Eclipsing tradition: China’s Chen Qiulin on art and rapid urbanisation – interview

Art Radar talks to acclaimed Chinese contemporary artist Chen Qiulin about her upcoming, first solo exhibition in Australia.

The exhibition One Hundred Names at Sydney’s 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art features a selection of Chen Qiulin’s work over the past ten years, as well as a newly commissioned piece. Art Radar chats with Chen Qiulin about this new exhibition and the themes that drive her work.

Chen Qiulin, ‘The Garden No. 3’, 2007, C-type print, 100 x 82 cm. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Chen Qiulin, ‘The Garden No. 3’, 2007, C-type print, 100 x 82 cm. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Chinese artist Chen Qiulin (b. 1975) is part of a generation of artists who investigate the impacts of China’s rapid push towards economic advancement. Chen Qiulin’s work has been driven by the impacts of urban development on local communities. She first engaged with this theme in 2001 at the time of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River, which forced people from her hometown to leave, and she has been making documentaries ever since.

From 16 January to 27 February 2016 Chen Qiulin will present her first Australian solo exhibition at 4A Centre for Contemporary Asian Art in Sydney. The exhibition “One Hundred Names” includes a survey of the last ten years of her work and focuses on issues of migration and the disruption to traditional culture caused by urban development. Key works include The Garden (2007) and Farewell Poem (2007), performance pieces that explore the impact of the construction of the Three Gorges Dam that forced one million people from their ancestral homes.

Chen Qiulin, 'City Manager’ (still), 2015, single-channel HD video. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Chen Qiulin, ‘City Manager’ (still), 2015, single-channel HD video. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

In addition, the exhibition presents a special 4A commission, One Hundred Names for Kwong Wah Chong (2015), the latest in an on-going project that carves Chinese surnames in tofu. Drawing on local history, this new work celebrates Sydney’s iconic Haymarket district as an important centre for the Chinese community in the early twentieth-century.

Art Radar spoke with the artist to find out more about the ideas behind her work and her latest exhibition.

Chen Qiulin, ‘A Hundred Surnames in Tofu’ (Chen) (still), 2010, video installation. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Chen Qiulin, ‘A Hundred Surnames in Tofu’ (Chen) (still), 2010, video installation. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Chen Qiulin, could you explain how you first became interested in working in video and photography?

The construction of the Three Gorges Dam on the Yangtze River since 2001 forced a lot of people in my hometown to leave forever. I lost contact with many friends during that period. I have been making documentaries ever since so as to cherish the memory of my dear friends as well as my hometown.

For this exhibition you will present a newly commissioned video installation, A Hundred Names for Kwong Wah Chong, in response to the history of Sydney’s Haymarket and the histories of early Chinese migration to Australia. How did you develop this idea for the commission? Was it something you elaborated on in collaboration with 4A?

Yes, it was an idea developed in collaboration with 4A. I learnt about the location and history of the gallery from the curator so we decided the theme of the exhibition together in regard to the history of Sydney’s Haymarket and the histories of early Chinese migration to Australia.

Chen Qiulin, ‘A Hundred Surnames in Tofu’ (still), 2004, video installation. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Chen Qiulin, ‘A Hundred Surnames in Tofu’ (still), 2004, video installation. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Could you describe A Hundred Names for Kwong Wah Chong and what you find most interesting about this work?

One Hundred Surnames is an on-going project addressing the declination and transformation of traditional culture in contemporary China. Between 2014 and 2015, I made videos documenting the decaying process of the one hundred most common Chinese family names carved from tofu. As the latest iteration of this project, One Hundred Names for Kwong Wah Chong is a special commission for 4A as a response to the history and legacy of the earliest Chinese immigration in Australia.

We found 15 surnames that are not included in my previous works, so I looked for people of these surnames on the Internet and invited 15 individuals to participate in the work. Apart from having interviews, we also cooked common tofu dishes together in their houses. The most interesting thing for me is the process of approaching the 15 participants and having conversations with them.

There will also be short documentaries that create connections between contemporary China and early migrants to Australia through shared family names and traditional recipes. Can you describe these documentaries and your process in making them?

As a big city in China, Chengdu is home to many people who identify themselves as locals regardless of their earlier residency. Food is something deeply rooted in people’s childhood memory no matter where they live or move to. Tofu is one of the most common ingredients in China therefore in the documentaries I asked every interviewee to make a dish with tofu and we chatted about their life stories and memories associated with or influenced by food.

Chen Qiulin, ‘City Manager’ (still), 2015, single-channel HD video. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Chen Qiulin, ‘City Manager’ (still), 2015, single-channel HD video. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

You have worked with tofu in the past, could you explain how the process works and why you were drawn to this medium?

In China, tofu is one of the most common ingredients used on a daily basis. You could easily find it in every Chinese community all over the world. Tofu is also fragile and soft, making it very tricky to keep. Tofu, in some way, brings to mind what traditional Chinese culture is.

What is unique about working with tofu that keeps drawing you back to it? What are some of the challenges of working with tofu?

Tofu is as tasty as it is hard to work with. What I did was develop a theme for each city in the series that speaks to the history and culture of the local area. Take Singapore as an example, it seems to me that something stirring is much desired in their contemporary art scene. Accordingly, I focused on the strong and disturbing smell of tofu when it was slowly decaying. As for the new iteration for Sydney, tofu is used to tell the stories of the 15 individuals living in Chengdu, connecting their lived experiences to those of the early Chinese immigrates in Sydney.

Chen Qiulin, ‘The Garden No. 2’, 2007, C-type print. 100 x 82cm. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Chen Qiulin, ‘The Garden No. 2’, 2007, C-type print. 100 x 82cm. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

In your theatrical performances, I am thinking of The Garden for example, how do you develop the collaboration with local workers? How choreographed are the pieces or how involved are the workers in helping to create the work?

I am that type of director who has no script on hand but idea in mind [laughs]. The local workers were my team members rather than actors following instructions. When we were filming in Chongqing, they simply practised their routines at work as usual. Nothing was out of their life conditions except for the fake flowers that I gave to them. In fact, everyone in Chongqing is familiar with the workers’ endless traverse across the city – it is nothing but part of their labour to make a living.

You developed the Migration series several years ago between 2007 and 2009, how did this creative journey develop over that time and how do you feel about the work now?

It was the final stage in the construction of the Three Gorges Dam when the water surface had been raised up to 175 metres above the horizon. The one last standing area was going to be submerged shortly as well. I thought to myself, I could do something to spare them from disappearing. I have to! So I bought a barbershop and an alley of three shops in that area, recorded the way they had always been and moved them out before the flood came. In retrospect, I have never regretted this ‘irrational’ decision because parts of the area survived in this way. It might be the only site that has not been erased completely from my hometown.

Chen Qiulin, ‘The Garden No. 1’, 2007, C-type print. 100 x 82 cm. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Chen Qiulin, ‘The Garden No. 1’, 2007, C-type print. 100 x 82 cm. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

What is it about the contrasts and tensions between traditions and the individual in modern China that particularly interests you?

Rapid urbanisation, the perishing and transfiguration of tradition, as well as the ordinary people who are constantly experiencing all these changes.

You are based in Chengdu in China, how has this connection to your local area influenced your work?

There are numerous towns in Chengdu, tucked away from the hustle and bustle of the city. I spend most of my time working on filming and editing in these small towns. To me, Chengdu is the base of my creative practices; the place that always draws me back.

Chen Qiulin, ‘Old Archway’, 2009, C-type print, 154 x 124 cm. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

Chen Qiulin, ‘Old Archway’, 2009, C-type print, 154 x 124 cm. Image courtesy the artist and A Thousand Plateaus Art Space, Chengdu.

What has been the most challenging or ambitious project you have worked on?

Well, it’s hard to say. I have been engaging with a wide range of techniques from printmaking, photography, and video making in the beginning to installation and sculpture in recent years. Besides, the materials I have worked with vary a lot. For instance, I experimented on paper, wood and copper in sculpture making. I have encountered lots of challenges for sure, which turns out to be great motivation to perpetuate my creative practices. I am always willing to learn new things of all kinds so as to achieve the best possible results.

What are you working on at the moment, what upcoming projects can we look out for the future?

I am planning to shoot some scenes in a Dong (an ethnic minority in China) village in Guizhou province with a contemporary dancer based in France. I will get down to this new project once I return from Sydney.

Claire Wilson

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Related topics: interviews, Chinese artists, gallery shows, photography, migration, collaborative, events in Sydney

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