Since his untimely death in 2000, the loss of Chen Zhen's intelligence, insight, and humor has been among one of the most sorely missed presences in the international art community. Chen became a regular fixture in the international art world, with his provocative installations at the 48th Venice Biennale in 1999, at the First Shanghai Biennial, and in venues throughout Europe, Asia, and North America.
Chen juxtaposes traditional Chinese aesthetics and philosophies with Western art practices in order to suggest new creative and ideological paths. Based in Paris since 1986, Chen's works engaged the disjunction of cultural differences and expectations between East and West in a manner clearly drawn from Chinese Buddhist and Daoist philosophy - at once rigorously philosophical and lightheartedly playful.
In Chair of Concentration from 1999, a common Chinese chair is appropriated to become a seat of meditation. A metal bar arches over the chair, dangling two Chinese chamber pots like pre-modern headphones. A tape recorder on a continuous loop softly plays meditative sounds for the presumed sitter, the technology seeming even more quaint now in the digital age. One recurring motif in Chen's work is the search for balance among disparate everyday objects, showing the often paradoxical relationship between the material and the spiritual. Typical of Chen's best late works, he combines animal hides and everyday objects, re-contextualized as drums or musical instruments, alluding to seemingly primal religious rituals and states of worship and re-introducing them into everyday practice. Despite the simplicity of the materials, Chen's installations are thick with symbolism, cultural references and personal history, producing a brilliant mixture of the spiritual and the mundane.
The spirit of Chen's work in many ways owes as much to traditional Chinese philosophy as it does to Dadaism and Fluxus. These humble juxtapositions point to the quixotic pursuit of a "natural philosophy" in the instruments, objects and technology of modern life. Chair of Concentration displays Chen's open-ended and lifelong pursuit into the nature of identity, and the pursuit of harmony and balance in a life of dislocation and transience. Prior to his death, Chen Zhen had embarked on a life-long dream of becoming a doctor of Chinese medicine. He once stated, "I have had the good fortune of belonging to a family of doctors and scientists in the medical field. I was brought up in an atmosphere where human relations, the interest in human beings, friendship, and the close relationship between science and society are based on life. I have been 'blessed' with a serious illness for twenty years Treatment, cure, therapy, purification, and meditation: these daily preoccupations have become the universe in which art and life feed on each other" (Chen Zhen, Chen Zhen: A Tribute, p. 19).