The first thing to notice about Chinese artist Sheng Qi is an absence: the little finger of his left hand is missing. Before he left Beijing in 1989, at the age of 24, in a self-imposed exile following the bloody end of the Tiananmen Square protests calling for government accountability and freedom of speech, he cut off his own finger and buried it in a flower pot in the garden of the house where he had lived. He kept this act of protest secret for a decade — until he finally returned to China.
“It was my private action,” he says. “I kept it private for 10 years. In 1998 I went back to Beijing and I realised personal history can be part of social history, so I decided to take a photograph of my own hand and put a childhood picture in the middle. Then I blew it up and showed it. When I published it, it was no longer my private life story, it became public.” The image of his mutilated hand became famous and has influenced his output ever since.
Examples of Sheng Qi’s work are found in the collections of prestigious museums such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He mixes the personal with the political in paintings, photographs and sculpture; scenes from recent Chinese history, with Tiananmen Square a frequent theme, are found in paintings that drip with red. In Black and White Shadow of Mao (2012), Mao is shown as a grey absence, surrounded by tiny figures; Deng Xiaoping (2011) is depicted holding a fistful of red money. His best-known image, his left hand, recurs; as well as being the focus for his Memories series of photographs, it was, for example, cast in bronze in 2004.
In conversation, Sheng Qi apologises for his poor English — in fact, it is excellent, and his softly spoken words belie the bravery that he has exhibited throughout his artistic career. Although he studied at the China Central Academy of Fine Arts, the top art academy in Beijing, and graduated in 1988, there was, he says, “basically no art at all” in China at the time. “The late 1970s and early 1980s was a period in China when things were like they are in North Korea right now. Everything was controlled by the state government. The only thing you could say was propaganda.” He and his fellow students began experimenting with performance art. Unsurprisingly, the authorities were less than impressed and Sheng Qi and his friends were nearly expelled from the Central Academy. “We were quite scared,” he recalls, “but we were young at the time so we didn’t know how dangerous it was.”
He describes fleeing China after Tiananmen Square as “putting himself into exile. I just wanted to run away, I couldn’t stand it anymore”. He lived in Italy and France for a time; poor and, on occasion, hungry, he found himself washing dishes in restaurants. “In China, I went to the most famous art academy, I always thought I was someone. In Europe, I was the lowest labour, washing dishes, pushing trolleys in restaurants. It was very painful for a few years,” he admits. He moved to London in 1992, because visiting London museums was free. “In European countries you have to pay. I went to every single museum: the ICA, the Serpentine, the Hayward Gallery — and I kept on thinking about my art. In 1996, I applied to Central Saint Martins [the world-renowned London College of Art and Design] and was accepted.”
After obtaining his master’s degree, he spent 10 years back in Beijing. At first he was glad to return home. “It felt so familiar because I could speak my own language, move around easily — but a couple of years later, when I was showing my work, I had problems with the authorities,” he says. “Before an opening, someone would come and say ‘you’re not allowed to show this piece or that piece, take it down from the wall’.” He found himself taken to the police, and received visits from them in his studio. This was euphemistically referred to as “having a chat”. “I was forced to ‘have a chat’ with them several times. In 2010, again, I couldn’t stand it anymore so I decided to come back to London.”
On the day we spoke, he had been to lunch with a fellow Chinese artist in Chinatown, and they had talked about Ai Weiwei’s openly critical stance towards the Chinese government. His fellow artist, says Sheng Qi, “respects Ai Weiwei but he would never do the same, because if he did, he would simply disappear — no one would find even a piece of his bone. That’s the situation in the Beijing art world.” This, Sheng Qi says, makes it a lonely place. “All my Chinese artist friends, they like what I’m doing but they keep quiet,” he explains. “So it’s very difficult to get any support. I’ve always felt alone.”
He appreciates the current Western interest in Chinese art. Contemporary Chinese art is truly “avant-garde because it’s always in the front line. That’s why people are interested,” Sheng Qi says. But he would also love an audience in his home country. The internet, he says, may be the key to fundamental change. “The internet will change China very quickly. If we wait another five or 10 years, things will get better. My work truly is for the Chinese audience. I’ve been trying to reach them for years and I will continue trying.”
Does he think that shocking act of self-mutilation nearly 25 years ago achieved what he hoped? “From 1999, the whole nation was chasing money. They all became consumers, owning a car, a house, a Visa card, wanting to go to high-end shops,” he says. “No one was talking about the dark side of our history. I hoped to make people remember that darkness.”
‘Sheng Qi: Post Mao’, the artist’s first solo UK show, can be seen at the Hua Gallery (Unit 7B, G/F, Albion Riverside, 8 Hester Road, Battersea, London, SW11 4AX) until 20 December 2012.