Chen Zhen: A Tribute
February 16—August 31, 2003
P.S.1 Contemporary Art Center presents an exhibition of installations, drawings, and sculptures by Chinese-born artist Chen Zhen (1955–2000). As a tribute to the artist, P.S.1 presents works created during the last five years of his life, all of which poetically articulate his knowledge of traditional Chinese culture and Western avant-garde art to engage Eastern and Western audiences. Born in Shanghai in 1955, Chen Zhen grew up during the tumultuous years of the Cultural Revolution, which ended in the late 1970s. With this transition, Chen became interested in combining traditional Chinese philosophy (forbidden under Maoist rule) and Western practices as an alternative to the government's official cultural ideology. After immigrating to Paris in 1986 to attend the Ecole Nationale Suprieure des Beaux-Arts and the Institut des Hautes Etudes en Arts Plastiques, he abandoned his early work in painting in favor of mixed media installation.
A central theme in Chen's work is creating harmony through difference. Using the human body, illness, and medicine as metaphors, Chen explores the intricate and often paradoxical relationship between the material and the spiritual, community and individual, and interior and exterior. Using his concept of the organic whole, derived from Chinese medical theory, Chen constructs complete entities from disparate components, referencing the human body or an architectural model.
At a time when neither multiculturalism nor globalization had been articulated, Chen was interested in cross-cultural social dynamics. His work reflects his absorption of different cultures, social contexts, and aesthetic approaches in an increasingly globalized world. With highly interactive elements, Chen's works foster an exchange between artistic space and the observer. Using sound and everyday materials such as candles, beds, chairs, and even chamber pots, Chen links the physical world to the spiritual, ritualistic one. The result is an aesthetic immersed in the traditional past, but aligned with the present.
For Jue Chang—Fifty Strokes to Each (1998), Chen stretched animal skins over the flat surfaces of more than one hundred chairs and beds collected from different parts of the world, creating makeshift drums hung from a large wooden frame. Chen Zhen's monumental interactive installation invites a diverse audience to create a collective voice by playing the drums. Inner Body Landscape (2000) is composed of five interconnected sculptures made from hundreds of colored candles, Chinese symbols of individual lives. This installation refers to the traditional Chinese belief that the entire body, rather than just the disease, must be treated for healing.
Chen's installation of three sculptures, Autel de Lumiere (2000), children's wooden chairs piled with multi-colored candles, symbolize houses where diverse cultures co-exist, forming a village without borders. The exhibition will also feature one of Chen's last works, Zen Garden (2000), in which illuminated representations of body organs made of smooth alabaster—pierced by metal medical instruments such as forceps, tweezers, and scissors—are suspended over raked sand. This model for a public garden fuses Chinese and Western views of medicine. Chen transforms a household object in Black Broom (2000) fabricating a larger-than-life sculpture from transfusion tubing with hypodermic needles protruding from the "bristles." Crystal Ball (1999), a spherical flask filled with saline solution surrounded by an organic cage made of abacus and prayer beads, and Crystal Landscape of Inner Body (2000), made of pieces of clear blown glass shaped as internal organs, also address opposing approaches in Eastern and Western medicine. Several drawings for Zen Garden and Inner Body Landscape supplement the installations.
In addition to recent tributes in Greece, Italy, and the United States to Chen Zhen, who died from the rare medical condition autoimmune hemolytic anemia in 2000, his work has been presented at venues throughout Asia, Africa, Europe, and North and South America during the past decade. Included were group exhibitions such as Heart of Darkness, Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo, The Netherlands; First Shanghai Biennial, Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai; Hong Kong, Etc., Second Johannesburg Biennial, South Africa; and Aperto Overall, 48th Venice Biennale. Solo exhibitions have been presented at, among others, Centre International d'Art Contemporain in Montréal, Canada; Center for Contemporary Art, Kitakyushu, Japan; Deitch Projects, New York; National Maritime Museum, Stockholm, Sweden; Tel Aviv Museum of Art, Israel; MOCA Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb, Croatia; Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Italy; and ADDC—Espace Culturel François Mitterand, Prigueux.
Chen Zhen: A Tribute is organized by Antoine Guerrero, P.S.1 Director of Operations. The installation advisor is Xu Min and the project managers are Jeffrey Uslip and Rachael Zur. Special thanks to the Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, which held a modified version of this exhibition in the fall of 2002.
The exhibition catalogue accompanying Chen Zhen: A Tribute was directed by Antoine Guerrero and edited by Jeffrey Uslip and Rachael Zur. It contains texts by Jeffrey Deitch, Hou Hanru, Eleanor Heartney, France Morin, Hans Ulrich Obrist, Lorenzo Fiaschi, and Jerome Sans. It also contains artistic tributes by Eric Angels, Janine Antoni, Sylvie Blocher, Domenico De Clario, Yan Pei-Ming, Cai Guo-Quiang, Sam Samore, and Nari Ward.
Chen Zhen: A Tribute is made possible by Rosa and Gilberto Sandretto, the Cultural Services of the French Embassy, Annie Wong Art Foundation, Galleria Continua, San Gimignano, Italy, agnès b., and Anthony T. Podest.