Apr 27, 2018 -
Jul 29, 2018
Christian Ganzenberg ,
A4 Art Museum, Chengdu
A4 proudly presents “Peppermint”, Chen Qiulin’s first museum presentation in her hometown Chengdu. Born 1975 in Yichang City, in the Hubei Province, Chen Qiulin grew up in Wanzhou, a city in the upper reaches of the Three Gorges dam. Although she had been living in Chengdu since 2002, Chen regularly returned to the place of her childhood and became a keen observer of this colossal and significant feat of engineering which took place between 1994 and 2005. The dam not only became biographically significant for Chen, it was also an artistic epiphany for her and an important source of inspiration for her early film works. Born at the end of the cultural revolution, Chen belongs to a generation of artists shaped by the debates and struggles of China’s rapid urban transformation within the last two decades.
After graduating (in wood cut printmaking) from the Sichuan Fine Arts Academy in Chongqing, she returned to Wanzhou in 2000 to work as billboard painter for a movie company before leaving for Chengdu. During one of these visits, she witnessed the destruction of her old family home and many other familiar places in Wanzhou. This experience inspired her to make her first film Rhapsody on Farewell, 2002, which was shot with her family’s video camera. Increasingly, her works became influenced by the Three Gorges project as more and more people in the Wan County had to be moved and the city was submerged in the rising waters of the new dam. In the following years, Chen made three more films, each focusing on a different phase of the Three Gorges project. In all these works, the artist presents an insider’s view of the daily changes the project caused for her native land and its population. Chen experienced the sacrifices that the dam demanded of the locals, but she also shared their dreams of a better life. “I began to accept that this is reality and accept that it can’t be changed. But within this reality, there aren’t only bad and painful things, there is also social progress. The two are intertwined. And my responsibility is to record it in my own way.” Each time she went back to her hometown, Chen felt differently about the changes and she eventually tried to become more “objective”: “There are a lot of things that I don’t know how to judge. I always hope to be rational. But in the end, I seem not to be very rational at all.” This ambiguity is characteristic of her work; the artist doesn’t accuse anybody nor does she follow any ideological prejudices, instead she expresses and visualizes her own emotional conflicts – desire and loss, hope and despair. Chen is not only the subject of her own work; she also appears in all of her films. She regularly works with performing arts companies, mostly grassroots drama groups, with whom she stages surreal performances in sites of destruction and demolition. Hence, the visual style of her films is an ambivalent combination of documentary representation and dreamlike poetic allegories; a synthesis of the tristesse and glumness of her sites and intensely colored imagery in the form of makeup, costumes and props from the world of Chinese opera, in particular in the style of Sichuan opera. Whereas these early works focused on the structural changes taking place in the artist’s hometown, the later films concentrate on marginalized populations and the effects of urbanization on traditions and cultures. Her latest films and photographs, shown for the first time in this exhibition, is about a specific memory – an intangible, unfading essence of the past. A telephone call from an old school friend took Chen back to the summer of 1983 when she joined a martial art team. Soon after the call, the artist found a photograph of her old team and “seeing that photo, I smelled the flavor of that summer: fresh, clear and full of sunshine, just like a delicate smell of peppermint.” Like an involuntary Proustian memory, this discovery brought back memories of a distant past without any conscious effort on the part of the artist. In 1983, when the movie Shaolin Temple made martial arts popular across China, the artist was living in a large residential compound in Wanzhou, close to a ship dock where she and her friends usually played after school. At the time, her mother was working in the local movie distribution company which also included a movie theater, so Chen was able to watch a wide variety of Chinese films over and over again.
In addition to these intimate portraits, Chen shot a fictional film in which she and her young alter ego of her act out a martial arts fight and explore old sites around Wanzhou. They climb a mountain (name?), which once seemed so far away to Chen and now appears to have moved closer to the city in the wake of the ongoing urbanization. They cross the river, the element of water and the metaphor of the boat coming up once again – a reoccurring motif in the artist’s works that can be traced back to her early experiences of living on the banks of the Yangtze. Chen is shown carrying a single broadsword and a pot of peppermint, with one half of her face colorfully made up like a character of an opera singer and the other half overgrown with the roots of a peppermint plant. This split appearance of her face symbolizes her split personality; the apparently untouchable, pristine facade on the one hand and her biographical roots on the other. The video shows Chen in a state between reality and virtue, trying to express an uncertainty about the truth of memory and present reality.
In this sense, the peppermint plant can also be read as metaphor for her spiritual connection with her old martial arts team; a hybrid crossbreed plant that grows by way of underground rhizomes. Whereas Chen’s early films bid farewell to her hometown, Peppermint in contrast represents her desire to get closer to her own memories, to become aware of her own identity and to see if what she remembers actually came true or not. „I've been to many places, which recalled a lot of childhood memory, but am afraid to look back at the real me.” Chen Quilin asks the existential question of who we are and how we have become what we are. What has become of our ideas for the future? What has time done to them and to us? How have our identities developed and which character traits have endured?
The presentation at A4 Museum closes with an installation of disparate elements of an old wooden fishing boat whose original form and function has not been retained. Metal covers the weathered wood and peppermint plants grow out of the cracks. The metal gives these elements an abstract, geometric form and at the same time seems to sink into oblivion in the river of our consciousness. Chen’s installation is full of sorrow and skepticism, but she is not afraid to address the loss of her own memories, to make public her quest for identity and to give expression to intimate experiences. “I’m fantasying inside my fantasy, like a dream of a dream, or a nightmare of a nightmare.” The sense of circularity and interconnectedness that permeates Chen Qiulin’s latest body of work transcends individual reflections and expresses the social reality of her generation today. It is illusion, hope, responsibility, loss and beauty.