Chen Shaoxiong was born in Shantou, a small city located in Guangdong province in South China. Shantou holds a special place in the development of the Chinese economy, as it was one of the first Special Economic Zones (SEZ), established in the early 1980s. These SEZ are areas where semifree-market conditions apply, established as part of the policies of the ‘Reform & Opening up’ led by Deng Xiaoping. Although Deng officially retired from political life after 1989, he remained active in the background and cemented his vision for economic reform by undertaking a ‘southern tour’ of a number of the SEZ in 1992. Chen has been active as an artist based in Guangzhou, the capital city of Guangdong, since the early 1990s, identifying himself closely with his home city and the cultural life of this region.
In 1996 curator and critic Hou Hanru wrote that Chen’s works, at that time largely taking the form of performance and installation, ‘explore time as a sign of life and its limit in the real’. Three major early works, Seven Days of Silence (1991), 72.5 Hours of Electricity Consumption (1992) and Five Hours (1993), all addressed processes related to time and production. In Seven Days… Chen hung large sheets of white plastic that he proceeded to paint black during the named period of time; 72.5 Hours… was an elaborate installation of fluorescent strip-lights arranged in the shape of human figures, an electricity meter recording the power being used to light the sculptures and a painting onto which the power consumption was progressively recorded; and in Five Hours Chen sat at the entrance to a bar with another installation of fluorescent lights and electricity meter, five hours being the maximum amount of time the owner of the bar would allow him to remain there. In these works Chen sought to highlight the fact that nothing really happened within the performances, beyond the mere consumption of energy or time. This was relevant to Chen’s wish to bring art into direct relation to our existence within daily life: ‘The everyday is as it is in my work.’
These works were presented under the auspices of the Guangzhoubased collective Big Tail Elephant Group (daweixiang gongzuo zu, sometimes translated as ‘Long Tail Elephant Group’ or ‘Big Tail Elephants Working Group’, and holding the ironic meaning of ‘an elephant with big expenses’), of which Chen was a founding member, with fellow artists Lin Yilin and Liang Juhui (artists Xu Tan, Zheng Guogu and Zhang Hai’er joined later on). For Hou, who was born and grew up in Guangzhou, and has been closely associated with the group over the years (most recently as cocurator, with Nikita Yingqian Cai, of the retrospective Operation PRD – Big Tail Elephants (2016), at the Guangdong Times Museum until early October), the group’s attention to its locality is a source of its defining characteristics. As well as reflecting aspects of the rapid economic development of the area, this ‘specific social context’ (as Hou has referred to it in his writing) was the result of the differing pressures upon the art scene in Beijing in the north and Guangzhou in the south. Hou proposed that at the root of this distinction was the difference between a top–down power system in the political centre, and a bottom–up momentum of social claims in the southern metropolis, manifested in situations of direct confrontation in the north, versus ‘non-confrontational proposals aimed at opening up a new horizon of change beyond the established models of struggle’ in the south. These last are reflected in what Hou describes as ‘Do-It-Yourself initiatives and anticipations’ that he felt the group embodied.
Although the group exhibited together, each artist pursued his individual style. In 1997 Chen began work on a series of photographic pieces entitled Street… (each title followed by the location in which it was produced), reflecting upon everyday situations, the understanding of a place through events occurring there and, importantly, an acknowledgment of the contingency of that understanding. The impossibility of capturing the rapidly-changing urban environment on film in Street… developed out of his Sight Adjuster series (1995–9), where video was interrogated as to its ability to present a coherent set of truths about the world. In the Street… works Chen attempted to photograph every element of the street scene in front of him. Each element was then printed, cut out and reconstructed on a strip of card. The artist held up this constructed scene in front of the same location to create the final photographic composition, presenting the memory of a place with its new condition. In this way Chen pursued his aim of creating what he called a ‘memorial’ to every entity in that location, attempting to open up the static image to further temporal and spatial possibilities, despite the apparent futility of the act.
Chen’s videos bombard the viewer with images whose values have become flattened
In these early works Chen began to explore the way images of the world come about and how they are exploited to communicate certain ideas and relationships – in other words, the ideological implications of imagery. Chen has always been aware of the limitations of the techniques that he is using, whether they are the practical limitations of capturing the world in an image, or the ethical consequences of presenting these images as an authoritative statement about their subject. He sees the photographic or video image as, by its nature, irretrievably divorced from the location and context that it purports to capture, leaving it ethically bereft. As he points out, in an image, ‘No responsibility can be taken for the before and after development of the event.’ So Chen sought out a way to develop an ‘anti-narrative’ in his works, attempting a ‘direct viewing’ of the images of events. He did this by reproducing the original photographic images as ink drawings and presenting these drawings in sequence in his videos, much like an animation. By presenting them in this way, he felt that viewers could retain their critical awareness in front of these images, interrupting ideologically applied meanings. Chen’s videos bombard the viewer with images whose values have become flattened, subverting any prior meanings attached to them. This tension between the ongoing sequence of images and their disjointedness forces the viewer endlessly to consider the possible connections between the images as time passes.
These ink drawings are a dominant feature of Chen’s videos over the past decade. In Ink Diary (2006), the drawings seem to record snapshots from the artist’s day; Ink History (2008–9) presents the drawings in a semichronological sequence of media photographs of historic events (by and large related to twentieth- century Chinese history); and Ink Media (2013) culls media photographs of civil protests from around the world. For Chen each of the original photographic images embodies a mediated memory. Viewers will not have any direct relation to the events being presented in these images, but – at least in the historical images – they may have seen them before, in history books, on the Internet or in other media. Viewers will then already have understood them in relation to associated images or pieces of knowledge about the events depicted. The images that have become more widely disseminated, or are more strongly written into a particular narrative, will be more consistently understood by larger groups of people. This marks a collective process of understanding these images that might be understood as a ‘collective memory’. Consequently Chen’s ongoing series of artworks titled Collective Memory (2004–) questions the meaning and coherence of these apparently ubiquitous memories.
Each work of Collective Memory is made up of countless fingerprints. Much like the individual dabs of paint in a pointillist painting or the varying tones of pixels on a computer screen, these marks build up to form an image of a landmark structure. To create these works, Chen brings together a group of participants with knowledge of the subjects being represented to create the final image. The participants share their individual knowledge of the subject matter, but work in parallel rather than directly with each other, such that the image in a way represents the sum total of their knowledge, a collective memory of the place negotiated by all the participants. During a recent interview conducted in hospital, where Chen is being treated for bone cancer, the artist provided details of the creation of Collective Memory: Foshan (2013) (Foshan being the neighbouring city to Guangzhou), saying, “This idea of the ‘collective’ is related to the building in the image… There were these members of the Chinese diaspora who brought their children with them [to participate in the creation of the artwork]. Their children have never lived here; these images are like postcard images for them. The adults possess experience about this place: they may perhaps have lived around here or lived in [one of these buildings]… What I wanted was not only for these people to make the work by putting their fingerprints on it, but also for them to talk among themselves. I want them to communicate with each other.”
Writing about an earlier Collective Memory work, Hou explains that this collective participation combats the identity that propaganda works to cement, a method that accepts the inevitable lack of precision the finger-painting method entails. For Hou this represents the ‘permanent struggle between the official ideology and individual resistance, between political correctness and personal deviation’.
His artworks put the images back into contention, to point out that they are always partial images and hence ethically suspect
While original meanings of the images Chen adopts may have arisen from the workings of ideology, his artworks do not reinforce the ideological work that has already gone into them. His artworks put the images back into contention, to point out that they are always partial images and hence ethically suspect. Ideology and propaganda have built the infrastructures that insert these images into daily life, where they act as subtle symbols within an instrumentalised collective memory. Chen’s use of the images can be seen to trouble this insertion by usurping the role of each image (and event depicted) within the field of ideology, potentially leading to a reassessment of the narratives into which they had been co-opted. We can find parallels between this urge to upset assumed readings of images and Chen’s collaborative works (with Tsuyoshi Ozawa from Japan beginning in 2005, later joined by Gimhongsok from South Korea) as the Xijing Men. Their practice is built around the invention of the nation of Xijing, an imaginary place they exploit as a site for activities that serve to question the nature of nations, nationalisms, how belonging is expressed through ideology and the consequences of this expression. A strong current of humour runs through these questions, ensuring that Xijing Men’s propositions are never taken too seriously. The humour involved in their artworks reflects the utopian nature of their proposals, the possibilities that are developed through the creation of such an imaginary realm and the effects the mere existence of these possibilities can have on the other utopias that are imposed upon us.
The Views (2016) reflects Chen’s current reality – the state of his health: “The works that I have done in the past might have been more focused on the social and the political; I have never placed too much consideration on the issue of life and death. But the way I am now allows me to consider it.” This large-scale, four-channel video installation, shown recently at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art, presents the artist’s apparently calm contemplation of the world around him. The four videos present a set of personal image-memories, drawn from the period immediately before he entered hospital. Large areas of the images are still, but slight movements of a figure or animal occur within the frame as time passes. This suggests a static, intense inspection of the world immediately outside the boundary of the body. In conversation Chen appears phlegmatic about his situation, stating, “It is almost as if these are the last few memories I have before I face death. These seem to me as if they are my last views. In that sense, I am (in a way) trying to form memories for the future.”
If Chen’s previous videos have dealt with the collective memory that each person experiences as a mediated memory, then this new work returns to the earlier, more diarylike works, presenting the artist’s direct experience as its source material. But given the way Chen has put imagery into question in his work, we can assume that he presents these four views as in themselves mediated memories, their meaning also open to question. In his previous works Chen is presenting what he sees as ‘secondhand memories’ or fabrications of memories. His own fabrications of these memories involve creating alternative and potentially disrupting perspectives on them. He proposes all the images in his works as memories for the future, questioning: “Are [these images] our memories of the past? Or are we making new memories for the future?” But the scenes in The Views were not originally placed in the world in the service of ideology; they are original images from Chen. It seems that this work approaches Chen’s ‘direct viewing’ of the image, an optimistic effort to address a future viewer with a set of memories of the world free from the suspicion of ideology.
This article originally appeared in the autumn 2016 issue of ArtReview Asia.