Chen Zhen: Without Going to New York and Paris, Life Could Be Internationalised at Rockbund Art Museum
Chen Zhen, who died (much too young) in Paris in 2000, was a significant artist with a hybrid Chinese and European identity. Although after 1986 he essentially lived and worked in Paris, his personal history and deep cultural roots lay in China, and specifically in Shanghai. From the mid-1990s he returned over and over to a city on fast-forward. Shanghai was undergoing a massive, controversial transformation, in the process of becoming the global megalopolis it is today. The current exhibition at Shanghai’s Rockbund Art Museum presents works from this period, which curator Hou Hanru explains reveal a balance between Chen’s examination of a dramatic external reality and a conceptual criticality. Sometimes witty, sometimes profoundly beautiful and melancholy, Chen Zhen’s works are steeped in his identity as a Chinese artist at a historical “tipping point.” As the artist said in his online project Shanghai Investigations, “without going to New York and Paris, life could be internationalized.”
Entering the Art Deco spaces of the Rockbund Museum, visitors encounter the rather spectacular Purification Room (2000–2015), a large space filled with everyday objects—sofas, TVs, chairs and tables, bicycles and shopping trolleys—all entirely coated with mud, as are the walls and floor. Traditionally, Chinese medicine used mud to cleanse and detoxify, and Chen Zhen thought of it as representing purity, simplicity, the natural world, and the peace of being laid to rest. The experience is one of stillness and silence, as if we have entered a mysterious unknown civilization revealed by an archaeological excavation. The quotidian artifacts of our modern daily lives seem to have a greater significance, becoming unfamiliar and strange.
The next level presents Le Bureau de Change (1996–2004), which is constructed from a traditional Shanghai communal public toilet, very common in the past when few people had their own bathrooms. Inside the darkened wooden structure, the pit toilet is full of money, gold and silver coins glinting in the dim light. The noise of constant flushing fills the space. This savagely witty work possesses even greater resonance today, when so many Chinese citizens are experiencing the shock of losing their money in an unprecedented economic downturn. The boom times may be over, and some fear their newfound prosperity could be simply flushed away.
For me, the most important work in the exhibition is Crystal Landscape of the Inner Body. The major internal organs (heart, lung, spleen, liver, kidney, gall bladder, stomach, intestines, spinal column, and so forth) were created from blown glass, displayed on a glass medical-examination table, in a darkened space. There are twelve versions of this work, corresponding to signs of the Chinese Zodiac; this one is the Rooster. The crystal organs cast beautiful shadows on the floor below the table, representing the ephemerality and fragility of life, and the reflection of the inner reality in the physical manifestation of the body’s health. Both of the artist’s parents were doctors, and he himself began to study medicine, before being diagnosed with a rare, and ultimately fatal, form of anemia at the age of 25. His philosophical approach to life, and to his art practice, was profoundly influenced by the time that he spent in Tibet living with Buddhist monks. Chen Zhen’s landscape of the body is created by the reflections and refractions of the blown glass and the glass table, with a suggestion that all physical reality is illusory—and entirely temporary.
Daily Incantations is a monumental installation that appears at first sight to be a structure of traditional Buddhist temple bells. A closer inspection reveals it is created from 101 traditional Shanghainese barrel-shaped wooden chamber pots, some of which have been fitted with speakers broadcasting the sound of the chamber pots being washed, and other noises. At the center of the installation a sphere is filled with a jumble of TV sets, cassette players, video recorders, telephones, and tangled skeins of electrical wires. For Hou Hanru, these mundane, even ugly and unclean objects, fast disappearing as a result of modernization and Westernization, are “sacrificial objects in cultural conflict.” Like the artist’s painstaking documentation of the destruction and demolition that forever changed the face of his city, they represent change, and the loss of tradition. Like Nam June Paik’s iconic 1970s TV Buddha, Chen Zhen’s work of the 1990s explores postcolonialism through the use of found objects: traditional Chinese wooden furniture and 20th-century electrical or electronic devices. The artist’s intended juxtaposition of past and present, East and West, today has a more elegiac quality of obsolescence, as his TV sets and tape recorders are themselves now artifacts of history.
Chen Zhen: Without Going to New York and Paris, Life Could Be Internationalised is on view at Rockbund Art Museum in Shanghai through October 7, 2015.