Chen Yujun
Biography
Work Gallery
BMCA Exhibition
Essays
Publications

Chen Yujun

1976 Born in Putian, Fujian Province, China

1999 Graduated from China Academy of Art

Lives, works in Shanghai

 

Solo Exhibition

2015

“Another Place”, Space@all, Los Angeles

“The city That Flies”, Jewelvary Art & Boutique, Shanghai

“The Second Door”, James Cohan Gallery, Shanghai

2012          

“Transitional Room”, Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing

2010          

“The Empty Room”, Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing,

 

 

Cooperation Projects

2016          

“White: Chen Yufan + Chen Yujun”, Tang Contemporary Art, Hong Kong

2015          

“Dynamics of Sources”, Chen Yujun + Raphael Denis,Irenelaub Gallery, Brussels

“Mulan River\Topsoll-Chen Yujun and Chen Yufan”, 9㎡ Museum, Shanghai

2012           

“Mulan River – Unsettled”, Zhong Gallery, Berlin, Tang Contemporary Art

2011           

“Mulan River Project - Chen Yujun and Chen Yufan”, Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing,

 

Group Exhibitions

2016

“Another wave—The 1st DAOJIAO New Art Festival, XI Contemporary Art Center, Dongguan

“Dissensus Agitation - The Painting to Language”, Today Art Museum, Beijing

“Over the Wall:Paintings Tempted by Installation, Beijing

“Unrealities in the Reality”Boxes Art Space of OCT Harbour, ShenZhen

“EXOTIC STRANGER”, Galerie Paris-Beijing, Beijing

2015

“The Exhibition of Annual of Contemporary Art of China 2014”, Minsheng Art Museum, Beijing

“Babel Me”, Shanghai Museum of Glass, Shanghai,

“The Garden of Forking Paths”, Shanghai Gallery of Art, Shanghai

“Painting20X20”, Poly Art Museum, Beijing

“Destination”, Lempertz Art Center, Berlin

“The Spectres in the Double Shadow,Alioth Art Center, Shanghai

“Stereognosis zone”, Redtory Museum of Contemporary Art, Guangzhou

“Sovrapposizioni Di Immagin”i, Casa Dei Carraresi Via Palestro, Italy

Within Sight--Chinese New Painting at Post Financial Crisis Era, Foundation Taylor, Paris

“Breaking The Image Methods in the Treatment of Imagery by Contemporary Artists from China”,  Sponsor Si Shang Art Museum, Beijing

“Blow-Up Chinese New Painting At Post Financial Crisis Era”, Changjiang Museum of Contmpo rary Art, Chongqing

2014

“In Memory of a Landscape”, James Cohan Gallery, Shanghai

“Prophesy”,UP Museum , Shanghai

“Po[r]tion”,Shangjia Center, Shanghai

“The world III in the third world”, the Art Center of Chulalongkorn University, Bangkok

“Within Sight Chinese new painting at post fi゙nancial crisis era, Poly Art Museum, Beijing

Neo10-Chinese New Painting Award 10th Anniversary Invitation Exhibition,Hi ArtCenter,Beijing

“Destroy and rebuild: New painting”, Long Museum , Shanghai

“Broken Stand The new painting to order”, Long Museum , Shanghai

“The 8th Shenzhen Sculpture Biennale”, OCAT, Shenzhen, China

“The Being of Non Being”, Linda, Beijing

2013

“On the Road_Nomination Exhibition of Chinese Young Artist' Works”, Guan Shan Yue Museum, Shenzheng

“Seven sunsets, waiting dawns, all in one. How to kill a wondrous time... not wanting a thousand hour”s, Shanghai Gallery of Art, Shanghai

“Voice of the Unseen”, Venice Armory, Venice

“Fuck off 2”, Groninger Museum, Holland

“Ignition Point”, Duolun Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai

“MIRROR AND SHADOW”, galeri nasional indonesia, Jakarta

“ON|OFF: China’s Young Artists in Concept and Practice”, Ullens Center for Contemporary Art, Beijing

2012

“Exhibition of Chinese Contemporary Collectors”, National Agriculture Exhibition Center, Beijing

“Merging. Distances in Light, L-Art Gallery, Chengdu

“Landscape Visual Memory, Venice Museum of Science and Technology”, Venice

“Dawn- New Art From China”, Zhong Gallery, Berlin

“Water Stains on The Wall-The Carrier of Formation”, Zhejiang Art Museum, Hangzhou

2011

“Line Up”, Boers-Li Gallery, Beijing

“Nostalgia and Rendezvous”, Qinghe Current Art Center, Nanjing

“Ri Yong-Chang Xing”, Chengdu MOCA, Chengdu

“Hou To Do”, Henglu Art Museum, Hangzhou

2010

“Post Traditions -The Magnified Slice”, Duolun Museum Of Modern Art, Shanghai

 “Defocus”, Hangzhou Normal University of Art Museum, Hangzhou

“Visual Flux- Easel Painting Research Exhibition 1-Space and Energy”, Qinghe Current Art Center, Nanjing

“What Is Narrative?”, A4 Art Center, Chengdu

“Youth Upstairs, Young Critics Nomination Exhibition”, Times Art Museum, Beijing

“Home-Stay”, Osage Gallery, Shanghai

“Reshaping History-China Art from 2000 to 200”9, Arario Gallery, Beijing

“A Close-Up Focus on Chinese Contemporary Art Trends”, Platform China, Beijing

“Free Terminology”, A4 Art Center, Chengdu

2009

 

“Points&Crosses, Exhibition of Contemporary Painting in China”, 2010 Art Center, Shanghai

“Future Manufacturing”, Qinghe Current Art Center, Nanjing

“Going By”, SZ Art Center, Beijing

“Blackboard”, Shangh Art Gallery, Shanghai

“Blade-Reconstruct Leifeng Pagoda”, SZ Art Center, Beijing

“Reflective”, Wall Art Museum, Beijing; Xi Hu Art Museum, Hangzhou

“Look Deeper”, Platform China, Beijing

“Evolution?”, Shanghai Duolun Museum of Modern Art, Shanghai

2008

“To Be A Qualified Successor”, YIBO Gallery, Shanghai

“Future Sky-Chinese Young Contemporary Artist Works Selection Exhibition”, Today Art Museum, Beijing

“Another Way, Experimental Art Exhibition of Hangzhou”, The Quartet Art Museum, Nanjing

“Aquilaria”, Eye Level Gallery, Shanghai

“Grain Cereals”, China Academy of Art Museum, Hangzhou

2007

“Chongqing's Position”, Chongqing Three Gorges Museum, Chongqing

“Academy Co- Exhibition-China Academy of Fine Arts”, Xiwu Gallery, Beijing

“Form and colors-Zhejiang yong Oil Painters Invitation Exhibition”, Zhejiang Provincial Museum, Hangzhou

“CAF Contemporary Art Exhibition”, Miyazaki Prefectural Art Museum, Miyazaki, Japan

2005

“Migrants Home- Contemporary Art Exhibition”, China Academy of Art Museum, Hangzhou

“Spectacle: Century and Heaven- 2005 Chengdu Biennial”, Chengdu

2004

“Young Mind-China New Sharp Painting Award”, He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen

2003

“No.17 New Artists Exhibition”, Yanhuang Art Museum, Beijing

“Award Bronze Prize in 2003 Shanghai Young Artists Exhibition”, Liu Haisu Art Museum, Shanghai

1999

“Mixed Painting Documentary Exhibition”, Central Academy of Fine Art Museum, Beijing

Collections

Brooklyn Museum, New York

White Rabbit Contemporary Chinese Art Collection , White Rabbit Gallery, Australian

M + Museum of Art, Hong Kong

DSL collection, France

Yuz Museum, Shanghai

Long Museum, Shanghai

He Xiangning Art Museum, Shenzhen

ARARIO Museum, Korea

Myth
The Decameron - BMCA Documenting Art
An Individual Epic
—Chen Yufan and Chen Yujun’s Mulan River Project
by Fang Zhiling

I. Collaboration

For Chen Yufan and Chen Yujun, early 2008 was an important moment. It was the moment they decided to join together to sift through an indescribable “emotional entanglement” by means of collaborative installation art. The Chen brothers were born three years apart, and the two are quite different in terms of looks and character. Those who know them, however, know that they have been the quintessential kindred spirits, from their childhood days as playmates, to their unwavering support for each other in every stage of life. In artistic creation, they have always shared a studio, and often engage in deep discussions on artistic issues. Their artistic endowments, however, are completely different, and their creations rarely resemble each other’s. Recently, however, both of their artistic practices became profoundly linked to “family history” and “hometown customs.” This turn is evidently the result of their deep artistic discussions.

By that time, younger brother Chen Yujun was attracting much attention as an “emerging” artist. The years 1999 to 2005 marked a period when the Chinese art scene favored new emerging art the most. It was in this period that Chen Yujun was noticed for his excellent artistic cultivation and his mysterious and romantic Eastern-toned painting. By 2007, he had held a solo exhibition in Beijing titled Made in Jiangnan. The exhibition was something of an assessment of those “Eastern-toned” paintings. But the exhibition was not a success. The subdued response from the outside world sent him into a state of hesitation, anxiety and self-examination.

 Compared to his immensely talented younger brother, Chen Yufan had a more difficult path in his early artistic career. It was not until recently that he truly established his own artistic direction—he became clearly aware that instead of the “contemporary painting” that relied on witty designs and great painting talent, he was more attracted to a simpler, purer “sense of the handmade” imprinted by the passage of time. This led him to focus his artistic experiments on a novel linguistic form: “hole punching.” Instead of painting distinctly personal brushstrokes with a refined texture, he would mechanically punch holes in cardboard or canvas like a craftsman. His new works quickly garnered recognition among his artist friends, Chen Yujun included.

 But when comparing with the “post-70s art,”meaning art made by artists born in the 1970s, which was the rising trend at the time, they were both aware that their own art lacked an exciting inner energy. They did not like the excessively childish tone of “post-70s art,” but there is no doubt that naive, youthful passion was the linguistic allure that catalyzed the work of that “cohort” of artists. If that was the case, what would be the wellspring that could catalyze their own inner desires? In repeated deep discussions, they gradually came to realize it was that indescribable “emotional entanglement” that tied them to home and family. Thus, just as their individual artistic explorations were both undergoing profound internal shifts, they also decided to use collaborative installation art to process this complex, indescribable spiritual experience.

II. Mulan River

The Mulan River is a river that flows through their hometown, a small village in the famous overseas Chinese ancestral homeland of Putian, Fujian Province. The river begins on Mt. Bijia in the Daiyun Mountain Range, and crosses central and southern Putian before flowing into the Taiwan Strait. It is the largest river in Fujian, and has been called Putian's mother river. For the Chen brothers, the Mulan river is the thread that links “home” to the “outside world.” Long before the brothers were born, the “other half of the family” followed this river and left home, setting out across the South China Sea. Many years later, the brothers, as well as many other young people, floated down this river to the cities where they now reside.

The period since the end of the nineteenth century has been one of constant, dramatic transformation in Chinese society. “Reform”, “revolution”, “liberation”, “socialist reordering”, “Cultural Revolution”, “reform and opening”... Behind this string of terms are the operations of “modern civilization” on Chinese traditional society with "family” at its root—in Chinese traditional society, “family” has a special meaning. It is not like the small modern family unit, but a large clan with many branches. In the traditional concept of society, with “filial piety” at its core, the “family” tied together by blood ties is more than just the fundamental unit of the nation, but also the prototype for the entire model of the nation—a rushing wave.

Chen Yufan and Chen Yujun could be said to have grown up alongside China’s reform and opening. Though they were born in the late Cultural Revolution, they do not remember it. For them, the Cultural Revolution, and the earlier “revolution” and “resistance” are all part of the “national memory.” Their own individual memories go hand in hand with the trajectory from the abject poverty at the end of the Cultural Revolution to the constantly deepening reforms that continue today.

In their childhood memories, their “family” has been split in two, with half residing in Yuantou Village, Putian, and the other half far across the South China Sea. By the time of the brothers’ first memories, the disaster of the Cultural Revolution had ended, and in the open atmosphere of a “de-politicized” society, many traditions and practices once swept away were gradually restored. The complex public family life tied together by a proliferation of rituals—in China, families such as these Chens, who had migrated from the Central Plain to the “barbarian lands” of the south have held a particularly strong grip on the traditions and customs from their homeland—became one side of their warm childhood memories.

The other side of those childhood memories consisted of thoughts and imagination of that “other half of the family” across the seas. China has historically seen several waves of emigration due to war and other causes. In the late nineteenth century, the southeastern coast, led by Guangdong and Fujian, saw a new wave of “South Sea” emigration. Later, when overseas Chinese returned from across Asia to buy houses and land, they brought diverse exotic cultures back with them, which fused with local customs to form a unique “overseas Chinese hometown culture.” After the establishment of the People's Republic of China, ties between overseas Chinese and their homeland were cut off. For the young Chen brothers, this “other half of the family” across the seas at once consisted of the “absent ones” in family offerings, as well as the "stories” streaming from the mouths of their elders. The exotic touches scattered across their hometown lent these stories an air of legendary mystery.

Standing in contrast to the warm, romantic base tone of life from the Mulan River is the increasingly “modern” metropolitan life far from home. Studying, going to university, then working and settling in a city far from home... these are perhaps the shared experiences of many Chinese who have migrated from the countryside to the cities. As the “reform and opening” has progressed, they have experienced diverse and profound social changes: rapid economic development, constant shifts in the system, the proliferation of greed, successive waves of new social ideas. As “modern civilization” has gradually made good on its promised prosperity, it has also revealed a more sinister face. Tender, romantic childhood memories, the complex changes of the nation, and the individual drifting in the treacherous tides of society... all of these intertwine to form a tangled, unbreakable web of an “emotional complex.” The meandering Mulan River is the hub that ties it all together.

III. Installation

When the brothers were in school, “installation art” was still the purview of a small minority of “avant-garde” artists in China. But by the time they began collaborating, “installations” had already become a common sight at all manner of art exhibitions. The reason they chose the medium of installation is that they wanted to use “the substantive space of a virtual house, and the fragments of information scattered throughout... to describe a unique living space, and the alienated identity of its residents.”

The brothers’ first installation work was a “Mulan River” made from discarded newspapers, old books, gravel and other cheap materials—piles of cut up books symbolized the terrain of the scarred river, while torn cardboard and roughly processed wood composed houses wharfs and tattered boats along the banks, and meticulously carved and polished wood was used to create pavilions seeping an air of mystery. Pieces of paper scattered in the river bore drawings of people with mythical proportions. The river valley and the houses along it were all abstract and simple, and also marked with strong regional traits. For them, this Mulan River was more than just a river “imbued with religious notions of ‘fluidity’ and laden with ‘human’ and ‘geographic’ threads,” but also a river flowing with their own tender memories and carrying their profound spiritual journey.

From this point on, “homes” and “fragments of information scattered within” became the most important motifs in the Mulan River Project. Let us take Asian Circumscription9 Square Meters, from 2009, as an example. A three cubic meter “wooden chamber” simulates a temporary living space—a space without windows or doors, empty of furniture and devoid of any traces of life. The “wooden chamber” is open, with all kinds of images affixed to the inner walls: old photographs, altered maps, hand-drawn portraits and landscapes, as well as mysterious diagrams. The monotonous grain of the wood, the pungent aroma of fresh glue, and the living memories awakened by those “information fragments” turn this “wooden chamber” into something of a mysterious “home” of disjointed time and space, a home where an erratic, unmoored experience of wandering comes together with distant recollections of the past.

In 2011, they held their first large scale installation exhibition in Beijing, titled Mulan River Project. In this exhibition, the “home” further evolved into a series of “dislocated rooms”—small, dark, empty rooms built from cardboard, small wooden rooms somewhat resembling churches perched on high stools, strange buildings surrounded by moats of wax, and black niche boxes with surreal tones of “South Seas living.” Meanwhile, beyond the "fragments of information” of the old photographs, hand-drawn images and mysterious diagrams, there also emerged a proliferation of “scattered stones”, “extended circumstances” and other information fragments with a more romantic air more suited to the situation. More importantly, this artwork not only possessed an epic sweeping narrative, it also keenly expressed a more complex spiritual conflict of “modern man” from different dimensions: nostalgia for family life, the passionate gaze on the hometown torn apart by the torrents of modernity, the silent acceptance of modern life in the “other land”—a drifting, unmoored “modern” fate—and that gloomy, anxious yet poetic sentiment of life.

IV. Goodness Flows from the Yin River

I am unsure of its significance, but in the 2017 work Mulan River | Home, the words “goodness flows from the Yin River” appear. This is a complex phrasal construct in Chinese which basically describes many branches of a family, the “goodness,” flowing out of the Yin River, which is in Henan Province, where the Chens were once an influential family. This phrase is an old heirloom this particular branch of the Chens brought with them from the Yin River in Henan Province to Putian, Fujian Province. Whether conscious or unconscious—they may have intentionally highlighted it, or it may just be a customary decorative flourish—these words allude to a more profound historical thread.

  In the home’s structure, arrangements of materials, and display methods, we can see intimate links with the previous Mulan River Project artworks: wood, cardboard and cut books are still the main materials, the artwork still models a distinctive type of “house,” and we still see “information fragments” closely linked to the “home”—silhouette portraits, unexpected scenes of life, strange structures marked with both tender memories and absurd imaginings, weathered old objects, and simple implements used specifically for moving house. Furthermore, like the 2012 work Mulan RiverUnsettled, this work fuses the “house” with simple shipping crates, which are both easier to ship and serve to enhance the feel of a rushed, boundless journey.

But, at first glance, the changes in Mulan River | Home are also readily apparent. The changes are first manifest in the visual atmosphere of the artwork. Though the main visual materials are still wooden boards and cut books, unlike previous artworks, which used simple composite wood and books selected at random, in Mulan River | Home, the artists carefully selected woods of different colors, textures and ages from old buildings and furniture, and paid the same attention to colors, textures and ages in their choice of books as well. These materials, with their rich arrays of colors and textures, not only lend the installation rich visual layers of antique elegance and painterliness, but the temporal information inherent in the materials themselves also gives off an air of the historical accumulation of a “home.” When these materials richly layered with visual historical information are combined with packing materials and various “single use” items as cardboard boxes, the old, tender atmosphere of “home” blends together with unmoored, drifting migration.

There is another important change in Mulan River | Home which perhaps many people have not noticed: it dilutes the flourishes of the “South Seas” while heightening the atmosphere of “home.” Though we can still see the mysterious and romantic exotic tones of these homes from the overseas Chinese ancestral homeland, what is more striking is a feel of continuing culture and a tender air of “home” conveyed through the inscribed doorway arch, the traditional folk paintings, the old doors, windows, cabinets and balconies, and the contented cat perched on the balcony.

 

The older history of family migration alluded to by the inscription “goodness flows from the Yin River” reveals a historical awareness that is bleaker and more profound: ceaseless flowing and migration is the true essential way of existence for the “family” and “individual life.” The “homeland” along the banks of the Mulan River—regardless of where this “homeland” comes from, what trials it has been through, or what fate it faces today—is not only a precious historical fold in the never-ending story of the “goodness flowing from the Yin River,” it is also the place where one finds true belonging. It is as the Fujianese term “cuo” encapsulates: house and home.

V. At the Confluence of History and the Future

If history is an endless string of significant moments in time, then the year 2008 will surely be one of the more important points on that string for China: the 2008 financial crisis touched off by the American mortgage market finally destroyed the “idol of modernity” that had towered high in the hearts of the Chinese since the late nineteenth century, and Chinese society began measuring this world and its own traditions through a different lens. This social awareness naturally spread to the realm of Chinese contemporary art.

If the path of the modern and contemporary art that emerged in China in the late 1970s—a constant progression from the traditional “revolutionary realism” towards Western classicalism,  classic modernism, and the leading international contemporary art of the time—was originally a path of Chinese artists learning “how to be contemporary” from the West, then as the Chinese contemporary art market exploded, just as Chinese artists were broadening their horizons and bolstering their self-confidence through increasing international exchange, the question of “Chineseness” was also becoming an essential issue Chinese contemporary artists had to face. The unique social awareness that emerged in 2008 undoubtedly accelerated this shift.

Major changes in the field of art have never been purely aesthetic turns. They are recasting of art's purpose by the social ideas and unique social passions of a particular time. If the Chinese contemporary art before this amounted to a confluence of new concepts, forms and a powerful desire for emotional and spiritual liberation heavily influenced by Western contemporary art—particularly the desire to deconstruct and distance itself from various traditional values and mainstream ideology, spurred by various modern and contemporary social ideas from the West—then when these various new ideas and forms are no longer new, when the various artistic methods for deconstruction and distancing from mainstream ideology are no longer able to spark passion, what new artistic ideas and spiritual resources will come together to forge this new turn?

When the Chen brothers began creating installations, it seems they did not put much thought into this profound transformation facing Chinese contemporary art. But if we look back on the developmental trajectory of the Mulan River Project series, we can clearly see the gradual assimilation of a new artistic concept and new spiritual experience. The “installation” does not serve as some new “contemporary form” in the Mulan River Project; it is just that the “substantive spatial presence” is more suited to the expression of their inner experience. Furthermore, the Mulan River Project is not a tool for them to criticize reality or deconstruct mainstream values, but for them to probe their own complex emotional entanglements in their experience of drastic social change. In fact, the bleak and heavy historical perspective, and plain, simple yet passionate emotional attitude in Mulan River | Home have touched on the hidden spiritual dilemma of this era in a profound way.

The year 2008, when they began the Mulan River Project, represented a time of emotional catharsis for the “post-70s” generation, an expression of a unique youthful experience, of “brutal youth” and the “anime generation.” A decade later, as those artists face increasingly serious tests, the art of the Chen brothers has met with wider recognition and affirmation. Tracing the cause of this, it is not only because the Mulan River Project touched on the nostalgia of an era, but more importantly because their art has come to embody the relationship between art and new social ideas and passions with ever greater clarity. The elegant and profound visual feel of the artworks has come to take on more of a Chinese air, and the epic proportions of the artworks, with their bleak, heavy and yet still romantic emotional bearing, are bringing greater clarity to the increasingly mature artistic character of the “post-70s artists.”



Aug 8 2017

 

Read More
A “Home” on the Move
the Fluidity of Memory and the Regional Imagination

by Lu Mingjun

Five years ago, at the group exhibition ON|OFF China's Young Artists in Concept and Practice, held by the Ullens Centre for Contemporary Art (UCCA), Mulan River | Home made its first appearance. A part of the Mulan River Project, “Home” was a continuation of brothers Chen Yufan and Chen Yujun's narrative of their homeland, which has constantly returned to everyday memory, religious culture and the moral order. The upcoming exhibition at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art will present the latest installment in Mulan River | Home. Unlike five years ago, they are now no longer speaking of cultural symbols, but instead treating them as a part of everyday life and cultural psychology. Whether in terms of spatial divisions or durations of time, the Mulan River is no longer able to form an object of reflection or an Other to the Chen brothers. Instead, it more resembles a sentiment and discourse of “natural flow.”

The Chinese title of the artwork uses the Fujianese term for home, “cuo.” As the starting point for China's first mass-migration overseas, the southeastern coast is sprinkled with “overseas Chinese homes” from the past century incorporating elements of foreign cultures. Of course, the Chen brothers are more concerned with how these “overseas Chinese homes” and their associated ways of life have and haven't changed over the past century. This reminds us that “cuo” here is at once a spatial concept as well as a temporal metaphor.

At the UCCA On | OFF exhibition, the Chen brothers used the architecture of their hometown of Putian as a reference, and collected various readymade objects with regional character (such as discarded doors, windows, furniture, lumber, tiles and books) to create roughly twenty “shipping crates” of various sizes. At the exhibition site, they combined these “shipping crates” into a giant architectural facade that drew from the classic “monument arch” form to convey their remembrance and imagination of their hometown. Hence, “these ‘shipping crates’ became like suitcases, constantly changing their arrangements as they traveled around the world with the exhibition and were presented in different cultural spaces, telling the story of this fluid homeland.”[1]

In this latest exhibition, the two artists have designed the exhibition space to at once resemble part of a river, as well as an archaeological site. On the four sides of the exhibition space, they have raised a walkway measuring approximately one meter tall and one meter wide. If the exhibition site is a river, the walkway stands like embankments (or bridges), and the boxes scattered throughout the space are like memory fragments drifting on the water. Likewise, if we call this an archaeological site, then the walkway is the boundary or viewing platform that surrounds the dig, while the boxes are artifacts and historical traces uncovered in the dig. The artists are attempting to create an imagery of “passing,” and this fits with another meaning for the term “cuo,” which is to place a coffin on view before a funeral. In this way, the archaeological site has become the scene of a “floating viewing.” This unconsciously shrouds the practice in a shadow of “death.” In fact, it is a part of the artists’ subconscious, the “tragic” tones tied to cultural transformation and shifting memories. This is echoed in their use of many discarded readymade objects, as well as industrially-produced disposable goods, which crucially project a faint sense of fragility and insecurity.

The artists do not forget to remind us that this is no longer a regimented object of observation beholden to the logic of seeing, but a setting in which the viewer is allowed to roam and experience freely. [2]The fragments here are at once traces of the past, as well as the current reality, which is to say that this spatial arrangement and display language are aimed at revealing the compressed or fragmented memories and mental trajectories of these two artists. This loose structural relationship is indeed closer to their psychological reality: they may be unable to awaken a complete memory, but there will always be some object or surface texture that will catalyze fragments of certain things from memory.

In fact, the use of wood to build crates and establish the space itself encompasses rich layers of memory. The two artists were personally involved in most of the production and construction. Their unwillingness to give up on participating in this act was not only out of technical considerations, but also in an attempt to speak to the physical and psychological experience through the act of labor. Their liberal use of composite wood may be rooted in functional requirements, and it may be an industrial product, but the physical properties of “wood” evoke latent connections to the imagery of trees that appears repeatedly in their drawings and installations. “Trees” are usually a metaphor for continuation, but here they take on connotations of a rift. Of course, for the artists, the texture of trees is a contour of memory, one that is marked by both rift and continuity, fragmentation and unity.

In the construction of the space, we can see that the artists are using multiple methods. Beyond the appropriation of readymade materials, this also includes cutting, stacking, squeezing, wrapping, appliqué and assemblage. Whatever the methods, the artists have, on the one hand, employed various fragments to construct partial base images or passages of memory, which beyond photographs and images, also includes various carvings and patterns from the South Seas. On the other hand, the construction itself is aimed at presenting a form and feel of layered, textured space. Within this, every detail has the potential to spark an urge in the viewer to remember and reflect. The images and patterns are all either directly rooted in their hometown of Putian, or are memories about Putian, and thus have symbolic meaning just like the appropriated readymade materials. What must not be overlooked, however, is that these methods also have anti-symbolic tones. For instance, these installation methods rely on various temporary relationships that are part of the systematic aesthetics of contemporary art, while also conveying a vague sense of fragility and insecurity. We can view this as a marker of the artists’ migratory lives and their unstable, temporary nature. It is not difficult to see the tension between symbolic logic and temporary relationships/vision. This is embodied not only in the spatial dimension, but also within a form of temporal relationship. Perhaps, for the artists, what is truly temporary, fragile and fragmented is not space, but time, along with our gaze. 

Along the four walls on which the walkway is attached, the artists have scattered three small video screens which play three sets of videos the artists made about the customs, scenes and everyday life of their hometown. Here is what the artists are pondering through these videos: when people view the details of a Buddha statue from different angles, it is like their relationship with their everyday surroundings, with no deeper meaning, perhaps just an empty ritual; when the camera pans past the faces of each member of the family, the different gazes convey different perceptions and thoughts, turning the relationships between family members complex and subtle; when the grain of wood comes to resemble the flow of a river, and fades off into the distance of the lens, it implies that the real river ceased to exist long ago, standing as a mere symbol, just like the grain of the wood. These videos interact with the installation, forming a relationship like that between the wood grain and the river, which emerges repeatedly in the exhibition in different forms. Meanwhile, this spatial arrangement forces the viewer, standing on the walkway, to cast out at least two different gazes. At a distance of less than a meter, through the videos, we can take an up close look at certain details and pieces of everyday faith, life and scenery. When we look back, we can look out over these scattered installations and the overall fragmented scene from on high. Neither of these two gazes, however, is sufficient to evoke our memories. In fact, they seem to even be consciously producing or drawing a distance between viewer and object. What really evoke the memories are those easily visible and tangible readymade objects and temporary relationships.

At this point, we have perhaps all overlooked something, which is that the entire exhibition itself resembles a “home.” This house, filled to the brim with memory and imagination, is flowing all over the world, continuously “embedding” itself in different countries, regions, times and spaces. I see this “embedding” as itself a form of temporariness. That is to say, the exhibition itself is a fragile, temporary relationship. Here, it is not just the “shipping crate” installations, with their travel symbolism,  which are flowing, but the entire house of an exhibition. It is not just the remembered past that is flowing, but the present as well. It must be noted here that aside from the shape of the exhibition space, the artists have made no consideration for incorporating the local culture of each exhibition site into their practice. That is because “embedding” is itself a form of mixture. To coin Foucault, at the very least, the gaze of the viewer has been incorporated within. Thus, this fluid “embedding” has formed into a distinctive regional thread and zone of affinity. It is precisely in this process that it traverses or breaks existing regional structures and logics of affinity, and thus releases greater space for freedom.

In its earliest conceptual rendering, the Mulan River Project was rooted in the history of many of the Chen brothers’ kin migrating across the South China Sea a century ago, and the regional imagination is a major component of their practice and ideas. Even Chen Yujun’s early Asian Circumscription series and Chen Yufan's Into One series are, in my opinion, born of this. That is to say, from the beginning, they were both keenly aware of region, identity and related issues. In their later practice, the Mulan River Project gradually shifted from a fixed cultural symbol with established essential meaning into a fluid, hybrid and uncertain cultural experiment and imagination. Like political anthropologist James C. Scott's “Zomia,” it is a region that is not limited by regional conflicts, and has no aim of creating its own boundaries. It is a highly flexible, anarchic, denationalized free realm. Also similar is Owen Lattimore’s “Great Wall frontier.”[3] I also find myself thinking of many other historical theories, such as Fei Xiaotong’s “Tibetan-Yi corridor,” Wang Mingke’s “Qiang between the Han and Tibetan,” Wang Mingming’s “supersocial system” and Wang Hui's “cross-system society.” In a sense, the Chen brothers’ experiment in fluidity shares many similarities with the observations of Scott, Lattimore and other scholars. While the artists are attempting to create a new realm, and the scholars are more like the discoverers of this historical realm, Scott and Lattimore also take pains to remind us in their texts of the temporariness and fragility of “Zomia” and the “Great Wall frontier.” Correspondingly, in its flows, this new “region” or “realm” that is the “Mulan River” actually only exists in the hearts, imaginings, conceptions and other invisible places within the artists. I think this is why this exhibition of Mulan River | Home at the Petach Tikva Museum of Art appears to have so many more profound implications.

Located at the confluence of Asia, Africa and Europe, Israel has always been within a unique regional political structure, with Lebanon to the north, Syria and Jordan to the east, and Egypt to the southwest. Historically, Israel is the original homeland of the Jews. After successive occupations by Assyria, Babylon, Persia, Greece, Rome and Byzantium, the Jews had gone into long decline and exile from the region, scattered across the world and always accompanied by endless religious conflict and political struggle. Thinking about Putian, where the Mulan River is located, a place that has been home to strong folk beliefs, customs and religious affiliations since the Song dynasty, and the great waves of emigration that hit it since the twentieth century, it seems there are quite a few similarities with the scattering of the Jewish people. Today, as the Mulan River Project is being embedded in the unique historical, geographical, religious and traditional structure that is Israel, it is undoubtedly continuing our imaginations of the Mulan River, and through various interactions, clashes, intersections, fusions and symbioses between the visible and invisible, turning the space, time and gaze that is “Israel” into a part of the Mulan River, and evolving into a space or realm that fuses all manner of religious, moral, cultural and political conflicts and struggles between various values. One could say that the artists are seeking the possibility of a mirror and lens between the Mulan River and Israel. The many insecure and fragile temporary relationships they are constructing are also metaphors for the geographic circumstances of Israel.

While previous practices in this series possessed a latent awareness of boundaries, in this instance, the concept of the boundary has clearly lost effect. Confluence and fluidity have become the methods and paths these artists use to break through increasingly solid boundaries. This is actually rooted in their own besieged reality on an individual level. In the essay Scattered Collage: the Contours and Ethics of Memory, I noted that the Mulan River Project has itself been in a state of change in recent years. In other words, the modern way of life has already become a part of the Mulan River. Meanwhile, we can clearly see that Putian differs from other cities in terms of cultural and even temporal differences, but this does not constitute opposition. The overlaps and commonalities far outweigh the differences. As artists, the Chen brothers are concerned with how to keenly capture and depict the contours of the shifts and flows within.[4]

Globalization has been widely viewed as a flat and even “beautiful new world.” In essence, regional and special affinities in the postcolonial context are still products of globalization, and are still generally absorbed as parts of “universality.” Meanwhile, the torrents of religious strife and conflicts of values have torn apart our illusions about globalization, and the omnipresence of the internet has destroyed the possibility of breaking off into isolated encampments. At this time, perhaps the most revolutionary and powerful acts are those which, as described above, temporarily mix different forms of history and reality, regions and cultures, conflicts and wanderings.

[1] See Mulan River Project | HomePress Release, 2017, unpublished.

[2] ibid.

[3] Tang Xiaofeng, Yao Dali et. al., Latiemoer yu Bianjiang Zhongguo (Lattimore and Frontier China), Huang Dayuan and Yuan Jian, eds., Beijing: Sanlian Bookstore, 2017, p. 17.

[4] See Lu Mingjun, Scattered Collage: the Contours and Morals of Memory, 2017, unpublished.

Read More