Crayfish season is in full swing, and Shanghai citizens are purchasing bushels of these Christmas-red critters to shlep home and devour. However, one of the most frequent buyers, US expat Brian Reed, doesn’t actually eat the crawdads. He paints with them.
Yes, you read right. Instead of dipping them in 13 savory spices, Reed dunks them in a variety of different-colored inks and plops them down on rice paper. There, they amble about, some blazing paint trails across the canvas, others pinching holes in the paper. Inevitably the living paintbrushes die, leaving vibrant ‘body prints’ on the surface. These ‘crayfish compositions’ are currently on display at the Zendai Zhujiajiao Art Museum as part of Reed’s “Pictorial Anthropology” exhibition. We caught up to Reed to talk about the exhibition, what inspired him to paint with live crustaceans, and more!
1. How does a US artist come to paint with live crayfish in Shanghai?
I was originally based in NY, but traveled everywhere from Africa to Mexico to explore “universalisms” in art and life. I was invited to Shanghai last year to do an international artist guest residency program and one of the facilities was in Zhujiajiao water town. The first things I noticed were the abundance of tiny lobsters in buckets.
My theme is about taking ordinary objects and giving them special qualities. So I started creating paintings where the lobsters aren’t real anymore and they enter the world of fantasy. They take on hair, they have attitude, they have people characteristics. In some works, they are fishing in a traditional fishing boat. Every morning I’d wake up and hear the sounds of the fishing boats trawling the bottom of the river for snails. So in these paintings I’m recording history like an anthropologist, but instead of writing or making a film, I make art about it. The story is that the lobsters are harvesting lotus seeds. This one’s called “lobster army” (below). Here, the lobsters are going to harvest the lotus seeds.” All of the images represent my fantasy view of the events and experiences in Zhujiajiao. Why did I choose lobster and lotus. It’s like Yin and Yang. The lotus is on the top of the water, it represents purity and beauty. The lobster is at the bottom and eats the shit, but it’s part of the balance. It’s necessary for us to recognize the monsters in our lives.
Afterwards, I made the transition to actually dipping live lobsters in ink and getting them to walk around on rice paper. You can see the variety of color. It’s very unique, I don’t know many foreigners who use these materials in such a way. I haven’t been taught the proper Chinese ink painting techniques so I’ve invented something very unique and exciting. You can see (above) where my art helpers died along the paper. When they die, the ink soaks in a pattern like a stamp.
Obviously you can’t ‘direct’ the lobsters, but is there any set game plan for the paintings? Other than adding painted and dried lotus roots and choosing the color.
When I first started, I let them walk wherever. You have an idea for what you want the final product to be, but when dealing with live creatures you have to sort of sit back and watch what happens. Eventually I started to steer them in a direction – picking them up, moving them to different spots. You have to be careful because the rice paper is so delicate that the claws puncture it. Sometimes you get naughty lobsters! You can tell the ones that are going to walk around, and the others that are just going to poke holes in the paper. It’s been so unique for me. Usually I control the composition through my hand. But when the control is in the hands/claws of a creature, you have to really be open how things are created.
What do live crayfish bring to the work?
Well, as you can see, a lot of unevenness, as they have varying amounts of paint on them. The legs act like ten brushes, painting in every direction. There’s also diversity in texture. If they have more ink on one area than another, it’s going to make a bigger stain on the paper. Each of these looks very chaotic, but it’s very controlled. I want each to have a specific effect. In the beginning, it was all about what’s going to happen, how’s it going to turn out? And i experimented, and made mistakes. But now I’ve feel like, after a year, I’ve arrived.
How do you know when a crayfish painting has “arrived”?
I think as an artists, you can give the experiment some parameters, and then you allow some unexpected elements to happen, and you have to drive a car with a tire that’s getting more flat and you have to steer it to the end safely. Sometimes if the lobsters are doing something you don’t want, you can go back and rework by adding or subtracting elements to make it work visually. Because you can easily ruin a pairing that you’ve been working on for two weeks by one lobster doing something that’s it’s not supposed to. Although at the same time, I like the rawness of crayfish making holes in the paper. I like the visceral quality of it. And it goes back to the monstrous qualities they represent.
‘Lobster Fire Tower,’ one of the crayfish paintings that will be on display at the exhibition
Does the ‘live crayfish composition’ follow the theme of the symbiotic relationship between lobster and lotus?
Yea, the story is continued in these paintings. The lobster paint trails juxtaposed with the brightly-colored dried lotus roots symbolize leaving behind a seed pod full of monstrous qualities. It’s a figurative structure that’s being cracked open, and pulled apart, so the lobsters crawl out. The lotus also commemorates leaving behind that monstrous part of ourselves.
Where do you get your crayfish?
I usually buy them at crayfish restaurants. They have tanks of them at restaurants, and you can just choose however many you want. When the weather gets colder, however, I have to travel to the central fish market. It’s unfortunate, as the place kind of smells like the sea died.
For eating, people usually like plumper, juicier crayfish? What do you look for in your crawdads?
I get a variety. Sometimes I like slower ones that lay down and create a stamp pattern and sometimes I like the ones that move around a lot and will create a lot of beautiful lines. The ones you don’t want are ones that tear too many holes in the paper. I generally put those in the bucket.
Have you received any flack from animal rights people?
I haven’t really gotten any flack, but I do feel bad. You can feel their bodies moving. Sometimes you feel their heartbeats or their gasps for air. However, in a way, that pain and death is something that I want to convey in these works. The lobsters’ suffering amplifies the feelings that the works have. But I try to put that out of my mind.
Have you though about branching out to other animals like hairy crabs?
I thought of other animals that’d be cool. But for me, this exhibition was about showcasing the beginnings of work that I can mine and develop for a long time. There is so much richness and diversity in the work. And so much adaptation and evolution that I can try. There’s going to be a lot of relief when I’m done with this big show and I can go back and work some different ideas out.
What’s the next evolution for the crayfish series?
There will be lots of development with the rice paper, and containing them in spaces. I wanna make something more abstract. Like make an octagonal box and have them only roam around in that space. You have these weird geometric shapes with these organic lines and colors. Once I complete this I will also want to move onto the third installment, called “Lotus Mountain.” This is like Chengdu and Chongqing-inspired. You go from the north, ‘Lotus Desert’ to Zhujiajiao, ‘Lotus Water,’ to ‘Lotus Mountain.’ It’ll kind of be a story about the different regions of China. They’ll still tell the story about the symbiotic relationship between crayfish and lotus.
Check out this vid on “crayfish painting” and the exhibition:
All of the aforementioned works, and more are on display at the Zendai Zhujiajiao Art Museum, as part of in Reed’s Pictorial Anthropology exhibition, which runs until July 29. Admission is free.
Zendai Zhujiajiao Art Museum – 222 Bei Dajie, Zhujiajiao, Qingpu district (青浦区朱家角北大街222号). Hours: 10am-5pm Tuesday-Sunday.
Getting to Zhujiajiao from Shanghai: Take the Huzhu express bus (沪朱高速快线, RMB 12) from Pu’an Lu, Yan’an Dong Lu to Zhujiajiao, which is the terminal station. The ride will take about 50 minutes. The Huzhu express bus departs from downtown every 30 minutes, and the last bus from Zhujiajiao back to Pu’an Lu leaves at 9pm – so keep an eye on the time!
Learn more about Brian Reed here.