A Paris Portal
Published in Chen Zhen: The Body as Landscape, ed. Ilse Lafer
Vienna: Kunsthalle Wien, 2007
I first met Chen Zhen in 1995. I was living in Paris and teaching at the École des Beaux-Arts. While there I was introduced to a number of Chinese artists and curators who had immigrated to France. They included the artists Yang Jiechang, Huang Yong Ping, Yan Pei-Ming, and the curator Hou Hanru. It was the latter who suggested that I contact another Chinese artist living in Paris: Chen Zhen. Hou said he was sure that we would get along. His intuition intrigued me. Apart from our Chinese heritage, what common ground could I possibly share with someone who had grown up an ocean away? I did not know much about Chen, except that he was one of many Chinese artists who had moved to Paris during the 1980s and chose to remain after the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. I was interested in learning more about him.
This was at a time when I felt great disillusionment about art and great disappointment in myself, a crisis of being which I believe afflicts all artists from time to time. I wanted to enlarge my frame of understanding of art by looking afar from that place which I was accustomed. I began to embrace an increasingly philosophical view of artistic purpose, one inscribed more in terms of the artist’s life and less in terms of the art world’s idea of the artist. I saw the necessity of letting go of the art world as I knew it in order to be more free, to rediscover the true purpose of art, and to become re-enchanted with it by giving myself over to the world. I would soon discover that Chen Zhen had long ago chosen a similar route.
Although not so many years distant, the Western art world in 1995 was only beginning to acknowledge artists and curators working outside of Europe and North America. In spite of the prescience of conceptual art and its relationship to the processes of globalization, the Western art world has been slow in transforming rhetoric into practice. I recall meeting the curator Okwui Enwezor for the first time in Paris in 1995. He was relatively unknown then and was interested in curating exhibitions focused on contemporary African art. But he was having difficulty finding institutions that would commit to his projects. Nevertheless, something was in the air. New faces were appearing in the art world from places such as China, Africa, Mexico, and other previously marginalized areas of the world, and their presence contributed a new and urgent purpose to art. It struck me that there was much to learn during my time in Paris.
I called Chen and was kindly invited to his apartment near Paris’s Chinatown in the 13th arrondissement for dinner. I had never been to this part of the city before and was struck by how different it looked from the rest of Paris, with its concrete high-rises and an ambitious modernist complex called Les Olympiades. An uncanny feeling of familiarity—a “spiritual running away,” as Chen would say—washed over me as I walked past Chinese Parisians going about their day.1 At that moment, I suddenly felt as though I was no longer on my way to meet a stranger, but rather someone connected to my past. And, in a sense, I was.
My formative knowledge of China came from my immediate family growing up in Vancouver’s Chinatown. My grandfather would tell me stories about China before and after the Communist Revolution of 1949. Every month he would bring home a copy of China Today. It was an illustrated publication glorifying life in Mao Zedong’s China. Chen Zhen could have been one of those children featured in China Today that I had related to as a boy. It was difficult for me to articulate why, but as I walked toward Chen’s apartment I sensed an opportunity to know myself better through another.
I arrived on Chen’s street but had difficulty locating his apartment. I could not find the apartment number, for no number existed on his door. Or, perhaps, there was a number, only I could not find it. It was only after Chen came out into the courtyard of his complex that his home was revealed. In hindsight, the absence of a number pointed to a kind of dislocation of location, a home without an address. Chen explored this sense of dislocated habitation in much of his work.
Maison Portable (2000) is a work that is simultaneously a cradle, a cage, a wagon, a playpen, a Chinese sedan, and a prison. Constructed mainly of wood and supported by four wheels with handles at either end, the interior is filled with melted red candles that form an anthropomorphic shape lying in repose. The caravan-like appearance of the work suggests mobility. And the viewer is invited to speculate on the future course this enclosed figure will take.
Describing Maison Portable, Chen wrote: “The house can be a utopian space, virtual, immaterial, spiritual, a space ‘between.’ This is why the real house has no address. I am a ‘homeless person’ and even Paris, where I have been living for fifteen years, is just a stopover for me.”2 Of course, Chen did have a fixed address and was not homeless in the destitute sense. He did not identify himself as a nomad, a figure of great currency in the art world embodying the flows and distributions of migration and power. Indeed, there is an ambiguous parallelism with the contemporary art world’s equation of the artist as nomad.
Artists today are increasingly called upon to represent particular ethnic communities of which they may be a part. One of the potential problems with this is the reification of essentialized ethnic identities that contradict the increasing levels of transnational privilege and mobility that many artists working today enjoy. Chen negotiated this contradiction by constructing the experiences of “homelessness” developed by ancient Chinese philosophers such as Shen Tao and Lao Tzu. The former famously advocated that one should “abandon knowledge and discard self” in order to experience a life unencumbered by those conventions produced in the service of the social order.3 Lao Tzu claimed that:
When all beneath heaven is your self in renown
you trust yourself to all beneath heaven,
and when all beneath heaven is your self in love
you dwell throughout all beneath heaven.4
This passage describes an unanchored state where the self is located “all beneath heaven” and has the capacity to open up to the world.
The Tao Te Ching, or The Classic of the Way of Virtue (ca. 600 BCE), is attributed to Lao Tzu, record keeper of the imperial library during the Zhou Dynasty. Comprised of paradoxical poems, the Tao Te Ching is a literature of metaphysical teachings emphasizing the contingency and continuity of all that comes to pass in the world. The Tao is a Principle or Way, which represents “unimpeded harmony” and is everywhere and in everything. It is not something imposed from without but something that requires discovery from within:
It is we who need to discover that Way [Tao], which is immanent in all aspects of the world, not a rule imposed from without; and we need to fit into it, letting things take their course, not exerting ourselves in opposition to it by trying to bend things to our will.5
One must give oneself over to the world and the contingencies of existence. But it is necessary to maintain an ethical life. Throughout his career, Chen spoke about finding love in one’s relationship to the world, a love that can only be found upon the forsaking of self-love. Chen’s notion of a surrender of the self is not meant to function as a means of transcendence but rather a way to challenge us to revise our notions of identity and to think of ourselves differently, away from processes of individual definition with its inherent inflexibility against collective memory and its focus on self-affirmation.
When I met Chen for the first time, he shook my hand warmly with both hands. I immediately felt a connection. At first I felt awkward about not being able to converse in Mandarin. But unlike others who have questioned and even ridiculed me for this deficiency, Chen accepted me for who I am. He understood the historical reasons why my Mandarin-speaking mother decided that my brother and I learn Cantonese and English rather than Mandarin. When I was growing up, Mandarin was not spoken in Vancouver’s Chinatown. Almost all of the Chinese inhabiting the city at that time had emigrated from Guangdong Province in the south of China where the Cantonese dialect is favoured.
Our dinner conversation kept returning to the topic of travel and identity. Chen’s ideas about travel were more complicated than the metaphor of the nomad, that boundary-defying muse of so much contemporary art theory. He was more interested in thinking about acts of passage and the laws of the immigrant. For Chen, passage bears moral weight and historical anchoring, perhaps akin to Confucius’s regard for China’s ancient past. Confucius saw the past as a point of perpetual return for understanding the present. As he would say: “Study the past as if you would define the future.”6
The intertwining of diachronic and synchronic time is a salient thread in Chen Zhen’s art. So many of his works use materials that are in themselves full of time. The layering of time is powerfully conveyed in his extensive use of natural materials such as earth, iron, wood, ceramic, foodstuffs, candles, and cotton clothing. All of these materials refer to the lived world that they once occupied.
In Chair of Nirvana (1997), several chairs are tied together to form a latticed dome over a cradle base. The assemblage of weathered chairs constitutes a present community but makes reference to past lives. The title of the work calls up a third temporality, that of eternal time.
Chen’s work also often invokes ideas of suspension and states of liminality. Like Chair of Nirvana, many of his installations employ materials that suspend or elevate other materials. String, rope, and steel are used to render liminal everyday objects so that they are given new orientations and meanings. Chairs are often made to hover in the air, their physical injuries accompanied by a sense of transcendental endowment. Chen salvages them, imbues them with love, and sets them on a new path.
In Round Table (1995), chairs from five continents are brought together to form a new structure that evokes the round dining tables of Chinese banquets and restaurants. But the familiarity of the tables and chairs is rendered strange by the ways in which they have been embedded into one another and stripped of their original function. In his discussion of the table that appears in Karl Marx’s Kapital (1867), Jacques Derrida states:
This table has been worn down, exploited, over-exploited, or else set-aside, no longer in use, in antique shops or auction rooms. The thing is at once set aside and beside itself. One no longer knows, beneath the hermeneutic patina, what this piece of wood, whose example suddenly looms up, is good for and what it is worth.7
Chen’s table looms up but in a different way. It is not a table by itself, but altered so that a series of paradoxical significations emerge.
In other works, Chen employs a strategy of supplementation in order to draw attention to paradoxes existing in the relationship between life and death. The supplement, according to Derrida, “comes to an aid of something original or natural.”8 The supplement is a device dependant on ambiguity. What is supplementary can always be interpreted in two ways.
In Un monde accroché/detaché (1990), ninety-nine found objects of varying scale, degraded of their use value and recuperated from abandonment, are conjoined onto the branches and trunks of a burnt forest outside of Paris. The denatured landscape is given visual and symbolic sustenance by the affecting supplementation of everyday objects. The viewer is confronted with a strange and haunted landscape that embodies the crossover between the real and the unreal, on the one hand, and completion and depletion, on the other. In the reanimation of the forest through supplementation, the objects function as a memento mori of that space.
Chen and his wife, the artist Xu Min, made a wonderful meal. I recall Chen deftly handling the wok for one of the dishes. He told me of his desire to become a doctor of Chinese medicine so that he could heal himself from the life-threatening disease that scourged his body. We talked at length about health and the spiritual dimensions of life. I recall thinking about how spiritual Chen was in terms of his affinities to Chinese ontological precepts. I remember thinking about how Chen was not a man in search of wholeness but one who understood the world as a whole no matter how deficient and injurious the world may be.
The body, health, and medicine are syncretic terms in Chen’s art. As in the concept of the yin and yang, the condition of illness contains within it the potential of health and wellbeing, just as the reverse is also true. At one point during the evening, Chen asked me if I had suffered illness or if there had been any illness in my family. I did not find the questions intrusive in the least. On the contrary, his caring curiosity was reassuring and caused me to think about my existence at that moment. It also made me think about my mother, who had died years before of leukemia, and my sister, who had never been given the chance to grow up.
Chen shared with me his experiences of illness. He told me that many members of his family were doctors. And he spoke convincingly of the possibility of healing himself. This was conveyed with a modesty that struck me. I sensed his belief that nothing in life was self-evident and that one had no choice but to give oneself over to life at every moment of being. Chen wrote, “I dream of discovering how the immune system is ‘a second brain,’ and how we can cure by being attentive to everyday experience.”9 He claimed: “When one’s body becomes a kind of laboratory, a source of imagination and experiment, the process of life transforms itself into art.”10 This statement is a reminder of the profound interconnectedness of art and life that complicates the Western art-historical ideal of the sublation of art into life as a reconciliation of two estranged terms. For Chen, every day meant taking medications that let him “keep a cool head” and made him “less proud.”11 He asserted that the project of becoming a doctor would be a synthesis of his life and the making of art.12
Six Roots (2000) takes the form of an allegory comprised of seven installations in six parts. The title refers to a Buddhist expression describing the main senses of our body. Chen borrowed this Buddhist theme to consider the “six stages of life” and the many contradictory aspects of human behaviour.13 The themes of birth, childhood, conflict, suffering, memory, and death-rebirth are presented. Significantly, death is not presented as the end stage, but rather the setting for a transcendental re-emergence in life. Conflict and suffering and the memory of them express the ineluctability of life in the here-and-now. The acknowledgement of conflict and suffering was but the first step in effecting their respective conclusions. Six Roots asks us to consider the following questions: How does memory operate in relation to a reordered life where there is disjuncture between past experiences and present realities? What is rebirth in the context of a haunted inner life and an exterior that may be deeply discordant with the values of one’s memories? And given the circularity of death and rebirth, are exile, displacement, and loss permanent symptoms of identity creation and recreation? For Chen, harmony and reconciliation are ambiguous terms, effected by the passage of time and the accumulation of wounds.
Chen’s warmth and compassion seemed without end in him. The puffiness of his countenance, caused by cortisone treatment, gave him a Buddhist aura. He was curious about what it was like for me to be Chinese, and born and raised outside of China. He told me that he had a sister living in Richmond, a suburb of Vancouver. He was fascinated with how Vancouver’s sizable Chinese population occupied an important role in terms of the city’s social politics.
I told him that it had not always been this way, and that the Chinese in Canada could not vote until 1947 in national elections, and 1949 in the province of British Columbia. Canadian immigration laws made a special case of the Chinese through the Chinese Exclusion Act, which placed a head tax on all immigrants from China. This head tax effectively eliminated the immigration of Chinese women and children, and was combined with laws that made it illegal for white women to work for Chinese-owned businesses, namely restaurants and laundries. Several generations of Chinese men, integral to the building of the Canadian nation, died without ever re-establishing long-severed familial ties. This is in contrast to the way in which Paris’s Chinatown is found at some distance from the historical centre of the city. Today, the Chinese in Vancouver reside not only in Chinatown but also in all parts of the city.
This awareness seemed to give Chen satisfaction in knowing that the unity of different peoples was possible. For him, ethnicity was a category of mediation existing between groups that can only function in the presence of more than one group. One of ethnicity’s fundamental properties is the articulation between self and other. Chen’s reference to Chineseness in his work emanated from his own relationship to the world as an ethnically Chinese man. Stuart Hall has emphasized the necessity of recognizing that the figure of the migrant “comes out of particular histories and cultures and that everyone speaks from positions within the global distribution of power.”14
It is important to consider the ways in which Chen modulated the terms of migration and ethnicity without reducing them to reified terms. Rather, his modulation is highly situational and relational, and allows for an examination of social identity in multitudinous layers. Much of Chen’s art is an expression of how ethnicity is a contingent, rather than closed, concept. The presence of subjectivity sits in complex fashion next to the traditional Chinese concept of ontology, a theory of being that is founded centrally on a heterogeneous synergy of being revolving around a yin-yang dialectic of bipolarity that abounds with philosophical agonisms. At the heart of Chen’s art is the idea of self-actualization. It is an idea that the Chinese poet Lu Xun deals with in Diary of a Madman (1918), in which he equates China’s national turpitude at the beginning of the twentieth century with the repression of the individual.15 For Chen, the experience of ethnicity is a constantly changing process.
In Precipitous Parturition (1999), numerous bicycle frames and tires are suspended on rafters to appear as a “dragon-snake giving birth to countless toy cars painted in black.”16 The idea for the work emerged from the remark, commonly expressed, regarding the transformation of China from a nation of bicycles to a nation of automobiles. The celestial origin of the dragon is vetted through the prism of actuality, as there is no masking the constituent parts of its construction and the support system of the exhibition space rafters.
Signifiers of Chinese identity in the image of the bicycle and the dragon are conflated. The dragon is an ancient symbol of Chinese culture, while the bicycle is a marker of Maoist modernity with its links to social utopia. The toy cars in the installation prosecute an ambiguous role as both natal and parasitic, appearing as an army of insect-like vehicles that breach the symbolic space of the bicycle-dragon into the real space of the exhibition space. As a symbol of power and divinity, the dragon is swarmed by the little cars, and there is a sense of foreboding that the dragon itself could be destroyed by the cars that it begat. Past, present, and future are braided together in a complex and tension-filled entanglement. Yet the materials employed and the forms produced do not evoke only a problem of modernity confronting China, as they also have resonance with other places in the developing world.
Chen was curious about the life of those Chinese who had immigrated to British Columbia in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. I told him about my grandfather, who arrived in Vancouver in 1908. He was one of the last of the coolie immigrants brought over to Canada to work on the construction of the Canadian railways. I told Chen that my grandfather never forgave me for accepting student summer employment with Via Rail, a government-run passenger rail service that took visitors to the Rocky Mountains. My grandfather saw my action as a personal betrayal. It was not fair of him, but in light of his experiences while building the railway, it was understandable. At that point, I recall vividly Chen mentioning something about the violence of migration. He said that migration imparts a violence that goes beyond the ideological inscription of social othering and stigmatization. He said that it has the ability to penetrate deeply into the recesses of the individual’s physical body, to the cellular level of mnemonic registration.
Chen’s idea of the migrant as both an eschatological and regenerating subject is a thread that courses through much of his art. In La digestion perpétuelle (1995), new and used Chinese artifacts such as abacuses, Mahjong tiles, electric fans, scales, vases, and porcelain dishes are partitioned in loose groupings within a food turntable, or “Lazy Susan,” mounted on a dining table surrounded by traditional Chinese chairs. The food turntable is a feature of many Chinese banquet tables. Used here, it is a device that invites the viewer to symbolically partake of the objects in an eternal cycle of bodily processing and maceration.
Such ideas recur in Field of Waste (1994), where the supplementary binary of degeneration and regeneration forms the axial points of an installation comprised of sewn-together garments and interspersed Chinese and American flags laid out on the floor. The assemblage of clothing and flags takes the shape of a wedge, which pierces a mound of charred newspapers that resemble coal. At the base of the wedge are sewing machines similar to those found in sweatshops today. The two components interact dialectically in that there is an ambiguity in terms of which one is devouring the other.
Often overlooked in writings on Chen’s work is the particularized and sharp political content that imbues his art. The politics in Chen’s art operates as a re-imagining of community that considers the specificities of China’s and, by implication, the developing world’s relationship to modernity. It is a politics articulated in terms both concise and poetic. Field of Waste is very much an expression of anguish relating to the plight of the garment-factory sweatshop worker, of which many are Chinese. According to Chen, the work,
Introduces burning and sewing as the main plastic method and the way of transformation. The first is revolutionary, destructive and chaotic, while the second is more constructive, re-organizing and crossbreeding. The sewing process as a “plastic language” links very closely with the fact that the sweatshop was, and still is one main method of survival for Chinese immigration.17
As someone who is a beneficiary of the labours of the sweatshop—my mother, aunts and uncles all worked and continue to work in sweatshops—Chen’s invocation of politics within the complex forms of his art continue to affect me in a profound way. Very early on in my life, I became aware of the experience of the migrant in terms of social hardship and penury. I witnessed the psychic and physical damage caused by economic and racial exploitation.
In spite of the painful realities that often accompany the experience of migration, it is necessary to acknowledge the shifting definition of the migrant. It is necessary for the reason of accepting all that may be possible in terms of the empowerment of that individual defined as a migrant. Salman Rushdie has written extensively on this subject:
The effect of mass migrations has been the creation of radically new types of human being: people who root themselves in ideas rather than in places, in memories as much as in material things; people who have been obliged to define themselves—because they are so defined by others—by their otherness; people in whose deepest selves strange fusions occur, unprecedented unions between what they were and where they find themselves.18
Gayatri Spivak’s theory of “strategic essentialism” is that which enables diasporic identifications with a specific ethnicity—such as Chineseness—to carry some originary cultural identity with the idea of a return home, despite identity being marked by hybridity rendering home a highly problematized site of desire. It seems to me that this contradiction is at the forefront of what guides Chen’s art. He coined the term “transexperiences” to articulate “the complex life experiences of leaving one’s native place and going from one place to another in one’s life.”19 Leaving one’s native place for another place implied for Chen a concomitant passing-through from this life to whatever may follow. For Chen, illness became a succor for his creativity. The yin-and-yang dualisms of life and death, and degeneration and regeneration, became for him a dialectics of his art. They are processes that Chen would diagnose through his art.
Toward the end of our dinner, I felt a strong bond with Chen that carried far beyond our common ethnic heritage. During a period of disillusionment for me, he reminded me of the need to always form and express new connections in one’s art, especially in terms of the ways in which one inhabits the world. Above all, I think, Chen’s art was about questioning how one lives a life of love and purpose, love for the world and purpose in terms of one’s gift to the world. As I was about to leave his apartment that evening, I thanked Chen Zhen and Xu Min for the delicious meal that they had prepared for me. Chen gave me strength that day. I knew that I wanted to see him again, if only for the selfish reason of feeding off his passion. I knew that I had met someone special. As I walked out of his apartment into the Paris air, I recall how everything seemed that much more vivid, and I felt grateful for all that I saw around me.
1 Reference to a “spiritual running away” is made in Transexperiences: A Conversation Between Chen Zhen and Xian Zhu (Kitakyushu: Center for Contemporary Art and Korinsha Press, 1998), 1.
2 Chen Zhen, Chen Zhen: Invocation of Washing Fire (Gli Ori: Prato, 2003), 190.
4 Lao Tzu, Tao Te Ching, trans. David Hinton (Washington, DC: Counterpoint Press, 2002), ch. 13.
5 The Essential Tao, trans. Thomas Clearly (New York: HarperCollins, 1991), 10.
6 Confucius, Analects, ch. 2, v. 11.
7 Jacques Derrida, Specters of Marx, the State of the Debt, the Work of Mourning, and the New International, trans. Peggy Kamuf (London: Routledge, 1994), 142–46.
8 Jacques Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Spivak (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1997), 181.
9 Chen Zhen, Invocation, 310.
10 Ibid., 321.
11 Ibid., 334.
12 Ibid., 336.
13 Ibid., 312.
14 Stuart Hall, “The Meaning of New Times,” in New Times, ed. Stuart Hall and Martin Jacques (London: Lawrence and Wishart, 1989), 133.
15 Lu Xun, Ah Q and Others; Selected Stories of Lusin (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1971).
16 Chen Zhen, Invocation, 250.
17 Ibid., 198.
18 Salman Rushdie, Imaginary Homelands (London: Granta, 1991), 124–25.
19 Transexperiences, 3.