Between Mountain and Water: Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen’s Embodied Listening

Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, ‘Langshi Binaural Sound Study – Bamboo’, process photo, image courtesy of the artist.
Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, Resonant Flows, installation view at Artspace on the Concourse, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Taiyo Totsuka. Image courtesy of the artist.
Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, Fluvial Dynamics: Rain, Wind, People, 2020, ink on Wenzhou paper, 125 x 145 x 80 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, Sonic Ink Vibrations – Tidal 1, 2021, ink on Wenzhou paper, 23.5 x 23.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, 浪石響: 山, 江, 竹子 – Sounding Langshi: Mountain, River, Bamboo, 2018, paper, Li River water, undetermined dematiaceous hyphomycetes, undetermined lichens, soil particles, ink, sound feedback recording, dimensions variable, duration: 21 mins 54 secs. Installation view at AD Space, Sydney, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.
Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, 浪石響: 山, 江, 竹子 – Sounding Langshi: Mountain, River, Bamboo, 2018, paper, Li River water, undetermined dematiaceous hyphomycetes, undetermined lichens, soil particles, ink, sound feedback recording, dimensions variable, duration: 21 mins 54 secs. Installation view at AD Space, Sydney, 2020. Photo by Taiyo Totsuka. Image courtesy of the artist.
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Asia Society Hong Kong

Malaysian-born Chinese-Australian artist Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen grinds ink on a traditional inkstone, but her drawing is not limited to mark-making on a two-dimensional surface. Chen’s practice of “embodied listening” incorporates her physical presence in the landscape, choreographed gestures, sound recordings—and even the design of tools that enable her to draw on two surfaces simultaneously.

TEXT: Luise Guest
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist

 

The work of Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen expands the definition of what we usually think of as “drawing” to incorporate movement and sound, time and space—even history and memory. She asks big questions: How do we see the world? How do we hear it? Does art need to privilege the visual? What is an embodied form of knowing?

Chinese landscape painter Ching Hao’s 10th-century treatise on painting suggested that the mark of the brush on paper or silk should be composed of four elements: muscles, flesh, bones, and breath (the essential energy, or life force, of qi) and is therefore a physical and spiritual form of embodiment. These four elements are present in Chen’s performative drawing practice. Often working on large sheets of xuan paper with Chinese ink, Chen alludes to East Asian cultural traditions—but her contemporary work is as strongly grounded in her love of the Australian bush as it is in the landscapes of southern China.

Born in Malaysia and emigrating with her parents to Australia at the age of four, Chen defines herself as an Australian artist—although, like other artists of migrant backgrounds, rich cultural references are embedded in her work. In a conversation with Chen at her Parramatta Artists’ Studios residency in Sydney’s west, surrounded by sheets of inked paper on the floor and walls, we discussed whether she is drawn to ink as a homage to her Chinese heritage, and how she connects the processes of drawing and listening.

 

Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, ‘Langshi Binaural Sound Study – Bamboo’, process photo, image courtesy of the artist.
Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, Resonant Flows, installation view at Artspace on the Concourse, Sydney, 2021. Photo by Taiyo Totsuka. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Landscape—especially mountains and water—is a constant presence in her work, just as it was the focus of the shan shui (literally “mountain and water”) landscape painters of the Song and Yuan dynasties. Yet Chen says her work is more imbued with the Australian landscape. “My work is inflected by this [Chinese] history, but I feel that here I am generating another, different cultural engagement. I do take those ideas and that element of interacting with nature, and that aspect of unrolling a scroll to journey through the landscape,” she says. “I’m trying to understand my position as a migrant. I bring particular biases, particular blind spots, when it comes to my own practice, having grown up in Australia, practising primarily in Australia.”[1]

Chen’s experimental drawings take place in the landscape rather than being a representation of the landscape. We could think of it—although Chen does not explicitly articulate this view—as enacting Daoist principles of the connectedness of every element of the universe, fluxing in a rhythmically reciprocal back and forth of yin and yang, sound and vision, mind and body. It is a form of “embodied listening”, she says. Physically connecting with different landscapes, often in remote places—in Australia and in China—Chen uses speakers and sound recording equipment to bounce sound off surfaces such as rocks and mountains, incorporating atmospheric conditions of water and wind within this aural feedback to evoke distinct senses of place and time.

On a 2016 residency in the old gold-mining town of Hill End, for example, Chen discovered tunnels through rockfaces made by Chinese miners in the 19th century. Rubbing her paper against the red dirt and the surrounding rocks, marking it with ochre in response to recorded sounds, Chen was thinking about the connected Australian and Chinese colonial histories of this wild, deserted place.

Later, she realised the site has a far more ancient cultural significance. It lies within the traditional lands of the Wiradjuri (Wiradyuri) people, who would have used that same ochre for ceremonies.[2] As a matter of cultural protocol she contacted the Wiradjuri Traditional Owners and sought their permission to exhibit her drawings made with ochre.[3] In the final work, Golden Gully – Some Ways to Listen and Draw (2020), crumpled, softly folded forms of ochre-stained paper resemble rock formations or the low, eroded mountain range west of Sydney. Video screens show ambiguous, close-up details with sound recorded on-site; crunching noises scritch and scratch, while the fibrous paper undulates gently as if breathing. It resembles a weathered, veinous, skin-like membrane, reminding us of the intimate connection between the artist’s body and the production of the work.

Chen explains that the idea of “listening through drawing” (or “drawing through listening”) emerged through her Master’s and PhD research at the University of New South Wales. For some years Chen had been recording Buddhist chants. Visual documentation of these chants—spectrograms of sound wave frequencies– became abstract drawings. Later works incorporated sound recordings of natural phenomena such as thunder, rain, and birdsong. The artist’s physical presence in the landscape becomes an integral part of the work.

 

Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, Fluvial Dynamics: Rain, Wind, People, 2020, ink on Wenzhou paper, 125 x 145 x 80 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.
Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, Sonic Ink Vibrations – Tidal 1, 2021, ink on Wenzhou paper, 23.5 x 23.5 cm. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

Chen’s research led her to develop a tool for drawing in three-dimension based on how musical instruments are designed to fit the human body. Remembering how a cello is held between the knees, Chen used the measurements between her face and knees, and the length of her arms, to design a method of drawing with left and right hands simultaneously. “I wanted to try to get a 360-degree sense of sounds around me. I was trying to interpret three-dimensionality and spatial and temporal fluidity onto a static flat surface and translating it into a visual graphic space,” she explains. “I realised that the way we listen is very spatial, ephemeral and penetrative—it goes through our bodies.”

Holding her “instrument” between her knees, Chen was able to make visible her bodily interactions with wind and water in bush landscapes around Sydney Harbour, making gestural marks on fan-like arcs of paper with both hands at once. Chen says, “I like to record sound while I’m drawing as well. It lets me experience these places in a way that is quite distinct—I call them paper mediators.” The resulting drawings, such as Binaural Sound Study – Bamboo (2017) resemble paper fans—folded, wing-like double arcs inscribed with mysterious markings of ink. Initially Chen resisted this too-literal association, but later she decided that a Chinese paper fan, similarly, is “an extension of the body […] and there is that cultural association, as well.”

In 2017 and 2018 Chen undertook residencies in China for the first time. She had especially wanted to work in the mountainous karst landscapes of southern China—partly due to their mythological and art historical associations, and partly because her grandmother’s ancestral village is in Guangdong. “I wanted to engage with places that had been made visually iconic by men, for example by the Song Dynasty literati shan shui painters,” she says. In Guangxi Autonomous Region, Chen found the perfect place to develop her embodied listening project. Langshi Village, on the Lijiang River near Guilin, offered vistas of mountains and water while being somewhat distanced from the tourist trail.

Chen arrived in this landscape with what she calls an “aestheticised sensibility”, having seen its extraordinary mountains depicted in so many paintings. She found herself in “a place that tourists would not usually see, with pathways up the mountains where the stones have been worn smooth by generations of feet, and stones beside the river worn smooth by women washing clothes.” Chen purchased a plastic laundry brush and went to the river at dawn to record the sounds she could make against the rocks, juxtaposed with splashing water, birdsong and the occasional noisy outboard motor from a passing tourist boat or plastic “bamboo” raft.

 

Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, 浪石響: 山, 江, 竹子 – Sounding Langshi: Mountain, River, Bamboo, 2018, paper, Li River water, undetermined dematiaceous hyphomycetes, undetermined lichens, soil particles, ink, sound feedback recording, dimensions variable, duration: 21 mins 54 secs. Installation view at AD Space, Sydney, 2020. Image courtesy of the artist.
Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen, 浪石響: 山, 江, 竹子 – Sounding Langshi: Mountain, River, Bamboo, 2018, paper, Li River water, undetermined dematiaceous hyphomycetes, undetermined lichens, soil particles, ink, sound feedback recording, dimensions variable, duration: 21 mins 54 secs. Installation view at AD Space, Sydney, 2020. Photo by Taiyo Totsuka. Image courtesy of the artist.

 

As Chen’s speakers bounced the sound around the riverbank, she recorded water lapping and the sound of scrubbing, with the unanticipated addition of another early arrival—a woman doing laundry, rhythmically hitting her wet clothes with a bamboo stick. Chen pushed and crumpled dampened xuan paper laid on the ground in response to the sounds. In Sounding Langshi (2021) sculptural sheets of this twisted, wrinkled paper—documentation of Chen’s physical engagement in time and space—evoke the shan shui landscapes of the literati.

Chen says ruefully that although women doing laundry would always have been present at the riverbank, “the women washing their clothes in the river were never depicted in those paintings—they and their labour were invisible. Made invisible deliberately.” Together with the embodiment of the artist and her sensory experience within the natural world, the relentless domestic labour of countless generations of women is subtly present in her installation.

Chen constructs wordless “conversations” between science, geography, history and anatomy. Her expanded drawing practice acknowledges the interdependence of human bodies with other life forms, with bodies of water, ecosystems, and climate; her process of “embodied listening” makes visible these mutually reciprocal but fragile interconnections. In this time of a global pandemic and the increasingly terrifying and inescapable impact of climate change, she asks us to pause, and to listen—to really listen—to the natural world.

 

[1] All quotes from the artist unless otherwise acknowledged are excerpted from an interview with the author, at Parramatta Artists’ Studios on 22 March 2021. They have been lightly edited.

[2] The Wiradjuri are the largest group of Aboriginal people in New South Wales. Their traditional lands (unceded) occupy a vast swathe of the plains west of the Blue Mountains.

[3] The letter from Wiradjuri elders and traditional owners is available on Cindy Yuen-Zhe Chen’s website together with the works that she made at Hill End.

 

 

 
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