Chen Zhen (1955–2000) is regarded as one of the leading exponents of the Chinese avant-garde and an emblematic figure in the field of international contemporary art.
Combining an intense sensitivity to material and craft with the humanist rationality of a philosopher, Chen Zhen’s sculptural installations and constructions are at once physically grounded and mysteriously auratic. This exhibition provides a rare opportunity for London audiences to see at first hand a number of important works by this exceptional artist.
After moving to Paris in 1986 to attend art school, Chen Zhen abandoned his early practice in painting and moved toward mixed media installation. He regarded his work as a hybridisation of elements from different cultures and fields of knowledge. The artist had a strong interest in healing, and intended his work to have a therapeutic and meditative aspect, which reflected his own suffering for more than twenty years from a serious blood disease that ultimately claimed his life. Between 1997 and his death in 2000, he dedicated himself to the project of becoming a doctor, fusing traditional Chinese medicine and art-making into a creative and spiritual practice.
The Autel (alter) series grew out of the artist’s first experiences of consumer society. In these works Chen Zhen attempts to examine a range of consumer objects and in his words ‘penetrate’ their soul. These wall-based installations are like altars to modernity where the consumer object is sacrificed. In a similar vein the small piece Météorite illustrates a cycle of birth and death. Here an aluminium meteorite lies imbedded in the Bauxite ore from which aluminium is made, while the photograph on the object’s surface portrays the disused aluminium object from which Chen Zhen created the meteorite itself.
The hollow form of Cocon du Vide recalls a chrysalis as well as figure bent in meditation or prayer; its wire armature is threaded with a mixture of prayer and abacus beads. In the centre of the form is a child’s toy fashioned from a spent shell case as well as other ammunition. The work’s title, ‘empty cocoon’, suggests both a void and the potential for growth and transcendence from one state to another.
Lands-Objectscape consists of a series of glass ‘coffins’ where different kinds of everyday objects – the witnesses and victims of our consumer society – are taken out of context and mixed with earth creating a strange deserted shadow-landscape.
Un-interrupted Voice is one of a number works from the late 90s that takes the form of percussion instruments made from chairs and beds collected from different parts of the world. These works are very much connected to the idea that the real Buddhist would rather be beaten than speak overtly about faith. In this piece the drumsticks are made from police batons, but instead of striking people, one hits the place where they sit or sleep. Here, beating or striking does not imply real violence; rather, it leads to a kind of self-awareness, or ‘drumming an awakening of the mind’. Instrument Musical comes from a series of works using traditional Chinese chamber pots. The artist always associated these wooden objects with the sound of cleaning, as they are very intimately associated with his personal experiences during the Chinese Cultural Revolution. Crystal Landscape of Inner Body (Serpent) is from a series of twelve clinical supervision beds that may be installed together or separately. Human organs made of crystal are laid out on the bed to form an ‘Inner Landscape’ of the body. These dozen ‘bodies’ correspond to the twelve astrological signs symbolising the differences between individuals.
Suspended from the gallery ceiling is the well known work Lumière Innocente (Innocent Light) which Chen Zhen described as, 'A child’s bed hanging in space … A transparent organic form … A silent life attached to a thread in the void, nascent and vanishing. A cocoon of light … '
With thanks to Xu Min and Galleria Continua, San Gimignano / Beijing / Les Moulins