Chen Zhen

Chinese artist Chen Zhen’s Champ de désinfection (Field of purification, 1995) transformed the exhibition space into a trajectory that mirrored the artist’s journey from his native China to France. At the entrance a modest cabin made of wood disrupted one’s usual course through the gallery. Inside its cramped interior, intravenous bottles filled with mud hung next to a bed and a table, as though someone had just been given a soil infusion. The cabin had the standard dimensions of a Parisian maid’s room, evoking the one in which Zhen lived for almost four years when he first arrived in Paris. It seemed to serve as a metaphor for the body as well for the artist’s relationship to the world—a relationship comprised of the dialogues, conflicts, and strange misunderstandings that often result from the collision of two radically different cultures and ideologies.

After passing through the cabin into the space behind it, one found that the floor and walls of the gallery, as well as a large assortment of ordinary objects, were entirely covered with a skinlike coating of dried mud, as if one were viewing the site of an archaeological dig—an impression intensified by the panoramic view that could be had from the balcony of the mezzanine. At a time when objects can be said to have no “memory,” when they seem increasingly ephemeral and culture as a whole is increasingly commodified, Zhen’s work calls for a more careful balance between the environment and society. Champs de désinfection invokes the need to envision recycling as a strategy of production—to conceive of objects not as something meant to last for an instant but as part of time itself.

Earth, in traditional Chinese medicine, is linked to purification. Ancient Chinese texts speak of therapeutic treatments involving the use of earth to cure certain illnesses, as well as to cleanse not only tainted or contaminated objects and spaces, but also the human body. Inscribed on the earth-coated walls, the artist’s French translations of Buddhist texts concerning dust and cleanliness, clearly proposed a rereading of his native culture in a Western context. As Zhen notes, “ . . . the invasion of the space and the object by earth is not the simple introduction of a natural material into an artistic field, but the expression of a violence that corresponds to man’s in regard to nature.” Zhen’s gesture is nature’s “revenge.”

Jérôme Sans

Translated from the French by Jeanine Herman.