Artist Chen Shaoxiong, a founding member of Big Tail Elephants – a collective of conceptual artists working in Guangzhou in the 1990s – died on 26 November 2016 at age 54.

Art Radar speaks to the late Chen Shaoxiong’s gallerist Meg Maggio of Pékin Fine Arts and long-term collaborative partner from Big Tail Elephants Lin Yilin about the artist and takes a look at some recent works in the wider context of Chen’s practice.

Chen Shaoxiong portrait. Image courtesy Tang contemporary.

Chen Shaoxiong portrait. Image courtesy Tang contemporary.

Chen Shaoxiong was born in Guangdong province, China, in 1962 and graduated from the  Academy of Fine Arts there in 1984. Chen was a founding member of two seminal collectives emerging in Guangzhou just after the collective “boom” of the 1980s Chinese avant-garde, which saw over 80 artist groups emerging on the contemporary art scene particularly concentrated in northern China and Beijing. The collectives Chen belonged to, firstly Big Tail Elephants and Southern Artist Salon and later Xijing Men, have each left their unique mark on Chinese art historical narratives. Chen was a highly valued member of the international art community and one of the most respected conceptual artists of our time.

Speaking to Art Radar in email correspondence, Chen’s gallerist Meg Maggio of Pékin Fine Arts commented:

I’ve worked with him, alongside him, and under his direction for so long, it is difficult for me to imagine an art world without his profoundly influential presence! I first met Chen in the 1990s in Guangzhou, while I was living in Hong Kong, I travelled to Guangzhou frequently and attended a Big Tail Elephant exhibition in some basement in Guangzhou, I followed his career thereafter.

From left: Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui, Xu Tan, and Lin Yilin at their meeting in 1993.

From left: Chen Shaoxiong, Liang Juhui, Xu Tan, and Lin Yilin at their meeting in 1993.

Chen Shaoxiong and Big Tail Elephants: “urban guerrillas”

Big Tail Elephants was established when Lin Yilin, Liang Juhui, Xu Tan and Chen Shaoxiong began meeting regularly in Guangzhou to talk about art and organise exhibitions. Between 1991 and 1998 the group developed a practice that was relatively innovative and unusual for the time.

Firstly, Big Tail Elephants was not an artist collective that made collaborative works; rather, each of the group’s four members pursued their individual practices while remaining in close conversation with each other and exhibiting together as a group. Secondly, while colleagues in the capital and Northern China were battling tight government censorship on the one hand and a rise in complacent consumerist society on the other, Guangzhou enjoyed relative cultural and political autonomy. This fostered a more creative environment in which the main concerns or questions for a young contemporary artist were not dominated by such pressing issues of freedom of speech.

Big Tail Elephants took full advantage of this relative cultural and political freedom, developing a series of creative strategies that can best be described as engaging in the micro- as opposed to macro-political: Big Tail Elephants’ works were about intervening on a local scale and engaging in the everyday. Their works were composed from the detritus of the urban context in which they worked, and they moved with ease between institutional and non-institutional spaces. Of the six group shows they staged between 1991 and 1997, one was held at a local bar, another in a private home, and another in the basement of an office building.

Big Tail Elephant Group’s predilection for challenging the official state-run art system by mounting exhibitions in alternative spaces earned them the nickname “urban guerrillas”, a title bestowed on them by curator Hou Hanru.

Chen Shaoxiong, '72.5 Hours Electricity Consumption', 1992. Installation, performance (Fluorescent light, watt-hour meter, raincoat, wood, chalk), 280cm x 600cm x 900cm. Image from RanDian.

Chen Shaoxiong, ‘72.5 Hours Electricity Consumption’, 1992. Installation, performance (Fluorescent light, watt-hour meter, raincoat, wood, chalk), 280cm x 600cm x 900cm. Image from RanDian.

That is not to say that critique and politics were not at the centre of the work produced by the Big Tail Elephants group artists. In Chen’s 1992 installation 72.5 Hours of Electricity Consumption the artist transformed neon lights typically employed by street stalls, hotels and karaoke halls into human figures draped with transparent raincoats, giving the impression of a crowd of neon people in an urban nightscape. When the work is turned on, an electric metre on the side begins counting the electricity consumed. The work gestures at the relationship between spaces of social interaction and units of consumption of electricity, something that is increasingly significant in the age of social media. There is no doubt that the particular critiques enacted by Chen Shaoxiong’s early works will become of increasing significance in the coming years.

Big Tail Elephants held a retrospective at the Kunsthalle Bern in 1998, which was the group’s first exhibition in a Western art institution and also, quite unexpectedly, their last show as a collective. Talking to Art Radar about the specific contributions of Chen to the collective, colleague, friend and member of the Big Tail Elephants Group Lin Yilin commented:

Among members of Big Tail Elephants group, Chen Shaoxiong’s artistic practice has been richly diverse and the most experimental. As a student, Chen was an outstanding member of the school of Modernism emerging from China’s art academies in the early 80s. With the change of the era, his artistic approaches and media have constantly evolved. From engaging with formal language to crossing over to world politics imagery, Chen has consistently demonstrated through his practice an unwavering wit and extraordinary skill.

Chen Shaoxiong, 'Ink Media #4', 2011-2013. Ink painting on rice paper, 18 x 28 in. Image courtesy of Pékin Fine Arts.

Chen Shaoxiong, ‘Ink Media #4’, 2011-2013. Ink painting on rice paper, 18 x 28 in. Image courtesy of Pékin Fine Arts.

Click here to watch Chen Shaoxiong’s ‘Ink History’ (2014) on YouTube

Chen Shaoxiong: street views, protest and collective memory

During the days of Big Tail Elephants, Chen Shaoxiong was already working with photography, video and ink animation – media that the artist consistently engaged with throughout his three-decade long career. In 2014 Chen enjoyed a major solo exhibition at the Seattle Art Museum (SAM), in which he presented new video works entitled Ink History (2014) and Ink Media (2014) respectively.

For Ink History, Chen created over 150 ink drawings of historic photos of major events in China from 1909 to 2009. He then turned the drawings into a three-minute video of modern Chinese history as the sound of a clock ticks in a musical score. For Ink Media Chen downloaded images culled from online media outlets of protests around the world and then illustrated the scenes as ink drawings. The video questions the representation of political struggle in the global media, exploring the gestures and corporality of protest as its own visual language of communication.

Click here to watch Chen Shaoxiong’s ‘Ink Media’ (2014) on YouTube

The exhibition at Seattle Art Museum coincided with the diagnosis of Chen’s terminal illness, which saw the artist’s physical condition declining rapidly over the next two years. It was partly because of the unexpected possibility of the death of such an important artist that long-term colleague and curator friend Hou Hanru decided to propose a major retrospective of Chen’s work at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art. Despite being bed-ridden, Chen was determined to participate in the production of such a seminal exhibition of his work: the artist designed the exhibition layout from his hospital bed in Beijing in collaboration with Hou.

Installation view at "Chen Shaioxiong: Ink. Histoy. Media", Asian Art Museum (Seattle Art Museum), 2014. Image courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

Installation view at “Chen Shaioxiong: Ink. Histoy. Media”, Asian Art Museum (Seattle Art Museum), 2014. Image courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

Installation view at "Chen Shaioxiong: Ink. Histoy. Media", Asian Art Museum (Seattle Art Museum), 2014. Image courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

Installation view at “Chen Shaioxiong: Ink. Histoy. Media”, Asian Art Museum (Seattle Art Museum), 2014. Image courtesy Seattle Art Museum.

Speaking to Art Radar about this difficult but extremely prolific period in Chen’s life, Meg Maggio commented:

After Chen got sick, our gallery continued to work together on other projects including Xi Jing Men, his 3-artist collective with Tsuyoshi Ozawa (b. Japan) and Gimhongsok (b. Korea). We worked together on Xi Jing’s retrospective exhibitions at the National Contemporary Art Museum of Korea in Seoul, and the 21st Century Museum in Kanazawa. I was happy to attend both openings as Chen’s representative.
From his hospital bed, Chen’s art world activity was astoundingly productive. Chen stayed very active in and engaged with the art world, up until days before his death. While he was sick and in and out of hospital, we worked together on art work loans for exhibitions in the USA, Canada, Australia, The Netherlands, Austria, Germany, and other venues. I would bring my laptop to the hospital and we would continue working, joking, story-telling, strategising, and planning his next projects. His recent exhibitions at the Shanghai Power Station of Art and in Beijing galleries attest to his fierce determination to remain a vital and active art world player despite his physical limitations.
Chen Shaoxiong, 'Collective Memory, National Museum of American Art', 2016. Ink on Canvas. 160 x 240 cm. Image courtesy Tang contemporary and Power Station of Art.

Chen Shaoxiong, ‘Collective Memory, National Museum of American Art’, 2016. Ink on Canvas. 160 x 240 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary.

Chen Shaoxiong. Installation view at 'Chen Shaoxiong: Prepared' at Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2016. Image courtesy Power Station of Art.

Chen Shaoxiong. Installation view at ‘Chen Shaoxiong: Prepared’ at Power Station of Art, Shanghai, 2016. Image courtesy Power Station of Art.

Held between 11 June and 11 September 2016, the exhibition at Power Station of Art entitled “Chen Shaoxiong: Prepared” was the largest exhibition of Chen’s work to date, covering the works produced over the last three decades but focusing especially on major works made in the last 15 years. The exhibition included a recent work by Chen entitled Views (2016) and Collective Memory (2006-2016).

In Collective Memory (a project that has had various iterations between 2006-2016) Chen chose scenes of public cultural institutions in large cities all over the world. The artist decided to work with this subject matter because of the contradictory status these “landmarks” hold as both markers of an elite and exclusive art world as well as being visual markers in the cityscapes ultimately owned by a wider public. In 2016 Chen decided to remake another series of these works but this time inviting students and ordinary people to participate in replicating these architectural landscapes using their fingerprints dipped in ink on the canvas.

Chen Shaoxiong, 'Collective memory - British Museum', 2016. Ink on Canvas, 135 × 202 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary.

Chen Shaoxiong, ‘Collective memory – British Museum’, 2016. Ink on Canvas, 135 × 202 cm. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary.

The participatory experiment was designed by Chen to reflect on the distribution of power across the public realm, from the digital and downloadable image to the private buildings that occupy public space. The work explores the material infrastructures of a global collective memory by looking at circulation and access in the context of the internet and the street. In a statement about the work, Chen explained:

Collective Memory is a series of photographs that is comprised of pixels of various sizes. I invited residents with collective memories to collaborate on the series. The participants’ fingerprints completed the image, replacing the developing chemicals. This lies somewhere between the techniques of the darkroom and the painting studio. It is a collective recollection of a living environment shared in common.

Chen Shaoxiong, 'The Views', Four channels video installation:Varying 5- 30 mins 2016 3/5 Edition. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary.

Chen Shaoxiong, ‘The Views’, 2016. Four channels video installation:Varying 5- 30 mins 3/5 Edition. Image courtesy Tang Contemporary.

Chen Shaoxiong, 'The Third Street, Potsdamer Platz Berlin', 2001. C-Print. 90 cm x 130 cm. Image courtesy Barbara Gross Gallery.

Chen Shaoxiong, ‘The Third Street, Potsdamer Platz Berlin’, 2001. C-Print. 90 cm x 130 cm. Image courtesy Barbara Gross Gallery.

The Views (2016) also engages with questions around the place that shared landscapes may have for communities. The work is a large-scale installation that Chen created in 2016, presenting seemingly familiar landscapes on four curved screens. Through the curved screen installation, Chen composed a wider panorama cut into small fragments that focus on a detail: a magpie perched on a tree, people pushing bicycles over railroad tracks, a lotus pond in winter, someone walking a dog.

The work’s exploration of how we relate to a given “view” recalls the very early work of Chen Shaoxiong, particularly a series of photographs entitled “Streetscape” series (1999-2005), which interrupt the continuity and coherence of a typical tourist shot of an urban centre by placing a maquette model in the foreground. The viewer’s mechanisms of recognition of what is real are tested via Chen’s playful strategy of intervention.

Chen Shaoxiong, 'Streetscape (detail)' 2005. Photo cut collage. 900 cm x 30 cm x 30 cm. Image courtesy Barbara Gross Gallery.

Chen Shaoxiong, ‘Streetscape (detail)’, 2005. Photo cut collage. 900 cm x 30 cm x 30cm. Image courtesy Barbara Gross Gallery.

Chen Shaoxiong: conceptual artist, urban guerrilla and contemporary landscape artist

Art historian TJ Clark makes a distinction between the artists working within a landscape ‘ideology’ tradition and those who, like Chen, have developed rather a landscape ‘practice’. Clark states in a 2011 lecture:

Landscape ideology is skilled at implying a relation between what we are looking at and what is off screen. They suggest there is a world which “carries on” the way the picture shows it does. But there may be the work which stops, which breaks by the edge and has nothing to say about where the world goes next. It makes the off frame a real absentee. This painting is not an epitomy. The world is merely ‘intercepted’ in representation.

It is possible that as well as a conceptual artist and urban guerilla, Chen Shaoxiong is a landscape artist. In a statement published in 2003, Chen Shaoxiong commented about his work:

Like a person can’t jump into the same river twice, I can’t see the same scenery while looking into the window in my house. Everything in this city is temporary: streets, buildings, shopping centres, train station, airport, transit ways, trees, road marks and etc; even the crowds. No matter permanent or temporary residents, nothing is fixed. Everything changes easily just like altering a telephone number.

I try to use my photography to fix these moving objects, and then put these fixed images back to the moving backgrounds. These moments (things) either meet or by-pass each other in this world, it doesn’t really matter. I would like to replay this chaotic logic, these uncontrollable rules and its confusing magic. Just because I still have a bit of passion to this world and would like to share this passion with every single object of the world, I have to record what I have seen. As a witness myself, I would like to keep the memory of my life inside my built-up small-scale country, or to build a scenery monument for this ever changing city.

Rebecca Close

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Related Topics: Chinese artists, urban, film, new media, video, installation, museum shows, obituaries

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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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