb. 2015
Gallonio, Anthony. “The Tortures and Torments of the Christian Martyrs.” Ed. Geoffery K. Mondello. Boston Catholic Journal (2012): 1-180. Web. 9 Feb. 2015.
Li, Xianting. “Beautiful Poppies: An Interview with Shen Shaomin.” Artron.net, 25 Sept. 2014. Web. 4 Feb. 2015.
Minus, Jodie. “No bones about artwork.” Illawarra Mercury (Australia). (October 3, 2009 Saturday): 268 words. LexisNexis Academic. Web. Date Accessed: 2015/02/09.
Van Proyen, Mark. “Shen Shaomin: Experimental Studio.” Yishu: Journal of Contemporary Chinese Art 7.6 (2008): 97-103. Gallery Wendi Norris: News. Gallery Wendi Norris. Web. 11 Feb. 2015.
Young, Michael. “In the Grip of Power.” Art Asia Pacific: Contemporary Visual Culture (2011)