Sheng Qi: 'Cutting off my finger was my proudest moment'

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Chinese artist Sheng Qi committed an act of physical protest during the Tiananmen Square massacre. He tells Emily Jupp it is still his proudest moment

Dissident Chinese artist Sheng Qi is less recognisable than his peer Ai Weiwei, but his work is just as subtly provocative. 

In 1989, in protest at the Tiananmen Square massacre he chopped off his little finger and buried it in a porcelain flowerpot in Beijing.

Some of of his work focuses on replicating this act of anger and defiance, while other works subvert stereotypical images of Chinese power and propaganda. He now lives and works in London.

I am most proud of when I was mad and out of control...and I cut off my finger. It was about 10 years later when I finally realised - so after I had many years of art training - that my left hand, without the finger, has become part of my identity, it is a unique performance. In 1999 I started taking photos of my hand. I realised the personal history can also be the social history.

I'm recovered now, because time can cure everything. Before I started exhibiting images of my hand I was always hiding and I would always put it in my pocket. But when I decided to show it to people there was no more nervous feeling, no more hiding.

When I cut off my finger, I felt betrayed. It’s like you know someone for 20 years then one day you discover he’s a total liar. It’s like the church falling down. You don’t know what to believe, you are totally...you feel like killing yourself, because everything you believed before is just worthless. Life feels worthless.

To recover from my madness, I went to the countryside. I learnt Tai Chi for a couple of months. It’s very peaceful. No-one can influence you and you can’t hear any voice, only the voice from inside, and it helps you to start again.

My work has always been controversial. People either like it or feel uncomfortable... My work is not for entertainment. It is not to give comfortable feelings and pleasures.  My work is always like a protest, like a double-edged sword, pointing in both directions - with an  international outlook and also at problems in China.

After Mao died, the Chinese moved forward to focus on economics. So the Chinese currency, which is strong, has become one of the major ways to show the country's power. But the Chinese people are still living in poverty and suffering, so this is the issue I am focusing on in my current exhibition. Premier Weng and Vice-Premier Deng and Jackie Chan and sports star Yao Ming are all shown holding the Chinese currency in my portraits, like a Chinese fan.

The red colour I use in the paintings signifies a warning. Chinese people are poor, they have a lack of social care, lack of education, accommodation. The form of my painting is also like a poster...the poster is like propaganda period...even now, it’s a propaganda country so my painting in a way is like that a propaganda presentation, so basically I use what they used and reflect that back.

Ai Weiwei. He is a very powerful man. I painted him with a red background... He is in danger, it could happen any day...he is willing to do that, to take the danger, so I respect him.

I have started working on paper now, just for the last couple of months. Paper is more soft, I use it with pencil and watercolour. When you get old, you do different things, your physical body is not passionate, it has less energy. I never touched paper before, it was always a larger canvas, or performance art. But now it becomes smaller and lighter.

Sheng Qi's first ever solo London show, "Post Mao" runs from now until 20 December 2012 at Hua Gallery, Unit 7B, G/F, Albion Riverside, 8 Hester Road, Battersea, London, SW11 4AX

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