Remove the mask of the present, and underneath lies the deep, personal well of our memories. Chen Qingqing keeps hers in boxes.
Chen Qingqing solo exhibition shows at Today Art Museum from Saturday 3 to Monday 12 March.
Remove the mask of the present, and underneath lies the deep, personal well of our memories. Chen Qingqing keeps hers in boxes. ‘It’s like on a computer, where you have different folders for different things,’ she explains in her tidy Songzhuang home studio, surrounded by decades of work. ‘I put my memories in different containers. Sometimes I even take them out and later shift them around.’ Chen has a deep – and sometimes dark – well from which to draw.
Chen is best known for her silhouette-like recreations of Qing and Ming Dynasty clothing, which are woven out of dried flowers and grasses, then mounted on to flat surfaces. Her upcoming retrospective at the Today Art Museum, however, will focus on the installations she has worked on for the past 20 years.
Born in 1953, Chen didn’t begin to practise art until the ’90s. ‘The Story of Women’ (1998), a small, wooden four-part cabinet containing red ‘lotus feet’ slippers, pages from an ancient medical manual and dried leaves, twigs and stones, encapsulated how intertwined her art and experiences have always been. Recollecting her training as a barefoot doctor after the Cultural Revolution, she recalls an old lady with bound feet: ‘She was in so much pain that she had us cut all her toes off. They were cutting into the bottom of her shortened feet. I’ll never forget that operation.’
If there is one thing she misses about her childhood, it’s the role that women played. In her experience, they really were, in the famous words of Mao Zedong, ‘Holding up half the sky’; she remembers her mother working every day except Sundays. A self-taught artist, who made her way without the training and connections of art school, Chen has forged her own path – something she feels not enough modern women do. ‘Chinese society has regressed,’ Chen opines. ‘Women today will go to university, but their dream is to marry a man with a fat wallet and never work again after that.’
That unique path led her from a white collar job in Vienna to 798, back in the days when it was just a factory district and far from the commercial art hub it is today. She remembers the abandoned buildings, empty but for a few artists and the truck drivers who took advantage of a space ‘not even the government wanted’. It was only later that the crowds began to appear.
‘People thought that modern art was just for fun,’ she recalls. ‘You could use whatever you had to hand to make it, bits of rubbish and so on.’ Despite her desire for it to be more prominent in Chinese society, the simplistic and commercial way in which contemporary art was approached by much of its new audience stirred strong disagreement in Chen. Consequently, she began to make more elaborate and bizarre works coloured by a vicious sense of humour: in one piece, dolls’ heads were attached to the bodies of lizards, then lined up against the inside of a glass tank; in another, the skeletal forms of dinosaurs are depicted having sex with animals and humans. ‘People can be Jurassic,’ she explains.
But these earlier efforts, in which the bodies of plastic babies and girls are broken up into disturbing scenarios (in one, a tree breaks through the flailing form of a girl, both penetrating her and pinning her to the ground), also refer to her wider experiences. ‘I’ve gained things, lost things and gained things again so many times… gone through so many extremely different experiences, that it is as if my life is like that – broken up into parts.’
And it's not just misunderstndings of our histories and cultures that abound. In ‘Dialogue – My Coffin’ (2000), two busts face each other across opposite ends of a translucent coffin, made from grass and flowers over a branch frame. It is intended as an expression of hope, a wish that people can better learn to communicate with each other – and yet the coffin itself admits that ‘the possibility of this ever happening, even in our deepest relationships, has its limits’.
There are many things, she thinks, that her parents did not communicate to each other before they died. Imagining herself as a restless ghost, perhaps finding another male ghost seeking companionship, Chen has done battle with her own – and others people’s – interpretation of history, searching for the kind of freedom she has yet to find, either here, in Europe or anywhere else she has travelled in the world.