Chen Zhen

陈 箴

Installations, Sculptor, *1955 Shanghai, Died in Paris 2000

Chen Zhen, 1999

Chen Zhen (1955-2000) was from the generation that sought opportunities overseas before the 1989 Tiananmen Massacre dramatically changed the cultural landscape of his native country. Like contemporaries such as Huang Yongping (based in France) and Cai Guoqiang (based in Japan then the US), his conceptual installations and sculptures retain a kind of optimism rooted in the humanistic spirit of 1980s China, in which the artist maintains a role as social and political commentator.
Based in France since 1986, Chen solidified his career in a Europe that had been symbolically reunified by the 1989 fall of the Berlin Wall. His mature work of the 1990s, the last decade of his life, increasingly emphasized the need for communication—or what the artist might have refered to as “synergy”—between diverse cultural and political spheres.

Daily Incantations, 1996, wood, metal, Chinese chamber pots, electric wires, residues of electrical and electronic objects,
sound system, 230 × 700 × 350 cm. photo de Sarthe Gallery

Chen is known for his use of furniture to create suggestively hybrid constructions. Often, he combines Chinese antique wooden materials with contemporary, electrical artifacts, apparent in the exhibited works, Instrument Daily Incantations (1996) and Chair of Concentration (1999). Both feature Chen’s signature barrel-shaped Chinese wooden chamber pots. Such an element functions here as a culturally-specific object providing a symbolic counterpoint to dominant Euro-American paradigms—political, cultural or economic—reflecting the discourse of postcolonialism, which emerged in the 1990s, as much as Chen’s own negotiation with his increasingly hybrid, mobile identity

Chair of Concentration, 1999, wooden chair, Chinese chamber pots, sound system, wire metal,
174.3 X 110 X 60cm. Photo de Sarthe Gallery

Another sculptural piece was also in an out-of-town warehouse space:Opening of Closed Center (1997), featuring antique Chinese lattice window screens partially enclosing a suspended wooden rocking chair. From the opening in the screens, a staircase of narrow low-lying tables, lined with wooden or laquerware containers, descends like a suspended altar. Though not directly religious, as a layered architectural space, along with the votive nature of the crafted vessels, the work conjures a sacral atmosphere

Opening of a Closed Center, 1997, wood, metal, objects and furnitures,
98.4 × 118 × 136 cm, photo de Sarthe Gallery

Chen’s oeuvre remains richly enigmatic, without resorting to a simplistic cultural spectacle. In hindsight of course, following a decade of geopolitical recalibration since his premature death, of which 2011 was a particularly significant year, there is an added irony to be found in Chen’s manipulation of cultural differences. That is, the “Chinese” elements the artist deployed within an earlier discourse of globalization, as cultural or intellectual alternatives, today suggest an alternative hegemony, which is yet to be reckoned with.
Text: Olivier Krischer