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Chen Zhen
From 15 October 2020 to 21 February 2021

From 15 October 2020 to 21 February 2021, Pirelli HangarBicocca presents Short- circuits a retrospective exhibition curated by Vicente Todolí, devoted to Chen Zhen, one of the leading figures of contemporary art. Celebrated by the world’s most important museums, the artist managed to bridge the gap between the art of the East and that of the West, with works of great visual impact that anticipated the socio-political complexities of today, addressing themes such as globalisation and consumerism, and their relationship with tradition.

The display includes more than twenty large-scale installations created by the artist in the last ten years of his life, until 2000, with numerous loans from major Italian and international institutions and collections.

The exhibition is a journey through some of the artist’s most important works, which convey the idea of the interdependence between the material and spiritual world, through reflections on the curative and purifying action of art and on the metaphorical processes of illness and healing.

Pirelli HangarBicocca presenta dal 15 ottobre 2020 al 21 febbraio 2021 “Short- circuits”, a cura di Vicente Todolí, la retrospettiva dedicata a Chen Zhen, una delle figure principali del panorama artistico contemporaneo. Celebrato dai più importanti musei del mondo, l’artista ha saputo superare il divario tra l’espressività orientale e quella occidentale, attraverso opere di grande potenza visiva che anticipano la complessità socio-politica del mondo di oggi, analizzando temi come la globalizzazione, il consumismo e il loro rapporto con la tradizione.

Oltre venti installazioni su larga scala realizzate dall’artista negli ultimi dieci anni della sua carriera, fino al 2000, presentate grazie a numerosi prestiti provenienti da prestigiose istituzioni e collezioni italiane e internazionali.

Un percorso attraverso opere estremamente rilevanti dell’artista, capaci di rappresentare l’interdipendenza tra materiale e spirituale e di mantenere aperta la riflessione sull’azione curativa e purificatoria dell’arte e sui processi metaforici di malattia e guarigione.

The artist
Chen Zhen (Shanghai 1955- Paris 2000) developed his art from the late 1970s. Born and raised in Shanghai, he lived through the Cultural Revolution in China during his adolescence and moved to Paris in 1986, where he died in 2000. While initially oriented towards painting, he gradually moved towards the creation of installations (creating his first one in 1989, after his move to Paris). In them, he brought together everyday objects such as beds, chairs, and tables, assembling them in compositions that took the items away from their original functions and into a metaphorical dimension. Chen Zhen’s art paradigmatically reflects his wish to find a visual synthesis that would integrate the aesthetic dimension of his homeland with that of the places he came into contact with, in a constant, fluid exchange between Eastern and Western thought. The concept oftransexperiences is thus pivotal: the term, coined by the artist himself, “summarises vividly and profoundly the complex life experiences of leaving one’s native place and going from one place to another” [Transexperiences: A Conversation between Chen Zhen and Xian Zhu, quoted in Chen Zhen Un artista fra Oriente e Occidente, ed. J.-H. Martin, Gli Ori, Prato-Siena, 2003].

Chen Zhen’s personal experiences further affected his artistic path, for at the age of 25 he was diagnosed with a form of haemolytic anaemia. This event influenced his perception of both time and space, and brought him to consider the theme of illness. This led the artist, who had been born into a family of doctors, to a new level of sensitivity with regard to the human body and the elements that compose it, as Chen Zhen himself put it: “as an artist, my dream is to become a doctor. Making art is all about looking at oneself, examining oneself and somehow seeing the world” [Becoming a Doctor, a Life Project, in Invocation of Washing Fire, Gli Ori Editore, Prato-Siena, 2003, pp. 335-338]. This led to a reflection on the curative and purifying action of art and on the metaphorical processes of illness and healing. His work began to point to the complex, sometimes paradoxical, interdependence between the material and the spiritual, the collective and the individual, and between the inner self and outward appearance.

The exhibition

Curated by Vicente Todolí, Short-circuits, is conceived as an immersive exploration within the complex artistic research of Chen Zhen, bringing together for the first time some of the artist’s most significant works from 1991 to 2000, in the 5,500 square metres of the Navate and Cubo of Pirelli HangarBicocca.

The title of the exhibition is inspired by the artist’s creative method, which he referred to as a “short-circuit phenomenon”, which is that of revealing the hidden meaning of a work of art when it is taken from the original setting for which it was created to a different place. This process led Chen Zhen to reflect on the concept of symbolic and cultural enrichment as a means of artistic creation. The idea behind the exhibition reflects this, creating original interactions between the works on display, while also shedding light on the numerous cross-references and connections that appear in the artist’s works, creating an open dialogue on a number of themes: globalisation and consumerism, overcoming the hegemony of Western values, and the coming together of different cultures.

The exhibition opens with one of Chen Zhen’s most outstanding works, Jue Chang, Dancing Body – Drumming Mind (The Last Song), (2000). This monumental installation consists of a number of chairs and beds from different parts of the world,

covered in cow hides. The work is one of the few to have a performative side to it and, on certain occasions, it can be brought to life by dancers, whose body movements act as a meditative instrument, and by percussions that recall the massage technique used in traditional Chinese medicine. The installation alludes to themes concerning care of the body and spirit, which are central to Chen Zhen’s artistic research. The diversity of the elements from different settings is also a feature of Round Table (1995), a work created for the United Nations building in Geneva. In this case, 29 chairs are fastened around the top of a circular table: everyday objects that, on the one hand, are a symbol of the actions of the powers that be and of international political debates, while on the other they call for unity and harmony, and for an occasion to come together and celebrate.

The transformation of China into a capitalistic consumer society is also a central theme of Chen Zhen’s work and this is clearly represented in the installation Fu Dao / Fu Dao, Upside-down Buddha / Arrival at Good Fortune (1997). The title is based on the Chinese ideograms that indicate “good luck” or the “arrival of good fortune”, which are normally placed upside-down in public places and are homophones of the expression“upside-down Buddha”. Chen Zhen delves deeper into his reflections on man, nature, and society, which he views as ever more distant from the spirit of Buddhism. The work consists of found objects – such as television sets, fans, and parts of a car bodywork – and upside-down statuettes of the Buddha, which are hung from a structure with a bamboo-covered top. Chen reflects on the short-circuits produced by the rapid proliferation of consumer goods in the society of his country of origin. The relationship between China and its modernisation is at the heart of Daily Incantations (1996), which he made after a trip to his hometown, after he had spent eight years in the West, as well as of Prayer Wheel – Money Makes the Mare Go (Chinese Slang) (1997). The former consists of 101 urinals arranged in a semicircle and fastened to a massive wooden structure that recalls an ancient musical instrument. The inspiration for this work came when the artist saw a group of women washing chamber pots, early in the morning, outside a luxury hotel in Shanghai. The image reminded him of the daily rites of his childhood: the physical washing of the chamber pots and the mental washing of the mind by reading Mao’s Little Red Book. The second was conceived as an immersive environment with a prayer wheel on the inside and a cladding of ancient Chinese calculators and abaci. This work was inspired by a trip to Tibet, where he went before moving to Paris. Le Rite suspendu / mouillé of 1991 is key to understanding the influence that this geographical shift had on him, and indeed this work marked the artist’s move towards a greater awareness of the installational nature of his artistic practice. As Chen Zhen pointed out, the work can be seen as a self portrait, self- criticism, and self-analysis. The relationship between nature and industrial artefact is also a key aspect of his art, as can be seen in Éruption future, made in 1992, which is being shown at Pirelli HangarBicocca for the first time since then.

Lastly, the exhibition includes works that investigate the concepts of illness and healing, both physical and spiritual. In Purification Room (2000), for instance, the artist explores the potential for the purification of mankind, and of the world in general. The visitor enters a monochromatic domestic environment with an apocalyptic air about it. The furniture, objects, and walls are covered in a thick layer of clay, which seemingly eliminates any impulse towards life and growth, while at the same time highlighting the most essential and intimate elements of life itself, thus bringing about a reflection on its meaning and on the concept of destiny. It inspires one to abandon the more trivial aspects of existence and to attain a higher degree of awareness of one’s own spirituality and body, and to recover one’s balance with nature and contemporary society. “Short-circuits” ends with this invitation to catharsis, with the work Jardin-Lavoir (2000) installed in the Cubo space: here, 11 beds are transformed into as many water basins, each one filled with everyday objects, such as clothes, shoes, electronic components and books, and placed under a hydraulic system that endlessly pumps out water. For the artist, this installation is a form of “purification garden”, where one can meditate and collect one’s thoughts.

La mostra

Short-circuits” [cortocircuiti], a cura di Vicente Todolí, è concepita come un’esplorazione immersiva nella complessa ricerca artistica di Chen Zhen, riunendo per la prima volta nei 5.500 mq delle Navate e del Cubo di Pirelli HangarBicocca, alcuni dei suoi lavori più significativi, realizzati tra il 1991 e il 2000.

Il titolo dell’esposizione prende spunto dal metodo creativo sviluppato dall’artista, definito il “fenomeno del cortocircuito”: lo svelamento del significato recondito dell’opera d’arte nel momento in cui viene spostata dal contesto originale per cui era stata concepita in un luogo diverso. Un processo che conduce Chen Zhen a riflettere sul concetto di contaminazione simbolica e culturale come modalità di creazione artistica. La concezione della mostra riflette questa pratica, creando accostamenti inediti tra le opere esposte e mettendo in luce i numerosi rimandi e le connessioni presenti nel lavoro dell’artista in aperto dialogo con diversi temi: la globalizzazione e il consumismo, il superamento dell’egemonia dei valori occidentali e l’incontro tra differenti culture.

Il percorso espositivo si articola così a partire da uno dei lavori più rilevanti di Chen Zhen Jue Chang, Dancing Body – Drumming Mind (The Last Song), (2000), una monumentale installazione composta da numerose sedie e letti provenienti da diverse parti del mondo e ricoperti di pelli di vacca. L’opera è tra le poche ad avere una connotazione performativa e, in determinate occasioni, può essere attivata da danzatori attraverso i movimenti del corpo come strumento meditativo e dalle percussioni che richiamano il massaggio della medicina tradizionale cinese. L’installazione allude a temi legati alla cura del corpo e dello spirito, centrali nelle ricerche di Chen Zhen. L’eterogeneità degli elementi provenienti da contesti diversi caratterizza anche Round Table (1995), opera creata per Il Palazzo delle Nazioni Unite a Ginevra. In questo caso 29 sedie sono fissate nella superficie di un tavolo rotondo: oggetti quotidiani che da una parte diventano simbolo delle azioni del potere e dei dibattiti politici internazionali, dall’altra rappresentano un invito all’unità e all’armonia, un’occasione di incontro e di festa.

La trasformazione della Cina in una società consumistica e capitalista è un altro tema centrale al lavoro di Chen Zhen, ed è ben rappresentato nell’installazione Fu Dao / Fu Dao, Upside-down Buddah / Arrival at Good Fortune (1997). Il titolo si basa sugli ideogrammi cinesi che indicano “buona fortuna”/”arrivo della fortuna”, un’indicazione che solitamente viene appesa alla rovescia nei luoghi pubblici e che è omofonadell’espressione “Budda capovolto”. Chen Zhen approfondisce le riflessioni sull’uomo, la natura e la società, che è vista sempre più lontana dallo spirito del Buddismo. L’opera si compone di oggetti trovati – come televisori, ventilatori, componenti della carrozzeria di un’automobile – e di statuette del Budda capovolte, sospesi su una struttura, la cui sommità è rivestita di rami di bambù. Chen riflette sui cortocircuiti prodotti dalla rapida proliferazione dei beni di consumo di massa sulla società del suo Paese di origine. Il rapporto con la Cina e la sua modernizzazione sono alla base anche di Daily Incantations (1996), realizzata in seguito a un viaggio nella sua città d’origine, dopo diversi anni trascorsi in Occidente, e di Prayer Wheel – Money Makes the Mare Go (Chinese Slang) (1997). La prima installazione è costituita da 101 orinali disposti a semicerchio e fissati ad un imponente impianto in legno a ricordare un antico strumento musicale, ispirata dall’osservazione dell’artista di alcune donne intente di mattina a lavare dei vasi da notte vicino a un prestigioso hotel di Shanghai. Questa immagine gli riporta alla mente i riti quotidiani della sua infanzia: il lavaggio fisico dei vasi da notte e quello mentale della lettura del libro rosso di Mao. La seconda è concepita come un ambiente immersivo al cui interno è collocata una ruota di preghiera, ispirata dal suo viaggio in Tibet, compiuto prima di trasferirsi a Parigi, e rivestita da antichi abachi cinesi e calcolatrici. Significativa per comprendere l’influenza che questo spostamento geografico ha generato è Le Rite suspendu / mouillé del 1991, che segna l’abbandono della pittura e il passaggio dell’artista verso una maggiore consapevolezza del carattere installativo della sua pratica. Come affermato da Chen Zhen, l’opera rappresenta un autoritratto, un’autocritica e una autoriflessione. Significativa per la relazione tra elemento naturale e manufatto industriale, altro rapporto centrale nella pratica dell’artista, è invece Éruption future, realizzata nel 1992 e presentata in Pirelli HangarBicocca per la prima volta da allora.

La mostra, infine, presenta anche i lavori che indagano i concetti di malattia e guarigione, fisica e spirituale. In Purification Room (2000), ad esempio, l’artista si interroga sulla possibilità di purificazione dell’uomo e più in generale del mondo. Il visitatore è accolto in un ambiente domestico monocromatico e dall’aspetto apocalittico:i mobili, gli oggetti e le pareti che lo compongono sono, infatti, coperti da uno strato di argilla, che da un lato sembra annullare ogni spinta vitale e di crescita, ma che dall’altro evidenzia gli elementi più essenziali e intimi della vita stessa, innescando una riflessione sul suo significato e sul concetto di destino. Uno stimolo a liberarsi dalle caratteristiche più triviali dell’esistenza per raggiungere uno stato di maggiore consapevolezza della propria spiritualità e del proprio corpo e per recuperare l’equilibrio con la natura e la società contemporaea. Ed è con questo invito alla catarsi che si chiude “Short-circuits” nello spazio del Cubo con l’opera Jardin-Lavoir (2000): formata da 11 letti, trasformati in vasche di acqua, ciascuno dei quali ospita oggetti quotidiani, come vestiti, scarpe, componenti elettroniche e libri, ed è sormontato da un sistema idraulico da cui sgorgano ininterrottamente flussi di acqua. Per l’artista questa installazione evoca un “giardino di purificazione” in cui meditare e raccogliersi.

Chen Zhen

His most notable solo exhibitions include those at Le Magasin, Grenoble (1992); The New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York (1994); Tel Aviv Museum of Art (1998); Cimaise & Portique, Albi (2000); Museum of Contemporary Art, Zagreb (2000); GAM – Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin (2000); Serpentine Gallery, London (2001); Padiglione d’Arte Contemporanea (PAC), Milan, and MoMA PS1, NewYork (2003); Palais de Tokyo, Paris (2003–4); Kunsthalle Wien (2007); Mart – Museo di arte moderna e contemporanea di Trento and Rovereto (2008); Musée Guimet, Paris (2010); Rockbund Art Museum, Shanghai (2015). His works have also been shown in international group exhibitions, including those at the Couvent des Minimes, Pourrières, France (1990); The Museum of Modern Art, Oxford (1993); Witte de With Center for Contemporary Art, Rotterdam (1994); Palace of Nations, Geneva (1995); ICA Boston (1998); Carnegie Museum of Art, Pittsburgh (1999); Musée d’Art Moderne de la Ville de Paris/ARC (2000–1, 2009); Fundació Miró (2004); Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing (2007–8); Yuz Museum, Shanghai (2014); Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York (2017); Guggenheim Museum, Bilbao, and San Francisco Museum of Modern Art (2018). Chen Zhen’s works have also been shown at, among the others: the Shanghai Biennale (1996); Lyon Biennale, Gwangju Biennale (1997); Johannesburg Biennale (1997); Venice Biennale (1999, 2007 and 2009); Valencia Biennial (2001, 2003); Asia-Pacific Triennial of Contemporary Art, Brisbane (1999–2000); Yokohama Triennale (2005); and Guangzhou Triennial (2006). He received numerous prizes and awards, including the Pollock-Krasner Foundation Grant (1990 and 1995), Gwangju Biennale Art Prize (1997)and the Fonds d’Incitation à la Création, sponsored by the French Ministry of Culture (1998).

Works by Chen Zhen form part of prestigious collections, including the Centraal Museum, Utrecht; Centre national des arts plastiques (CNAP), France; GAM – Galleria Civica d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea, Turin; Guggenheim Abu Dhabi; Colección Jumex, Mexico City; Kröller-Müller Museum, Otterlo; M+, Hong Kong; Mart – Museo d’Arte Moderna e Contemporanea di Trento e Rovereto; MAXXI – National Museum of 21st Century Arts, Rome; MONA – Museum of Old and New Art, Hobart (2013); Musée de l’histoire de l’immigration, Palais de la Porte Dorée, Paris; Musée National d’Art Moderne – Centre de Création Industrielle, Centre Pompidou, Paris; Museo del Novecento, Milan; Pinault Collection; Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York; and Tate London.

The catalogue

The exhibition is accompanied by a bilingual catalogue (English and Italian) published by Skira. It contains in-depth documentation of the show, critical essays about the artist’s practice by Alexandra Munroe (Senior Curator, Asian Art, and Senior Advisor, Global Arts, at the Solomon R. Guggenheim Museum, New York), Marco Scotini (Visual Arts Department Head at NABA, Milan and Artistic Director of FM Centro per l’artecontemporanea, Milan) and Vicente Todolí (artistic director of Pirelli HangarBicocca) as nwell as detailed entries on all the artworks on display at Pirelli HangarBicocca.

The Exhibition Program

The exhibition forms part of the 2019-2020 artistic program, devised by the artistic director Vicente Todolí together with the curatorial department: Roberta Tenconi, curator; Lucia Aspesi, assistant curator; and Fiammetta Griccioli, assistant curator. The program will continue with Digital Mourning, an exhibition by Neïl Beloufa (11 February 2021–18 July 2021).

Pirelli HangarBicocca

Pirelli HangarBicocca is a not-for-profit institution devoted to the promotion and production of contemporary art that reflects the corporate culture of Pirelli and its commitment to research, innovation, and the dissemination of contemporary art forms. Pirelli HangarBicocca stages a rich programme of solo exhibitions by the most important international artists who have made their mark through research and experimentation, as well as a programme of cultural events and analyses, offering visitors free admission to the space.

Photo in copertina: Chen Zhen
Crystal Landscape of Inner Body (Serpent), 2000
Installation view, Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, 2020
© Chen Zhen by ADAGP, Paris,
Courtesy Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, and GALLERIA CONTINUA
Photo: Agostino Osio

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