San Gimignano

Chen Zhen, Field of Synergy, 2000, 
iron children’s beds, plastic tubes, wooden Chinese bed, lights, fan, motion sensor, numbered polystyrene balls, fabric, Plexiglas. Installation view.

Chen Zhen, Field of Synergy, 2000, 
iron children’s beds, plastic tubes, wooden Chinese bed, lights, fan, motion sensor, numbered polystyrene balls, fabric, Plexiglas. Installation view.

Chen Zhen

Galleria Continua | San Gimignano

Chen Zhen, Field of Synergy, 2000, 
iron children’s beds, plastic tubes, wooden Chinese bed, lights, fan, motion sensor, numbered polystyrene balls, fabric, Plexiglas. Installation view.

This exhibition—titled “Les pas silencieux” (The Silent Steps), after an artist’s book made by Chen Zhen in 1997—brings together a selected body of twenty works dating from between 1990 and 2000, when Chen died. Its centerpiece is a reinstallation of Field of Synergy, 2000. First created for what turned out to be the last show of Chen’s lifetime, the work now again stands out for its metaphorical force and visual power. An enormous yellow cloth completely covers the floor of the central space of the former movie theater that is now Galleria Continua. In the middle sits a canopied Chinese bed, its sides enclosed with sheets of glass, like a box. Inside the “box,” scores of numbered polystyrene balls leap about thanks to a mechanism set in motion by visitors’ movements. The little balls shoot up like in a lotto game, repeatedly falling back down in new combinations, as inscrutable as a fate we cannot command. Chen also alludes to birth and to the life cycle with the cocoons contained in children’s cribs, suspended above the fabric mantle. The installation cannot be entered; viewers have to stay beyond the edge of the cloth, looking down from the stage and balconies.

The precariousness of existence is expressed metaphorically in Chen’s works, through materials that are transformed both literally and ideally using the natural elements of air, water, and fire—especially the last. Heat warms funerary beds in La voie du sommeil (Sleeping Tao), 1992; we see burned books in Sans titre, 1990, and steam disintegrates books in La Désinfection (Disinfection), 1997, while candles—symbolic objects par excellence—are a constant presence in the artist’s work. The feeling of instability and fragility invests the sphere of existence and the body, but also objects, which the artist revives from obsolescence and rescues from wear and tear, filling them with memories, as in Jetons divins / Caisse démonique (Divine Tokens / Demonic Box), 1991, and Le Dernier portrait / L’Hibernation (Final Portrait / Hibernation), 1991. Purified or reanimated objects are no longer fetishes of the culture of consumption, but means of communication between the soul and the world.

The aforementioned Sans titre is one of a number of small or even very small works that require particular attention from the viewer. It is a sort of minuscule cooking vessel, open in the front. Skewered onto a spit is a mass of books destined to become ashes, which evokes a veritable altar where there is to be a consummation of a ritual devoted to the erasure of the memory entrusted to writing and images—not to eliminate that memory forever, but to reestablish it. The existential and intimate dimension of Chen’s work has always been inseparable from an aspect of social critique—which is never shouted, but is implicit both in his desire to give profound meaning to existence and in his rediscovery of the soul as an engine for man’s redemption. The exhibition’s title gets at the heart of this artist’s sensibility: The silent steps are those of a man whose works move on tiptoe, even when the steps are gigantic and the themes powerful.

Alessandra Pioselli

Translated from Italian by Marguerite Shore.