executed in 1992
Chen Zhen, David Rosenberg, Daniel Buren and Xu Min, Chen Zhen: invocation of washing fire, Gli Ori, Prato-Siena, Italy, 2003, pp. 90-91
This work comes with a certificate of authenticity issued by Galleria Continua.
Chen Zhen (1955-2000) is one of the most compellingly unique talents
to emerge from among the pioneering artists of China's post-Cultural Revolution period. Combining an intense sensitivity to material and craft with the humanist rationality of the philosopher, Chen's sculptural installations and constructions are at once physically grounded and mysteriously auratic. Through his own lived experience of the dichotomies of health and illness, and of cultural displacement and connectedness, Chen gained heightened sensitivity towards the complex and fragile systems of human existence—a theme he explored in many of his works, and of which Divine Judgment (Lot 135) is a striking example.
Born in Shanghai in 1955 into a family of doctors, Chen Zhen chose
to follow the precarious path of an artist in China through the turbulence
of the 1970's and the heady experimentalism of the 1980's. Trained originally as an engraver at the Shanghai School of Arts and Crafts (1973-76), Chen excelled at painting and drawing and focused on his development in these areas. He later honed his understanding of narrative construction and three-dimensional space at the Shanghai
Drama Academy—a hotbed of experimental art activity at that time.
Like many of his fellow artists, Chen voraciously absorbed newly available information on a wide range of previously forbidden topics, from
Chinese mysticism to western conceptualism. He was particularly
drawn to the Duchampian notion of the readymade and the Surrealist
exploration of the interior world of the subconscious. Moving to Paris
in 1986, where he worked for a time as a struggling street artist, Chen
studied at L'École nationale supérieure des Beaux-Arts and at L'Institut
des Hautes Études en Arts Plastiques, eventually teaching at both.
During his early years in France, Chen experienced a strong sense of isolation and "otherness" that served to raise his awareness of both his
own cultural identity and of the urgent need for spiritual and cultural
interconnectedness in the world. At the same time, he came to view
the existential state of transience, dislocation, and cultural fragmentation that defined his immigrant experience as as a positive and even necessary one which ultimately would lead to a new kind of cultural and creative freedom: a "cultural homelessness where you do not belong to anybody yet you are in possession of everything." In the 1990's Chen coined the term "transexperiences" to describe this existential state, and his own elaboration of this concept sheds a strong
light on the aesthetic and conceptual elements of works such as
Divine Judgment: I think that, on the threshold of the twenty-first century, art will be able to manifest its most powerful vitality amidst the contacts, exchanges, misunderstandings, and conflicts between people and people, people and society, people and Mother Nature, people and science and technology, continents and other continents, and ethnic groups and other ethnic groups. What I am most interested in are these 'networks' of relationships.
Increasingly, Chen found his métier in installation, incorporating "found
materials" into his works that included elements of philosophical, cultural and scientific systems appropriated from his own heritage and
those of the cultures he encountered in his global wandering. Divine
Judgment is a brilliant representative example of an important series of
installations created by Chen in the early to mid-1990's which incorporate manipulated documentary materials and found objects, and
reflect themes of central importance to Chen's which ultimately would
lead to a new kind of cultural and creative freedom.
In Divine Judgment, the clean, almost clinical arrangement of metal framed glass display panels creates associations with medical specimen boxes. Rather than organisms, however, Chen displays multiple manifestations of historical records that cut across time and cultures. The nine large, serigraphed vertical panels placed side by side present a visually striking collage of text and image, created through an
overlay of red Chinese characters against a black-and-white background
of segments of French newspapers, with the final panel left completely blank. Fused to the upper section of the first four panels are four smaller display boxes containing the ashes of burnt newspapers, while the space on either side of the sixth panel is punctuated by a startlingly red globe and a bleached-white human skull from which flows a sinuous length of red fabric suspended in mid-air. The visceral effect of the installation is to create the sense of a coded message whose meaning can be unraveled only by going beyond the surface imagery to investigate the semantic layers within.
Such an investigation reveals the artist engaging in a subtle and
dynamic interplay of narratives relating to the extremes of fortune and
disaster to which human existence is prone across history and geographies, and the seeming arbitrariness with which human destiny is determined. Chen assembles headlines and images of people from
French newspapers that allude to such momentous events as the fall
of the Berlin Wall, the democracy movement in China, the scourge of
AIDS and global pollution, and occurrences of war and exile. Other,
contradictory headlines predict a better future ahead or declare the
world's helplessness, while one hints that humans are only actors on
the stage of history. The lines of blood-red Chinese calligraphy superimposed over the newspaper images (or, as in the third panel, standing alone in a blank field) represent more of a semantic puzzle. Written in classical Chinese, the texts can be difficult to understand even for the native speaker, a phenomenon explained by the fact that Chen has appropriated these excerpts from a group of ancient, and in some cases obscure, Chinese historical texts that in their time served to document the vicissitudes of human fate and the manner in which
"divine judgment" was meted—often by trial through ordeal. The calligraphy text on panel three, for example, is taken from the seventh-century classic "Journey to the West" (Da Tang xiyou ji), a narrative of the Buddhist monk Xuanzang's nineteen-year journey from China to India. The passage from which Chen quotes describes a method used by the Indian authorities to determine guilt:
When the ordeal is by water, then the accused is placed in a sack
connected with a stone vessel and thrown into deep water. They then
judge of his innocence (truth) or guilt in this way—if the man sinks and
the stone floats he is guilty; but if the man floats and the stone sinks
then he is pronounced innocent.
In another example, the calligraphy on panel four appears to be an
appropriation from the more obscure thirteenth-century tome
"Customs of Cambodia", written by the Chinese emissary to the
Khmer court at Angkor Wat, Zhou Daguan. In the relevant passage,
Zhou reports how the two stone towers of Prasats Suor Prat at Angkor
were used to resolve disputes:
Whenever there was a conflict between two people, both persons
were locked inside a tower for several days. Whoever came out without
disease or sickness would be declared the winner or the righteous
party...they called this 'celestial judgment'.
Other passages excerpted by Chen derive from the tenth-century
encyclopedia "Imperial Readings of the Taiping Era", and from the
ancient divination text "Yi Jing" (The Book of Changes). Interestingly,
Chen has extended the site for his calligraphic appropriations to the
painted red globe suspended from the panels. On the globe Chen has written the characters for "divine judgment" (shenli) together with an
eight-character phrase taken from the thirteenth-century classic of
Chinese astrology, "Di Tian Sui." The phrase reads: "Jia Wood penetrates to Heaven; its rebirth needs Fire," creating an oblique but wonderful association with the boxes of newspaper ashes Chen has
placed to the globe's left.
Given the relative obscurity of the Chinese textural references, however,
Chen clearly was not particularly concerned as to whether the viewer was cognizant of the source or significance of the documentary material appropriated for his works. Rather, he describes himself as primarily concerned with recording "the marks or the information featured on the objects themselves. The words become 'traces of traces'. Language becomes a disembodied 'alter-ego' of the thing. I simulate Chinese calligraphy. Its appearance is that of true calligraphy, but its
meaning is muted."
In Divine Judgment, this gesture of muting undertaken by Chen is
extended in his decision to leave the final panel blank, as well as in the
reduction of newspapers and other paper documents to ashes. This
use of ashes as a primary material is a significant characteristic of
many of Chen's installations of the 1990's. For Chen, ashes represented a kind of purification and a transcendence of time. "Ashes," he wrote, "are both the body of a disinfected memory and a fertilizing
manure for the earth."
On aesthetic, conceptual and philosophical levels, Divine Judgment is at once encapsulates and presages Chen's key concerns as an artist and as a humanist. The contrast of the surprising mix of materials and media, the clinical precision of its formal arrangement and the dramatic human narratives of shared destiny, illness as metaphor, and cultural "transexperiences" make it an iconic work of the period.
After his death in Paris in late 2000, Chen Zhen was honoured with
major retrospective exhibitions internationally, including shows at the
Serpentine Gallery in London (2001), PS1 in New York (2003); Palais
de Tokyo, Paris (2003) and the Shanghai Art Museum, Shanghai
(2006), among others. Major venues where his work has recently been
featured include the 2009 Venice Art Biennale, the French Pavilion at
the 2010 Shanghai World Expo, and a major retrospective exhibition
at the Musée Guimet in Paris (2010-2011). A catalogue raisonné of
Chen's artistic oeuvres currently is being organized by the
Associations des Amis de Chen Zhen, a group of international artists
and curators committed to preserving Chen's artistic legacy.
 See Chen Zhen: Transexperiences. Kitakyushu, Japan: Center for Contemporary Art, CCA Kitakyushu, and Korinsha Press & Co., Ltd., 1998.
 From Chapter 13. 'Manners, Administration of Law,Ordeals', in Book Two of Journey to the West, compiled in 646 by Bianji from dictation by Xuanzang.
 Unless otherwise noted, all quotes by Chen Zhen are taken from Chen Zhen: invocation of washing fire, exh. cat., Ori, 2003.
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