Prior to his untimely death in 2000, Chen Zhen (1955-2000) was a rising international art star and, alongside Paris-based Huang Yong Ping and New York-based Cai Guo-Qiang, one of the leading members of China's international avant-garde. Chen died after a lifelong battle with autoimmune hemolytic anaemia, and it is difficult to not read his biography into his body of works, which time and again applied a uniquely Daoist or Zen sensibility to themes of exile, illness, cultural difference and modernity. Indeed, his last unfulfilled 'performance' as an artist was to become a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine.
Chen immigrated to France in 1986, and first began working in installation in 1990. Among his earliest examples of installation, this rare and austere piece from 1992, La fin du monde des signes, shows the artist already developing what would become dominant themes in his art, playfully juxtaposing unexpected and evocative materials to explore the subjective and inharmonious nature of existence in a post-industrial world. The artist uses a massive medical case, displaying shelf after shelf of burnt newspaper. Behind its clinical exterior, fluorescent lights cast a cool light over the newspaper like an obscure and esoteric Dadaist medical remedy. Burnt newspaper, trash and waste were materials Chen returned to throughout his career, displaying his irreverent and iconoclastic approach to materials and his more serious rejection of Western rationalism and aggression. For Chen, such materials served as proof of the West's inability to create and maintain a harmonious and sustainable socio-political environment. Chen's works display a fundamentally Eastern philosophical tendency towards of paradox, suggestion and indirection. He once commented, 'the Chinese are always telling stories with bigger meanings behind them. There is a famous proverb that goes: make noise in the east and attack in the west. This is the Chinese way. Where the noise is, that's not it. It's a paradoxical way of thinking.' (E. Heartney,'Chen Zhen's Legacy' in Art in America, February 2003). In works such as La fin du monde des signes, Chen's legacy is to leave us with sophisticated and yet elusive artifacts of embodiment, well-being, cross-cultural experience.