Galerie Perrotin is holding a retrospective of Chen Zhen’s work across its three spaces in Paris.

Galerie Perrotin in Paris launched Chinese artist Chen Zhen’s retrospective on 26 April 2014. The exhibition spans the artist’s career from the 1980s until his death in 2000, and features 30 iconic works that represent his concept of “Transexperience”.

Chen Zhen, 'Beyond the Vulnerability', 1999, model houses made of candles, drawings, collages, plexiglass, iron, wood, glass, 111 x 140 x 80 cm (total length 10 m); collages: 200 x 80 cm each. Photo by Ela Bialkowska. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Beyond the Vulnerability’, 1999, model houses made of candles, drawings, collages, plexiglass, iron, wood, glass, 111 x 140 x 80 cm (total length 10 m); collages: 200 x 80 cm each. Photo by Ela Bialkowska. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Galerie Perrotin in Paris, in collaboration with Galleria Continua, is holding Chinese artist Chen Zhen’s retrospective, entitled “Fragments d’éternité” (Fragments of Eternity) [PDF download], from 26 April to 7 June 2014. Featuring thirty iconic works spanning the artist’s career from the 1980s onwards, the exhibition includes several major installations, including Le Bureau de change (1996-2004) which was conceived by the artist in 1996 and produced after his death.

To coincide with the opening of the exhibition, Galerie Perrotin presented Chen Zhen’s Catalogue Raisonné, covering the artist’s work from 1977 to 1996.

Chen Zhen, 'Le Bureau de change', 1996-2004, wood, metal, water, coins, glass, light, 290 x 367 x 423 cm. Photo by Michele Alberto Sereni. Image courtesy ADAC - Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Le Bureau de change’, 1996-2004, wood, metal, water, coins, glass, light, 290 x 367 x 423 cm. Photo by Michele Alberto Sereni. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, 'Le Pèlerinage', c. 1983-1984, pencil and collage on paper, 54 x 94 cm. Photo by Philippe Fuzeau. Image courtesy ADAC - Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Le Pèlerinage’, c. 1983-1984, pencil and collage on paper, 54 x 94 cm. Photo by Philippe Fuzeau. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

A transcultural pioneer

Chen Zhen (b. 1955, Shanghai, d. 2000, Paris) is among the first generation of Chinese avant-garde artists that travelled abroad to study art in the 1980s. Chen grew up in Shanghai during the Cultural Revolution (1966-1976) and studied ivory engraving at the Shanghai School of Fine and Applied Arts (1973-76) and stage design at the Shanghai Theatre Academy (1978-82). During his early career in China, Chen mostly developed painterly works influenced by his classical training.

Chen Zhen, 'Qi flottant - Fragment', 1984, oil on canvas, 162 x 117 x 6 cm  (with frame). Photo by Rémi Lavalle. Image courtesy ADAC - Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Qi flottant – Fragment’, 1984, oil on canvas, 162 x 117 x 6 cm (with frame). Photo by Rémi Lavalle. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

In 1986, Chen Zhen emigrated to Paris, where he attended the École Nationale Supérieure des Beaux-Arts and the Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques. This training period was fundamental in reshaping his style and leading him to create mixed-media installations.

Chen’s duplicitous art training in Shanghai and Paris played a pivotal role in the development of his pluralistic, transcultural style that explored the area and connections/disconnections between the East and the West.

Chen Zhen, 'L'autel, open / close', 1993, metal, wood, glass, adhesive plastic sheets, rice paper, black acrylic paint, photocopies, sand, water, objects, 141,5 x 114 x 30,7 cm. Photo by Daniel Moulinet. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘L’autel, open/close’, 1993, metal, wood, glass, adhesive plastic sheets, rice paper, black acrylic paint, photocopies, sand, water, objects, 141,5 x 114 x 30,7 cm. Photo by Daniel Moulinet. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

View of the exhibtion « Chen Zhen, Fragments d’éternité », 26 April – 7 June 2014, Galerie Perrotin, Paris. Chen Zhen, 'Un-interrupted Voice', 1998, 3 chairs, wood, leather, strings, chain, wooden sticks, 
88 x 280 x 40 cm
. Photo by Claire Dorn. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

View of the exhibition « Chen Zhen, Fragments d’éternité », 26 April – 7 June 2014, Galerie Perrotin, Paris. Chen Zhen, ‘Un-interrupted Voice’, 1998, 3 chairs, wood, leather, strings, chain, wooden sticks, 
88 x 280 x 40 cm
. Photo by Claire Dorn. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Transexperience: Finding common ground

Chen coined the term “Transexperience” to represent the fundamental concept underlying his oeuvre. The word refers to transcultural experience and the artist’s strife in understanding the common grounds between different perspectives. In the exhibition press release, the concept is explained as:

a transcendent place in which the reciprocal friction between various experiences is manifested. It is a dynamic space, a field of energies where tensions and contradictions take shape, but also an area of contact between fluxes of energy.

View of the exhibtion « Chen Zhen, Fragments d’éternité »,  26 April – 7 June, 2014, Galerie Perrotin, Paris.  Chen Zhen, 'Round Table - Side by Side', 1997, wood, metal, chairs, 180 x 630 x 450 cm. Photo by Claire Dorn. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

View of the exhibtion « Chen Zhen, Fragments d’éternité », 26 April – 7 June 2014, Galerie Perrotin, Paris.
Chen Zhen, ‘Round Table – Side by Side’, 1997, wood, metal, chairs, 180 x 630 x 450 cm. Photo by Claire Dorn. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

The artist explained this triple intercultural adaptation process as “Residence-Resonance-Resistance”. The Resonance phase between people, countries and cultures is exemplified by his 1997 installation Round Table – Side by Side, composed of two wooden tables joined in the middle and lined with eastern- and western-style chairs.

Chen Zhen, 'Round Table - Side by Side', 1997, wood, metal, chairs, 180 x 630 x 450 cm. Photo by Blaise Adilon. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Round Table – Side by Side’, 1997, wood, metal, chairs, 180 x 630 x 450 cm. Photo by Blaise Adilon. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

The work refers to the difficulties of intercultural dialogue, which the artist describes as “the metaphor of the eternal misunderstanding”: the desire to interact is often faced with the impossibility of reaching across different cultures and ideologies.

Chen Zhen, 'Les Textes de la lumière / La Lumière des textes', 1992, metal, glass, neon, red powder pigment, soil, objects, red self-adhesive letters, 190 x 140 x 31 cm. Photo by Ela Bialkowska. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Les Textes de la lumière / La Lumière des textes’, 1992, metal, glass, neon, red powder pigment, soil, objects, red self-adhesive letters, 190 x 140 x 31 cm. Photo by Ela Bialkowska. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

In a conversation with Zhu Xian in 2003 (as quoted on the ADAC website, in French only), Chen said about “transexperience”:

More than a pure concept, “Transexperience” is an impure empirical concept, a way of thinking and a method of artistic creation… It consists of a double intersection. The first, between my past and present experiences; the second, between the network of my personal experiences and those of others – all the others, for example, Westerners. Nothing is independent, nothing is fixed. Diving into life, adapting to the evolution of circumstances, mixing with, identifying with others… It is the strategy of water. Transparent, changeable, in flux, penetrating; it [water] resembles experiences, continents, mankind… The interesting thing is to be in movement. In China, we say: ‘Trees die when we displace them; men survive when they move.’

Chen Zhen, 'Instrument musical', 1996, wood, metal, Chinese chamber pots, sound, 68 x 121 x 45 cm. Photo by Rémi Lavalle. Image courtesy ADAC - Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Instrument musical’, 1996, wood, metal, Chinese chamber pots, sound, 68 x 121 x 45 cm. Photo by Rémi Lavalle. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen explored the culture shock he experienced upon moving to Paris in 1986, as well as the relationship between man, consumer society and nature, which he called the ‘centre’:

The centre is the relationship that unites man, things (merchandise and consumer society) and nature. For me, this centre is art. A true art. But it is invisible. It’s a secret dialogue, a mental reflection, a silent prayer, but it’s also the intersection of these three elements.

Chen Zhen, 'Exciting Delivery', 1999, metal, bicycle wheels, bicycle inner tubes, small cars, paint, 250 x 130 x 135 cm. Photo by Ela Bialkowska. Image courtesy ADAC - Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Exciting Delivery’, 1999, metal, bicycle wheels, bicycle tyres, small cars, paint, 250 x 130 x 135 cm. Photo by Ela Bialkowska. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

China in transformation

Trying to make sense of the space between eastern and western cultures, he created works that attempted to link different forms of knowledge and competence within the fields of art, medicine, ecology and sociology.

References to his birth country are evident in Exciting Delivery (1999), a chrysalid sculpture made of braided tyres, mounted on a bicycle: a cultural symbol of a fast-changing China. Social Investigation – Shanghai 1 (1997) is a social survey of Shanghai, which tells the story of the city’s transformations through a collection of drawings and photographs.

Chen Zhen, 'Social Investigation - Shanghai 1', 1997, 46 photographs and documents, frames, wood, plexiglass, 154 x 333 cm, 17 frames: 20,5 x 31,5 cm, 29 frames: 30,7 x 43 cm. Photo by André Morin. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Social Investigation – Shanghai 1’, 1997, 46 photographs and documents, frames, wood, plexiglass, 154 x 333 cm, 17 frames: 20,5 x 31,5 cm, 29 frames: 30,7 x 43 cm. Photo by André Morin. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

View of the exhibtion « Chen Zhen, Fragments d’éternité », 26 April – 7 June 2014, Galerie Perrotin, Paris. Chen Zhen, 'Le Chemin / Le Radeau de l’écriture', 1991
, railway sleepers, metal, stones, newspapers, books, red acrylic paint, 60 x 300 x 250 cm. Photo by Claire Dorn. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

View of the exhibtion « Chen Zhen, Fragments d’éternité », 26 April – 7 June 2014, Galerie Perrotin, Paris. Chen Zhen, ‘Le Chemin / Le Radeau de l’écriture’, 1991
, railway sleepers, metal, stones, newspapers, books, red acrylic paint, 60 x 300 x 250 cm. Photo by Claire Dorn. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, 'Bibliothèque', 1999-2000, metal, glass, plexiglass, newspapers, ashes of newspapers, red powder pigment 187 x 185 x 40 cm. Photo by Philippe Fuzeau. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Bibliothèque’, 1999-2000, metal, glass, plexiglass, newspapers, ashes of newspapers, red powder pigment 187 x 185 x 40 cm. Photo by Philippe Fuzeau. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Playing with fire

Fire played an important role in Chen’s work as a symbol of renewal and rebirth, as exemplified by his work Le Dernier portrait / L’Hibernation (1991) made with coal, or Bibliothèque (1999- 2000), with burned newspapers. Chen defined fire thus:

Fire is a symbol of purification, of regeneration, of death and rebirth. Here, we find a positive aspect of destruction.

In an attempt to better understand himself, Chen also turned to others through “spiritual escaping”. The candle (in China, a symbol of a man’s life) becomes an architectural element, as seen in Beyond the Vulnerability (1999), an imaginary landscape of fragile micro-architectural forms made from candles, or Un Village sans frontières (2000), in which the artist used candles to construct a “universal village”, employing a symbolically significant number of children’s chairs – 99 – collected from around the world. Chen Zhen here emphasised an important aspect of his oeuvre: the hope mankind must place on future generations.

Chen Zhen, 'Un Village sans frontières', 2000, candles, wooden chair 54 x 33 x 25 cm. Photo by Sandrine Aubry. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen, ‘Un Village sans frontières’, 2000, candles, wooden chair 54 x 33 x 25 cm. Photo by Sandrine Aubry. Image courtesy ADAC – Association des Amis de Chen Zhen.

C. A. Xuan Mai Ardia

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Brittney

By Brittney

Brittney is a writer, curator and contemporary art gallerist. Born in Singapore and based in New York City, Brittney maintains a deep interest in the contemporary art landscape of Southeast Asia. This is combined with an equally strong interest in contemporary art from the Asian diasporas, alongside the issues of identity, transmigration and global relations.

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