Chen Tianzhuo and Ishvara-Smart or Sincere?

Tianzhuo Chen: Ishvara. Courtesy of Long March Space
Ishvara performance. Courtesy of the artist and Long March Space
Exhibition view of Tianzhuo Chen: Ishvara. Courtesy of Long March Space
Installation view of Tianzhuo Chen: Ishvara. Courtesy of Long March Space
Chen Tianzhuo. Courtesy of the artist and Long March Space
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CoBo Social Design and Architecture

“Der Rufkommt aus mir und doch tiber mich” -Heidegger

In a strange but perhaps unsurprising way, in China, discussions about Chen Tianzhuo as artist revolve around the archaic question of sincerity, in one way or another.

TEXT: Li Bowen
IMAGES: Courtesy of the artist and Long March Space

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Ishvara performance. Courtesy of the artist and Long March Space

By that I mean, people would talk about how smart Chen is, how he is playing tricks by integrating underground (or even “lowly”) cultures – some popular and populist, some esoteric – from the West, with religious images appropriated from Eastern religions and cults. The logic goes: being smart and being sincere is mutually exclusive, you could not be manifestly smart or sincere at the same time. Being smart, therefore, means being cynical or ironic, being a sceptic, and by definition, a sceptic is an overkill: not only does he mistrust the mechanism of the art system, the movements of the art world, the order or disorder of the art market, but he is also, at the bottom of his heart, averse to the images, motifs and languages he uses in his creation, because of the nature of these in specific (religious, underground, occult) – or, perhaps more importantly, because of the nature of images, motifs and languages in general. In the impossible judgement of what goes on in another man’s mind, it is decided that Chen reduces casually both the sacred and the profane to tools and apparatus, from the continued constructions of which come works that are later to be subject to speculations.

And I know one part of me is with them. It is sometimes openly acknowledged that it is indeed an impossible inquisition, but in most cases one just goes straight into it, without hesitating about the incredibly penetrating nature of such leap into the interior of another man: is he sincere or not? To be sure, the question of sincerity is not a naive question; instead, it has a history that is more than profound about it. One prime example of our time regarding the question of sincerity is the body of works by Wes Anderson. To be specific, on one occasion, in the Senate House of The University of London, many years ago, it was suggested that perhaps Wes Anderson’s films could be considered instances in which it is possible to discover a certain “postmodern sincerity”, instead of pure cynicism or irony that characterises the epoch chiefly. Behind or under – the positioning of this “postmodern sincerity” depends heavily on our selection of metaphors, as between the painterly and the sculptural metaphors is a very big gap – the cynicism and the irony, lies the sincerity that is in fact perhaps more important to the structure of a film. I think this discovery of a sincerity that is different from that found in Augustus’ or Rousseau’s (or even the amusing figure of occultist Aleister Crowley, who also wrote his own The Confessions of Aleister Crowley : An Autohagiography – besides the unusual subtitle, and the fact that the truthful nature of the book is confirmed twice already in the title, one has to anticipate one day a reading of Chen Tianzhuo’s work through the work of Crowley’s) could and should indeed be encouraged, since you know the guy who proposes this has to be well intentioned; but I have to guess it is much more complex than an interior/exterior structure that corresponds with a structure of sincere/cynical.

Exhibition view of Tianzhuo Chen: Ishvara. Courtesy of Long March Space
Exhibition view of Tianzhuo Chen: Ishvara. Courtesy of Long March Space

On these historical occasions, presented is effectively a transgression of the private into the public, by means of exactly “publication”, but there is more: equated to truth here, in its unharmed, untempered totality, is secret and secrecy.

Chen Tianzhuo speaks via his work directly of secret. Shown in works such as the most recent ones included in the opera/exhibition in Long March Space “Ishvara”, among religious doctrines and somehow profane alterations of images, is the idea of “manifestation”. It recalls one of the most ancient effects of the theatre: in an act that is summoning and en-trancing, the unseen, hidden, forbidden is staged, brought alive to those who, before the critical, theatrical event, believe only half-heartedly. This was the fifth performance of Chen’s, and as shocking and erotic as it is, “Ishvara” is so far the longest and most elaborated, appropriating the Sanskrit Hindu epic the Bhagavad Gītā in a detailed and extravagant fashion. The narrative develops around the theme of karma and death in relation to life, strangely reminding one of the painting tradition of vanitas – didactic to an extent, but mostly concerned with an externalisation of one’s own anxiety. It pertains to a culture of sharing that is much more profound that that found in the time of the contemporary: instead of working on a hype or making known my trivial everyday life, it pertains directly to an expression of myself to myself. It creates a mirror in which I ponder my reflection; or, the secret remains a secret that is to be layered upon by another secret, that is, the act of revealing it.

Installation view of Tianzhuo Chen: Ishvara. Courtesy of Long March Space
Installation view of Tianzhuo Chen: Ishvara. Courtesy of Long March Space

On the other hand, the exhibition, which is effectively a finite remain of the “opera” that is its namesake, is already ruined by the conspired absence of the performers and the audience. The exhibition, structured as such, is no longer an event in its own right, not more eventful than, say, the ruin of the World Trade Centre after the “truly eventful” 911. It is rendered a souvenir, or a memorabilia, with which one can remember or miss the event that was absolutely singular. In another way, the exhibition is also the laying bare of the secret that was the opera itself: made available to all is the en-trance through which the performers was, literally, en-tranced; the props with which the performers attracted attentions and interacted with others, now, forcefully or not, being transformed in one casual act into artworks; the mise en scene that was, one is tempted to say after Derrida, the mise en abyme – present was a statue that was made after the appearance of one performer in the last performance; at work here is not only the impossible co-presence of a deity and an icon made after him, but also the uncanny, internalising, accumulating (infinitely, perhaps) movement of self-cannibalism. It consumes itself, or to borrow a metaphor from the literary, it “eat up its own words.”

And this is where secret becomes something else. A two-fold structure here: what makes Chen’s opera/exhibition a secret is exactly the fact that Chen lives and works in the “same style” – his acquaintances will all admit happily that he is living his art, or is himself an artwork, because there is a very strong and obvious consistency between the two, only that the artist is much calmer that his works appear to be – the secret is, not unlike that purloined letter of Poe’s, always already not behind (the paintings of religious doctrines summon nothing other than itself), nor under (the statues of divine figures are even doubly confirmed and affirmed negatively by the presence of the performer, now in different costumes, evoking different madness), it is always already present, not to be found elsewhere as if the key to it and its truth is held by a mysterious master, because here the sacred is structured as precisely the profane, but nothing else. It is to be found here and only here, because of the history of contemporary art as a positivisation of meaninglessness, and an affirmation of the lack of boundary between art and life (culture). And what makes all these fuss better, is the fact that in the casual doubling of the same, through the creation of the mirror, is the self-consumption of the secret: I reveal my secret to myself (and audience could be my witness, or not. It is anticipated that the irrelevance of the audience will be proven soon by Chen’s wish to stage a performance on the street of India’s rural areas), and I will eat up my secret words, that are inseparable from my life and my body, as an organ of mine. And you still could be my witness then.

 

Chen Tianzhuo. Courtesy of the artist and Long March Space
Chen Tianzhuo. Courtesy of the artist and Long March Space

 

Tianzhuo Chen: Ishvara
2016.06.09 – 07.10
Long March Space


Li Bowen, previously trained for eight years as a classical Ballet dancer, is a History of Art graduate from Goldsmiths, University of London, based in Beijing. He reads Slavoj Zizek, Michel Serres, Simon Critchley, and wants to receive a Glas by Jacques Derrida as a Christmas gift in the years to come.

 
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