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.