At the Crossroads of Existentialism and Buddhism: Shi Jin-Hua’s Homage to the Masters

Shi Jin-Hua, A Crawling Man, 2018-2019, oil and tube on canvas, 23 x 128 x 11 cm. Courtesy of Mind Set Art Center.
Shi Jin-Hua, installation view of Stairway Walker, 1996, exhibited in “Homage to the Masters,” 2019, at Mind Set Art Center. Courtesy of Mind Set Art Center.
Shi Jin-Hua, Giacometti Sat Under the Alps, 2019, pencil on paper, 146 x 197 cm. Courtesy of Mind Set Art Center.
Shi Jin-Hua, Sisyphus, 2017-2019, Oil and Tube on Canvas, 40.5 x 40.5 x 26.2 cm. Courtesy of Mindset Art Center.
Shi Jin-Hua, Music Manuscript Op.1, 2019, pencil, acid-free cardboard. Courtesy of Mind Set Art Center.
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For Shi Jin-Hua (石晉華), the meaning of a life bound for inevitable suffering and death is a lifelong inquiry as well as the driving force behind his artistic practice. Developed through research into the life and work of artists who have inspired and influenced Shi, his latest exhibition, Homage to the Masters,” at Taipei’s Mind Set Art Center brings masters of different times and disciplines together in dialogue about this eternal question of existence.

 

TEXT: Isabelle Kuo
IMAGES: Courtesy of Mind Set Art Center

 

“Homage to the Masters” begins with a three-dimensional work of a figure crawling on all fours, leaving imprints on the dark path behind him. The struggle of life is apparent while redemption unseen—a feeling so relatable in this moment at the turn of what many have commented around the world as having been a tumultuous year.

A Crawling Man (2018–19) belongs to a group of sculptural works executed utilizing tubes of paint, wherein its contents are emptied to build a ground on which the paint tubes themselves become the form of a human body—a continuation of Shi’s concept behind his series “Pen Walking.” The thin and solitary stature of these figures echo that of Swiss sculptor Alberto Giacometti (1910–1966), which Shi finds deeply inspirational.

 

Shi Jin-Hua, A Crawling Man, 2018-2019, oil and tube on canvas, 23 x 128 x 11 cm. Courtesy of Mind Set Art Center.

 

Art History has always interested Shi, as have Philosophy and Religious Studies. Shi’s performance piece, A 100km Walk (2012–17), which was a highlight of the 2017 edition of Art Basel Hong Kong, was inspired by Richard Long’s A Line Made by Walking (1967) and A Ten Mile Walk (1968). The piece involved the artist walking back and forth on a 10-metre-long canvas laid on the ground, with another canvas of the same length hung on the wall on which he would draw with a pencil. At the end of the performance, Shi had clocked a distance of nearly 100km; the canvas, hung on the wall, became a dense drawing of pencil lines in various shades, while the canvas on the ground accumulated the artist’s footprints and the graphite powders from the pencil. Included in this exhibition is the video and photo documentary of an earlier performance titled Stairway Walker (1996), wherein the artist walked up and down on a spiral staircase frame wearing nothing but a pair of boots attached to wooden boards which fit in the stair frames. By the simple action of walking up and down the stairs for an hour, the artist probed the notion of fruitless labour. Despite being expressed in such a different form, the piece is undoubtedly a homage to Marcel Duchamp’s Nude Descending a Staircase No.2 (1912), a painting which sparked controversy and divided opinions in its time.

 

Shi Jin-Hua, installation view of Stairway Walker, 1996, exhibited in “Homage to the Masters,” 2019, at Mind Set Art Center. Courtesy of Mind Set Art Center.

 

The works presented in this exhibition is largely a continuation and extension of “Pen Walking,” expanded to include various mediums and disciplines from drawing and painting to sculptural works, while inspirations from the masters are accentuated. “Pen Walking” is an ongoing metaphoric practice that Shi first took up in 1994, wherein a work is created upon the consumption of a pen (or its equivalent such as a pencil or a tube of paint), while the artist himself takes the role of the assistant helping the pen to complete its mission. Giacometti Sat Under the Alps (2019), is reminiscent of an earlier work from the “Pen Walking” series in which the pencil climbed and thus constructed the image of Mount Kailash. In this instance however, Shi draws inspiration from a photo of Giacometti sitting quietly under the Alps, only he portrays the figure meditating with legs crossed.

In contrast to the tranquility of Giacometti Sat Under the Alps, the dire meaning of a life full of suffering has long been at the heart of Shi’s practice; the artist was forced to confront the struggle of life and death at the young age of 17 following a diagnosis of type 1 diabetes. Insulin Journal, October 2019 (2019), a pencil drawing depicting what appears to be 31 balls of yarn connected by a line, acts as a documentation of Shi’s daily routine. Each ball in the drawing contains the amount of two different insulin formulas he injected into his body on the corresponding date through October, 2019. The resentment and sadness the artist endured from his diagnosis seems long pacified and already at a state of tranquil acceptance. Conceptually the work resembles Cy Twombly’s scribbly visual vocabulary and On Kawara’s “Date Paintings.”

 

Shi Jin-Hua, Giacometti Sat Under the Alps, 2019, pencil on paper, 146 x 197 cm. Courtesy of Mind Set Art Center.

 

During his years at the University of California pursuing an MFA, Shi turned from Christianity to Buddhism in search of inner peace. Religion, philosophy and art have since nurtured his mind and supported his body. Just as much as the notion of life being a struggle runs through the exhibition, the courage to embrace it is also a message expressed loud and strong. In Sisyphus (2017–19), the mountain is built up with paint from a single tube, and the Greek mythological figure and the rock, formed from the tube itself. The sculpture speaks of the repetition of fruitless labour, echoing Albert Camus’ 1942 existential essay, The Myth of Sisyphus.  

Shi also made several works after Édouard Manet, Rembrandt, Chaim Soutine and Hans Holbein the Younger, dealing with the themes of death and corpses. Amongst these works is a drawing titled Via Dolorosa (2019) after Hans Holbein the Younger’s The Body of the Dead Christ in the Tomb (1520–22). Holbein’s painting from the 16th century depicting the death of Jesus with unbearable physical misery is still astonishing in today’s view. Shi replicated the original painting including its frame with a single pencil, following his “Pen Walking” practice. Over the inscription with the Latin words “IESVS · NAZARENVS · REX · IVDÆORVM” (Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews) on the upper part of the frame, the artist lined up pencil shavings to denote Via Dolorosa—the path that Jesus walked for his crucifixion—with 14 pieces of pencil lead standing for the 14 stations. It is a path of inevitable suffering before Jesus faced his death, a process he had to go through before reaching his resurrection.

 

Shi Jin-Hua, Sisyphus, 2017-2019, Oil and Tube on Canvas, 40.5 x 40.5 x 26.2 cm. Courtesy of Mindset Art Center.

 

Thus the process is as important as the result. Acutely aware of the absurdity of life and the inevitability of death, Shi chooses to dedicate himself to making art with emphasis on the process; of going through the artistic practice himself, which not only results in a new piece of work, but also brings about new understanding. Taking Via Dolorosa as an example, Shi said, “Reproducing the painting, though with different media, also allowed me to experience in detail how excellent Hans Holbein the Younger had done his job. The painting is incredible!”

Also inspired by the process of the creative practice is the drawing Music Manuscript Op.1 (2019). After encountering Beethoven’s original manuscripts, on which Beethoven wrote many notes alongside his music scores, Shi was inspired to make a drawing on which written notes expressing his thoughts during the process of drawing are kept as parts of the final work. The piece also reflects the idea of painting, poetry and calligraphy resonating with each other in traditional ink painting (詩書畫一體), which Shi has thought of putting into practice in recent years.

 

Shi Jin-Hua, Music Manuscript Op.1, 2019, pencil, acid-free cardboard. Courtesy of Mind Set Art Center.

 

With his “Pen Walking” method, Shi also made a clock set amongst the Chinese characters “逝者如斯,” meaning “it fleets as such.” Confucius (孔子) used this term to express his regret for the time that has passed by us, which can never be retrieved. A millennium and a half later, Su Shi (蘇軾) also employed it in his First Ode on the Red Cliffs (前赤壁賦) written in 1083, which writes that despite the constant ebb and flow of water, or the moon which always waxes and wanes, the refreshing breeze on the river is a song to you if you can hear it; the bright moon over the hills is a view to you if you can see it.

While Camus ended The Myth of Sisyphus with the idea that the struggle itself toward the heights is enough to fill a man’s heart, mortal as we are, it is always death but not eternity waiting for us. The course of human life is merely a flash compared to the vast history of the universe, but it could still be rich and creative. May life be absurd as pointed out by Camus or an illusion according to Buddhism. Being in the moment, perhaps, could be the way to fill life with meaning.

 

About the artist

Born on the island of Penghu in 1964, Shi Jin-Hua is a conceptual and performance artist who currently lives and works in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Being a Type 1 diabetic, monitoring and recording physical conditions and insulin injections have been part of his life since he was 17. Confronting the stern matter of life and death all the time, Shi treats his own body as an instrument for artistic execution. His practice relates closely to measuring and recording, reflecting the extraordinary spirit. He has participated in Taipei Biennial and Asian Art Biennial and is collected in public and private collections including the White Rabbit Collection, Australia; National Taiwan Museum of Fine Arts; Taipei Fine Arts Museum; Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts; Art Bank, Taiwan; and Fidelity International. A major solo exhibition of the artist, “Lines—Contemporary Religious Art by Shi Jin-Hua,” was held at Kaohsiung Museum of Fine Arts in 2017.

 

 

 

Shi Jin-Hua: Homage to the Masters
14 December, 2019 – 18 January, 2020
Mind Set Art Center, Taipei

 

 

 

 


 

Isabelle Kuo is trained in Biochemistry but later went astray into the fascinating field of Art History, Isabelle was a senior editor of Art Investment and is now working as a freelance writer.

 

 
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