Among the most popular moving-image works in the M+ Collection is Taiwanese artist Zhang Xu Zhan’s Hsin Hsin Joss Paper Store Series—Room 004, Si So Mi (2017–2018). This work combines papier-mâché with stop-motion animation to create a bizarre yet intriguing woodland world. The song and dance performance in the animation is comedic, even nonsensical, making it suitable for children and families. But the dark undertones embedded within the artwork’s content and concept stand in stark contrast with its outer appearance, making it all the more mesmerising.
The animation is set in a dark forest populated with miniature plants and features a group of crinkly papier-mâché rats in the midst of a mourning ritual. Some rats are blowing on trumpets or suonas—a traditional Chinese instrument—and knocking on cymbals or drums, while others are clutching their own crimson internal organs, which appear like ribbons for a dance routine. Zhang Xu designed the choreography to reflect common causes of death for rats, such as by poison, being run over by vehicles, or drowning. In fact, Zhang Xu’s decision to make rats the main characters of this artwork arose from a traumatic incident from his early life. As a child, he witnessed his mother drowning a cage of freshly caught rats. The sight of the rodents struggling to survive in their final moments created a lasting impression on Zhang Xu of the fine line between life and death. Perhaps it is for this reason that themes of birth, death, and reincarnation often appear in his art. In this particular work, Zhang Xu uses the lens of the urban city’s lowliest creatures to prompt viewers to consider the value of each life.
Dressed in flashy gold accessories, the rodents put on a celebratory ceremony to mark their own demise. The pomp and circumstance in this grand display--usually performed for creatures of esteem--seems to grant an uncommon importance to their specific mortality. As the rats engage in an elaborate dance, they also perform a squeaky, high-pitched rendition of the German folk song ‘Ach, wie ist's möglich dann’ (‘How can I leave thee’). This love song garnered mainstream popularity after appearing on the soundtrack for the 1938 romance film Three Comrades. The song has since made its way to Taiwan and is often performed in an assimilated version at local funerals. The song is also referred to by its opening notes of ‘Si So Mi’ and has become synonymous with mourning rituals and, by extension, death itself. As a result, ‘Si So Mi’ can be interpreted as a lamentation over the sudden arrival of death or the exaltation that comes from the unexpected appearance of love. Death is not the end of a life but rather a process during which the soul shifts into a mode of existence that transcends the corporal being. Through this work, Zhang demonstrates the metamorphosis that occurs within all beings and proposes a new perspective on confronting death.
Zhang Xu uses absurdist humour in his moving-image works to portray topics that are commonly viewed as solemn or taboo. His willingness to probe into the depths of death is perhaps related to his family’s history. Zhang Xu is the fourth-generation descendant of Hsin Hsin Joss Paper Store, a century-old business in Taiwan that creates paper offerings, such as joss paper houses and figurines, which are intended to be burnt for those in the afterlife during funerals, other rituals, as well as for festive occasions. Zhang Xu was not particularly interested in this traditional art form when he was younger. In high school, he studied information processing and wrote computer programmes. It was only when he won an award for a stop-motion animation that he decided to pursue an artistic career. In 2012, as his family business faced increasing challenges due to the decline of the joss paper industry, Zhang Xu started to reflect upon his relationship with the traditional craft and how he could imbue new meaning into this art form.
Zhang Xu’s family began to host cultural events, such as educational workshops, related to the craft of joss paper. The family was invited to the Louvre in Paris to take part in the D’Days design festival in 2016. In his creative process, Zhang Xu revolutionises the craft of making joss paper offerings; not only does he use malleable aluminium wires instead of bamboo sticks to create the skeletal frames of paper sculptures, he also uses old newspapers and paste to create the bodies of the sculpted figurines—skipping the labour-intensive process of first sculpting a rough silhouette. The final step involves applying poster colours in order to retain the coarse properties of the newspaper and to bestow an incomplete and imperfect beauty to the resulting sculptures.
Viewers who take a close look at Zhang Xu’s paper rats will notice that they all boast intricate festive adornments as well as dynamic and lively gestures, postures, and facial expressions. The backdrops of the animated scenes have also been painstakingly crafted. Incorporating influences from Eastern European puppetry and the stop-motion animations of Czech artist Jan Švankmajer, Zhang Xu creates a unique style infused with absurdist black humour to transform a traditional craft into a work of new media that shatters established notions related to the art of joss paper, contemporary stop-motion moving image, as well as the idea of death itself.
When Hsin Hsin Joss Paper Store Series—Room 004, Si So Mi was exhibited in Paris, some visitors were surprised to learn that these delicate pieces were meant to be ritualistically incinerated. In the joss paper tradition, such sculpted objects were not only designed to be materially transformed, but in fact were imbued with the wishes of the living who hopes to communicate with the deceased. In other words, the significance of a joss paper offering is heightened in its last moment of its paper-based existence, just before it is reduced to ashes. By observing the in-between state of joss paper characters held at the precipice of their denouement, Zhang Xu’s work precisely marks the cyclical nature of our existence, and, like the seasons, celebrates the ever-renewing character of life and its ostensibly transformative demise.
The Chinese version of this article was originally published on 31 August 2022 in Ming Pao. It is presented here in edited and translated form. Originally authored by Koel Chu, translated by Karen Cheung, and edited by Dorothy So and Chanel Kong. All works: M+, Hong Kong. M+ Council for New Art Fund, 2020; © Zhang Xu Zhan
Hsin Hsin Joss Paper Store Series—Room 004, Si So Mi is on view in the Mediatheque at M+.