Review: Chen Zhen, Serpentine Gallery | Arts critics | guardian.co.uk Arts

12Jun12

Review: Chen Zhen, Serpentine Gallery | Arts critics | guardian.co.uk Arts.

Guardian Review from 2001

Chairs doubling up as drums, potties turned into loudspeakers: Chen Zhen’s show makes the right noises. By Adrian Searle

Tuesday 1 May 2001
The Guardian

The new exhibition at the Serpentine devotes an entire room to a sculpture made of old chairs and bedsteads, strung from a huge wooden loom. The bedsprings and chair seats have been replaced by taut animal hides, turning the furniture into drums that you are invited to hit with wooden batons. Jue Chang – Fifty Strokes to Each, by Chinese artist Chen Zhen, was first presented at the Tel Aviv Museum of Art. When I first saw it, two years ago in Venice, I wanted to run away from the throng of visitors letting off steam, pounding away, raising dust and a horrible cacophony.

I’ve never much liked art that requires this sort of participation. By and large I find it silly, but perhaps that’s my English reticence and sense of embarrassment. The critic habitually prefers looking studious and slightly troubled; I for one gave up my Ginger Baker impressions some years ago. But don’t you want to have a whack, just a little one, to let out your inner child and make a bloody great row for once? The purpose of this sculpture – and Chen Zhen’s art has always striven for social function – is to drive out demons. The title refers to a Chan Buddhist maxim that recommends parties in conflict be subjected to “50 blows each” as a method of resolving the dispute and achieving catharsis. It is a kind of homeopathy, treating like with like, violence with violence. It’s a way of knocking heads together.

Chen Zhen, who died unexpectedly at the age of 45 last year, wanted his art, like that of Joseph Beuys, to have a therapeutic purpose. He was also concerned with creating a dynamic relationship between the cultures of east and west, and between mankind, technology and nature, between the self and the body. In his art he attempted to bring Chinese philosophy and medicine together with western avant-garde manners. He was an artist caught between languages and between erroneous western assumptions of margin and centre. He wanted to unravel complexities, to say something about where we stand now.

This is laudable, but with all such enterprises there is a danger that the work itself can be overturned by its cargo. And I always feel perturbed by contemporary artists who chase new age-ish notions about art’s capacity to heal or change the world. Doesn’t history teach us that culture – in whatever form – never prevented anyone from behaving like an absolute bastard? The abjection of much of Beuys’s work, its terrible somnolent poetry, seems to recognise this. And, digging around in Zhen’s work, I’m also aware that it has a melancholy streak, an apprehension of its own impotence. It is interesting to learn that he was planning to train as a doctor of traditional Chinese medicine at the time of his death.

All artists have to believe in something, have to have some strong concept of what they are doing and what art is capable of. Maybe it doesn’t much matter what they believe in so long as their ideas manifest themselves in interesting and coherent ways. At its best, I find Chen Zhen’s work moving and inexplicable. My eyes refuse to follow the signposts, and the issues matter less to me than my engagement in his forms.

He was born in Shanghai and educated in the post-Cultural Revolution epoch. A sickly child, he developed a blood disorder that required treatment throughout his life. In the mid-1980s he moved to France, where he became increasingly concerned about the relationship between dominant culture and dispossession and spent much of his time travelling and working with community groups – in Soweto, in Brazil, in southern Asia. His projects were diverse, provocative, funny and sometimes painful.

Most of his works were in essence a kind of bricolage: there are sculptures here using an infant’s high-chair; a “crystal ball” made from a glass globe filled with saline solution; big, bulbous forms made from Buddhist prayer beads. They define him as an artist working in a minor key, and there’s a danger that Fifty Strokes to Each, his best-known work, will drown out the rest of the exhibition.

Zhen had a great feel for materials and conjunctions, and a sensitivity to form (especially to the biomorphic). He shared Louise Bourgeois‘s sense of the dramatic, painful meeting of the organic with the detritus of human artefacts, although he was apparently ignorant of her work for much of his career.

An aborted project for a zen garden, to be constructed in the Tuscan countryside near San Gimignano, is shown here as a model, but a model that already appears to be exactly the right size. On a table-top stands an octagonal walled structure containing an area of raked sand. On the sand, and rising over the walls, are five translucent, glowing alabaster forms, representing the five major organs of the body. These bulbous, complex shapes are pierced by needles and scalpels and clamped with large metal forceps. This works very well on the scale of the model, but I’d be wary of the gigantism of the finalised project.

The most affecting works here are sculptures using small coloured candles. Again, using forms meant to represent bodily organs (though not so obviously that the work becomes illustrational), Chen Zhen created a landscape of interconnecting islands that appear to float, suspended on spindly steel rods. Like ruined cities, or strange volcanic islands, the forms are made entirely from bundles and higgledy-piggledy arrangements of the candles. Looking at Inner Body Landscapes, you flip from reading the floating forms as a kind of atoll to seeing them as ramshackle barrios and buildings, then as strangely anatomical structures. However you read these agglomerations of candles, and the lucid rhythms and structures of their arrangement, you get lost in looking. It is a work of great visual pleasure.

A second, related work has a kind of miniature house of candles set on a small old wooden chair, which has been hung on the wall at eye level. The house of candles – a kind of temple or domestic altar, with rooms and windows you can peak into, dimly – is embraced by the chair’s arms. I thought – perhaps inevitably, given my irrefutably western cultural conditioning – of images of the infant Jesus on Mary’s lap. This could have been twee (the body as a temple for the soul, and all that twaddle) but the chair’s decay, its splinted rear leg, the nails and worm-holes and wax spatters, the rude craftsmanship of the chair’s construction, made me think instead of human decay, of compassion, of fragility. The candles, of course, remind you of birthdays and votive acts. It is still a consummate work, one that says as much, if not more, than Chen Zhen’s bigger enterprises. Its form is just right.

If the drumming doesn’t get to you, a second very large work might. It is built from old Chinese wooden chamber pots, battered little wooden barrels hung on a kind of multi-layered wooden rack as though they were bells. From the barrels come the sounds of Chinese women’s voices, the noise of the pots being swilled out and murmured readings from Mao’s Little Red Book. These pots are almost obsolete and are juxtaposed with a sort of Medusa’s head of old TVs, radios, turntables, coiled and trailing wires, the wreckage of western consumerist products. This piece, Daily Incantations, is a cumbersome sort of dysfunctional memory machine.

And that’s the trouble here, where Chen Zhen’s work, for all its allusiveness, its struggle to say too much, is reduced to what a gallery can comfortably handle. The artist was bigger than this show allows, a more generous spirit. His was an unfinished, unresolved project, but one deserving of our admiration. The messages he sent out will continue to have their effect.

· Chen Zhen is at the Serpentine Gallery, London W2 (020-7298 1515), until June 3 2001.

Interesting to learn that the 2012 Pavilion at the Serpentine is by the architects responsible for the Tate Tanks project and that both are underground.

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