Chen Yufan and Chen Yujun, Mulan River Project, 2007–11, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable.

Chen Yufan and Chen Yujun, Mulan River Project, 2007–11, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable.

Chen Yufan and Chen Yujun

Boers-Li Gallery

Chen Yufan and Chen Yujun, Mulan River Project, 2007–11, mixed-media installation, dimensions variable.

“Mulan River Project” was the first collaborative exhibition by the brothers Chen Yufan and Chen Yujun. It took the Mulan River, which runs through the artists’ native city of Putian, in China’s Fujian province, as its creative source. The Mulan is “mother river” to the Putianese, the source of their livelihood and culture, and it played a similarly central role in the Chens’ exhibition, with an installation representing the river made of cardboard and found materials forming the conceptual and architectural core of the show. But the artists’ ongoing “Mulan River Project,” begun in 2007, is more than a depiction of a geographical place; it is an elegy crossing space, time, and history through the memories and traditions that bind a family together. Those ties are loose and ephemeral, as in “Everyday Relationships,” 2011, in which black-and-white printouts of family photographs are folded into fragile boatlike shapes, threaded together with paper clips and cotton string. The photos, taken during successive Spring Festival celebrations, when the brothers return to Putian to spend Chinese New Year with their family, look like paper ships meant to drift away on ripples of water.

Both brothers were educated in the Integrated Art Department at the China Academy of Art in Hangzhou, and series such as “January 2007–2008” evidence the department’s trademark synthesis of disparate mediums, in this case watercolor and acrylic sketches dabbed over newspaper clippings and graph paper, a layering of media the Chens use to evoke glimpses of memories. The Chens’ installations are largely static, yet they seethe with a combination of alienation and intimacy derived from the Chens’ own background. The brothers describe Putian as a “qiaoxiang,” or ancestral home to large portions of the Chinese diaspora. An estimated 600,000 Chinese living abroad have roots there and “Mulan River Project” traces the psychic space between family members separated across many dimensions but connected by the same primordial space, where mythical imaginations are projected upon what is prosaic and real.

If the show was imbued with a sense of melancholic loss, the brothers say it is because they have already been victims of the disappearance of their heritage, and foresee a near future in which the identity they share will have disappeared. Works such as Been Continued Scene, 2011, seek to animate this loss, setting drawings and LCD screens into the surface of wood carvings. Three videos document the funeral rites observed for their grandmother’s death in 2009: a group of Buddhist monks gathering in the main hall of their home to recite scriptures, the burning of furniture owned by their grandmother, and the smoldering embers of the furniture sending sparks into the dark sky. The flames flicker on-screen in defiance of the brutal transformations of modernity.

In fact, coastal provinces with large diasporic communities have often been the first to usher in industrialization and internationalization—perhaps even modernity itself. Emigrants from such provinces were often the first link between domestic and international markets, allowing the economic growth of these areas to far outstrip that of the rest of the country. If each of the various qiaoxiang of Greater China is a heterotopia of the mainland, providing alternative visions of modernity and the Chinese self, what the Chens have constructed in their “Mulan River Project” is an attempt to use this heritage to articulate the self in the context of a greater narrative that threatens to obscure it.

Angie Baecker