Chu Yun, A Realistic Circle, 2018–19, paint on wall. Installation view, 2019.

Chu Yun, A Realistic Circle, 2018–19, paint on wall. Installation view, 2019.

Chu Yun

In 2007, Chu Yun mounted a show at Vitamin Creative Space, then located in the depths of a bustling vegetable market in Guangzhou. Titled “Smile of Matter,” the exhibition featured works made from the detritus—and conjuring the atmosphere—of a sad-sack middle-class consumer’s day-to-day life: a cellphone, a light box advertising a new laptop, a bottle of Absolut Vodka, and a radio, to name just a few. The most notable works were Constellation, 2006, a dark room packed with electrical appliances in which one saw little more than flashing indicator lights recalling a starry sky, and Who Has Stolen Our Bodies, 2002, a set of neatly arrayed bars of soap in various states of use. With these understated gestures, Chu Yun arouses memories of the minute experiences that accumulate around everyday items, allowing viewers to perceive their own embodied lives as if from an external vantage point.

Vitamin Creative Space has long since moved to a park on the outskirts of Guangzhou, christening its new outpost Mirrored Gardens. Somewhere along the journey from vegetable market to park, it has become one of China’s most influential art galleries, but also something more, as it claims to be a place where “contemporary art practices, daily life and farming-oriented life practices can be nurtured and cultivated in tandem.”

Most surprising is not the twelve-year gap between Chu Yun’s two shows in Guangzhou—in fact, he previously had not had a solo exhibition since an outing at Frankfurt’s Portikus in 2009—but the startling continuity between them. Titled “The Mind of Things,” the recent exhibition was constructed, as it were, to be compared and contrasted with “Smile of Matter,” so that, ideally, viewers would have the earlier exhibition in mind while seeing the new one. If “Smile” was about our incidental experience of things, then “Mind” was about their necessary existence. Chu Yun’s theme thus verges on the epistemological: Ordinary “things” must be understood in the context of Kant’s a priori knowledge of categories such as time and space, prior to experience. Accordingly, The Image of Numbers, 2018–19, and An Ordinary Moment, 2018, tested one’s inner sense of temporality. In the former, a ten-second countdown, played from surround-sound speakers, does not actually correspond to ten seconds of clock time. In the latter, however, a punch clock “correctly” records numerical time. Consequently, time becomes both the object of perception as well as its a priori condition. This dichotomy within our “real” temporal existence is akin to the aporia presented by A Realistic Circle, 2018–19, wherein a real painted circle necessarily evokes the pure concept of a circle although in perception they are not in accord: Appearing high on a wall, it is always seen by viewers from an angle and therefore does not look like the perfect circle that it is.

From “Smile of Matter” to “The Mind of Things,” we can see a shift in the valence of Chu Yun’s concerns, from the empirical observation of objects down toward an analysis of their state of being. Such analysis does not proceed through concepts and argument, but through construction and enumeration, as with perceptual mapping.

Translated from Chinese by Qing Zhang.