The two artists speak to each other across the years and from opposite sides of the great divide (the Chinese-French conceptual artist passed away in 2000), exploring the power of change, migration, translation, reinvention and, ultimately, a life after death
Maurizio Cattelan You grew up in China during the Cultural Revolution, moving from Shanghai to Paris in the 1980s. It must not have been an easy transition. How did your life change once in Paris?
Chen Zhen I worked very hard, day and night. It might have been the period of my life during which I worked the most and my thoughts were most concentrated. Few people can understand this. At that time, my family had not yet come to Paris. I was alone, living an extremely simple life. I did not need much at that time. I rented a small servant’s room about seven square metres in size on the outskirts of Paris, ‘hiding in a small attic, oblivious of all four seasons’.
I lived like that for four years! Sometimes, I did not make any phone calls to anybody for a whole month, and nobody had any correspondence with me. Do you know what kind of life that was? A life in which you really felt you were a heavenly steed soaring across the skies and doing whatever you truly wanted! I had the rarest type of quietness and deep thinking in life!
MC How did you manage to make a living then?
CZ I supported myself by sketching portraits for people on the street in the summer. I am a very good portrait-drawer. Three months of hard work could enable me to live like a king for the rest of the year. I am not a griper. Being far from China was of course not easy, but that was a time in my 30 years of life when I was for the first time my own boss and father.
MC This brings us to the idea of ‘Transexperiences’, a concept you defined in relation to the encounter with a different culture. What exactly does it mean?
CZ Transexperiences. In Chinese it can be said as ‘Rong Chao Jing Yan’. This is a kind of ‘fusion-transcendence of experiences’. There isn’t such a word in either English or French, but the prefix ‘trans-’ has the meanings of ‘crossing’, ‘through’, ‘above and beyond’, ‘transfer’, ‘over’, ‘to the other side of’, etc. If you juxtapose this prefix with the word ‘experience’ and use it in the plural form, you have coined a new word, which summarises vividly and profoundly the complex life experiences of leaving one’s native place and going from one place to another in one’s life.
MC How do you think this concept resonates with Western people?
CZ In 1993, on a flight to South Korea, Pontus Hultén asked me to sit beside him. We talked extensively about Asia and China, and about East–West cultural exchanges. As the plane was about to make its landing, I said to him, “You’ve devoted many years to the opening-up of the concept of art and East–West cultural exchanges. What is your personal experience in dealing with the Asian people?” “Eternal misunderstanding,” he answered surprisingly but also forlornly. At that very moment, I thought to myself that someday I would create a project to extol eternal misunderstanding. So this time, as a first step to singing the praises of eternal misunderstanding, I carved his words as a ‘found text’ in this work.
MC It seems that you choose words carefully. Is the use of language dictated by logic or is it rather something innate?
CZ Using the mind is very different from using the heart. This is well worth looking into. Of course, behind the word ‘jie’ there lies something that is more of conceptual hybridisation and con- ceptual power impurity than of conceptual purity. In order to ‘jie’ (borrow) freely and methodically, you must have rich ‘trans experiences’. Life is a big bank. At the same time, the Chinese ‘jie’ (borrow), in my opinion, implies an extremely powerful and confident ‘digestive power’. No matter whether you borrow from the outsiders or the insiders, you always come out to be ‘yellow’. Therefore, today we are not afraid of ‘borrowing’ from either the Chinese past or the modern West. ‘Borrowing’ can ‘disrupt the law’ and achieve an ‘illogical concept’ or a ‘haphazard logic’.
MC I had never considered the notion of borrowing through these lenses. How does this type of relationship model communities and societies, especially today, as we are living a more reclusive and solitary life in lockdown?
CZ In this game two elements are ubiquitous: me and others. The two elements coexist in harmony in the paired ‘me–others’ relationship. In order to invent and create rules for yourself, you have to give new definitions to these two elements and read just the relationship between the two. Of course, I am talking about playing the game in your own sphere, or bringing things from outside or others to your own sphere for scrutiny. You play your own game at ease.
Who was the first to define the concept of ‘Others’? Of course, it was done in the West. This definition proves paradoxically the deep- rootedness of ‘Western-centralism’. ‘Others’ represents a concept of grouping beyond the scope of the relationships among ‘me (us), you, and him (them)’.
MC I wonder what would happen if we start to identify more and more people as ‘others’. Would we be able to control it?
CZ As Foucault said, ‘Madness is not a natural phenomenon but a product of civilisation.’ The more civilised a place, the more madmen and diseased there are. Is this due to needs and desires? Schopenhauer said that the desires of humanity are the greatest pain for humanity: the grave of humanity itself.
MC Can we apply the same paradigm within the artistic realm?
CZ Today I again thought of the saying that ‘people within art circles are more or less diseased or mad’. I wonder if this condition is normal or not. The field of contemporary art, like many other fields, is a machine and network system where power and money are interwoven. Experience is the basis of creativity and yet it is ‘postwork’. It transcends any possession of the work, or the equivalent (reciprocal) thing of the work – the possession of money.
MC Nevertheless you have chosen to stay with the ‘mad’!
CZ I have become the artist I am today due to the two times in my life where I ‘chose the wrong occupation’. The first was during the Cultural Revolution. In those years, there were no other choices.
All the universities were closed then. I studied in an art high-school, and from then on ‘went on the path of art’. At the time I believed what I learned was real art. I once studied and practised diligently, focusing my spirits. The second time was after I went to Paris. I suddenly realised that art could be ‘something else’. Art is not so sacred, and artists do not have to be those specialists we think of. Thus, I again chose a fork in my path; again I changed occupation, rebelling against myself.
I don’t know when and where I’ll have to change occupation again – that is truly the greatest excitement in life!
MC You once told me that a friend of yours asked you what it was like to reach the most exciting moment in your creative process.
CZ I said it was like the ‘short circuit’ phenomenon in electricity. Two opposite electrodes meet: irrelevant, yet from the same electrical circuit. What I am really interested in is the ‘shocking’ and ‘destructive’ power triggered by a ‘short circuit’. That is creation. That is the most stimulating moment. To give you a more direct answer, every time an artist runs across different contextual factors, he will feel – in varying degrees – conflicts, dialogues and a ‘call from time and space’ or a transformation of each other. In short, he will experience the ‘short circuit’ phenomenon.
MC Recently, in your solo show at Pirelli HangarBicocca in Milan, I had the opportunity to see your work Daily Incantations , which is the result of your first visit home to Shanghai back in the 1990s. The piece is composed of 101 chamber pots arranged in rows on a large semicircular wooden structure that resembles an ancient Chinese musical instrument. I have a longtime fascination for this object, since, during my childhood, we didn’t have a bathroom in our house.
CZ What is interesting to me about it is that it is, first of all, not art. It is an ordinary object for daily use. The Chinese have a double concept about the chamber pot: the first is that most people view it as an ugly thing. The second is that those who believe in superstition think that the chamber pot is the ‘son and grandson stool’. It helps to propagate and reproduce, and to carry the generations onward. The intrinsic duality of this object is very close to the inner quality of contemporary art. The white calcium sediment on the inside wall of the chamber pot is even a preciously rare Chinese medicine, called ‘philtrium white’, used to dispel heat and alleviate fever. These kind of things with a dual nature I like very much. Furthermore, in line with Western urban policies, chamber pots are a thing to be discarded, a thing that is becoming extinct. Therefore, it has a close relationship with such concepts as ‘the West’, ‘modernisation’ and ‘supplanting the old with the new’.
MC It’s not a coincidence that you are talking about Chinese medicine. Coming from a family of doctors, you often expressed your desire to become a ‘doctor’, though you would rather heal through your art than with medicines…
CZ Individuals should become a type of ‘virus’. Virus, and ‘contagious’ and ‘latent’ viruses at that. Viruses are characterised by being active, infectious and rampant. This time it is a very appropriate metaphor. It is well known that viruses are very tiny, but extremely harmful to human bodies. Wherever they go, nobody dares to ignore them. Some viruses are capable of not being easily defeated and cannot be killed by any medicine. Most of them ‘live and die by themselves’. Once viruses invade the human body, they will cause the active response of the human immune system: the viruses from outside will engage in battles against the antibodies from inside. The aggressive viruses will destroy the immune system. You see, all of this seems to be describing an artist’s posture towards so-called mainstream or central culture, and his contributions to ‘multi-cultural exchanges’.
MC So are we viruses trying to lay bare the current system of values?
CZ That is the beauty of being a ‘migrating creature’ like me, who could examine my own country and Asia through a polygonal prism.
MC That’s a long and timeless journey…
CZ Every mature artist labours under the threat of life and death. Time is my most severe ransom.
Short-circuits, an exhibition of work by Chen Zhen (1955–2000), is on view at Pirelli HangarBicocca, Milan, through 6 June