Artist Shi Shaoping's signature works used to be huge watery paintings of mysterious, shifting, frog-like creatures. Sometimes he incorporated real frog skins in the series titled "Metamorphosis."
Now Shi himself has been metamorphosed and reinvented into a ceramist. He made a huge splash at ShContemporary last month with an awesome untitled installation of around 3,000 solid, 2kg "eggs" fired in a kiln for three days each. The eggs were arranged in orderly fashion outside the Shanghai Exhibition Center. Successfully firing enormous, solid forms is extremely difficult and had not been attempted, to his knowledge, he says.
The eggs symbolized nurturing life, but since they were solid, there was no room for new life, Shi says, adding that the installation reflects the collision of hopes and desperation. "Like dinosaur eggs, this work can exist for 10,000 years," he says.
Now he continues to explore large, solid ceramics - but no more eggs - in a solo exhibition of recent works, which includes large spires. The show is titled "Single Cut," a reference to his use of a knife for simple texturing of the seemingly rough-hewn work. These, too, require long firing.
Usually when an artist establishes a new art signature, such as the egg installation, he would try to strengthen that particular signature through frequent exhibits.
But Shi chooses a different course. While the egg images are fresh in viewers' minds, he veers to something different, textured towers, pyramids and spires, to challenge traditional ceramic art.
"This is the first time I have tried ceramics," Shi says. "I experimented in Jingdezhen (a cradle of Chinese ceramics in east China's Jiangxi Province) for nearly a whole year - even the act itself is a brave and interesting performance art."
When he arrived in Jingdezhen and told craftsmen he wanted to make eggs, he had no experience with ceramics. He had been trained as a painter.
"When I first told them that I wanted to make solid and concrete ceramic pieces, everyone thought I was crazy there," he recalls. "It was a technique no one had thought of and tried."
Bubbles in ceramic clay were always a problem because when the clay is heated in a kiln, the air expands and object can explode. He and his team wracked their brains to figure out how to eliminate bubbles, trying different kinds of clay and beating it to force out the air.
"Einstein once said that if an idea doesn't sound absurd at the very beginning, then don't put much hope in it," Shi says. "I am not a person who easily abandons what I believe."
He describes himself as an "ascetic monk" doing long hours of manual labor, every step of the way, from preparing clay to shaping the model, glazing and firing.
"I am enamored with the whole process, because I returned to the primitive and pure condition of being a true artist," he says. "My happiness and enjoyment arise despite all the hardship and failure."
He says it's hard to remember how many times he failed, "but my heart was in my throat when I saw the first successful piece (egg) coming out of the kiln."
The basic techniques and materials are unchanged - but its large size and density have changed. Shi makes a final cut, a work of texturing, on a piece of clay before it goes into the kiln.
In his latest exhibition, the 60 ceramic works at first appear primitive, without much in the way of molding and sculpting.
"That's my target," he says. "This is my way to approach ceramics and nature."
Unlike the eggs, which address questions of life, hope and desperation, "Single Cut" ceramic towers and spires involve the relationship between what can be controlled and what cannot, he says. The works are twisting and warped.
"The solid firing is similar to the erupting of a volcano; sometimes it is silent and sometimes not," he says. "The results are unpredictable. There are so many factors beyond my control, including the weather and natural drying of clay."
Each work is fired-through in a kiln at 1,300 degrees Celsius for three days and nights.
"I can't tell you how many pieces were broken during the process, it was a test of patience and endurance," Shi says. "Or, to be more exact, it is my self-cultivation process. I find that my body and soul have been re-born with these ceramics."
Reluctant to sell
One collector attempted to order one egg at ShContemporary, but Shi was reluctant to sell. "I made several excuses to postpone the deal, which seems ridiculous. It's such a mixed feeling. On one hand I feel excited that my works are accepted by others, but on the other hand, they are part of me." In the end, he did not sell the egg.
Shi's light-filled studio is in a former Russian Orthodox church in Shanghai where his tapering spires are placed about. The atmosphere is mysterious and reverential.
"The entanglement of life and nature are mirrored onto these warping ceramics," Shi concludes.
Date: Through March 31 (close on Monday and Tuesday), 11am-8pm