Chen Zhen (1955-2000) was a pioneering artist of the generation that had witnessed the Chinese Cultural Revolution and its aftermath. Born in Shanghai, he emigrated to France in 1986 to study at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris. In the process, he transitioned from a painter to an artist whose large-scale installation works reflect deep critical inquiry into the boundaries of identity. The artist’s practice bridges disciplines relating to performance; dance and music with the implication of the corporeal presence by virtue of such articles as chair and bed. Process drawings accentuate sculpture and further define meaning and intent.
Zhen’s experience of being part of the Chinese diaspora led him to use ready-made and found objects to create works that transformed them by situating them in a different context, without the objects losing their original identity. His most famous work, Jue Chang – Fifty Strokes to Each, 1998, was shown in the 1999 Venice Biennial and was central to his posthumous solo exhibition in 2003 at MoMA P.S.1, New York. At once a dance, a musical performance and a sculptural installation, the work brings together wood, metal, chairs and beds strung up with ropes and other objects to be beaten as drums by viewers as a way to challenge the conventional method of solving political disputes and historical conflicts in the world. Zhen’s use of humble materials and belief in the artist as an agent of change recalls the art of another great conceptual artist, Joseph Beuys, while his compassionate understanding of the political issues surrounding the work’s original site in conflict-ridden Tel Aviv demonstrates his prowess in tackling universal topics with sensitivity and delightful wit.
As his work matured, Zhen was invited to exhibit around the world, from Johannesburg to Texas. Zhen continued his exploration of globalization through his practice, where he attempted to anchor himself in a variety of cultural contexts to have a dialogue with the local culture, while diluting the mono-cultural influence of the West (J. Sans, “The Resounding Silence: Interview of Chen Zhen,” in Chen Zhen: A Tribute, New York, 2003, p.29). His masterful repurposing of Chinese objects for installations in non-Chinese contexts allows for the viewer to come up with different associations for the objects while introducing their original meanings into a new situation. While his struggle with cancer intensified, Zhen’s art investigated healing and traditional Chinese medicine alongside additional references to the body. He became very interested in the synergy of energies that link and interconnect with each other within the organs of the body.
Couverture, 1998, is a blanket made of walnuts, which in Chinese tradition was not only a symbol of status but also used for massaging the hands as this was thought to help activate the body. His drawings show his deliberate juxtaposition of the walnuts with the absent body as well as his consideration of such traditional concepts. The shell/walnut stands as an analogy to the skull/brain. The skull protects the brain while the brain is the locus for thought and creativity. The base for the work is an idealized version of a hospital operating table and is referential to the artist’s reflection on his own mortality in addressing his cancer but in its simplification the intent is to make the meaning a universal reference to the human condition and illness. Chaise de concentration, 1999, is an installation of four chamber pots and stereo speakers over a chair, recalling the therapeutic act of listening to music while humorously reminding the viewer of the act of bodily cleansing. The chair and commodes themselves are a reference to archaic ordinary objects that have become repurposed and subsumed by contemporary technology and progress. Chen Zhen, as an artist and human, is keenly aware of what was lost and gained specifically in the Chinese Cultural Revolution but can be made parallel in the name of “progress” across cultures. Both are master strokes by Zhen as physical manifestations of medical synergies as well as regeneration of cultural meaning in these objects. They reflect his final desire as an artist, despite his untimely passing, to be a healer and for healing to be a source for an artistic process of investigation.