Shaokun Sun


Shaokun Sun is an academy trained emerging artist living and working in Beijing. She works with film-based cameras in a studio setting to stage her works that are self-portraits. She is posed and costumed to represent her ideas, which are strongly motivated by the injustice of government control and the lack of personal freedoms in contemporary China.

In the work, No Land II, 2010, Shoakun Sun’s face is shown with her eyes closed, partly covered by black rice grains. The black rice is used as a symbol of fertility, wealth and luck and in this case symbolises hope for the future. On the grains there are words, which have been scratched onto the negative before printing. In the reproduction of the work it is difficult to see the tiny lines that form the words in Chinese calligraphy. The meticulous line work is derived from the artist’s academy training, using ink to render very fine detail. She describes Chinese art as “how we use line”. Traditional painting is not colourful and the starting point for works is the line work. Shaokun Sun is applying the same theory to her photographic works and the art making process is integral to the artist’s expression. Her works have the feel of fashion and the message is subtle, almost disguised in the fine detail of the script, however, the forcefulness of her statement is undeniable.

The words on the grains of black rice state why people have died, how they died, why they burnt themselves and the responses by government authorities. The details reveal a powerful statement from the artist about the desperation experienced when people must leave their land due to forced urban re-development. Shoakun Sun states:

When can we have rights? People have no rights to be in Beijing if they come from somewhere else. Everyone needs rights as a people …  The government can take land, they even take babies.”

Shoakun Sun “No Land II”, 100 x 80 cm, 2010

Shaokun Sun bravely addresses a range of issues in her work: the illegal taking of land, the freedom to choose where you live and work, the discrimination of women who have relationships with foreigners and the banning of social networks such as Facebook. She uses her own naked body to make visual statements in these staged works. The Chinese authorities are critical of any nudity and she risks her work being withdrawn or banned. Nudity is seen by the authorities as pornography and the nude is not part of Chinese art traditions as it is in Western art. She also risks being arrested. Chinese officials threatened the artist Ai Weiwei, well known internationally for his political and socially motivated works, in 2011, with a charge of pornography for posing nude with four naked women.

Censorship and government control is always a concern in China. Recently galleries in the 798 Art District, Beijing, were informed that all exhibitions will be subject to government scrutiny before the hanging of the works. Shaokun Sun had work removed from her last exhibition in 2010 by government officials. The work used the stars and colour of the Chinese flag against the partly draped body of Shaokun Sun and was a protest against the government’s illegal acquisition of land.

“No Land V”

Shaokun Sun has created a series of works on the banning of the social network “Facebook” in China. The official reason given by the Chinese government is that the people who were behind the riots in Tibet and Xinjiang in 2009 were using Facebook and Twitter to communicate their plans. The broader view is that young people were using these social networks to criticise the Chinese government. There is continuing censorship and monitoring of the Internet in China with many sites banned and inaccessible.

The works in this series are titled “Face Off” and show Shaokun partially covered with a thick layer of white paint on which is revealed the opening sign up page of Facebook. She uses Italian, Chinese and English words on the three works. The first image, with words in Italian, refers to her relationship with her Italian partner. The words, “What’s in your mind” appear clearly across her face as she stares into the gaze of the lens. She hands reach up to touch her face, suggesting that the information contained is very personal, almost intimate. She faces the realisation that government officials have been reading her most private thoughts to her partner. The second work shows Shaokun Sun, with eyes closed, using her hands to pull the covering of white paint from her skin. The words are written in Chinese and the work suggests that she is trying to remove or disassociate from the intervention and banning of Facebook. The third work shows Shaokun Sun, her naked breasts revealed, and the text written in English. The words are “Sign up, its free, anyone can join” are stated with irony. She reveals her breasts in order to make the point that her body is hers and doesn’t belong to anyone else including the state. Shaokun Sun makes a strong statement in these works about her place as an individual in a global community. In her exhibition catalogue she makes the following comments:

“Currently in China’s we see a prevailing moral attitude of disdain for the reverence of foreign things and a growing resistance to the deference to foreign governments.

On the surface, this prevailing anti-foreign attitude appears to be an expression of fervent Chinese national pride.

On another level however this apparent radical patriotism may be seen as a symptom of a deeply ingrained national insecurity rather than pride, an expression of paranoia and distrust.”  

Shaokun Sun, Face Off I, 2010, 100 x 80 cm, Archival Inkjet Print on Fine Art Paper

Shaokun Sun, Face Off II, 2010, 100 x 80 cm, Archival Inkjet Print on Fine Art Paper

Shaokun Sun, Face Off III, 2010, 100 x 80 cm, Archival Inkjet Print on Fine Art Paper

Artist’s Statement - “Art can open your mind and you can think about the truth.”

In the same exhibition Shaokun Sun included another work based on an old Chinese painting from the Tang Dynasty (about 700-750 AD) called the “Seven Angels”. During this time artists developed a style to depict people especially those of the court.

Shaokun Sun, Angels I, 2010, 60 x 170 cm, Archival Inkjet print on Fine Art Paper

Tang Dynasty Painting, Seven Angels

Her work shows the court women playing musical instruments. The women are all Shaokun Sun, photographed nude and by making scratches on the surface of the negative she has created line work that describes the flimsy drapery, which partly covers her naked form. The male figure represents the Emperor from the original work, however he is European. He has his genitals draped, but the rest of this body is shown and his gaze is focussed to the audience. He looks slightly uncomfortable especially with the women who are very serene and confident in his presence.  He has angel wings that suggest that he is god-like. The work is a statement about Chinese history; it rejoices in the past and reminds the audience that Chinese culture is as significant as Western culture. The women are depicted nude as the body is considered by the artist as a natural form and her intention is to show that the women have sensuality rather than an erotic connection. The work makes reference to Taoist belief. Taoism is a philosophical and religious tradition that emphasises living in harmony with the Tao, the “way”, “path” or “principle. The Tao is the source and essence of everything that exists.

Shaokun Sun writes about this work:

“…..periods such as the Tang Dynasty saw cultural glory and security expressed as an enlightened attitude. Historically this negative nationalism has its roots in China’s closed-door policy.

In the relatively recent past people who could speak English faced discrimination and people found associating openly and walking in the street with foreigners could be arrested and jailed.

 As recently as 1954 a young Chinese woman was subjected to interference from the head of her academy who warned her to desist in her relationship with a foreigner. She was instructed to “remember you are Chinese and he is foreign”. The young woman endured public humiliation in an assembly in which she was criticized and accused of wanting to have a relationship with a foreigner merely in order to leave China to get a car.

It was not until 1956, amid great pressure, that Prime Minister Zhouenlai, approved the first marriage between a Chinese person and a foreigner.

But today, half a century later, China doors have been opened to the outside world and we live amid slogans of “Global Village” which have been put up. However in these times, it is thought provoking to observe the longevity of the closed-door policy and the way in which this mentality persists from one generation to the next. 

I have referenced a Tang Dynasty painting in this work. The period saw a convergence of cultures and an enlightened attitude. A wonderful legacy of splendid cultural heritage remains.

The nude photographic image recalls the fable of the “Emperor’s New Clothes” – the moral of which shares a parallel with the meaning of the work.”

Additional Notes

Tang Dynasty - The Tang Dynasty (about 700 Ad), with its capital at Chang’an (present-day Xi’an), which at the time was the most populous city in the world, is generally regarded as a high point in Chinese civilisation. In this period, the painting of people developed greatly. Buddhist painting and "court painting" played a major role, including paintings of the Buddha, monks and nobles.

Taoism -  Taoism is a philosophical and religious tradition that emphasises living in harmony with the Tao, the “way”, “path” or “principle. The Tao is the source and essence of everything that exists.

“Emperor’s New Clothes” – A short story by Hans Christian Anderson written in 1837. The story is about a vain Emperor who cares for nothing hires two swindlers that promise him the finest, best suit of clothes from a fabric invisible to anyone who is unfit for his position or "hopelessly stupid". The Emperor cannot see the cloth himself, but pretends that he can for fear of appearing unfit for his position; his ministers do the same. When the swindlers report that the suit is finished, they mime dressing him and the Emperor marches in procession before his subjects, who play along with the pretence, until a child in the crowd, too young to understand the desirability of keeping up the pretence, blurts out that the Emperor is wearing nothing at all and the cry is taken up by others. The Emperor cringes, suspecting the assertion is true, but continues the procession. The story is a cautionary tale that focuses on courtly pride and intellectual vanity.

Illegal confiscation of land in China – The rapid economic development and urbanisation of China has resulted in high demands for usable land for development.

A man from Henan province and his two grandsons sit on debris after their shelter in a slum in Yiwu, Zhejiang province, was demolished last week. Provided to China Daily

One Child Policy in China - This policy was introduced in 1978 and initially applied to first-born children from 1979. It was created by the Chinese government to alleviate social, economic, and environmental problems in China caused by over population. It is well known that those who violate the one-child policy have sometimes been subjected to coerced abortions or, if they have already given birth, have been forced to pay punitive fines and have been sterilised. It has been reported that some Chinese villagers who cannot afford to pay these fines have their “illegal” children abducted and sold by Chinese population control officials. The birth control regulations posted in towns warned that those who violate the one-child policy shall be sterilised.

China's government influences the pattern of urbanisation through the ‘Hukou’ permanent residence registration system, land-sale policies and incentives offered to local government officials. A ‘Hukou’ refers to the system of 'class’ residency permits which dates back to ancient China, where law requires household registration. Official efforts to limit free migration between villages and cities began as early as 1952 with a series of measures designed to prevent individuals without special permission from moving to cities to take advantage of the generally higher living standards there. Many rural poor choose to migrate to the cities without the rights of residency.

Pipa - A plucked Chinese musical instrument with four strings. Sometimes called the Chinese lute. It has a pear-shaped wooden body.

Konghou - The Konghou is an ancient Chinese, plucked string instrument similar to a Western harp.