My first trip to China included among a new cultural understanding and inspiring acquaintances, also some very interesting exhibitions I’d like to share with you. During my stay in Shanghai, I stumbled upon the Rockbund Museum of Art which celebrated its 5th anniversary and on this special occasion organized a retrospective exhibition of Chinese artist Chen Zhen, curated by Hou Hanru.
Chen Zhen is considered as one of the most established contemporary Chinese artists with a global reputation exhibiting in more than 30 solo shows in Europe, America and China. His latest exhibition at Rockbund Art Museum in his hometown Shanghai gives a retrospective insight into his work which focuses among others on the urban transformation of the city and a cross-cultural reflection on the human condition inspired by his political, philosophical, ecological, scientific and spiritual interests.
Chen Zhen grew up in Shanghai in the Former French Concession during the events of the Cultural Revolution and studied in Paris at the École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts as well as the IHEAP (Institut des Hautes Études en Arts Platisques). His Chinese origins and European education allowed him to gain a transcultural perspective of his reality, seemingly combining two opposing concepts as the West and the East.
However, Zhen wasn’t necessarily interested in showing a provocative clash between two worlds. In search of a deeper meaning and understanding of things, combining a spiritual perspective with a scientific examination, he avoided taking positions and focused instead on terms such as continuity, flux, connections and interrelations. By building a “matrix with, at its centre, the human” he tries to create “harmony through cultural, religious and philosophical differences”. As Chen Zhen once said: “I don’t play with incomprehension: I try to create it”.
Zhen’s art is often linked to his personal life experiences, calling them “trans-experiences”, combining an “inward spiritual exploration” with an “outward socio-political function” as the curator Hou Hanru points out.
The title of his latest solo exhibition Without going to New York and Paris Life could be internationalized suggests such an exploration of the rapid transformation in Shanghai through the effects of globalization. Around the 80s Shanghai has experienced a rocketing development towards a consumerist society opening itself up to the market economy (this period is also known as 改革开放 “Reform and Opening Up” in China). This particular development especially marked Chen Zhen’s artistic creation.
“From colonial-era Shanghai to the modern metropolis that is “Great Shanghai” or else “Little New York”, Chen Zhen presents us with the history of the development or architecture in Shanghai through a series of historic architectural images: past – today – future”.
The exhibition also examines a more spiritual approach with the self, combining a theoretical biological approach with perspectives of Chinese/Western medicine. Crystal Landscape of Inner Body for example, recreates the eleven major internal organs of the human body using glass as material, arranged on a table which resembles those used for medical treatment. The organs become transparent and appear to be fragile in the dark scenography. The human body is cut into his major “functional” elements, showing its fragility, while at the same time being displayed as a collection of precious artefacts. Chen Zhen suffered from autoimmune haemolytic anemia and died 2000 in Paris, at age 45. He has been buried at the famous Père Lachaise cemetery in Paris. Despite his international reputation, his work has been exhibited only twice in his hometown Shanghai, including an exhibition at Shanghai Art Museum in 2006 and the solo show at RAM.
Personal note: During my first visit in China I was particularly pleased to gain a better insight into Chen Zhen’s work. Considering his past experiences in Paris and his interest for a transcultural discourse, which I managed to relate to very well, I was struck by the tremendous variety of his artistic work (installations, drawings, concepts) which reflected a vision of a constant search for a deeper sense, combining his humanistic and spiritual interests with a scientific and artistic approach. To gain a wider cultural perspective he had to travel abroad in order to create a new discourse around his persistent subjective self-examination and inspiring objective view on the human condition. His art is to be understood beyond his materialistic approach, reflected in the choice of working with installations, conceptual drawings or photographs which depict his fluctuant thoughts. Yet, this thoughts never manage to be fully brought to an “end”. Instead, Zhen’s art gives nurturing food for thoughts, thinking beyond borders, in any kind of sense.
If you want to know more about the exhibition, which unfortunately already ended this October, check out the RAM website. Also, I managed to gain a very well written exhibition brochure written by Hou Hanru, which I could send to you as PDF by request. In any case, don’t hesitate to contact me for questions or suggestions. Always pleased to hear from you.
 Jerome Sans in Invocation of Washing Fire, edited by David Rosenberg and Xu Min, page 13.
 Interview with Eleanor Hearthney.
 Hou Hanru, About the Exhibition, page 4, Without going to New York and Paris Life could be internationalized (exhibition brochure).
 Social Investigation – Shanghai No.1, Hou Hanru in exhibition brochure.