In 1996, the Chinese installation artist Chen Zhen made a number of pieces under the theme of Daily Incantations, a body of work largely considered to be among his finest. Throughout his tragically short career, Chen employed such quotidian objects as mattresses, bowls and candles into his works. Often combined with animal hides and re-contextualized as drums or musical instruments, the installations allude to seemingly primal religious rituals and states of worship. Despite the simplicity of the materials, however, Chen's installations are thick with symbolism, cultural references and personal history, producing a brilliant mixture of the spiritual and the mundane.
This fine and rare example from the series consists of three wooden chamber pots attached to a board with metal fasteners. In this context, the pots resemble Buddhist bells that signal practitioners to their daily prayers. The repetitive use of chamber pots expresses a meditative element and the objects also offer a simple, austere aesthetic that is reminiscent of a monastic life. At the same time, the pots are a personal symbol for the artist, a reference to an aural childhood memory where noises from the cleaning of chamber pots are intermingled with mandatory reciting of Mao's Little Red Book. As ever with Chen Zhen, the sound element of the piece further contributes to the ritualized tone.
Chen's elevation of the chamber pot to the level of a religious object has a decidedly subversive edge, elevating the most mundane object of material culture and bodily necessity to evoke a forgotten tradition of worship, meditation, and communal ritual. The Chinese notion of duality pervades his works. Chen has stated, "The Chinese have a double concept about the chamber pot: the first is that most people view it as an ugly thing. The second is that those who believe in superstition think that the chamber pot is the 'son and grandson stool.' It helps to propagate and reproduce, and to carry the generations onward: an ugly thing with a great value" (Chen Zhen: A Tribute, P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center, 2003).