With more than three decades of artistic output under his belt, Chen Shaoxiong couldn’t have been more than ‘Prepared’ for his survey exhibition of that title, currently on view at Shanghai’s Power Station of Art. Born in 1962 in Shantou, a coastal city in south China, Chen studied printmaking at Guangzhou Art Academy and started to make art in the early 1980s whilst still a student. He was a member of two artist groups active in Guangzhou at that time: the Southern Artist Salon, founded in 1986, and the Big Tail Elephant Group, which made work between 1991–98. Chen and the close circle of his friends that were involved in both collectives have left their unique mark on the narrative of art history in China, which tends to focus largely on Beijing. Citing the fluxus movement as one of their key references, these artists were infatuated with the idea of ‘happenings’ and interacting with their immediate reality, one that had been transformed drastically by economic reform and the rise of consumer culture. They made most of their installations and actions in an assortment of impromptu venues – from bars, offices, parking lots and construction sites, to the streets. Often their interventions lasted only days and sometimes just hours.
Chen once described the artistic practices of the 1990s in China as being frozen, implying that not much headway has been made in the decades that have followed. He also acknowledged that the practices of those who were active at that time, himself included, risk becoming irrelevant to the present. In view of Chen’s terminal illness and declining physical condition over the last two years, which has rendered him bedridden, Hou Hanru, a long-term colleague and curator who has known Chen since 1993, took immediate action to ‘unfreeze’ his practice, initiating two concurrent exhibitions related to the artist’s work ‘Prepared’ brings together nine of Chen’s major works, made between the 1990s and 2016. Working from his hospital bed in Beijing, Chen designed the exhibition layout based on Hou’s choice of pieces. Their collaboration, rooted in mutual trust and familiarity, has resulted in a concise and elegant presentation in which all aspects of Chen’s conceptual practice in photography, painting, installation and video are represented.
In 1997, Chen started to photograph street scenes in Guangzhou, where he was living at the time. Having developed his photographs, he then painstakingly cut out the buildings, traffic lights, street signs, roadside objects and passers-by, before reassembling them into imaginary street scenes supported by pieces of foam and cardboard. Chen produced these miniature street scenes until 2005, in an effort to document and describe the fast-changing city that was his adopted home. These works, however, reflect his anxiety towards and feeling of alienation from urban development and globalization. ‘Prepared’ includes one such scene, Streetscape (2005), a 10-metre-long tableau on an extended podium against a wall.
Chen began working in new media (largely video) in 1994 and, in 2005, he combined two strands of his practice by making videos of small ink paintings that he drew from newspaper photographs. In Ink City, Ink Memory, Ink Diary, Ink History and Ink Media (all 2005), the artist’s gaze gradually shifts from looking at his own life to events of a wider socio-political nature. Here, Ink Media, which features images of protest movements from Beijing to New York, between 1989–2011, is projected onto a screen suspended in the air, inviting viewers to gather around it in a way that evokes the mobile masses represented in the work.
Another video documents a performance that Chen made as part of the collective Xijing Man, which he founded in 2005 with two artist friends – Tsuyoshi Ozawa (from Japan) and Gimhongsok (from Korea). Xijing Olympic (2008) is the group’s response to the Olympic Games held in Beijing that year, which was also when Chen moved to the city. In it, the collective discuss the history, politics, economy and culture of Xijing – an invented nation – with humour and absurdity.
Two days after the preview of ‘Prepared’ in Shanghai, an exhibition of work by the Big Tail Elephant Group opened in the Guangdong Times Museum, co-curated by Hou and the museum’s curator, Nikita Cai. This show presents 28 works by the group, 26 of which were remade from documentation. Unlike Xijing Man, Big Tail Elephants wasn’t an artist collective that made collaborative works; rather, each of group’s four core members – who also included Liang Juhui, Lin Yilin and Xu Tan – pursued their individual practices while remaining in close conversation with each other and exhibiting together as a group. Restaged in a temporary environment at Times Museum, the works in this exhibition give a sense of the transicence and ephermerality that characterized this important moment in contemporary Chinese art history.
First published in Issue 183