Bang the Drum Slowly Chen Zhen: Inner Body Landscapes
by Charles Giuliano
It is a confluence of language, both written and visual, combining Eastern themes with Western techniques of avant-garde art making that made his work particularly provocative and compelling. He stood on its head the concept that Asian philosophy, religion and ideas are by nature inscrutable, subtle and inaccessible.
This is not to imply that I understand the work in its deepest and most complex ramifications. Truly, I do not. One would require a profound knowledge of Eastern culture and medicine to fully comprehend the work. And I am not a scholar or even particularly knowledgeable about these issues. But the artist had a way of obviating these off putting restraints. The work comes to us strongly and aggressively in a most inviting and compelling manner. And in the format and tradition of the found object, readymade, assisted readymade, and assemblage that is rooted in art from Duchamp to Rauschenberg. This is not a stretch as the artist, who matured in China during the repressive years of Mao’s Cultural Revolution, left Asia to embrace concepts of contemporary art during years of study and art making in Paris.
Aspects of the work in this wonderful exhibition vividly connect to the recent experience of the paradigmatic shift toward globalism underscored by the strong presence of Asian and non Western artists in the Documenta 11 of the African curator Okwui Enwzer. This work would have fit quite comfortably into that exhibition and indeed Zhen may well be viewed as a progenitor of this development that is now so prominently coming to fruition through an endless stream of international exhibitions. In his truncated life and career Zhen was becoming a consistent choice of leading curators. I vividly recall a major work entailing an upended boat, symbolic of issues of migration, floating in a lagoon in downtown Montreal in an exhibition created by Centre International d’ Art contemporaine de Montreal.
The entire first floor of the ICA is crowded with a major piece, "Jue Chang (50 Strokes of Each)," (1998). Suspended from a massive wooden armature, forming an irregular configuration of several sections spelling out a Chinese character (impossible to decipher from ground level) are many chairs and beds with skins stretched over them to form ersatz drums. You want to bang them. Indeed you are invited to do so and there are even some sticks suspended in various places to be used for this purpose. I made a point to bang them all and enjoy the varying sounds. The most satisfying sounds were made by striking the bed frames. These produced a deep and resonating tone.
I was pretty much alone in the gallery during my visit but I asked a guard how visitors responded. She informed me that the reactions varied. Most people were timid and refrained or just tapped tentatively. But she also said that groups of students from the nearby Berklee College of Music came in groups and made for quite a clamor. How I would have enjoyed watching that. But there you are banging away at the art with little sense of what it is but having a heck of a good time. As well as enjoying the sheer wonder and sensual pleasure of the work.
The second floor of the ICA featured several separate works. These dealt with themes of the body and medicine. Clearly a fixation of the artist who succumbed to complications of a rare disease. One point raised is the difference between Chinese and Western approaches to medicine. In the West the disease is treated. For the Chinese the entire body and spirit is the focus of the therapy. Several of the works involved simulacra and signifiers of the internal organs both literal and abstracted in such materials as glass, metal, stone and wax candles.
A sensitivity to found and readily accessible materials seems to be central to the work. In one series the artist collected nearly a hundred examples of child’s chairs from around the world. On these he constructed architectonic elements comprised of melted together candles as construction materials as metaphors for light and its surrogate enlightenment. Ego sum lux mundi.
The major work of the artist’s last year is a maquette for a yet to be constructed "Zen Garden." It is an octagonal walled plan with a series of illuminated alabaster forms representing organs. These are pierced with medical instruments. The sculptural forms are raised over sand raked in the manner of an Asian garden. One may only hope that this project will one day be realized. The artist designed it for the top of a mountain in Italy.
The prevailing mood of the work is spirituality. There are many individual meditations. But the impact is not daunting and somber like worshipping in a church or chapel. This work rocks. It has a raucous element.
Boston’s Visual Artsletter
By Charles Giuliano
82 Webster Street
East Boston, Mass. 02128 USA
Issue Number 80
October 28, 2002
Copyright C 2002, Charles Giuliano
Charles Giuliano is a Boston based artist, curator and critic. He is a contributing editor of Art New England, and Nyartsmagazine, and the director of exhibitions for The New England School of Art and Design at Suffolk University. Recent issues of Maverick may be found at Retro Rocket.Com and East Boston.Com. He is represented by Flatfiles Gallery in Chicago, Gallery Gora in Montreal, and the Lyman-Eyer Gallery in Boston and Provincetown