|Chen Zhen, Le Chemin/Le Radeau de l'écriture, 1991|
This exhibition is the talk of the town, having attracted rave reviews in all the Parisian cultural magazines that matter. Ever skeptical of the French preference for the affected and vacuous, I was ready to be disappointed. Happily my doubts were unfounded: Chen Zhen’s work and the retrospective exhibition at Galerie Perrotin deserve every bit of praise they have attracted.
|Chen Zhen, Le Chemin/Le Radeau de l'écriture, 1991|
I can’t remember the last time I was so seduced by conceptual sculptural installations: I wanted to dive headlong and live inside them. I was touched, mesmerized, challenged and absorbed by all of the installations. I can still feel them, smell them, even though there was often nothing to smell. This despite the recurring themes of the body, waste of all kinds, the frequent burning of paper, wood, wax. Theoretically, there should have been a lot to smell, but the pieces were as clean as they were provocative. Some of them have become even more sensually vivid as I sit in my living room a day later. The materials are related, always tactile, sensuous, gorgeous, filled with colour and texture, contradiction and impossibility. The sumptuousness of pieces that are about difficult, often grotesque, morbid topics has a lot to do with the material he uses. The materials are varied – wax candles, wooden railway sleepers, alabaster, chairs, animal skin, rubber, abacus beads. And they are always carefully put together.
|Chen Zhen, Round Table - Side by Side, 1997|
One of the first pieces we come across is breathtaking. Le Chemin/Le Radeau de l.écriture (1991) builds a raft from railway sleepers that sandwich books, on a bed of rocks that we could expect to find by the side of the railway tracks. The old wooden planks have been inscribed, scarred, graffitied with Chen Zhen’s name and other personal markings. The piece symbolizes, apparently, a voyage between different cultures. To me, it symbolized memory, the books once read, the lines once travelled, and the lives inscribed on the surface. It is also threatening. Long metal bolts protrude from the wood, making it dangerous as well as held together. Red paint falls into the carvings in the wood. The smell of another place, another era, a life lived already and still continuing is pungent in the room that houses the raft.
|Chen Zhen, Bibliothèque, 1999-2000|
Le Chemin/Le Radeau de l.écriture sets the tone for the pieces to come: everywhere Chen Zhen has burnt paper, red paint, memories that seem to be hidden in vitrines, in the grains of the wood, in the beauty of the complicated concepts he develops in each piece. The sense of workmanship, engineering, the themes of death, waste, decay, the body and its refuse, bodies and sculptural objects that are nevertheless clean and materials that are sanitized fill the exhibition spaces of Galerie Perrotin.
In one of the most compelling of a whole gallery of installations that will engage whoever experiences them, Chen Zhen “repurposes” (strictly speaking recreates) a public toilet in Le Bureau de Change (1996-2004). The constant sound of flushing pervades the top floor of the gallery space at 76 rue de Turenne, as Chen Zhen would have it, continually washing away the waste materials of the body and the mind. He turns the toilet block into a currency exchange bureau – the hidden, or not so hidden — connections between different kinds of business that take place in these spaces become frighteningly intertwined.
I loved Chen Zhen’s use of candles to enable children to imagine, or create images of their architectural environment in Beyond the Vulnerability (1999). He made houses out of candles, the wax of which was melted, but the wicks left untouched, to bind the candles. The houses represent the favelas and stilted shacks that are home to the children of Salvador, in Brazil. The candles are colourful, alive, transparent like the water that surrounds the children’s favelas. And they are fragile, always tactile and sensuous. The piece must have given the children the opportunity to see how beautiful their world was. It may be fragile and vulnerable like the candles on glass tables, but whatever holds the houses together is lasting.
There are so many pieces in the exhibition that I haven’t mentioned. Not because they are inferior, more because I had to choose, however reluctantly. However, I cannot omit mention of Round Table – Side by Side 1997. Chairs of all shapes and sizes, for children, for adults, oriental and western, are perfectly inserted into the top of two conjoined, unfinished tables. The piece consumes the greater part of the space in which it is exhibited, leaving little room for us to walk around, to find an optimal viewing position, to get comfortable in its presence. The odd height of the table is immediately unsettling. Because it is chest height, thus ensuring that we are both tempted to imagine ourselves sitting at the table, as well as unable to. A man who we shared the gallery space with commented that the height and the proportions of the tables isolate us in their presence, in the same way that those who might sit at the tables are isolated from one another, unable to move because their seat has become a part of the table. This work is clearly about cultures coming together, but never really finding compatibility, always isolated and alone in their uniqueness. It is about difference —different wood, different chairs, different sized sitters—and the uneasiness of coexistence. Again, the wood, its tactility, the worksmanship, the craft like care that is taken to make sure everything is at the perfect, if uncomfortable height, creates a fineness and a vulnerability to Round Table – Side by Side. And yet, it is also sturdy, showing no signs of physical fragility.
Every year I make a grand claim, and for 2014, this is the occasion. If there is one exhibition to see this year, Chen Zhen would be it. Enjoy!