Meet Mao Guan Shuai, a Chinese artist who’s able to integrate the imperfections of wood as a central part of his stunning sculptures. Born in Ningbo, Zhejiang, this skilled artisan now works under the moniker Guaishou (aka Monster). “The soul and essence of a tree can be found in all its imperfections,” he says. The gaping mouth of a figure seemingly frozen in an endless scream, and a series of human forms with damaged physiques – these are just some of the ways he’s reimagined what might be viewed as flawed material by others. Through a meticulous process of cutting, chiseling, chainsawing, sandpapering, and carving, Guaishou liberates these lifelike figures that have been hiding in these blocks of wood all along. His fascination with woodworking led to him starting his personal studio Guaishou Muji in 2013. In the beginning, he was only creating simple and practical products such as spoons and plates, but over time, his creations eventually evolved into the wildly creative and innovative works of art that he is known for today. Neocha recently had the chance to talk to Guaishou about his creative process and his growth as an artist.
Neocha: How did you become interested in woodworking?
Guaishou: I first encountered woodworking during the junior year of college. I later found myself once taking notice at how the furniture looked in a restaurant; they were old, simple, and rather quaint. I thought to myself: “Wouldn’t it be great if I made my own furniture one day?” That’s how it all began. Of course, you can’t just make a piece of furniture right away as an amateur woodworker. I first started with simple things like spoons and plates. I referenced woodworking tutorials and guides online, bought some basic tools, and just started working towards figuring it all out. I’m really particular about how the wood is treated. It’s a big part of how it is presented to people. So I’ll take many steps to ensure that it’s done just right. But of course, there are only so many ways of finishing wood. I suppose this was one of the reasons that I started doing woodwork – because it’s rather simple. It’s unlike other crafts such as pottery that involves more complicated processes. For woodworking, you just need a little motivation and your own two hands.
Neocha: In the beginning, you wanted to create things that had practical uses – but now your vision has shifted towards favoring creativity over practicality. What were your creative outlets prior to this?
Guaishou: I used to love photography and illustration. Photography is my favorite, but I’ve been interested in illustration since I was a little kid. It’s funny how making wooden spoons led me to discover a new means of creative expression. I am still making spoons, but I’m making artwork like sculptures as well. Maybe it’s because there are so many people making practical things that it has made me want to do something different. I suppose I’m just following my heart. I’m the kind of person that does whatever pops into my head, and I feel like that spontaneity translates into my style.
怪兽: 之前我很喜欢摄影和画画。摄影是我的最爱，画画则是从小就开始的。做勺子把我带到现在这条路上，让我发现新的创作语言。我依然在做勺子，但是做勺子的同时也可以做艺术化的雕塑啊！可能是因为做勺子的人多， 所以我想做点不一样的东西。也可能只是我在追随自己的内心。因为我就是想到什么就去做，然后逐渐形成自己的风格。
Neocha: You mentioned that it sometimes takes many unsuccessful attempts before you can complete a piece of work. Is this common for your work?
Guaishou: Not always. When I first started carving sculptures the initial attempt would often be a failure or end up being something I’m not proud of. Once I’ve done it a few times, the later productions will be error-free. But whenever I start on a new series of work, I’ll face a new set of problems. So before I even begin any actual physical work, I first form a clear concept and draft a rough sketch. If it is something I’m really interested in creating, I’ll make it happen no matter what. If I don’t succeed the first time, I’ll try again and again. For me, the ability to turn my ideas into something tangible is the most fascinating thing about my creative process. I really enjoy the creation process. I often take a little time to admire and appreciate the finalized work before moving on and fully devoting myself into the next project.
Neocha: What do you consider to be your three favorite pieces of work thus far?
Guaishou: One of my favorites is the sculpture of a peeing dog. When I started creating my canine series, this peeing dog was the first piece I completed. You can’t identify it as a specific breed, and the ambiguous nature of it is a form of symbolism in a way. The act of peeing to mark his territory is also symbolic. This is my favorite piece out of my entire canine collection.
Another favorite of mine is a portrait of a human face. The contour of the face is created with iron wires, and the facial features are made with wood. The nose, eyes, and mouth were created quite abstractly. I was inspired by Picasso. This is also another collection of work that relies on heavy symbolism.
Lastly is a piece of work called Xiaosideren. Out of all of my works, I had the most trouble with this particular series. It is also quite different from my previous work. I wanted these sculptures to give a sense that the person is vanishing. It represents a change from the present to the future. Some viewers thought it looked like a person who was slowly disappearing and fading away, but other people instead saw a person being reconstructed and being made whole again. Different people will have different interpretations. In the end, this piece of work is a statement about the dynamic process of undergoing change.
Neocha: Can you describe your typical day for us? How much of your day is spent working?
Guaishou: I am only focused on woodworking nowadays. My average day begins with me going to the studio at around 8 a.m. and working until 11 a.m. I’ll then go home for lunch and resume working at 1 p.m. until 5:30 p.m. My work day is usually about seven to eight hours long. But if there’s work I didn’t finish in the day, I will stay in the studio until it’s finished. For all my pieces, I always hope to finish in one day and not drag it out to the next day. Then later at night, I like to read and think about potential ideas for new creations.
Neocha: 你现在每天的生活 / 工作状态是什么样的？
Neocha: Having worked with wood for three years now, do you feel like there’s a common subject that you find yourself gravitating towards? Why is that?
Guaishou: My favorite subject is humans. I enjoy finding different ways to present the human form. The entire body, only revealing half of a body, experimenting with different techniques, and so on. My creations tend to only have two eyes and a nose, and they’re typically genderless individuals. I tend to incorporate symbolism in all of my work related to humans, but the use of symbolism is quite common in my work. When people look at artwork that’s presented like a human, they’ll often see their own likeness in the work. Different people will extract different meanings from the artwork. Portraits will resonate with more people; this is why they they’re so appealing to me.
Neocha: 创作这么久以来， 你有没有特别专注的某一个主题？为什么？
Last month, the Weizaiweizai art gallery in Shanghai held a solo exhibition of Guaishou’s work. This small art gallery hidden away on Anfu Road had to end the exhibition prematurely because nearly all of Guaishou’s work sold out faster than anticipated. Guaishou is already preparing for his next exhibition that’s planned for early next year. So be sure to keep your eyes peeled!
Contributor: Banny Wang
Images Courtesy of Mao Guan Shuai
供稿人: Banny Wang