Boston/New York

Chen Zhen

Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston / P.S. 1 Contemporary Art Center

In 1986, after Chen Zhen left Shanghai for Paris and abandoned painting for sculptural installation, he coined the term “transexperience” to describe a certain self-awareness of homelessness and the active bringing together of cultures that characterized both his life and his art. His interest in combining traditional Chinese philosophy (suppressed in many forms under Mao) with contemporary art and ideas in the West best expressed itself in the poetic works created during his painful final years, when he was battling the autoimmune disorder that would claim his life in 2000. In the exhibition at Boston’s ICA, organized by assistant curator Gilbert Vicario, Chen’s experience as a patient/healer was mapped through seventeen forceful meditations on therapy and spirituality realized by the artist between 1998 and 2000. (Coming from a family of doctors, Chen believed in the restorative value of the work of art.) Inner Body Landscapes, 2000, from which the exhibition at ICA took its title, is a series of five interconnected sculptures composed of colored votive candles representing the heart, lungs, spleen, stomach, and liver. Presented on iron platforms, they suggest the synergy of the body’s organs—a tenet as germane to Chinese medicine as to the mountains and valleys found in traditional Chinese landscape painting. Another, more menacing work referring to medicine is Black Broom, 2000: Hanging from the ceiling is a giant broom with bristles made of black transfusion tubing and hypodermic needles, a work that provokes thoughts of Man Ray’s spiked flatiron, The Gift, 1921.

Jue Chang (Fifty Strokes to Each), 1998, one of Chen’s best-known site-specific installations, was commissioned by the Tel Aviv Museum of Art at a crucial moment in the Israeli/Palestinian conflict. It comprises more than sixty well-worn wooden chairs, beds, and stools (culled from flea markets in Paris and Shanghai) that, stretched with animal skins, have been transformed into drums. Hung from a wooden structure shaped like the Chinese character for “power and steadfastness,” each element of the giant percussion piece is meant to be played by visitors with wooden sticks modeled after billy clubs. Convinced that only the public’s collective energy could restore (or create) hope for a peaceful future, Chen from the start designed the huge work to travel. Reminiscent of Colombian artist Doris Salcedo’s use of animal membranes in her politically charged indictments of violence, Jue Chang nonetheless contains a more uplifting and empowering message. At P.S. 1, where it is installed with additional chairs and other elements, the work seems to take on even more pathos and contemporary relevance. From the beginning of the war in Iraq, visitors have beaten the drums of this Jue Chang so intensely that some of the already patched cattle-hide coverings have had to be replaced.

The exhibition of Chen’s work in New York, organized by the artist’s former assistant (and current director of operations at P.S. 1) Antoine Guerrero, features additional works. On one gallery’s walls is My Diary in a Shaker Village, 1997: twenty-seven colored-pencil portraits of members of the sect coupled with a photograph and daily diary entries elegantly written in Chinese ink. In the same space is Opening of the Closed Center, 1997, in which a group of carved wooden window screens and an arrangement of Chinese cabinets and pots shield a Shaker-style caned rocking chair. Visible only through the surrounding screens, the chair, according to Guerrero, was intended as a meditative space for Buddha. Along with Salcedo, Felix Gonzalez-Torres, and Anish Kapoor, Chen Zhen worked to bring together metaphysical and spiritual opposites into fragile, highly potent works whose social conscience is profound.

Francine Koslow Miller