What’s in a name? In ancient China, surnames represented clans and ancestral lineage, a highly significant aspect of identity and filial obligation. In contemporary parlance, the Chinese phrase “Lao Bai Xing” (literally, “the old hundred names”) translates as “the ordinary people” or “the common folk.” It often refers to the voiceless, those who are most powerless in the face of social forces. For many years, Chen Qiulin has been documenting how the dramatic transformations of China’s physical, cultural, and social landscapes have impacted the lives of these ordinary people. Her hometown of Wanzhou was affected by the construction of the Three Gorges Dam, in which whole villages and towns along the Yangtze River were submerged, and more than a million people were relocated. In recent years, her One Hundred Names project has been representing that concern in an unexpected medium, as she carves the most common Chinese surnames into blocks of firm tofu and then documents their decay and disintegration over time. For her first solo exhibition in Australia, at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, these earlier works, together with a commissioned project, explore themes of ancestry, diaspora, and displacement in a broader historical and geographic context.
One Hundred Names for Kwong Wah Chong continues Chen Qiulin’s use of tofu as an artistic medium. She examined the history of early Chinese migration to the Haymarket/Chinatown precinct of Sydney, where the gallery is situated in a historic building. Research revealed the names and stories of the earliest diasporic Chinese presence in the city—mostly Cantonese-speaking migrants who arrived in Australia between 1840 and 1920 from southern China, becoming market gardeners, restaurateurs, and business owners. The titular Kwong Wah Chong was, in fact, Sydney’s first Chinese-owned and operated business, a center of support and information for recent arrivals. The artist, together with curator Toby Chapman and the 4A team, found and interviewed current Sydney residents with those same surnames, whose stories revealed that how people remember “home,” often tinged with loss and nostalgia, is a common experience across diverse cultures and languages. Each of these surnames was carved from tofu and their consequent disintegration documented. Back in Chengdu, Chen Qiulin sought out families who shared those same surnames. She asked them for their favorite tofu recipes and videotaped the encounters, which took place in their kitchens while they cooked the recipes and recounted the stories behind them. Thus a connection was forged across continents and divergent histories. Chen Qiulin’s practice poetically captures the beauty of these unlikely connections, as well as the tragedy of displacement.
On the ground floor of 4A’s gallery space, banks of televisions and screens display the resulting videos. At the exhibition’s opening, the artist demonstrated tofu carving, working with a large block of firm tofu set out on a table covered by a cheerfully domestic floral tablecloth. For Chen, her chosen medium of tofu, one of the oldest and most commonly used ingredients in Chinese cooking, is both personal and universal. It speaks of domesticity and childhood memories of home, but it also references the inevitability of decay and disintegration, becoming a potent symbol of the traumatic change experienced by Chinese citizens in recent years. As recipes are handed down from generation to generation, often with family members spread across the globe, tofu also becomes a metaphor of migration. Chen identifies a kind of alchemical process operating here; one kind of raw material is transformed into another by intensive labor.Upstairs, an installation of aroma diffusers placed on boxes that once held market produce wafts the evocative smells of star anise, ginger, black pepper, and other spices connected with the Chinese diaspora through the air. Ten large photographs represent the last fifteen years of her practice, including stills from The Garden (2007) and Dawning Bell (2009), in which the artist collaborated with local workers, staging performative interventions in Wanzhou and Chongqing. Also shown is a recent single-channel video work, City Manager (2015), which explores similar themes but appears as yet a little incomplete. In contrast, Chen’s video The Garden (2007), unfortunately here represented only in the form of still images, is a lyrically beautiful and dreamlike narrative featuring the “bang bang men” of Chongqing, porters who scurry up and down the steep staircases and riverside terraces and hills of that city, carrying goods of all kinds balanced on long bamboo poles across their shoulders. In this work, they instead carry vases of bright pink peonies through the mist-enshrouded landscape, journeying upward from the river banks and old, crumbling alleyways and courtyards to shiny new apartment buildings, symbolising China’s journey from tradition to modernity. Like many contemporary Chinese artists, Chen Qiulin is committed to revealing some of the uncomfortable truths behind the shiny facade.
One Hundred Names is on view at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art, Sydney, through February 27, 2016. It will be on view at the Shepparton Art Museum, Victoria, from June 4 to July 31, 2016.