Oversized knots loomed over us as we walked through Shanghai’s 8th Nanjing Road Sculpture Exhibition. Artist Yu JiYong had created these gigantic knots—all distinctly different in their twining and material—under one recurring theme. But what? Failing to comprehend the Chinese-written brochures of Yu JiYong regarding the message interlaced beneath these knotted artworks, I decided to let my mind wander off into my own comprehension.
Knots in general have always stricken me with a feeling of uneasiness because it is associated with intricate, complicated matters. Or when one is anxious, nervous, or stressed, one often describes the feeling as a “knot in my stomach.” Or perhaps it can mean something more positive like “tying the knot” signifying commitment to marriage, or even a joining of different things. To me, having been emerged in the study of Shanghai’s past and present since I have arrived in China, I found myself tying these knots into a representation of Shanghai’s identity.
To me, Yu JiYong’s “Knot” sculptures represent this intricately knotted identity crisis of Shanghai. At first impression, you would think Shanghai is just this glorious cosmopolitan metropolis. Or at least I did. But underneath it all, I had come to realize that Shanghai is a knot of intricate clashing and merging or the Western and Eastern cultures. Perhaps Yu Ji Yong had tried to capture this ambivalent and paradoxical phenomenon. Shanghai is in fact a complicated intertwining of the remnants of historical international settlements, French Concession, as well as Chinese traditions. Oh and let us not forget the Japanese military occupation, followed by the Civil War of two clashing nationalist and communist bodies, then the suppression of Shanghai’s cosmopolitan successes by the Maoist Era. These historically intricate knots capture the essence of the complicated identity crisis of Shanghai. And perhaps, even the joining of these different pasts and cultures into one beautifully complex and unique entity.