Pencial Walker / 1996~now Pen Walking #60 (Detail)
By Sean C. S. Hu
In 1994, by fortuitous opportunity, Jin-Hua Shi started on the “pen” as his medium for art creation; through personification, he described the use process of a pen as a metaphor for the cycle of life, whereby the pen itself is a subject (I). By handling and experimenting with running lines from various different kinds of pens onto paper, he embarked on an exploration into the existentiality of his own life. This would continue for fourteen years, and is still continuing; to the outsider, these works look like performance art by Jin-Hua Shi which makes one feel really unbearable, but to him these have been internalized into life, elevating life into art, as natural as breathing and drinking; they are a path to knowing oneself and the essence of one’s own life through practicing profound living.
Jin-Hua Shi once asked himself: “If a pen can be a person’s lifetime, then in the endless cycles of life and death, what kind of life am I repeating?” Hence, from he began to observe the repetition of his life in the Pen Walking series, endlessly doubting, ceaselessly raising questions through the process of his works, but not necessarily achieving satisfying answers, therefore only by repeatedly creating along the repetitions of life, can he go on. The pencils, charcoal pencils, ballpoint pens and markers used in each work for Pen Walking, are all recorded in photographs under the artist’s systemized collection process, becoming “Pen Walking Documents,” i.e. identification papers for each pen which are all presented through writing and photography, a kind of acknowledgement towards the subject (I); another part relative to “Pen Walking Documents” is “Pen Walking Drawings” which are all the traces left behind from the walking process of each pen, including pencil shavings as well as broken remains of pencils; while contents of the sketches appear as different forms or symbols, such as lines, curves, circles, intersecting lines etc, presenting the twists and turns in the lives of mankind like a cardiogram, whereupon these sketched paths named in numerical sequence, are traces left behind from different situations recorded by the artist throughout the course of life for each pen, along which we are also examining our own lives through these markings one by one.
The French philosopher Maurice Merleau-Ponty once wrote: “My body is not only one perceived among others, it is the measurement of all, of all the dimensions of the world.” and that “For contemporary psychology and psychopathology the body is no longer merely an object in the world, under the purview of a separated spirit. It is on the side of the subject; it is our point of view on the world, the place where the spirit takes on a certain physical and historical situation.”1 In order to understand universality and life, Jin-Hua Shi embarked from this starting point (body), measuring the depth, vastness and meaning of self-existentialism through bodily labor and continuously repetitive behavior. Two years later (in 1996), he then developed a conceptual piece “Pencil Walker” which integrated performance, sound, video and installation; in front of a white wooden wall set up beforehand, he attached a pencil sharpener and a voice recorder separately to his left and right upper arms. In the process, Jin-Hua Shi repeatedly walked along the wall drawing pencil lines; at the same time, he meditated on and recited the Heart Sutra and Hua-yen Penitence Verse, with each set of behavior lasting around two hours and fifteen minutes, finally recording all of the processes with the video camera and voice recorder. Different to Pen Walking which told of endings through finished pens drawn on one or many pieces of paper, ‘Pencil Walker” is still carrying on today, along the course of twenty years, it has been repeated more than fifty times, that immaculate white wall has long become a black, dirty wall of evil deeds, after going through endless cycles of two hours and fifteen minutes by the artist, recording his cycles of life after life.
These matters and behavior which look like they have no connections to the artist, after being endowed with meaning (the pen is incarnation of the body, the body is converted into Jin-Hua Shi) a very close connection to the artist and the world comes into being, “my existence as subjectivity is merely one with my existence as a body and with the existence of the world, and because the subject that I am, when taken concretely, is inseparable from this body and this world” 2 In other words, the construction of Jin-Hua Shi’s artistic concept is developed from “body-object,” in his behavior through the pen and walking the pen as creation, as well as in the process of inner dialectics, the mind, spirit or consciousness of man is further grasped, using the back and forth movements of the body to prove existentiality of the moment, releasing the concrete existence and inner feelings of man through his works; different to other philosophers such as Descartes, Kant as well as Hegel, who recognized the body as material concepts interlinked with ideas of desire, matter, temporality etc. which were also not as eternal as the spirit or mind, Jin-Hua Shi’s entire creative behavior persists on breaking the limits of self-isolation, moving to build a relationship between the subject (I) and the world, “I am my body, I exist because my body exists, the whole configuration of my existence is also wholly intermingled with the configuration of my body.” 3 Becoming whole in a realm of integrated harmony between the self and others, “connecting man’s feelings, volitions, experiences and behavior with the body…defining man as the ‘animated body’ or the ‘the embodied subject.’” 4 After the two is unified, importance of the body in the mind suddenly appears, whereby Pen Walking and “Pencil Walker” is the fruit of body and mind in harmony; this concept echoes Merleau-Ponty’s “Body Phenomenology” closely, “the body actually denotes the ambiguity of existence in the world: not having transparent consciousness, nor existing as a body of material entity, whereupon the bodily concept manifests body-mind interaction and interweaving.” 5
We can discover that the two immense creative plans developed by Jin-Hua Shi through bodily labor – “Walking Pen” and “Pencil Walker” – as the ultimate concept of this artistic thinking, through the process of performance art, self-emotions are expressed, overcoming that nihilistic feeling that comes from oppression, depression, and anxiety; each walking pen that occurred are finally transformed into large quantities of record documents provided for viewing, allowing the viewer to learn anew the body that feels; no longer is the body and mind divided in duality, with an objective and detached knowledge of the body, we have found again another kind of understanding towards the body because it has accompanied us all along: we are our bodies, to know our bodies is to know ourselves. In addition, through Jin-Hua Shi’s creations the worldly experience that we face is again awakened and exhibited, “As we are in the world through our body, and in so far as we perceive the world with our body. But by thus remaking contact with the body and with the world, we shall also rediscover ourselves, since, perceiving as we do with our body, the body is a natural self and, as it were, the subject of perception.” 6
Through the solo exhibitions of Pen Walker, Jin-Hua Shi has once again examined his art creations over the last fourteen years, as well as his pursuit of life’s meaning. Regardless if he once said the following in realization: “What lines of life am I repeating? Are they just perpetual birth, aging, illness and death? Do these sufferings have meaning? Must it continue like this?” and “confronted with such a life, you have yet to actually see through. You yearn yet also detest, you hate yourself in a way. Hence, you are silent…, and your silence is the pen.” Such interrogations or answers will continue to appear in the artist’s future creations and course of life, just as how Sisyphus was compelled to keep rolling a big stone up the steep hill, even though he knew that the stone will always roll down before it reached the top, Camus said: “The struggle itself towards the heights is enough to fill a man\'s heart. One must imagine Sisyphus happy.” Under each moment of creation and living, Jin-Hua Shi is also happy. We are even more certain that when confronted with the absurdity of life, the unknown and nihilistic, the best strategy is not just to resign oneself, but to ceaselessly strive to deploy sustained confrontation and battle.
Looking back again at Jin-Hua Shi, it is easy for us to discover that he comprehends artistic creation, or it can be said that his pursuit of the meaning of existence, is carried out into life, obtaining its true meaning from it; regardless if a life is transient or cyclical, we may be repeating the same courses, the same emotions, even the same mistakes, whereby these endless repetitions are the most direct portrait and reflection of life. Being silent does not mean giving up; it shall be an even stronger response, strongly walking down this path, just like each pen along the process. Looking at the works created through Jin-Hua Shi’s bodily behavior not only brings us new experiences and new adventures, it is an even bigger step to transcend the programmed and stereotyped things in life.