Project Description


from 15th October 2020 to 6th June 2021 – Space: NAVATE

“Short-circuits” is conceived as an immersive exploration of Chen Zhen’s artistic research and brings together more than 20 large installations realized between 1991 and 2000. The exhibition presents works created by assembling everyday objects, like beds, chairs, newspapers and clothes, with assorted materials, such as wood, clay, water, fabrics and glass, thereby displaying Chen Zhen’s personal vision of the human experience in all its complexity.

Location: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Artist: Chen Zhen
Exhibition: “Short-circuits”
Allestiment: curated by Vicente Todolí
Engineering: MOSAE srl
Photo: Agostino Osio
Courtesy: Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milano
Pictures in slideshow: from the exhibition

Jue Chang, Dancing Body – Drumming Mind (The Last Song), 2000

The monumental installation is composed of beds, chairs and stools whose surfaces are covered in cowhide. The complex composition, which suggests a large percussion instrument, spans through an area measuring 18 × 14 meters. Created by Chen Zhen using elements from different places and contexts, it forms what he called a “relational installation” expressing his interest in the transformation processes that underlie the relations between both objects and people. Connected to the care we take of our body and spirit, Jue Chang, Dancing Body – Drumming Mind (The Last Song) can be activated by dancers who brush their hands across and drum on the leather surfaces, resembling the movements used in Chinese massage.

Purification Room, 2000

The work is a room in which the walls and all the objects are coated with a layer of monochrome clay. Using the organic process of sedimentation, Chen Zhen employs clay, a natural element, as a substance able to purify the world and preserve the present. Conceived in the year of Chen Zhen’s passing away, Purification Room is the last and most impressive work of a series realized since 1991 with the same technique. As highlighted by Xu Min, the artist’s wife and long-life collaborator, with this work Chen Zhen created an aseptic world beneath a layer of earth and dust, whose constituent elements infuse their healing energy through the process of transfusion and the fact of being covered. This theme was a constant presence in the artist’s practice, which investigated whether man can be cleansed, and the world purified.

The Voice of Migrators, 1995

The sphere is a recurrent feature in Chen Zhen’s work and often a means to explore questions related to globalization and the transformations inherent in social change. The Voice of Migrators appears like a large globe covered with clothes that have been woven and knotted together. Loudspeakers, like “craters” on the surface of the sphere, transmit the experiences of migrants in France in different languages, responding to Chen Zhen’s questions about their condition in a foreign country. Like a sort of mobile archive, the work epitomizes man’s presence on Earth in its dimension of geographical and political belonging, and interprets individual identity as part of a universal culture.

Six Roots Enfance / Garçon – Childhood / Boy, 2000

This work is part of a more complex work of 7 installations that represent 6 allegories. The first part of its title derives from the Buddhist expression “six roots,” which indicates the body’s sensory abilities: sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch, and knowledge. These skills of perception provide Chen Zhen with a cue to create a metaphor for the different attitudes and temperaments that the individual develops in the phases of life—birth, childhood, conflict, suffering, memory, death, and rebirth—thus investigating some of the contradictory aspects of the human spirit. In particular, to symbolize childhood and youth the artist features the wreck of a boat, overturned and suspended, covered with plastic toy soldiers suggestive of the marine encrustations that form on boat hulls.

Round Table, 1995

Originally exhibited outside the building of the United Nations Office in Geneva, the work is shaped as a large round wooden table with some of the main themes of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights engraved at its center. To portray the member states, 29 chairs of different type and origin are suspended around the tabletop, and thus lose their original function. With this work Chen Zhen has given concrete form to the central dimension of his poetics concerning everyday objects, which he describes as follows: «The metaphor of the round table was not addressed only to the operational capabilities and the scope of power but also to the various problems of inequality that exist in mankind’s development. The round table has two sorts of implications. On the one hand, it comes from the Chinese “festive meal,” which infers unity, harmony and dialogue; on the other, it is also connected to international “round tables,” which entail discussions, negotiations, political comprises, and power commitments.»

Le Bureau de change, 1996/2004

Conceived by Chen Zhen in 1996 and realized in 2004 for the Pančevo Art Biennial in Serbia, the work appears to be a public restroom, a place that was still common in Shanghai until the early 1980s. Chen Zhen uses the architectural features of the space and associates it with a currency exchange office, relating the use of a public toilet with the social connotation of money and financial transactions.

Le Rite suspendu / mouillé, 1991

Le Rite suspendu / mouillé consists of 4 large vertical metal structures that form a three-dimensional tableau containing disused objects of different kinds, including old frames collected by the artist during his time at the École nationale supérieure des beaux-arts in Paris, where he studied. As he said: «I collected all the objects I found and immersed them, keeping them hung up, in a mixture of pigment and water, a sort of pictorial medium. I wanted to bring back the invisible forces intrinsic to the place, in order to recall my art school experiences—those in China as well as in France.» The work symbolizes the moment during which Chen Zhen abandoned painting at the time he moved to France, signifying for the artist «a self-portrait, a self-criticism, a self-reflection.»

Nightly Imprecations, 1999

This work creates a visual, sonic, and conceptual counterpoint to Daily Incantations (1996). Composed of three parts, the installation alludes to the life of the contemporary man and his relationship with the surrounding environment. At one end is a traditional wooden Chinese bed in which numbered polystyrene balls are whirled in the air by a fan. At the other end, a bed whose mattress is covered by a yellow sheet is fitted with metal spikes that bring to mind acupuncture curative treatments. The central section of the work features a structure in the form of an inverted pyramid, from which traditional Chinese chamber pots hang. Similar to Daily Incantations, Nightly Imprecations is characterized by sounds resembling the noise produced by rinsing chamber pots. Both works refer to the cyclical nature of daily life, in which daytime hours are dedicated to productive activities and nighttime hours are devoted to a meditative, suspended dimension.

Jardin-Lavoir, 2000

Chen Zhen composed a “meditative garden” by turning 11 beds into water containers filled with everyday objects like old television sets, used clothing, cooking implements, books, and children’s toys. Passing through a hydraulic plant, the water drips slowly onto what the artist considers commodities representative of today’s society, thus becoming a symbol of purification. As Chen Zhen explains: «Jardin-Lavoir treats water as the spirit of the place by transforming the site into a “garden of purification.” The bed-basins are a metaphor of the human body and the materialization of man’s life. They become a place of perennial washing and natural therapy.»