The use of disguise and make up to transform her appearance and identity is a constant feature of Chen Qiulin’s work. She has dressed as a number of female characters, including an angel, a traditional Chinese beauty, a classical ‘lianpu’ opera figure, a modern dancer and a ghostlike devil figure. Why does she assume all these different identities? And why does she appear to be in this continuous state of transition? Those who constantly change appearance normally wish to express a different aspect of them selves. It is often an attempt to discover the different possibilities hidden and unlocked within oneself, even a questioning of the very concept of the ‘self’. However, the different disguises of Chen Qiulin aim at uncovering something else entirely. Neither solipsistic experiment nor personal quest, she hopes, through linking her disguised characters to the environment surrounding them, to open up a dialogue with the natural world, and it is the relationship between these two that her ultimately work focuses on.
What kind of ‘environment’ are we talking about? Throughout her work, Chen Qiulin has chosen many different kinds, but she often places her characters against a background of urban decay. This could be a construction site at the edge of the city, an area that is just being pulled down and demolished or the ruins of a city from which the inhabitants are in the process of leaving. In all these environments we can feel the destructive force of man. Mud, debris and rubble shape a wrecked and dilapidated environment. And it is into these surroundings there emerges a beautiful young girl, immaculately dressed. Radiating youth and beauty, she appears in sharp contrast with her surroundings, her presence amplified by the stark environment behind her. This crumbling environment serves as the setting for beauty, yet, we could also say that it is the girl’s beauty that serves as the setting for ruin and decay. It is this juxtaposition that serves to heighten both the sense of beauty and decay, and also creates a kind of qualitative contradiction. The girl sits in the foreground, attends to her own image, applying make-up, enhancing, strengthening her own beauty. The neglected rubble that surrounds her, however, is left only to further decay, evoking a pervasive sense of the perishableness of things. In this series of pictures by Chen Qiulin, we can see these two forces working against each other. Interconnected, they create an enormous amount of tension, a collision of the future and the past, of hope and despair, of vigor and decay, positivity and hopelessness.
In this way we can explain why Chen Qiulin sits dressed as a beautiful young maiden (an angel) and places herself amidst this rubble. By the very presence of a beautiful young woman in the picture, we become more acutely aware of the crumbling reality around her. Chen Qiulin sees nature and the environment as the starting point for her works. In these photographs, the female figure and her decrepit environment go hand in hand in challenging our perception of the relationship between humanity and nature. In these photographs, the girl pays no attention to her surroundings. Although surrounded by debris, she remains completely self absorbed, oblivious to the world around her. And in the cold indifference of this girl lies the irony of these images. We dress ourselves up in a world that has been destroyed. We demolish our environment, while simultaneously beautifying ourselves. We are passionate when it comes to our own personality but indifferent where our environment is concerned. We create such juxtaposition between ourselves and our environment and yet, don’t seem to care. In a way, this series of images can be seen as an allegory for our times. In order to construct our own personalities, we have let the world around us go to ruin.
Where this series is full of irony, another is filled with sensitivity. Enormous changes in the environment and natural world have created a certain malaise among human beings. The city in which Chen Qiulin once lived is now being demolished (the reason not important) and she has managed to record this process. The chance to record the complete demolition of a city is a rare event, and the series is therefore imbued with extraordinary significance. Normally, we can witness how cities are gradually constructed, we can see skyscrapers being built and we can even observe how completely new cities are constructed in a number of years. But people very rarely have the opportunity to witness the total destruction of a city, to see skyscraper after skyscraper being pulled down. Yet, in one sense, to witness deconstruction is also to witness construction. By seeing how a city is demolished, we can see how it was constructed. Of greater importance however, is that the demolition and disappearance of a city is not simply the leveling of buildings, the disappearance of a physical habitat and its natural surroundings, it is also the demolition and disappearance of a way of life.
This series of Chen Qiulin’s work is an elegy to a demolished city, lamenting a way of life that has already passed away. This elegy has been given an operatic rendition by the artist as she places classical opera figures amidst the city’s ruins, the slow rhythm of the opera emphasizing the sudden swiftness of the city’s destruction. This slowness also refers to the slowness of a certain way of living, to a kind of inner slowness (look at how few people today are still interested in opera!). Chen Qiulin introduces classical opera, clothing, make up and a way of living into her works by juxtaposing them with modern urban life. Classically dressed performers dance amidst the wreckage of modern cities, the rubble having become their new stage, and ironically their final resting place, as their classical traditions no longer have a place in modern society.
The appearance of these classically attired performers in a modern city experiencing rapid transformation creates a quite farcical atmosphere. In this image we can also see the huge importance of time in Chen Qiulin’s work: the only possible way for these classical figures to appear in modern urban life is as a kind of bizarre spectacle. There is a great conflict between these figures and the environment in which they find themselves. Again, the environment and natural surroundings do not merely serve as external decoration, and they are a crucial factor in understanding Chen Qiulin’s works. Our environment determines how we live our lives, and in her other works we again see characters appearing in incongruous surroundings. Some oddly dressed young people wander in a colourfully decorated space. In this composition, man, space and the environment all appear on the one distorted stage, drawn together by their shared affectation. This relationship between man and his environment is intimate in the way that the relationship between the classical female performers and urban degeneration is contradictory.
The transformation of cities, the environment and nature are all connected to the transformation of how we live our lives. What is being demolished and destroyed is not only the city, but also a certain way of living. Because of this, we need to reach a new understanding of our environment. Today, due to acknowledging man’s inextricable relationship with his natural surroundings, we have a shared appreciation for the need to protect the environment. People even consider the environment their home. Chen Qiulin shares these ideas and common understanding, and many of her works are proof of this. She brings children into direct contact with different environments and directly immerses the physical body in the environment. The body becomes thus an intrinsic element of the environment. By using tofu to write on grass, she demonstrates the weakness and fragility of nature. But according to her, this understanding is not yet sufficient in order to protect our environment.
In Chen Qiulin’s works, it is important to make clear that our natural environment is nothing other than our cultural and social environment. Nature and culture are intrinsically linked to each other, and people should stop trying to separate them. Nature is just another aspect of our vast cultural environment. We see the damage the natural world has sustained. This damage is not only natural damage but also cultural. It is equally true that damage to our cultural environment not only affects the cultural but also the natural world as well. A large part of our nature has suffered considerable damage- is this not exactly because our cultural environment has been thrown upside down?